Archives for category: Minimal Ubuntu

So we’ve made some progress but there’s still a little bit more to go.  For one thing, we can’t play any mp3’s or watch any movies.  That would be nice, huh?

Ubuntu doesn’t enable “restricted formats” like mp3 or DVD playback by default so we have to manually install the software to play these files.  Start up Synaptic and find the program “xubuntu-restricted-extras” and install it.  This will allow mp3 and DVD playback, install some Microsoft fonts and install Java.  You’ll need to agree to a couple of licenses and the rest will be automatic.

Now we need a music player.  There are a lot of great music players for GNOME like Rhythmbox or Banshee but we don’t want a lot of GNOME dependencies installed on our lightweight system.  Two options that I like are Exaile and gmusicbrowser.  Both are available by searching Synaptic.  I’m partial to gmusicbrowser but it can be a little harder to set up compared the Exaile.

Now we can play music but what about movies?  For movie playback, including DVD’s, I like mplayer.  It seems to be able to handle just about any format I throw at it including XviD files.  You can also download the mozilla-mplayer plugin for Firefox which will let you play embedded movies on web pages.  The default look of mplayer is nothing to get excited about so I like to also install SMplayer which is a “front-end” that gives you a nicer interface as well as access to a lot of options for playback.

You might also want a podcast client.  A really nice one that works well with XFCE is gPodder.  By now you know how to find software in Synaptic and install it.  Pretty easy, right?

We now have some useful applications so let’s work on that launcher at the bottom of your desktop.  Go to Menu -> Accessories -> Appfinder  This opens up a list of all the installed applications on your system.  Leave that window open for now.  You can launch any program in that list by double-clicking on it but we’re going to use it for a different purpose.  At the bottom of your screen we have a launcher for Firefox but it’s that generic, star-shaped launcher icon.  Right-click on that icon and choose Properties.  Notice on the left side of the Properties window it says Firefox and it looks like there could be more programs listed there?  Go back to your Appfinder program and find Firefox on the list.  Click and drag the Firefox entry from Appfinder to the Program Launcher Properties window and let go when you are over the list pane on the left side.  That should add Firefox as an entry with a nice icon.  Now you can select the old, generic launcher in the list and hit the minus sign at the bottom and it will delete it, leaving only the nice, new Firefox launcher there.

Leaving your Appfinder window open, right-click on the Firefox launcher icon at the bottom of your desktop and choose Add New Item, then choose Launcher.  Now there’s a new Program Launcher Properties window open so this time drag both your music player and movie player to the list on the left side.  Add your podcast aggregator as well if you like.  Now delete the generic “New Item” entry and close the window.  You now have three programs in one launcher space at the bottom.  I like to group my programs but you can fill the whole row with all your frequently used programs if you’d like.

That’s it for now.  Next time I think we’ll bring this series to a close by talking about a neat program named conky and finishing up any last remaining details.

Note: this is part 4 of a series.  You can find the rest of the entres here.

We’re now going to spend some time in the Xfce Settings Manager.  This will let us further customize things to our liking.  To get there, go to your menu then to Settings then to Settings Manager.  This brings up a window with several options.  I’m going to detail how I have mine set up but, as always, feel free to make it look and work the way you like it.

First the Desktop options.  On the Appearance tab click on Show Image and this will replace the solid blue background with a wallpaper image.  We’ll select a different one so next to the area that says File click on the button that looks like a folder and you can select a new wallpaper.  I chose xfce-in-the-moon.png which looks nice.  Now click on the Behavior tab and down at the bottom it’ll give you options to show icons on the desktop for various objects.  I only like icons for home and trash so I unchecked the others.

Most of the other options I left alone.  The Panel option brings up the Panel Settings that we worked with last time.  Under Sessions and Startup I unchecked Show hibernate button and show suspend button as my computer doesn’t handle either of those.  On Splash Screen I chose Xubuntu.  This will give you a nice little animation when your computer is starting up.  You can check it out with the Test button.

Under User Interface we’re going to change the theme.  The default Xfce theme is very bland so I chose Xfce-cadmium which looks alot nicer.  Under Window Manager I left it on the default option but you can have fun with all the different window looks.  Under Window Manager Tweaks I didn’t change anything but if your computer has the horsepower you can go to the Compositor tab and choose enable display compositing.  This will give you some nice transparency effects but it can slow your computer down.

Last, under Workspaces and Margins you’ll find Xubuntu starts you out with four workspaces.  I didn’t want multiple workspaces on my computer so I changed this to 1.  Multiple workspaces are nice but for a computer that my kids will be using a lot I don’t want to have to deal with “where did everything go?”  If you do plan to use multiple workspaces you’ll want to make a tweak to your top panel.  Leave the Settings Manager and right-click on the top panel, Add New Item and chose Pager.  This will give you an easy way to move between your different workspaces.

One last thing I like to change has to do with the way files are displayed.  On your desktop, open your Home folder.  On the menu at the top go to View -> Location Selector -> and I like Toolbar Style instead of Pathbar Style.

Now we’re going to install some more things from Synaptic.  Look for and install the following:

  1. conky (a cool system monitor we’ll configure later)
  2. flashplugin-nonfree (enables Adobe’s Flash in Firefox – now YouTube will work)
  3. gdebi (lets you install deb packages for software that is not in the repository)
  4. xfce4-appfinder (a great program we’ll later use to customize our launcher)
  5. xfce4-goodies (a bunch of helpful add-ons – read more about it here)
  6. xfce4-mcs-plugins-extra (lets you set up autostarted applications)
  7. xfce4-taskmanager (lets you see what programs are running on your system)
  8. xubuntu-artwork-upsplash (gives you a graphical startup screen instead of all that text flying by when your computer is loading Ubuntu)

These will give us some extra functionality including the ability to drag icons around the desktop as well as more objects to add to the panels.  I personally like the Weather Update plugin that tells you the temperature and gives you a forecast when you click on it.

One last tweak I like is to change the theme of the login window.  By default, GDM uses the awful Ubuntu brown theme.  I like to get rid of that as soon as possible so go to Menu -> Settings -> Login Window.  Under the Local tab you can select a theme for your login window.  I like Circles so I selected that.  You can also bypass the login screen completely by going to the Security tab, selecting Enable Automatic Login and then selecting your username.  When you start or restart your computer it will not ask for your password and will automatically log you in.  I use this on my computer as it’s just me and my children so security isn’t an issue.  In general, it’s not recommended for security reasons but if you know it won’t be a concern for you then the option is there.

That’s it for now.  Next time we’ll work on multimedia so you can play music and watch movies.

Note: this is the third part of a series on how I made my old computer a lean, mean Ubuntu machine.  You can read the first part here and the second part here.

So we’re now up and running with a minimal Ubuntu system.  We can’t do much with it right now but we’ve got almost all the basics in place.  We’ll add some software in a bit but first we’ll tweak some things.  Now one of the nice things about Ubuntu is you can customize your system any way you like.  What I’ll be showing you is how I’ve set my system up.  You may want yours to look very different from mine and that’s fine.  Use my instructions to get the hang of how things work and then make it how you want it.

First we’re going to work with the panels.  These are the bars that contain your menus and some other goodies.  Right now you have a basic menu sitting there on your desktop waiting to be customized.

See that little thing with the star-like pattern on it?  In my screenshot it is sitting there next to my floppy drive icon.  Yours might actually be placed over an icon.  That’s okay, we’ll get it into position right away.  But if you want, you can click on the sides of it (not the star-like part) and drag it around your desktop.

Now to get things going, right-click on the floating panel and choose Customize Panel from the menu.  This will bring up a dialog box where we can change some options.  Click on Fixed Position then from the drop-down box that says Normal Width choose Full Width and click on the box on the top center of the border.  Last, under Appearance, we’ll change the size to around 20 or so to make it smaller.  When you’re done it should look like this:

Now I like a second panel at the bottom of the screen to launch programs.  To make this, we’ll click on the Plus sign on the right side by where it says Panel 1 and that gives us a second panel.  I like this one to be size 40, Fixed Position at the bottom center and Normal Width.  Now we’re done with the basic panels, so let’s work on the menu.

Right-click on the top panel and choose Add New Item.  This will give us some options but we want Xfce Menu down at the bottom.  Click on that then click Add.  Another window will pop up that lets us configure the Xfce Menu.  I left all these options alone except for the Button title.  I usually change mine to say Ubuntu but you can change yours to Menu or A Flock of Seagulls or whatever you want.  Or you can just leave it the way it is.

Now there are two things on the top panel, the original star-shaped launcher button and the new Xfce Menu.  I didn’t want the launcher so I right-clicked on it and chose Remove.  That left the menu in the top left corner of the screen where I like it.

A couple other things I like on the top menu are a Task List, a Clock and Action Buttons.  Go ahead and add them if you’d like.  Note that once you place an item on the panel you can right-click on it and you’ll get a menu that lets you change its properties, move or even remove the item.

Now that our top panel is complete, it’s time to install the web browser Firefox.  In your new menu (pat yourself on the back!) go to System and then to Synaptic Package Manager.  If asked, type your password and then you’ll see a window pop up.  Click on the button that says Search, type “firefox” and hit return.

Scroll down until you see Firefox listed.  This will give you the most current version (mine’s 3.01 as of today).  Click in the checkbox to the left of Firefox and select Mark for Installation.  It’ll tell you it needs to mark additional required changes.  These are all files that help Firefox run.  They’re called dependencies and we’ll need them so click on the button Mark and you’re now ready to install Firefox.  At the top of the main Synaptic window is a button that says Apply.  Click on it and a confirmation window pops up.  Click on Apply in the new window and you will download and install Firefox.   Congratulations!

Once done, exit out of Synaptic and return to your desktop.  Now, to get to Firefox, click on your menu, go to Network and choose Firefox Web Browser.  Voila!  That feels good doesn’t it?

The last thing we’re going to do here is make a launcher for Firefox.  For programs I use frequently (and I use Firefox a lot) I make a launcher in the bottom panel.  To do this, right-click on the generic star-shaped launcher in the bottom panel and choose Properties.  Up pops a window that lets you configure your launcher.  Set yours up like this:

Once you’re done, click close and you now have a quick way to launch Firefox.  Just click once on the launcher and Firefox starts right up.  Later, we’ll show you an easier way to set up launchers with nice icons and everything but we’ll have to do some more work first.  That’s enough for now.  Have fun browsing with Firefox!

Note: this is the second part of a series on how I made my old computer a lean, mean Ubuntu machine.  You can read the first part here.

So lets get started on this.  We’re going to install a command-line version of Ubuntu, then we’re going to add to it just what we want and nothing more.  At the end we’ll have a pretty streamlined system.

The first thing we’ll need is a Ubuntu Minimal CD.  You can find the CD images here – be sure to choose the one that works for your system.  For mine I used the Ubuntu 8.04 “Hardy Heron” Minimal CD for 32-bit PC’s.  You’ll need to burn the mini.iso to a CD and then boot your system from that CD.  You’ll be greeted by a screen like this:

At the prompt you’ll need to type “cli” for command-line install.  The installer will walk you through the steps necessary to get a minimal version of Ubuntu on your system, including setting up your user account and password.  It will also ask you for information about partitions.  On my computer I made three partitions: a “swap” partition that was 1.5 GB, a “/” partition (where the operating system is actually installed) that was 15 GB and the rest of my hard drive is a “/home” partition for my music, pictures, etc.  I’m certain my partitions are much bigger than they need to be but I have a 160 GB hard drive in the computer so I’m not that worried if I have some unused space.

When the installer is finished, you’ll be instructed to remove the CD and reboot.  Once it finishes rebooting you’ll be greeted by a command prompt.  Type in your username and password.  Congratulations!  You’re running Ubuntu!  Though it doesn’t look like much right now, we’ll improve things very quickly.

You’ll now be staring at a screen with the following:

username@ubuntu:~$

We’re now ready to start typing and install some software.  First comes X.org which tells your computer how to draw stuff on the screen.  Type the following:

sudo aptitude install xorg

You’ll be asked to provide your sudo (or root) password which you setup during the installation process.  The computer will work a bit and then give you a list of “packages” it wants to install.  Tell it yes and it will download and install X.org.  It may take a bit depending on the speed of your computer and your internet connection.

Once we have X.org installed, we need a window manager.  This is a set of programs that provide the graphical user interface for your computer.  There are lots of options but for my system I went with XFCE, the same window manager Xubuntu uses.  It looks nice, is full-featured, lightweight and easy to install.  Type the following:

sudo aptitude install xfce4

Once this is done you’ll have the basics ready to go.  We’re getting there!

There are two more things we’re going to install from the command line.  First is a login manager.  This is a program that helps your computer not only start the graphical user interface but also gives you a way to login to your system, much like you did earlier from the command-line when you typed your username and password.  Once again, there are lots of options but I use GNOME Display Manger (GDM).  Type the following:

sudo aptitude install gdm

Once it’s done, we’re almost ready to start the graphical user interface.  Up to now, we’ve been installing software from the command-line.  We’re now going to do that one last time and install Synaptic package manager.  It’s a program that lets you download and install other programs to your computer.  Once Synaptic is ready to go, we won’t be using the command-line much.  Type the following:

sudo aptitude install synaptic

Now, I’ve broken things into four separate steps and explained what we are installing for each one.  If you are the trusting sort, or if you want to get through this process quicker, you can always type the following:

sudo aptitude install xorg xfce4 gdm synaptic

This will download and install everything at once.

Once it’s done, we’ve got a basic system installed but we need to start things up manually the first time and then GDM will take over and start the interface from there on out.  Type the following:

startx

If everything went according to plan, your computer will think for a bit and then you’ll be looking at the default XFCE desktop!

That’s a lot better than staring at a command-line huh?

Now we have a very basic installation of Ubuntu with XFCE as a window manager.  But wait!  Where’s the menu?  Well we’ll officially set one up later but for now you can right-click your mouse anywhere on the desktop and the menu will show up.  It took me awhile to figure this out so I thought I’d save you some time!

This is the skeleton on which we are going to add some programs and customize things.  We’ll talk about that more in the next post.

I have a very old computer.  It is a Dell Optiplex GX50 small form-factor desktop with a 900 MHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, 10 GB hard drive and no graphics card.  It doesn’t even have USB 2.0.  So not a speed demon but it still works and I wanted to have something usable for the kids to mess around with.

The first thing I did was run Ethernet cable to the computer.  Before that I’d tried to dink around with wifi but was running into one headache after another.  Ethernet is nice and makes everything much more do-able for me.

Second, I upgraded the hard drive.  10 GB will do for a Linux install or even an XP install (I actually had XP on it at one point – ugh) but it gives no room for much else.  My sons like to mess around with their mp3 collection, watch movies and read comics on the computer.  So I needed a bigger hard drive and I cannibalized one from my main desktop system.  Now instead of 10 GB I have 160 GB to work with.

Next, I tried to figure out a good Linux install for this old box.  I’m far from a Linux expert though I am learning and sorta enjoy figuring things out along the way.  I’d used Ubuntu before and I’d read that Xubuntu was made for low-end computers.  Perfect!

Xubuntu installed just fine but it was slower than I liked.  I don’t know enough about the distribution to understand why but things were usable but noticeably slow.  I’ve since read that Xubuntu is “bloated” according to some people.  Anyway, it wasn’t for me.

I tried a couple of other options.  Puppy Linux was amazingly fast but also fairly obtuse.  I couldn’t figure out how to change icons, installing software was confusing and I soon realized it wasn’t going to be viable.  But holy crap it was fast!

I also spent quite a bit of time with Zenwalk which is very nice and almost made a true believer out of me.  Zenwalk is a lightweight distribution based on Slackware (not sure what that means other than it’s different from Debian which Ubuntu is based on) and uses XFCE like Xubuntu.  Here are some of the other features of Zenwalk from their website:

Modern and user-friendly (latest stable software, selected applications)
Fast (optimized for performance capabilities)
Rational (one mainstream application for each task)
Complete (full development/desktop/multimedia environment)
Evolutionary (simple network package management tool – netpkg)

    Sounds good to me so I installed it and used it for about a month.  It was clearly speedier than Xubuntu for me though not as fast as Puppy Linux.  Things were nicely set up and I liked the look and it was easy to configure the way I wanted it.  Simple and nice, just how I wanted things.

    But there were a couple of niggling issues that kept me from completely embracing Zenwalk.  First, I was used to using Synaptic, deb files and even apt-get from the command line.  I don’t understand Slackware and could never figure out how to install software in Zenwalk that wasn’t in their repositories.  Their package manager (netpkg) was fine but if I ventured outside of that I was lost.

    Second, the packages they did have were… odd.  The biggest example is Firefox which they rebranded as Iceweasel.  Something to do with free vs. non-free software, etc.  Fine, no problem.  But for some reason they still hadn’t updated Firefox/Iceweasel to 3.0 nearly two months after it was released.  That didn’t make sense.  Firefox 3 was noticeably faster to me and I couldn’t see a good reason not to upgrade.  In Ubuntu, if the current version of a program wasn’t available in the repositories I could usually find a deb file and install it that way.  I had no clue how to install Firefox 3 in Zenwalk outside of compiling it from source.  And I’m not really a “compile from source” kinda guy.

    Last, Zenwalk was fast but just didn’t seem fast enough.  Youtube videos were never quite smooth like they were in Puppy Linux.  Things seemed a bit “draggy” to me.  It’s subjective, sure.  But I noticed it and I wanted to see if there was a faster option.

    I stumbled across a post somewhere on the internet about installing a minimal command-line only system and then adding only what you wanted or needed.  The end result, apparently, was a very fast yet customized system.  Now that sounded appealing and that’s what I did.

    More on this in part two.

    %d bloggers like this: