Some Tips from Experience When You're Getting Started on Ubuntu (or something similar)

With the release of Hardy Heron looming within the next two weeks, Wordy is getting set to give Ubuntu another go-’round, and I’ll be upgrading Michelle’s machine from Egdy Eft as well. Talking over some of his concerns and questions made me think of the stuff that I had issues with when I first moved over to Ubuntu. There are few things I wish I could have done differently from the beginning, and a few steps I took that I found really beneficial.  Here are some words on those things.

* This is NOT yet another “howto” for installing Ubuntu, just some suggestions from a guy who was a total newb when he got started…

Don’t Jump In With Both Feet

When you download and then boot the Ubuntu installation CD, there is that option to very easily re-partition your harddrive and install Ubuntu along side your existing OS. If you’re planning to use both Windows and Ubuntu, this is the way to go.

However– when I was getting started, I often found myself getting frustrated with making something work in my new Linux system, and it would be late at night, and I was frustrated with scouring the forums (which are AWESOME, by the way, don’t get me wrong), and I would just say to myself, “Ah, I know how this works in Windows, I’ll just switch over and do it there.” And then sometimes it would be days or weeks that my Ubuntu system would lie dormant.

If you’re like me and you’re switching NOT just because you want to dump Microsoft, or NOT just because you don’t ever want to “upgrade” to Vista, but because you also enjoy the challenge of learning something new, and the fun of tinkering with your system, then what you should do is back up that Windows partition to another drive and do a standalone Ubuntu installation.

I have used SystemRescueCD and/or GParted for backing up partitions. GParted is a little more intuitive and straightforward for those of us accustomed to a GUI, but using the Partimage tool with SystemRescueCD is probably a little more robust and has some extra options. The reason is pretty clear if you look at the individual projects– GParted is a straight-up partition resizing and copying tool, whereas Partimage is for, well, creating an image. For a lot of people, the functionality and usefulness of either will be comparable.  There’s a really good tutorial on using partimage with the SystemRescueCD in the Ubuntu forums.  It’s a bit dated at this point, but the steps taken there still work fine.

Multiple Partitions are Your Friends

Speaking of partitions– one of the things about Linux that I have grown to love is /home. You set up your user profile, and by default all of your documents, program settings, desktop customizations, Firefox extensions, etc., all get put in /home/<username>. When you’re running an OS with a much more aggressive release schedule than Windows, it is madly convenient to have /home on its own partition, and the rest of the system on another one. It makes it a lot easier (and less risky) to upgrade to that bleeding-edge distro when you know that if you have to roll back, all your docs and settings are going to stay put. There is a method for moving /home to its own partition at a later time, but I really wish I would’ve started out on separate partitions, to avoid the (mild) headache.

BUT– Always-ALWAYS Back-up!

Keep in mind– I still strongly recommend doing a complete backup when you’re going to upgrade. Particularly after a while when you have a lot of customizations or you’ve installed a lot of packages in addition to the standard install, there could be some bumps with a new distro. Just a couple weeks ago, I tried installing the Hardy Heron beta, and a few devices stopped working on me. Fortunately, I just had to roll back to the backup I had done.

A good backup schedule is something that you (ideally) should have in place regardless of whether you’re running Linux, Windows, or Mac, because you never know when something nasty is going to happen (the Case Fire of 2002 is a great example; click the link, then push Ctrl-End). I’ve found this to be particularly true with Ubuntu, though, if for no other reason than I “mess around” with it a lot more.

It’s Important to Know the Command Line, But It’s OK to Take it Slow

I should take this opportunity to mention that the public forums on Ubuntu are wonderfully helpful, the people are generous easy to understand, and I have not yet run into a roadblock that didn’t have a solution (eventually). I also found a ton of good information early on at ubuntuguide.org.

Something that you’ll see a lot of in both places, though, is help offered by means of “open up a Terminal and type such-and-such.” You definitely need to be careful about just pasting and executing whatever commands people tell you, because there are people out there just trying to be dicks by having you run malicious commands that mess up your system. The forums are very well moderated, though, and I’d say they catch the overwhelming majority of the assholes. That said, you DO have to be careful.

The thing that trips you up the most when you’re coming over from a GUI-based environment is the syntax of doing things on the command line. “sudo dpkg -x mplayer32_20070130-1_amd64.deb ./” just doesn’t mean much to the average end-user. I was not comfortable at all with the command line when I got started (something like 18 months ago now). Since then, I have gotten to the point of “somewhat-comfortable-with-basic-things”. I still need good references for individual operations, but I keep a reference sheet with common Unix commands pasted to the wall by my desk. As time goes on, and I keep copy-paste’ing all those commands, the function of each starts to sink in and I have even (GASP!) had a couple occasions where I said to myself, “Why am I dicking around with this? It would be easier from the command line…” If you’re a bit more conscientious of what these commands are doing, the fog is going to lift. In the short term, bookmark the forums and read thoroughly when you have to go and find help.

Tomorrow, I’ll have some things to say about software alternatives in Ubuntu, and a few additional packages that I’m really glad I installed.

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