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The Official Ubuntu Book: Using Ubuntu on the Desktop

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In this chapter, you get started with GNOME and use it to do the normal and not-so-normal things you face every day with your computer. This includes opening and running applications, managing your files, adjusting the look and feel, using applications, managing your media, and more. Buckle up and get ready to take your shiny new desktop for a drive!
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

  • Taking Your Desktop for a Ride
  • Using Your Applications
  • The Ubuntu File Chooser and Bookmarks
  • Ubuntu in Your Language
  • Customizing Ubuntu's Look and Feel
  • Managing Your Files
  • Ubuntu and Multimedia
  • Summary

WITH UBUNTU INSTALLED and ready to rock, its time to get started using your new desktop. The stock install of Ubuntu provides a very complete and flexible system. Unlike other operating systems (OS), Microsoft Windows for example, Ubuntu includes everything you need to get started, such as an office suite, media tools, a Web browser, a graphics package, an e-mail client, and more. With the installation complete, you are up and running right away.

Using a computer is a rather individual process, and different people use their computers in different ways. To help promote this choice, Linux has the capability to use any one of a number of different graphical interfaces. This flexibility, combined with the ballooning popularity of Linux and Open Source, has resulted in literally hundreds of different graphical environments springing up, each covering these different types of users and ways of working.

Despite this huge range of different environments available, there are two clear leaders in KDE and GNOME. Both environments provide a comprehensive and easy-to-use desktop, but they differ in how that desktop is used. The KDE system is more akin to Windows and aims for complete configurability of your desktop. The competing GNOME desktop shows inspiration from both Windows and Mac OS X and sets as a priority simplicity and ease of use. Luckily, Ubuntu users are blessed with the choice of either desktop—the default desktop in stock Ubuntu is GNOME, and the Kubuntu distribution uses the KDE desktop. Kubuntu is covered in Chapter 7.

In this chapter, you get started with GNOME and use it to do the normal and not-so-normal things you face every day with your computer. This includes opening and running applications, managing your files, adjusting the look and feel, using applications, managing your media, and more. Buckle up and get ready to take your shiny new desktop for a drive!

Taking Your Desktop for a Ride

When you start your Ubuntu system, you are asked for a username and password to log in with. In the last chapter you specified a user account when installing the system, so use that to log in. First type in your username and press enter, then your password and press enter.

After a few seconds you will see the Ubuntu desktop appear (see Figure 3-1). The desktop comprises three main areas


Figure 3-1 The Ubuntu desktop is simple, uncluttered and... brown.

  • At the top of the screen is the panel. This bar contains the desktop menu options and application shortcut icons on the left side as well as the notification area on the right side. You use this bar to load applications and to see the status of certain activities on your system. The panel is always visible when you use your desktop.
  • The large middle part of the screen is the desktop. This part of the screen is normally covered by the applications that you use, but you can also put icons and shortcuts on the desktop, too.
  • The bottom part of the screen is called the taskbar. This area displays a rectangle for each application open just like in Windows.

You may have noticed that, unlike other OS, there are no icons on the desktop. The reason for this is that your icons typically get covered by applications, and, as such, you can't get at them. If you need to start applications, you typically use the Applications menu or the shortcuts.

Starting Applications and Finding Things

Starting applications is simple. Just click on the Applications menu on the left side of the panel. Inside this menu are a number of submenus for different types of applications. Hover your mouse over each category, and then click the application that you want to load. As an example, click on Applications > Internet > Firefox Web Browser. After a few seconds the browser will pop up.

When applications are loaded, the brown window border has three buttons on the right-hand side:

  • Left button (thin white line): This is used to minimize the application and put it in the taskbar.
  • Middle button (white square): This maximizes the window to take up the full desktop area.
  • Right button (white cross): This button closes the application.

Every application has an entry in the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. You can click these entries to minimize or maximize the application and right-click to see some other options.

Changing Your Menu Layout

Although the main Applications, Places, and System menus are logical by default, you may want to further customize them by moving entries into different submenus, not displaying certain items, and other tweaks. All of this is easily done with the built-in menu editor.

To edit the menus, right-click on a menu, and select Edit Menus. The menu editor now appears, as seen in Figure 3-2.


Figure 3-2 The menu editor lets you easily change the Ubuntu menus.

The menu editor is fairly intuitive. To adjust which items are shown, click on a submenu and deselect the items that you don't want to display. To add a new item, select the submenu the item should appear in, and then select File > New Entry. The box from Figure 3-3 will appear.


Figure 3-3 Feel free to add your own menu items.

In the Name box enter the name of the application you are adding. In the Comment box enter a brief description of the application, and then add the command to run the application in the Command box. You can also use the Browse button to select the application to run. Finally, click No Icon, and select an icon for the item. Click OK to finish adding it.

Find Your Files and Folders

When using your computer you often need to save and open files and folders, move them around, and perform other tasks. The Places menu contains a bunch of entries to access different parts of your computer and the network. These include

  • Home Folder: Your home folder is used to store the files and work for each user who is logged in. This is the most important folder on the system, and you can think of it as the equivalent of My Documents in Windows—virtually everything you save lives here. Each user has a separate home folder.
  • Desktop: The desktop folder is inside your home folder and contains files that visually appear on your desktop as icons. As such, if you drag a file onto your desktop, it will appear in the desktop folder and vice versa.
  • Computer: Clicking this item displays the different drives attached to your computer as floppy drives, CD/DVD drives, and USB keys or sticks. This is the equivalent of the My Computer icon in Windows.
  • Network Servers: This option accesses servers that are available on your local network. This is the equivalent of the Network Neighborhood in Windows.
  • Connect to Server: Click this to run a wizard to create a connection to a network server. You can use this to add an icon to the desktop that, when clicked, provides a list of remote files in the desktop file manager. You can then treat this window like any other file manager window and drag files back and forth. This is really useful for copying files to other computers.
  • Search for Files: Use this to search for files on your computer.
  • Recent Documents: Click this submenu to display the most recently used documents.

Configure Your System

The third and final menu, System, is used to configure the system and customize your desktop. Inside the menu are two submenus.

  • Preferences: This submenu contains items for customizing the look and feel of your desktop. Each of these settings applies only to the desktop of a user who is logged in. If you log in as another user, the settings change to that user's preferences.
  • Administration: This submenu is used to configure systemwide settings such as networking, users, printing, and more. To use these menu items you need to know the system administrator password.

Shortcut Icons

On the panel there are a number of shortcut icons next to the menus. These small icons are always visible and can be single-clicked to gain immediate access to your favorite applications. Ubuntu comes with some stock shortcuts on the panel, but you are welcome to add your own.

Adding your own icon is as simple as finding the application you want to add in the menu and then dragging it to the panel. You can then right-click the new shortcut icon and select Move to move it to the right place.


One of the most useful features in Ubuntu is the ability to run small programs called applets on the panel. These small programs are useful for a variety of different tasks, and provide quick and easy access via the panel.

To add an applet, right-click the panel and select Add to Panel. The window shown in Figure 3-4 pops up. Select one of the many applets, and click Add. When the applet appears on the panel, you can press the middle mouse button (or the left and right buttons together) to move it around.


Figure 3-4 Ubuntu comes bundled with a selection of applets.

The Notification Area

In the top right-hand part of the panel is the notification area and the clock. The notification area is similar to the Windows system tray in that it provides a series of small icons that indicate something specific. A good example of this is the battery monitor. This small icon displays how much power your laptop has left, and when you hover the mouse over it you can see how much time is left before your computer gives up the ghost.

You can fiddle with the notification area items by right-clicking them to view a context menu. Some icons (such as the volume control) allow you to left-click on them to view them. Try clicking the little speaker icon and adjusting the slider.

The Clock

Next to the notification area is the clock. Click on the clock to view a calendar. Later, when you use Evolution, items that are added to your calendar appear in the clock applet too. Instead of opening up Evolution to find out when your dreaded dentist appointment is, just click on the clock to see it immediately.

The Taskbar

The taskbar sits at the bottom of the screen. This small bar is always visible and indicates which applications are currently open. In addition to this, the taskbar also sneaks in a few other handy little features.

To the far left of the taskbar is the Hide/Show Desktop button. Clicking this button hides all of your open applications and shows the desktop. Clicking it again redisplays them. This button is useful when you need to quickly access something on your desktop.

Next to this button is the applications area, which shows each of the currently open applications. For each application, an entry is added, and you can right-click it to view a context menu. This menu is used to minimize, maximize, resize, close, and do other things to the application.

To the right of the applications area are four small rectangles called the workspaces. Each of these rectangles represents another screen in which you can view an application. As an example, you may use your Web browser and e-mail client on the first desktop, talk to your friends on IRC and instant messenger on the second desktop, listen to your music in your audio player on the third desktop, and make notes in a text editor on the fourth one. You can then just click each virtual desktop to switch to it to access your different applications. Another useful tip is when moving applications between virtual desktops—if you have an application on the first desktop, just right-click the brown window or the taskbar entry, select Move to Another Workspace, and pick the relevant workspace number. The menu also has Move to Workspace Left and Move to Workspace Right options, too. This makes moving applications between your workspaces quite simple.

To the right of the workspaces is the wastebasket. Files that are dragged onto this icon are destined to be deleted. To fully delete these files, right-click the wastebasket and select Empty the Wastebasket.

Shutting Your Computer Down and Logging Out

To lock your screen, shut your computer down, log out, hibernate or suspend, and then click System > Log Out. You then will see the dialog box displayed in Figure 3-5.


Figure 3-5 Who knew that logging out had so many possibilities?

There are a number of options here available upon log out.

  • Log Out: This option lets you log out of the current session and go back to the main login screen.
  • Switch User: When you click this option, your user account remains logged in, but another user account can be used. When the second account logs out, Ubuntu reverts to the original one.
  • Lock Screen: This option locks the screen. This is useful when you need to use the bathroom or grab some lunch. It will lock the computer and ask for your password to reenable the desktop.
  • Sleep: If your computer supports suspend, click this icon to suspend the power. The next time your computer is turned on, the desktop will be resumed.
  • Hibernate: When you click this option, the current state of the system is saved to the hard disk and can be switched off. This is like the Sleep option, but slower and works on all computers.
  • Restart: Click this to restart the computer.
  • Shut Down: Click this to shut down your computer.
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