Ubuntu: A Beginner’s Guide
So you’re curious about Linux, and you heard Ubuntu is a great place to start? Maybe you’ve heard of Ubuntu and have no idea about this thing called Linux? Either way, you’ve come to the right place. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about Ubuntu in easy-to-understand language.
Ubuntu is a free and open source operating system with millions of users. It’s also an ethos, a collaborative project and, first and foremost, a community.
If you’re reading this guide, you’re probably interested in moving away from proprietary operating systems such as Windows and macOS. Perhaps you’ve already installed Ubuntu and are not sure where to go from there. Either way, the hard part is behind you. You’ve already decided you’re willing to try something new. Now it’s time to enjoy the journey.
What Is Ubuntu?
Ubuntu is a free desktop operating system. It’s based on Linux, a massive project that enables millions of people around the world to run machines powered by free and open software on all kinds of devices
. Linux comes in many shapes and sizes, with Ubuntu being the most popular iteration on desktops and laptops.
When I say “free,” I’m not just referring to cost. I’m also talking about freedom. Unlike most proprietary software (such as Windows and macOS), free and open source software lets you edit its code, install as many copies as you want, and distribute the program as you please. You don’t pay for a license to use it. So Ubuntu is not only free for you to download, it’s free for you to use however you like .
How Can Ubuntu Be Free?
Windows and macOS dominate the desktop landscape throughout much of the world. Microsoft and Apple develop these systems and profit from selling the OSes, or devices running them, to you and me.
Free and open source desktops use a different model. The software comes from many different developers spread all over the world. Anyone is free to put these components together as they wish, and no single company has control over the entire ecosystem .
When someone packages the Linux kernel with the software necessary to provide a functional desktop experience, we call the end result a Linux operating system or “distribution.” In 1993, a man named Ian Murdock started a project that did precisely this and named it Debian after him and his then girlfriend, Debra. This project tests software and makes it available for others to download. It quickly blossomed into a massive community.
A decade later, in 2004, a company called Canonical created Ubuntu using code from the Debian project. Since the software is all free and open source, Canonical is free to do this — even encouraged to. These days, many projects are now based on Ubuntu, such as the popular alternative Elementary OS . This is all perfectly fine. Ubuntu goes so far as to enshrine this cooperative spirit in its name:
“Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others.’ It also means ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.'” — ubuntu.com
An early goal of Ubuntu has been to bring the spirit of humanity and community to the world of computers. This is emphasized somewhat less now that Canonical has shifted its focus in a more corporate direction, but Ubuntu users still share a deeply held belief that software should be freely accessible to everyone regardless of language, disability, or income.
Canonical and the Ubuntu Community
Ubuntu is managed and funded by a privately held company called Canonical Ltd. Canonical was founded (and funded) in 2004 by South African entrepreneur, Mark Shuttleworth. Aside from Ubuntu, Shuttleworth is known for making millions selling a company he founded to VeriSign and later visiting the International Space Station.
Canonical provides commercial support to companies using Ubuntu for a fee. The revenue from this support then goes towards the ongoing development of Ubuntu. Canonical’s main headquarters is in London, but it has smaller offices in Canada, Taiwan, and the US.
Canonical’s roles include:
- Releasing new versions of Ubuntu every six months
- Coordinating security
- Hosting servers for Ubuntu’s online community
Canonical also provides various cloud management tools and services. This doesn’t impact Ubuntu on the desktop, but the work benefits people and companies using Ubuntu on servers.
As I mentioned earlier, Canonical doesn’t create or maintain most of the software that goes into Ubuntu. That comes from the broader FOSS community. That’s not the only way Ubuntu benefits from non-employees. People around the world freely share their time and skills to:
- Test software bugs
- Write user documentation
- Design artwork
- Provide user feedback
- Answer questions and provide support (on sites such as Ask Ubuntu)
- Spread the word
If you want to help out, you can!
Ubuntu and Linux
Ubuntu is the most popular Linux-based desktop operating system . That begs the question, what’s Linux?
Linux is a kernel , which is the core component of any operating system and allows software to communicate with hardware. A kernel, on its own, is not an operating system, but rather a set of computer instructions that enable communication between software applications and the data processing done at the hardware level.
The Linux kernel is used in many free and open source operating systems and, just like Ubuntu, is released under the GNU General Public License. It is called “Linux” because it is named after Linus Torvalds, the Finnish computer programmer who created it in 1991.
Contrary to common belief:
- Linux is not a corporation
- Nobody owns Linux
- Linux is a kernel, not a complete OS
In addition to the Linux kernel, a Linux operating system needs a display server, a sound server, a desktop environment, and many other components to make a complete experience. Like with a commercial OS, you don’t need to know what any of these components are. Ubuntu makes these selections for you and packages them together into a fully functional interface.
Why Use Ubuntu?
There are many reasons to use Ubuntu, but here are some of the most important ones:
- It’s free and open source: shared code, shared efforts, shared principles, no cost.
- It’s easy to use, trial and install: you don’t have to be an expert.
- Ubuntu is beautiful, sleek, and stylish: learn more about the GNOME desktop environment
- It’s stable and fast: usually loads in less than a minute on modern computers.
- It has no major viruses! Ubuntu is immune to computer-crashing Windows viruses. Say goodbye to Blue Screens of Death!
- It’s up-to-date: Canonical releases new versions of Ubuntu every six months and also brings you regular updates for free.
- It is supported: you can get all the support and advice you need from the global FOSS community and Canonical.
- Among Linux operating systems, Ubuntu is the most supported.
Every operating system relies on a different approach to assigning version numbers and creating code names. Ubuntu’s method may look strange at first, but it’s actually really simple.
Canonical ships new versions of Ubuntu every six months, in April and October. Each Ubuntu release has a version number that contains the year and month of its release. This guide, for example, discusses the latest version of Ubuntu: 17.10, released in October of 2017. The next scheduled release of Ubuntu, version 18.04, will be in April of 2018. The one after that will be 18.10 in October of 2018, and so on.
In addition to version numbers, Ubuntu releases are also given alliterative code names using an adjective and an animal. The code name for Ubuntu 17.10 is Artful Aardvark. It comes after Zesty Zapus (17.04), which completed the alphabet earlier this year.
The first three versions of Ubuntu were Warty Warthog (4.10), Hoary Hedgehog (5.04), and Breezy Badger (5.10), which had the alliteration but did not yet go in order. Things changed with the release of Dapper Drake (6.06). Ubuntu code names have proceeded in alphabetical order ever since. Thanks to the way things began, Artful Aardvark is the first release to begin with A.
So if you find yourself talking to a fellow Ubuntu enthusiast and they are raving about Wily Werewolf or Yakkety Yak, they are not talking about their love for quirky mammals, but previous versions of the Ubuntu operating system.
Wondering if you should upgrade to the latest version of Ubuntu ? Check out these reasons why you should.
Long Term Support Releases
One of the great features of Ubuntu is that it is supported within a structured time frame. New versions of the operating system are released every six months and receive supported from Canonical for 18 months. These versions are referred to as normal releases.
In addition to normal releases, Canonical develops Long Term Support (LTS) releases. These versions come approximately every two years (if on schedule) and get three years of support. The upcoming version of Ubuntu, 18.04, will be a Long Term Support release. The current one is version 16.04 .
Getting Your Hands on Ubuntu
If you want to make the switch to Ubuntu, doing so is now easier than ever. There are multiple ways to go about doing this. Let’s get the simplest option out of the way first.
Buying a Computer that Comes with Ubuntu
Only a relatively small number of personal computers run Ubuntu. Much of the reason for this comes to the lack of computers running Ubuntu in stores. If you head to your local big box retailer, you are likely to only see Windows or macOS.
Online, the story is a little different. There are plenty of companies looking to sell you a PC that comes running Ubuntu out-of-the-box. You just have to know where to look. Here are a handful of places to start:
Want to know exactly which desktop or laptop to buy? Here are a few of our recommendations !
If you aren’t that technical of a computer user, this is the safest route to go. A computer will arrive at your door that’s as easy to open up and start using as any you would get from a store in person.
If, on the other hand, you would rather save money, you can likely install Ubuntu on the computer you’re already using. If you are comfortable installing your own software, then the process is likely easier than you think!
Installing Ubuntu on Your Existing Computer
There are three primary ways to install Ubuntu on your computer:
- Replace your existing OS with Ubuntu
- Install Ubuntu alongside your existing OS
- Run Ubuntu off a USB stick
Replacing your existing operating system will run the fastest and smoothest on your computer, even though doing so requires a full commitment to leave your old OS behind.
Interested? Here are detailed instructions on how to install Ubuntu on your existing Windows or macOS machine . This guide also explains how to install Ubuntu without getting rid of your existing operating system. This option, known as a dual boot installation or dual-booting, will install Ubuntu on your computer alongside Windows or macOS. Whenever you start your computer, you will have the option to choose with operating system you use.
If you’re not ready to take the plunge, you can opt to run Ubuntu from your USB stick. This installation requires the least commitment from you and your computer, but it will probably affect the quality and speed of Ubuntu’s performance. That said, there are some alternative Linux operating systems that you may find better suited for running off a USB drive .
When you sign into Ubuntu for the first time, you will see a screen that looks like this.
This is the Ubuntu desktop. While Canonical has added a few of its own elements of charm, the interface you see is not exclusive to Ubuntu. It’s actually known as GNOME.
What Is GNOME?
GNOME is a desktop environment for free and open source operating systems . It comes from the GNU Project, which has been providing the world with free software for over three decades.
Just like Ubuntu uses the Linux kernel to make software communicate with your computer, it uses GNOME to provide you with an easy-to-use onscreen interface. The panel showing the time, the launcher that opens apps, and the overview screen showing all your open windows are all part of GNOME.
The GNOME Interface
The GNOME desktop is unlike what you may have encountered on Windows and macOS, though it does have some elements in common. Let’s start by looking at the top of the screen.
The bar across the top of the screen provides access to the Activities overview, the currently open application’s menu, the date and time, and system indicators such as battery life and network connectivity.
The dock occupies the left side of the screen. It shows currently open apps plus shortcuts to your favorites.
The Activities overview is where most of the magic happens. You open the overview by clicking the Activities button in the top bar or moving your mouse to the top-left corner of the screen.
The app drawer appears at the bottom of the dock. When clicked, it lists all of the apps installed on your computer in a grid of icons.
A search bar appears at the top of the Activities overview. You can open apps, load files, issue commands, and perform numerous other actions by typing into this area.
Workspaces appear on the right side of the activities overview, across from the dock. Think of workspaces as multiple desktops that all exist virtually on the same computer.
Navigating the Top Bar
The first item on the top bar is the Activities button. Clicking here opens the Activities overview.
Next is the application menu. Here is where you go to adjust an app’s settings, such as changing the default download folder for a web browser or changing fonts in a text editor.
In the middle you will find the date and time. Clicking here pulls up a calendar and displays notifications.
The far right corner holds system indicators. There are individual icons showing battery life, network connectivity, sound, Bluetooth, and more. However, clicking on any of these indicators opens up a single menu that will let you toggle volume, change your network, restart your computer, and perform other tasks.
Navigating the Dock
A dock containing your apps lines the left side of the screen. Unlike most other GNOME desktops, Ubuntu’s dock is always visible regardless of whether the Activities overview is open.
Click on an app icon to launch software. If an app opens that isn’t already on the dock, a new icon will appear.
When you open an app, a red indicator appears next to the icon on the dock. If you open another window, a second dot appears. The indicator maxes out at four windows.
Right-clicking an app icon allows you to perform app-specific functions such as opening a new window in Firefox or pausing music in Rhythmbox. This is also how you remove an app stored on the dock or pull up background information about a piece of software.
Navigating the App Drawer
The app drawer, found in the lower-left corner, arranges all of your installed apps into a grid. The experience is similar to what you may have encountered on a smartphone or tablet.
Scroll up or down to switch between pages of apps. Some appear in groups, which is useful for preventing many rarely-used apps of a similar nature from cluttering up the entire app drawer.
Navigating the Activities Overview
Clicking on the Activities button opens the Activities overview.
The overview screen shows all of your open windows.
A search bar sits at the top of the overview screen. You can click the bar to perform a search, but you don’t have to. If you start typing without clicking on the bar, the overview will immediately start showing search results. You can search for apps, files, folders, and settings. You can even look for new software in the Ubuntu Software app.
Workspaces appear along the right-hand side of the overview screen. Initially, there are only two workspaces stacked vertically, but new ones appear automatically as needed.
You can move windows from one workspace to another by dragging them around, either from the center of the overview screen or from another workspace.
What Is Unity?
Unity is the name of the interface that Ubuntu used from version 11.04 to 17.04. Canonical created this software in-house. It’s open source and available on other Linux operating systems, but Ubuntu was its home.
With 17.10, Ubuntu is leaving Unity behind. Since it’s going away, I won’t cover it in detail here. But if you do find yourself encountering Unity, which you may do if you download the most recent long term support release, then you may want to check out this explanation of how Unity works .
Ubuntu Applications (How Do I…?)
Now that you’ve got a handle on the GNOME desktop environment, the next step of your journey is to start using Ubuntu-compatible programs and applications. If you’ve recently migrated from a proprietary operating system, you might not be aware of what is available and what programs should you use.
Below is a brief listing of essential programs and applications for managing your computer and your life, most of which are pre-installed on Ubuntu 17.10.
How Do I Update My Computer?
You’ve done the work of installing Ubuntu on to your computer, and now you need to make sure your system is safe, secure, and up-to-date by using the Software Updater. This program will start itself regularly in order to install security updates and critical bug fixes for all your software.
Alternatively, you can select the Updates tab within Ubuntu Software.
How Do I Download Software and Applications?
Are you not sure which software programs are compatible with Ubuntu? Do you want a central application that will manage all of your software needs? Then look no further than Ubuntu Software, an application that allows you to download, install, and remove software without ever having to launch an internet browser.
Ubuntu Software is accessible through your launcher as well as the app drawer. Use it to discover thousands of free applications, games, fonts, and other software that has been tested and validated to work seamlessly with Ubuntu.
With Ubuntu Software, you can:
- Search for, download, install, and remove software in a single window
- Keep track of installation, update and removal history
- Read and write user reviews
- Receive software recommendations based on your search and installation history
How Do I Browse the Web?
Mozilla Firefox is one of the most popular web browsers and comes with your installation of Ubuntu 17.10.
How Do I Manage My Email Accounts?
If you are accustomed to reading your mail in a web browser, you can continue doing so. Sites such as Yahoo, Gmail, and Outlook all work under Linux.
Mozilla Thunderbird is the default email app for Ubuntu 17.10 and a commonly used email client on all major computer operating systems. Use Thunderbird to consolidate and centrally manage all of your email accounts and contacts in a single window without having to launch a browser.
How Do I Listen to Music?
Rhythmbox is the default media application for Ubuntu 17.10. Use Rhythmbox to play albums, organize audio files, create playlists, listen to podcast, and access other online media.
Depending on what format your songs are in, you may have to download codecs .
How Do I Organize My Photos?
Shotwell Photo Manager is the default photo application in Ubuntu 17.10. Use Shotwell to import your photos, organize them, and view them on your computer.
Want another option? There are plenty .
How Do I Watch Videos?
Ubuntu 17.10 comes with the Totem Movie Player. It can automatically load videos saved to your hard drive, and it plays them back in a minimalist interface.
If you run into a file format that won’t load, you can download codecs or grab VLC from Ubuntu Software. This cross-platform media player is as versatile under Linux as it is on other operating systems .
How Do I Create Documents, Spreadsheets, Presentations?
LibreOffice is the default office suite in Ubuntu 17.10. It provides much of the same functionality
as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The big difference? LibreOffice is free and open source software.
With LibreOffice you can create and open documents using LibreOffice Writer, spreadsheets using LibreOffice Calc, and slideshows using LibreOffice Impress. LibreOffice can open, edit and create files compatible with Microsoft Office, which is perfect for collaborating with friends who don’t use Ubuntu.
What If I Need to Do Something Else?
Not a problem. There are thousands of apps and tools available for Ubuntu and other Linux operating systems. For more recommendations, check out our list of the best Linux software . And we’ve looked at how to rename a file in Linux if you want to cover the basics.
Support and Community
Need help with anything described above? The Ubuntu community can help with any step of the process. You can:
- Seek support in-person by contacting your Ubuntu Local Community
- Access free documentation online
- Visit Ask Ubuntu or Launchpad to answer your most technical questions
The massive community is one of Ubuntu’s biggest strengths. With so many users, it’s likely that someone online has already wrestled with a problem you’re experiencing. Ubuntu-related information is so prominent that it’s worth exploring even if you’re using another Linux operating system, simply because the solutions are often compatible.
Whether your preference is in-person or online, there is a passionate Ubuntu community willing to share their expertise and knowledge with you. Let’s go through some of your options in more detail.
Ubuntu Local Communities
Ubuntu Local Communities, or LoCos for short, are groups of users and enthusiasts working together in regional settings to advocate, promote, translate, develop and otherwise improve Ubuntu. If you’re a new Ubuntu user, a LoCo can provide you with advice, technical support, and a community to join.
To find an Ubuntu Local Community near you, please visit the LoCo Team Directory. Contact your nearest LoCo and attend a support event in your city to access a wealth of Ubuntu resources while meeting great people.
Joining an Ubuntu Local Community will also provide you with lots of opportunities to get involved and learn new skills. Volunteer contributions take many forms, and you don’t need to be a computer programmer to help make Ubuntu better for everyone. There are many ways to get involved:
- Provide advice and technical support to other users
- Write and package new software
- Fix bugs in existing software
- Design graphics, backgrounds, or themes
- Write official and community documentation
- Donate time to promote and advocate Ubuntu
If you’re stuck on a problem, it’s very likely that other users have encountered it before. You may find find the solution is Ubuntu’s official documentation. This site is developed and maintained by the Ubuntu Documentation Project. It is fully searchable and provides documentation for current and previous Ubuntu releases.
If you can’t find what you’re looking for, there is also a separate site for community documentation that was created by users just like you.
Ask Ubuntu and Launchpad
Ask Ubuntu is a site for Ubuntu users and developers. Anyone can ask a question, and anyone is free to answer. Readers vote up the answers that are most helpful. Questions can range from general inquiries on how the desktop works to specific bugs impacting Ubuntu on your particular hardware configuration.
If you really want to get down into the weeds, you may want to check out Launchpad. Launchpad is a web application and website developed and maintained by Canonical. It is a major knowledge base for Ubuntu, but it is also much more than a questions and answers site. It is within Launchpad that most of the collaborative work of Ubuntu and other free software projects happen. Launchpad has several dedicated areas including code hosting and review, bug tracking, web-based translation, and Launchpad Answers.
As your knowledge and experience with Ubuntu grows, it’s a good idea to get familiar with all aspects of Launchpad, but for beginner users looking to find technical support, Launchpad Answers is a great starting point.
Congrats, you’re now running Ubuntu! Hopefully the experience is everything you hope. While at times it may feel that you’re alone, there’s a community of millions of people out there also using Ubuntu with you. You also have a trove of information to fall back on here at MakeUseOf. Here’s more Ubuntu-related material for you to check out once you’re ready to go further.
- 11 Must-Have Apps on Ubuntu After a Fresh Install
- Ubuntu Running Slow? 5 Steps to Speed Up Your Linux PC
- A Beginner’s Guide to Installing Software in Ubuntu With APT
- What Is the Difference Between Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server?
- Adding Users to Groups on Ubuntu
- How to Establish Remote Desktop Access to Ubuntu From Windows
- What’s the Difference Between Ubuntu and Ubuntu-Based Distros?
Have any questions about Ubuntu not covered above? Feel free to raise concerns in the comments below. You never know when another reader might be able to help! If nothing else, you may just establish a connection with another Ubuntu lover.