Linux Summer Special! Free Course, Free Operating System, Free Apps!


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Lose those Windows XP blues!  You too can have an exciting new operating system and desktop, personalised to your own needs and desires, and a fun and interesting learning experience at the same time.  You’ll be the envy of your friends and colleagues as you widen your career prospects and become an open-source guru.  Enjoy Linux Mint 17 Qiana Reloaded, and rediscover all your favourite applications in a new guise and setting.

Seriously, you have a great opportunity right now.  A new edX MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) is just starting, given by the Linux Foundation under the auspices of none less than Harvard University and MIT.  It’s well laid-out and presented, you can follow it on your tablet or PC at your own pace, and, like all the best things in life, it’s absolutely free.  You don’t need to know anything about Linux to try it out, although it will help if you know what a computer is, and have used common software.   I’m doing it myself; the mode I’ve chosen is called “auditing”, which means I can go through the course as and when I wish, but I won’t get an actual qualification.

At the same time, the Linux Mint Community has just released Linux Mint 17 Qiana V.2, which makes Mint even more reliable and easy to use – I recommend the MATE flavour.  The edX course uses Ubuntu 14.04 as its Debian-based example, but I think you will find Mint MATE easier to adapt to and to configure as you want, especially if you are coming from Windows XP.  On the other hand, if you want an almost touch-button interface with easy access to your applications, and don’t particularly want to experiment with finer-grained configuration details, Ubuntu Unity may be the one for you.  It doesn’t matter; the course gives examples for all three of the major distribution types, and explains at the outset how they evolved.

Sign Up

edx coursesGo to https://www.edx.org/ and look for “Introduction to Linux” (LFS101x, 1 August 2014), and sign up (“REGISTER NOW”).  There is an introduction from the great (and chubby) Linus Torwalds himself, and then a series of paced and graduated videos and exercises easing you into a new Microsoft-free world.  You can skip stuff that you don’t want, move backwards and forwards in the material, in fact generally act like a kid in a free candy store, with no time limits and no nagging.  Although I know quite a bit about Linux, I am already finding new aspects and capabilities that I didn’t know about before, and beginning to really appreciate what an amazing world-wide collective enterprise Linux is.  For instance, there are many more company employees working on it, side-by-side with the enthusiasts and hackers, than I thought, and many ways you can help and become part of the community even if you’re not a programmer.

So, to encourage you and I hope help you along, I’m going to demonstrate how I go about installing and setting up Linux Mint, with some interesting customisations and pretty additions along the way.  This sort of thing is easiest to do using Mint, and easiest and most flexible of all on Linux Mint MATE, although there exist other flavours, like Cinnamon, each of which have their own enthusiasts – Linux is nothing if not varied.

There’s more; it’s not too difficult to set up your own web server on a Linux machine, either to host your own website for local or family use, or to provide access to your files when you’re out and about.


I am actually writing this article on a Windows 8.1 PC and using my browser to test out the presentation remotely on a WordPress local website running on Linux on my old HP notebook across the room.  At the same time, it’s also running a Tor anonymisation relay and the Stanford University Folding@home supercomputer software covered elsewhere (Be A Super Computer! – Folding@home), without really breaking a sweat – good solid stuff, this Linux.

What you get

what you getBefore you start investing a lot of effort in setting up Linux Mint, what can you expect to get in return?  Below is the LM desktop on my old HP Compaq nc6400 notebook PC.  As I said above, behind the scenes the computer is also running an Apache/PHP/MySQL webserver for the WordPress blogging and CMS (Content Management System) software, which is accessible to the world through a No-IP DNS service manager, so I can access my own website from afar.

The PC is networked to my Windows machine, and several of the folders on both machines are kept in synchronisation by the amazing Bittorrent Sync utility, which means that if I change a file in one of those folders on one PC, it is automatically changed correspondingly on the other.

On the left-hand side, you can see icons for some of the usual suspects, including a network link to the Pictures folder on my Windows 8.1 PC, and an icon showing that I’ve left the Linux Mint installation DVD in the drive.  Tor Browser is there, of course, plus a launcher that starts my CyberGhost VPN service so I can appear to be in Romania when required.  The Firefox icon is for testing Firefox Beta, as opposed to the one on the taskbar, which starts the current release of Firefox.

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On the taskbar is the Thunderbird e-mail client, the Caja file manager (similar to Windows file manager), and Banshee, the excellent music player.  Also there is a terminal icon for working at the command line, like Windows’ command prompt.


Towards the right, past the taskbar icons for the running programs, are the notification icons for the two CPU cores, which were red-lining because the notebook had a cooling problem that I subsequently solved by replacing the CPU heatsink.  The network transfer icon shows the data transfer rates into and out of the computer.  The CPU frequency is shown, then a tick-marked shield to show that the OS is fully updated.  Next to that is an icon which is a miniature of the screen background, which gives access to Variety, the wallpaper manager that is also responsible for the background’s time and date display.  The background is automatically changed every five minutes, often from a downloaded photo so that you continually get pictures you’ve never seen before.  There follow the keyboard layout, wireless network, and power notification icons.  Finally there is a brief indication of the weather forecast for nearby Exeter, UK, and the standard taskbar date-time display, ticking seconds.  Of course there is a built-in screenshot manager to allow you to take shots like the above.   Available via the menu is the LibreOffice suite, the excellent VLC media player, the GIMP image editor, TomBoy Notes… the list goes on.

All this and more can be yours, not to mention a rewarding learning experience, for the investment of very little time, at least for the basic system.   A disadvantage may be that running games on it is problematical, partly because not many games are written for the Linux platform (although I believe Steam is changing this now), and partly because of the limited availability of high-quality Linux video drivers for gaming cards.  However, both nVidia and AMD/ATI continue to develop Linux versions of their drivers, with the impetus of Steam behind them, so it is worthwhile investigating the current situation at their websites and forums.

Planning for installation

Linux_Mint_SplashTo get an idea of what the new OS is going to look like, download the ISO (in this case linuxmint-17-mate-64bit-v2.iso, from http://www.linuxmint.com/download.php) and burn it to a DVD, using either Windows’ native burner or the excellent ImgBurn (http://www.imgburn.com/).  Alternatively, use a tool from http://pendrivelinux.com  to put the Live System on a USB drive.  Then boot from either to get into LM and play around with it.

Try Ubuntu 14.04 as well, if you like; you may prefer the interface.  However, be aware that you will not be able to achieve the flexible desktop seen above, although Variety still works with the Ubuntu Unity desktop.  Unity is aimed more at people who just want essentially to “touch a button” to get immediate access to their apps at home or the office, more in the spirit of a smartphone or tablet.

Bear in mind that performance will be slow in “live” mode, although from USB it could be pretty good, depending on the data transfer speed of the drive.  Particularly with a DVD, booting up will be lengthy – be patient.  Also, while you can get some idea of the customisations that you could make, there is little point in trying to install additional applications, since the “live” OS lives mostly in RAM and the installations will disappear when the OS is shut down.

If you have a spare computer, perhaps an old one that has been superseded by the latest and greatest, you can simply install Linux to the whole hard disk.  The obvious warning here is to make sure you have copied everything you want to keep from the drive, because the installation will completely reformat it.  In this case you can simply accept the default settings presented in the course of the installation; the whole disk will be reformatted into a single partition, known as “root”, symbol “/”.  This is similar to Windows formatting the whole disk as the C:\ drive or partition.

Doing this can rejuvenate an old PC; Linux runs well and surprisingly fast on old kit.  My HP Compaq nc6400 laptop dates back to 2007, and Linux Mint runs as fast as, or faster than, Windows XP ever did.

If you have only one computer on which you are currently running Windows XP, either take the leap to Linux now, or upgrade to Windows 7.  In the latter case, you can set up to dual-boot between Linux or Windows 7; you will still be able to get at your Windows files from Linux (although not vice versa).  Whatever you do, you must abandon Windows XP as soon as possible before something horrible happens to you.  If you get nostalgic, you can always install it as a virtual machine in VirtualBox, for example, which will be much safer.

With either Windows or Linux, it is a great improvement to set up two partitions: one for the operating system and one for the data.  This makes it possible completely to reinstall the operating system if it becomes necessary, without having to reload the data from backup as well.  In Windows I have a C: (Windows) partition and a D: (Data) partition; in Linux the operating system is on the root partition (said to be “mounted” at /), and the data is on a partition mounted at “/home”.  These terms may not be familiar to you, but the underlying principle of two partitions is the same.  Doing this requires additional work and planning, and I’ll be covering it in another article.  With care and patience you can modify a system from a single to a two-partition configuration when you feel it would be useful.

If you have plenty of room on your hard disk (at least a spare 10 GB after allowing for the size of your Windows installation (including data) plus 20%), you can go for the dual-boot option.  Normally the Linux installation wizard will guide you through this without incident, or stop you without damage if it turns out not to be possible for your system.  Subsequently you will be presented with a boot menu from which you can select which OS you want to run, and you can choose one of them to run by default.  At first, that would usually be Windows.

However, there are risks inherent in the dual-boot installation process.  If it all goes horribly wrong, you may not be able to get into Windows or even perform a Windows repair from DVD successfully.  You could have to reinstall from a copy of Windows on DVD; recovery from the manufacturer’s recovery partition might not be possible (and definitely not, if you had deleted that partition to make room for Linux!).  If you haven’t done so already, make a set of recovery DVDs from the recovery partition, as advised by the manufacturer.  And back up all your data; the free version of EaseUS ToDo Backup is an excellent and reliable way of doing this.

Installation

linux-welcome-homeThe basic process is simple, and nothing like as lengthy as Windows’.  Just boot from your Live DVD, and double-click “Install Linux Mint”.  If another operating system is found, you will be presented with options to install over it, to install alongside it (dual-boot) or to do “something else”.   Avoid experimenting with the latter unless you have some experience configuring partitions, mount points, and boot loaders.  Otherwise it’s potentially a really good way of rendering your PC completely inoperable while simultaneously destroying all your data.  I’ll cover how to use it another day.

LM will check a few things with you before installation: it likes the PC to be plugged in, connected to the internet, and with a sufficient amount of spare space.  Then it will check your time zone and ask you to provide both your name (e.g. Emily) and a “user name” which is used to label your “home” folder system.  It will also want a computer name; it will suggest defaults for these last two based on the name you provided first, but you can change these.  Note that a Linux username is always in lower case (e.g. “emily”).  After that all that is left is to select your operating system configuration scheme, as discussed above, and then set the installation going.  Roughly twenty minutes should cover it; time for a break and a cup of something, or you can watch the simultaneous slideshow about what LM includes.

Linux will take care of most configuration matters, like setting up for your wireless LAN, or enabling the right adapter for your graphics.  You will of course need to provide your wireless password if you use a Wi-Fi router connection.

Configuration

linux mint 17 configThe first thing to do is to have a good play-around with your new desktop.  The first time you press the Menu button, there will be a slight delay before the menu comes up.  Why?  I have no idea, but it only happens the once.  After that initial hiccup is over, you may be startled at how snappy everything becomes compared with Windows, even on an old PC.  I won’t describe how to use the menu; it’s very similar to Windows XP, so just experiment and you’ll soon see how it works.  The task bar panel in which the menu button sits is rather narrow by default; a useful initial step is to widen it to 48 pixels, like the one in the image.

Right-click on an empty area of the panel, and select Preferences.  Then simply change the value in the panel width box – you will see the panel width changing as you alter the value.

Let’s first make sure you can surf the web.  The default browser is Firefox, but you can install Chrome for Linux (Chromium) if you want.  Firefox has a system for synchronising between all your devices; essentially it’s your bookmarks, history, and add-ons in the cloud.  If you already use Firefox and have signed up for synchronisation, you can just log in to sync in LM and wait for Firefox to be ready with your environment as before.  While you’re waiting, carry on browsing or look around; you could open LibreOffice Writer and investigate your new document-writing environment, or explore the other applications.

While you have been investigating, you may have noticed that the shield symbol at the right of the taskbar, which in the picture above has a tick in it, has acquired an “i” – information – symbol.  This is to let you know that there are updates for the system waiting, rather as Windows Updates works.  You should now click on the symbol and start the updating procedure.  Just leave the defaults as they are when the window comes up, and select to start.  This will take a little while the first time, depending on the speed of your internet connection, because initially there are a lot of updates to catch up on.  You’ll get the latest versions of Firefox and the Thunderbird e-mail client, for instance.  There should be no problem with carrying on using Firefox while this is happening, but I tend to be cautious and shut down all running programs first.

You probably won’t need to reboot when the updates are done.  Linux is pretty heavy-duty about that, in fact you can run LM for days,weeks,or more without ever actually needing to reboot.

Mint’s basic installation is rather grey, so now let’s start to make it look a little more cheerful.  You can just right-click on the desktop and select “Change Background”, but if you prefer something with more variety, you can install – Variety, a wallpaper changer and downloader which will automatically provide you with high-quality backgrounds (and none of them will have the dreaded “Bing” watermark).  The quickest way to install it is via the command line, but we’ll use the GUI until you’re more familiar with Linux.

On the main menu, select Control Centre.  From the CC, select Software Sources.  We need to be able to access the package archive maintained by the developer of Variety, Peter Levi, whose Personal Package Archive (PPA) is registered on Canonical’s Launchpad website (https://launchpad.net/).  Launchpad is a centre for thousands of projects, including Ubuntu.  Peter Levi appears to live in Bulgaria and also to be an ace photographer – some of the background photos are his, and I have rarely seen better.

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Peter’s PPA is accessed via  ppa:peterlevi/ppa  (see http://peterlevi.com/variety/how-to-install/), so in Software Sources we select “Add a new PPA”, and enter “ppa:peterlevi/ppa”.  Confirm, and you will see two entries appear: peterlevi (Sources) and peterlevi.  All this software is Open Source, so you get the option to look at the source code if you want.  Unless you are interested in looking at it, you can uncheck the Enabled box for the sources.  Now press “Update the cache”.  This updates Linux’s list of available software (packages), from which you can select what you want to install.  When the package list has been updated, you can close Software Sources.

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It remains actually to install Variety.  You can do this by invoking the Software Manager from the Main Menu, but I always use the Package Manager, just below it in the Main Menu.  The Package Manager, also known by its program name, Synaptic, provides a more detailed technical view of installation, which is what I generally need.  Select Package Manager, wait for it to update itself, then type “variety” in the search box.  You will see a great many packages containing the word “variety” somewhere in their description, but the Variety package should be at the top.  Right-click on it and select “Mark for Installation”.  Accept any further packages offered that may be necessary to the installation – Synaptic looks for other packages on which the one you want depends, and offers to mark them for installation.  When you’re ready, select “Apply” (top left), and the packages will be downloaded and installed.  When a “Close” button appears, it’s done; close the box and let Synaptic update itself with the new information, then close Synaptic.

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Now go and have a look at the Main Menu, under Accessories.  There you should find the Variety icon; select it and off you go.  I recommend making a couple of changes to Variety’s Preferences: tick the box for “Start Variety when the computer starts” and tick all the Images boxes. This will provide you with lots of interesting images to start with; you can tune or add to your choices later.  Select the “Effects” tab, and tick the box for “Show a nice big digital clock on the desktop,…”, which will give you the display shown above.  Close Variety Preferences; a new desktop picture should appear very quickly.  Under the “Customize” tab, select “Use current wallpaper” for the Indicator Icon which appears in the taskbar panel.  When you click on that icon, you will get access to Variety’s settings and actions.

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Now find Firefox on the main Applications menu, and right-click it.  Select “Add to panel”.  The Firefox icon will appear on the taskbar panel at the left.  You can repeat this for Thunderbird, Banshee, the Caja file manager, and the Terminal, as I have done, if you wish.  You can also put corresponding icons on the desktop, but I find it easier to have the most heavily-used programs on the taskbar panel.

Right-click the desktop, tick the “Keep Aligned” box, and select “Organise Desktop by Name”.  This will tidy up the desktop icons.

Now double-click on the “Computer” icon at the top left of the desktop.  This is like “My Computer” or “This PC” in Windows.  The Caja file manager will start and show you the file system folders and devices installed in your system.  Have a look (and click) around, to gain familiarity with the file-system layout.

The desktop and windows theme, apart from the background, is somewhat plain and grey; we should really change the window decorations and brighten up the colours.  We’ll do that next time; you should really familiarise yourself with you new environment first.  Your homework is to set up your e-mail account in Thunderbird (the wizard works pretty well) and configure Firefox how you like it.  If you can download some of your music mp3s, from Amazon say, you could try out Banshee.

Do make a start on your edX course, and don’t forget that you don’t need to trudge through all the introductory parts if you don’t find them interesting.  Just dip in where you like.

Next time we’ll continue to configure the system, adding window theme changes and colours, setting up accurate time-keeping and ensuring your locale is set correctly, as well as taking a look at LibreOffice.  We’ll also look at networking Linux if you have a home local area network (LAN) of Windows computers.

Have fun!

 

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About the Author

J Martin Ward

Erstwhile physicist, software engineer, and manager of projects from wind turbines to weather radar, Martin is now engaged in plundering the riches of the web’s store of free, not-so-free, and open source software, both Linux and Windows. As well as staggering slowly up the learning curves of C++ and Java, he takes an intense interest in the machinations of the NSA and GCHQ, and civil liberties generally, which leads naturally to dabbling in encryption and computer security; he hopes to share some of his more profitable experiences with you.

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