Sunday, December 28, 2008

Book Review: Ubuntu For Non-Geeks, 3rd Edition by Rickford Grant

Even if you're a pretty good user of Windows or Apple's OS X, you can still be intimidated by the prospect of learning Linux if you dive in too deeply with the wrong book for your level of understanding. The trick for most hobbyists who are reluctant to give Linux a try is to know where to safely begin, where one won't get overwhelmed with so much technical jargon that one will get turned off by the experience.

For those new to the Linux experience, Rickford Grant has written a series of books for No Starch Press entitled Ubuntu For Non-Geeks, now in its third edition. I would strongly urge the medium or expertly skilled Linux users to pick up this book, if only to recommend it to their friends who are at the beginner level and for the beginners to pick it up without hesitation. This is a beginner's book and the author makes no bones about it, but you will be surprised at how much you will be comfortable with towards the end.

For years now, computer users have been hearing about Linux and its various distributions. In the last few years, Linux has made the jump from the domain of server operators to users' desktops, replacing Windows. If you work in an office environment with a version of Linux, you already have a leg up on the curious multitudes of people who are still a little too intimidated to give Linux a try.

One of my relatives works in a office with Novell's Suse Linux instead of Windows on the desktop. Another one works with a Linux desktop and Linux Terminal Server Project on the back end. With LTSP, if a terminal computer fails, you simply unplug it and plug in a new system, connect to the server and carry on working. My point is, Linux is more popular in both the home and work environments than most people realize.

Canonical Ltd. is the UK-based sponsor of Ubuntu, currently the most popular Linux OS on the desktop. With Ubuntu being open source, programmers in and outside of Canonical contribute to its development. In fact, every six months, a new version of Ubuntu is released. Every two years, a Long Term Service (LTS) version is released, which is supported by Canonical for three years. The most recent LTS version is Ubuntu 8.04, which arrived in April of 2008 and is known as Hardy Heron (each release is given a snappy title named after an animal that also loosely describes the advancements of the OS.) Hardy Heron is the focus of Ubuntu For Non-Geeks, 3rd Edition.

So, how do people learn the best? From my experience in the computer world, as someone who is constantly trying to keep up with new technologies, both out of personal interest and to benefit my work responsibilities, I learn best when I actually combine reading with hands-on. The major benefit of this book, if it isn't the non-threatening language the author utilizes, is the inclusion of several hands-on exercises.

What if you don't have a copy of Ubuntu handy? Fortunately, the author includes a copy that you can use so long as your computer meets the minimum technical requirements. By and large, if you running a regular 32-bit version of Windows, on a computer that is a Pentium III or greater, you should be just fine. You can run it on some older systems, but for a good experience, you'll want to have as much RAM as possible.

Using the included Ubuntu 8.04 cd-rom, you can install the OS right from the Windows desktop. When you turn the computer on, you will see a menu which will allow you to choose between Windows and Ubuntu. Any time you decide to delete Ubuntu, you remove it from Windows just as you would any other Windows program, with the Add/Remove program.

The other way to run Ubuntu is to boot your computer with the Ubuntu disc in the optical drive. It will install only into your computer's RAM, so it never touches your hard drive. Until you turn your computer off, you can use this install, known as the Live CD, to get on the Internet and poke around Ubuntu.

Ubuntu utilizes the third-party desktop known as GNOME, whereas the other major desktop environment, KDE, shows up in Kubuntu, another Ubuntu variation. You'll learn how to customize the GNOME panel with things like shortcuts to applications like's Writer (very similar to Microsoft Office's Word) and utilities like Force Quit, which allows you to quickly close non-responding windows.

Not surprisingly, you won't find Microsoft's Internet Explorer included in any Linux distribution, but you will find Mozilla's open source browser, Firefox. There are exercises that will show you how install add-ons for Firefox so you can do cool things like blog, watch Youtube videos with the Flash plug-in, set up an e-mail client from a choice of the default Evolution client (similar to Microsoft's Outlook) or download the popular Thunderbird client (more similar to Microsoft's Outlook Express.)

The mere act of searching for and downloading an application through the Synaptic Package Manager program will have the added benefit of showing where to get access to hundreds and hundreds of free programs to customize and enhance your system. Instant messaging capability is included in the Pidgin Internet Messenger, which is compatible with virtually all the existing messenger programs, including MSN Messenger, ICQ, etc., and has the added benefit that it can communicate with all of them simultaneously. Internet telephoning is also discussed, including instructions on how to install Skype.

The book discusses the Advanced Package Tool (APT), the engine for downloading applications, updates and for removal of programs. The Synaptic Package Manager is one of a few of the graphical front ends for the APT's command line interface. Update Manager is also covered as it updates the overall operating system and should be run before downloading any applications.

The author covers The Linux Command Terminal with commands that illustrate why it is not to be feared and how it can be useful and even fun. Yes, you can run some Windows applications by using a program called WINE, which stands for “WINE is Not an Emulator,” including Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Ubuntu is based on the Debian distribution of Linux and uses DEB packages to install programs and updates. Some Linux packages exist only as RPMs, packages for Red Hat, Fedora and some other Linux distributions. The author shows you how to utilize a program called Alien to convert RPM packages to DEB packages so that they can work on Ubuntu.

Linux operating systems are packaged with what could be considered thousands of dollars worth of productivity software, from to photo editors to financial management software. Several of the popular applications are discussed.

Multi-media has become a big part of what we use computers for, and this topic is covered, as well. Due to licensing issues, MP3 playback and creation software is not included in Linux, but the author shows you to download free software for those purposes, as well as how to connect to your iPod. Digital cameras, DVD playback, connecting peripherals like scanners and printers, are also covered.

Finally, one of the most important topics for any computer user is discussed. Many people have switched from Windows to Linux due to the multitudes of security flaws which appear in Windows computers. While every operating system has its security flaws, there are fewer of them for Linux systems simply due to the fact that there are far fewer users of Linux than Windows. Also, most Windows users are running in a privileged mode with grants rights to malware to cause problems that restricted user accounts don't have rights to perform. Most Linux systems are run in a restricted mode.

If Windows systems are built for the ease of exchanging data on networks and for installing programs, Linux systems are more secure since they have no open ports for incoming traffic turned on by default. Nonetheless, the author shows you how to install a firewall (that ships with Ubuntu) and explains the anti-virus programs available for Linux, including some free ones, that will help prevent a Linux system from inadvertently transmitting viruses that affect Windows systems. Throughout the book, Grant freely states his biases but lets you see what the choices are, for things like anti-virus software and e-mail clients.

The vast amount of free support is what makes Ubuntu a smart choice. Yes, Canonical makes its money by selling support contracts, but unless you are running a company, you are most likely going to get help from the multitudes of free sources, which the author lists, including magazines and other books you can check out.

This is as good as place as any to begin your Linux journey. The exercises cover topics that are simple at first, but before you know it, you will delving into tasks that you would have guessed would have been way outside of your comfort zone. In a nutshell, that is the overall strength of this excellent book.

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