Ubuntu Help & Advice Pages
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Before you actually do any installing at all, there are several important issues that you need to understand and think through.
You obviously don't want to be ripping out your old system till it's backed up; but even if you abandon your desire to upgrade to Ubuntu, you should still have regular, systematic backups in place against the vicissitudes of ordinary life.
A "fresh" install, what we discuss here, means one that wipes out everything already on your system. That, obviously, is a major step, and it is crucial that before undertaking it you have everything you want to preserve from your current system fully backed up somewhere besides on your current main hard drive (we'll discuss where in a moment). You need to take some care in evaluating what "everything you want to preserve" includes. In particular, if you have data files in some proprietary format, do some homework to make sure that Ubuntu-based software exists that can work with that format, or at least convert it. Windows itself and Windows applications especially have a habit of using data formats that no one else uses, though that does not mean that they are unreadable or unconvertible. In fact, almost any data format can be read by a correspodning Ubuntu app; but nonetheless, it pays to research and be sure. Ubuntu's chief "office suite" is Open Office (currently in transition to something called "Libre Office"), and its member apps can read most extant file formats. Image and media formats are also usually no problem. But, as the wise say, "Assume nothing."
Keep in mind that if you are presently using either of Firefox or Thunderbird, if you back up your "profile" folder for that app, you can restore pretty much every customization--and, for TBird, all your mail--very easily, even if your are now running on a non-Linux OS. Google on where to find and how to identify those profile folders for your current system.
There are many ways to back up data, and even with conversion considerations quite aside, you should have yours as safe as its importance to you justifies. One easy resource these days is so-called "thumb drives" (or "flash drives" or "USB drives"), very small solid-state devices you can carry in a shirt pocket but which can store many gigabytes of data. Another resource is a second hard drive on your same computer. Yet another is a second computer, such as a laptop, or a networked other desktop type in your household or office. Better yet, combine some or all of those approaches: hard drives are almost comically cheap these days, so buy a modest-sized one (say about 10 times the maximum you reasonably expect your data files to ever amount to) and use it exclusively for backing up; keep a thumb drive; and keep your data duplicated on a second household or office computer. In the case of the thumb drive or another computer, make it a habit (or an auto-run process) to back up daily, at some time when you're not likely to be using the system. With the spare drive, set up a series of seven backups, one done each day of the week, so that if you don't discover your loss, or screw-up, for a few days, you can still recover the original. As we say, drive space is cheap.
Safest of all for backups is an offsite location, because even if your home or office suffers a major catastrophe, your data is still preserved; that location can be at your ISP (depending on how much drive space they give you) or a web host. If do you use an outside service, don't be penny wise and pound foolish: the best doesn't cost that much more. (We use, like, and recommend Pair Networks, whom many others also like and use.) Be aware that many bargain "offsite storage" sites are ripoffs, considering what you get for what you pay: it pays to do your homework and comparison shop. But don't let having offsite storage lull you into not also having onsite storage, redundant if possible, because it's much more convenient for anything but cases of major disaster.
Ubuntu is nothing if not various. The choices you need to make are:
Let's look at those options one by one.
The various variants of Ubuntu differ in various ways. We will only very briefly touch on them below--if any of them other than base Ubuntu seem to you appealing, you need to go out and do some homework on the web to better decide. The variants mentioned here are the major ones, but scarcely the only ones--Wikipedia has a fuller list of Ubuntu variants; only base Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Edbuntu are officially supported by Canonical, Ltd., the developers and maintainers of Ubuntu, though several others are "recognized" by them, for whatever that may signify.
The variant we discuss throughout these pages is base Ubuntu, though we reckon that there wouldn't be very much different with the others. Those variants not using the GNOME desktop that is used in base Ubuntu might want some different supplementary applications than the ones we later discuss, but the parallels will be clear to those who know enough about those environments to want one other than GNOME.
Base Ubuntu is built around the GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) desktop environment. There has long been, in the Linux world, a major split of opinion as to the merits (and demerits) of the GNOME and KDE environments, and each has its partisans with scads of good reasons why their preference is superior. Generally, over time the pendulum seems to have swung between the two, depending on which has most recently had a major upgrade: they more or less leapfrog one another. Without setting forth any argument other than our own personal preference, we go with the base Ubuntu variant, and suggest it to those who have no strong or definite reasons to prefer some other.
Kubuntu is Ubuntu built around the KDE (K Desktop Environment) desktop environment. If you are expert enough to know the differences, and prefer KDE to GNOME, this is the variant you want.
Edubuntu is, like base Ubuntu, GNOME-based; it is, as Wikipedia puts it, "a subproject and add-on for Ubuntu, designed for school environments and home users." It is, we suppose, like the possibly apocryphal little old lady's book review: "This is the sort of book you will like if you like this sort of book." It is targeted at student-age users ("age 6 to 18"). Though we have no experience of it, it is doubtless much like base Ubuntu as to installation and follow-up.
The other variants are all sufficiently special-purpose that if you don't know much about them they probably aren't for you. Mythbuntu is designed for creating a home-theater PC with MythTV, and uses the Xfce desktop environment. Ubuntu Studio, a distribution made for professional video and audio editing, comes with "higher-end" free-editing software (and is only available as a DVD .iso image, unlike the "live CD" other Ubuntu distributions use). Xubuntu is analogous to base Ubuntu and Kubuntu, in that it is Ubuntu with a different desktop environment, in this case the Xfce environment also used by Mythbuntu (Xfce is a "thinner" environment than the feature-rich GNOME and KDE, which has advantages and drawbacks).
(Remember, from now on we are discussing base Ubuntu; whether other variants have the same classes available, we don't know.)
The classes are simple and self-descriptive: desktop, server, netbook. You should have no difficulty deciding which suits your needs. Do note, though, that "netbook" is not "laptop"; for a laptop, you probably want the desktop edition. The "netbook" edition, as Canonical puts it, introduces "Unity, an innovative user interface super-optimised for smaller screens. . . . It is designed for highly mobile computing with larger icons and a more touch-intuitive interface."
With the types being limited to 32-bit and 64-bit, one would think the choice the proverbial no-brainer, but it's not so simple. Most modern computer hardware packs 64-bit firepower, but the problem is that not all application authors have yet caught their software up with the hardware. As best we can tell, most or all apps that are still 32-bit can be successfully run, with litttle or no fuss, under 64-bit Ubuntu, providing you install the needed support (easy, and we tell you how later). But Canonical still seems very edgy about all this: till recently, the 64-bit type was listed by them as "Not recommended for daily desktop usage", a dire message they only recently withdrew, settling now for the still-daunting choice of describing the 32-bit version as "Recommended". An Ubuntu forums discussion of the topic ran to 21 pages. The upshot seems to be, as we read it, that with only the most modest attention to detail, the 64-bit version works fine, and it is certainly the wave of the future. It is what we have installed on all our computers, and we have had no problems with it outside of--some time ago--one non-standard game, which the author recompiled for us within a day. We'd say screw your courage to the sticking-place and go with the 64-bit version.
Mind, now, that assumes that you have modern hardware, meaning that you actually have a 64-bit CPU. If you're not sure, then make sure before you make any decision. Most OS'es have some simple tool that will report back what your hardware is: use that. If you already have some older version of Ubuntu installed, then at a terminal execute:
The results will roll up like a shot, but you can scroll through them. They will show you what your CPU is (and a lot of other things, too).
Now you (we will assume) have all your current data safely backed up, and have made your choice of Ubuntu flavor, which we are assuming is 64-bit desktop base Ubuntu. What you will do next is download an "image" file for that flavor, burn it to a DVD, and take a trial run. By "trial run", we mean that the resultant DVD is not merely an installer: it can also be run as a demonstration, using your hardware but not touching anything currently on your system (unless you go out of your way to do so--which at times one might want to do if using the "live DVD", as it is called, as a rescue tool in the highly unlikely case of some severe hangup). The real point of this before essaying an actual install is not chiefly to trial Ubuntu--though you can, it is not much like the desktop you'll end up with after customizing, so the experience won't be closely applicable--the point is to be sure that the basic installation will work and play well with your hardware. Various chip and board makers build in bizarre freaks of performance that may work under, say, Windows (possibly because those freaks have been written around in the OS) but not under Ubuntu or other OS'es. You don't want to install, boot up, and discover that you have no video, or no audio, or no internet connectivity, or some combination of those owing to some maker's on-the-motherboard chip or plugin card having, um, "quirks". So, by running the "live DVD" Ubuntu, you at least get to see that all the basics are OK before you plunge in. (And if they aren't, there's almost always some simple fix for the problem--others will have been there before you.)
This is--at least ideally--a two-step process: actually download the disk-image file, then (for safety's sake) verify the integrity of the download.
Still (and always now) assuming that you want the base-Ubuntu "desktop" edition, take your browser to:
That page actually has pretty clear instructions right on it, so we won't have to say much extra here. Click the button there for the type of Ubuntu you want: 64-bit (which we think best) or 32-bit. When you click, you will get a mini-dropdown menu offering you your choice of the latest Ubuntu version, 10.10, or the previous version, 10.04LTS. The "LTS" ("long-term support") versions are, as the name says, supported for longer than the non-LTS ones, but for almost everyone that won't matter, because you can and will do running upgrades as newer versions come along. ("Fresh" installs can always be done, and probably should every few years, but normally once a Ubuntu system is installed, it is maintained by automagic upgrades that do not require the massive attention a new install does.) So we say go ahead and take the latest 10.10 version.
When you click on your selection of 10.10, your browser will presumably ask you where you want to save the file to be downloaded; the answer to this is "anywhere that's convenient to you"--it doesn't really matter.
The download will likely take quite some time. Note that if you are comfortable with "torrent" downloads, those are available: instead of clicking on the offered download button on the current page, click where it offers alternative downloads and follow the directions on that page. Finally, note that if you have such a miserable internet connection that downloading a CD-sized file is close to or actually impossible for you, you can order a free actual pre-burned CD from Canonical; be warned, though, that delivery time can be in the multi-week range (details are on the alternative downloads page linked just above).
Nowadays, downloading is a pretty reliable process, but it is still well worth checking the integrity of the result, because the smallest error could have catastrophic consequences; fortunately, it is very easy to verify file integrity. If you are already running a version of Ubuntu, or any 'nix-style operating system, you can just follow these steps below exactly; otherwise, adapt them as appropriate for your current OS.
If the OK for your file appears, that indicates that the hash matched, which is to say that the downloaded file is exactly correct.
If you are currently running Windows, there is a well-documented Windows version of the above procedure available; it is for the Fedora linux distribution, not Ubuntu, but the steps are the same--only the downloaded file name is different. It requires manual checking of the resultant hash, which is mind-bogglingly tedious but straightforward. Remember that this check is a mildly paranoaic safety measure, not an essential step in the process, so if you have trouble doing it under your current OS, it's not a big deal to omit it. (Though corrupted downloads can and do happen.)
You need--obviously--a blank writeable CD or DVD (we recommend a DVD, as there are never any quibbles about available space, which sometimes arise with CDs, depending on the CD writer, and blank DVDs are now almost free). Then just follow the exquisitely detailed and illustrated instructions given as "Step 2" right on the Ubuntu-site page you downloaded from (assuming that is not the "alternative" page--if it is, go back a page).
Before you begin, you might want to review the official Ubuntu documentation, which is relatively brief and gives a good overview of Ubuntu.
Again, the fine explanations on the Ubuntu-site page ("Step 3") cover the ground. We urgently recommend that you start, if at all possible, with a hard-wired internet connection (plugin cable), rather than a wireless card: keep potential hardware issues to the irreducible minimum to begin with.
When the CD/DVD stops loading and displays the screen illustrated on the Ubuntu-instructions web page,
After some more grinding from your CD/DVD player, you will--or should--eventually find yourself in an Ubuntu desktop, exactly as illustrated toward the end of "Step 3" on the Ubuntu-site page. If you do, you know to begin with that video is working.
To check a bit more, double-click on the desktop folder labelled Examples; that should in turn open a folder labelled Ubuntu_Free_Culture_Showcase. Double-clicking on that, in turn, should show you a couple of files with the .ogg extension. Pick one and double-click on it: you should get a popup app that plays a brief multimedia presentation. When that completes, try the other file. By now, you should know quite well whether video and audio are working satisfactorily. We will assume for the moment that they are.
Next, up at the top of your screen you will see a firefox-browser logo (just to the right of thre words Applications Places System). Double-click the logo and a copy of the firefox browser should open up on the desktop. Play with it a little--enough to verify that you are indeed connected to the internet satisfactorily. We will assume for now that that also works OK.
You have now demonstrated that the chief hardware items on your particular computer all work under Ubuntu. If you have other peripherals, they can be tested and dealt with after installation, since you have the important things going: video and internet (and audio, though that's less critical). If you want to check an attached printer for Linux compatibility, single-click on the toolbar word System, then single-click on Administration, then single-click on Printing; that should pop open a little box with nothing showing in it (yet). Click the Add+ button; that should drop down a list of attached printers. Assuming it does, click on the one of interest, then follow the self-guiding instructions (start by clicking the Forward button). The OS should find drivers for your printer and install them. If it does not, which can happen with a distressingly large number of printer makes (notably Canon, who are very unsupportive of Linux), do not despair: drivers will be available elsewhere; if it does locate drivers, though, you're in clover. But we wouldn't worry much either way at this stage.
Remember that so far we are just playing around: the "installed" printer will vanish when you exit this test-run of Ubuntu. We are only checking to see that any printer you have is indeed installable without extra help.
You can now play around about as much as you wish. Clicking the toolbar word Applications will bring a dropdown menu with sub-menus in it for the type of app; check out as many as your little heart desires. Do note, though, that the app designers sometimes have funny notions of how to classify their apps, so you may find some apps under headings where you don't expect them, so look through everything.
Keep in mind that there is no use in customizing anything, since this is only a test run, and anything you do will be gone with the wind when you shut down this test session of Ubuntu.
When that time comes, shutdown is an option at the bottom of the Applications menu. That is a weird place for it, and when you customize after your real install, we'll show you how to put a button for it up in the toolbar, but for now just do it from the Applications menu. Pay attention: do not open the CD/DVD player yourself. In the shutdown, the system will eject the Ubuntu CD/DVD and then tell you on-screen to remove that CD/DVD, close the player, and press <Enter>; wait for the message, and be sure you do it all.
If your test drive was not a smooth one owing to problems with video or internet connectivity, there are some things you can try during the test run. You may need to do some homework on the web to see about your problem, but here are a few starter thoughts.
If you have a problem connecting to the internet and your motherboard or plugin-card ethernet is controlled by a Realtek 8169 chip (a common type), try this (be very careful typing in the entries):
Now see if connectivity comes up. There is a defect in some hardware arrangements such that the chip is left by default in a hibernation state, so we need to unload then reload the drivers to initialize it properly.
If that wasn't your chip, or it was but that didn't fix things, take a look at this web page from the Ubuntu official documentation. Obviously, you can't do that from the problem computer at the time of the problem, but you can do it either from another computer or from the subject one when you exit the "live CD/DVD" test run.
Video cards and proprietary chips present too many issues for any brief synopsis. Here is a link for a real-time Google search on Ubuntu video problems that may offer the perplexed some clues. Usually, systems will have satisfactory video as installed (or when the "live CD/DVD" is used); issues, if any, usually arise when the user wants to switch from the open-source video drivers provided by Ubuntu to proprietary binary-code drivers from the video-chip maker (normally ATI/Radeon or nVidia). There is a plethora of information on line about the ups and downs of proprietary video drivers with Ubuntu, which the interested can examine later at their convenient leisure. Truth to tell, if you're not a diehard, pedal-to-the-metal gamer, these things probably don't matter much to you: if it works off the demo CD/DVD, you can worry about details later.
OK, let us assume that you now feel ready to take the plunge. But put that installation CD/DVD aside for the moment: you still have some thinking-out to do. This planning is for how you will lay out your hard drive for the system.
To start, we want a super-brief crash course in disk usage by Linux. First, the stuff that is universal, not particular to Linux.
Hard drives are divided up into what are called "partitions"; to grossly over-simplify, a "partition" is in many ways functionally equivalent to a physically distinct drive, so that a single physical drive can "look like" several independent drive units. For historical reasons, all hard drives are limited to a maximum of four "primary" partitions--but nowadays a single "primary" partition can be subdivided into any number of what are called "logical" partitions. In that way, under DOS-derived OS'es such as Windows or OS/2, a single physical drive can contain what the OS sees as drive C:, drive D:, drive E:, and so on till you run out of alphabet. It is, of course, perfectly possible to use fewer than four partitions, and indeed many users have drives that are all one single big partition.
The usefulness of separated partitions is that each stands more or less independent of the others: you can erase and re-format one partition while leaving the rest of the drive--meaning the other partitions--unaffected. Commonly, installations put the operating system on one partition, or set of partitions, and data on another (or others). That way, a complete re-install of the OS can be done without affecting the user's data.
Ubuntu has an option for "easy" installing that indeed makes your whole drive a single partition, and handles all the placement of files automagically, "under the hood". Lots of users take that option and are happy ever after with it. Others prefer to do the partitioning themselves, for reasons we will touch on in a moment. The disputes between the multi-partition and the single-partition schools of thought can range from "eh" to bloody religious wars, as can the differences within the multi-partition school as to just how to divide things up. Here are the basic considerations:
Linux systems, like all OS'es, use a plethora of directories for file storage, but there are a few key ones always present. Those can be considered to fall into four fairly distinct categories:
What many people feel is that it pays to have a partition scheme that keeps those general categories on separate partitions, to make handling potential future problems easier. Lots of people fly every day of the year in airplanes huge and tiny, with no problems of any kind; but it's always nice to know that there are some parachutes under the seats, even if they're almost surely not going to ever be needed. Or, in the short form, better safe than sorry. So we agree that the slight one-time extra effort involved in making separate partitions is well worth it for the convenience if, at some late date, you find that you have managed to hopelessly corrupt some key OS files and need to re-install (or maybe just prefer to do an occasional prophylactic clean install): you can do that without putting your personal data files at risk.
A key dictum to never lose sight of when thinking in any way about files and directories is this:
Just as folk who lived through the Depression can rarely ever get completely away from penny-pinching habits, so those who remember when a 20-megabyte hard drive was a wonder and a marvel retain the habit of trying to save every bit and byte of disk space possible. People, today you can buy a terabyte of drive storage for prices in the two-digit range. Don't worry about "wasted" drive space: throw the gigabytes about with disdain.
In a bit, when we get to the exact step-by-step install process, we will show you what you need to do to implement the scheme we suggest, but as a look-ahead for those who already know about such things, here's what we recommend (shown in the order they will go onto the drive):
Again, for those who know a bit about these things: the boot partition is actually oversized, but who cares about some small fraction of a GiB? The swapper size is based on 4 GiB of RAM; if you have less, you could reduce it accordingly, but since you might some day upgrade your RAM, why worry about having to add more swap later? The root partition is wildly over-sized (even 1.0 GiB probably would be), considering that we are putting its major components in partitions of their own, but the installer is stubborn and won't let us use less than 2.4 or 2.5 (it is hard to be sure), so we shrug and comply. The tmp partition is made quite large so that it can, at need, contain the entire content of a the largest currently imaginable disk, a double-layer blu-ray ("BD") disk, which is 50 GiB; we give it some extra as a fudge factor to guarantee fit.
All that adds up to 78 GiB plus the user home space. If you still have a by-now comically small drive, say 80 GiB capacity, you have very little space left for your personal data files. The obvious solution in such a case is to spend a few bucks and get a real hard drive--as noted earlier, a full terabyte is only about $80 (at this writing). But if you really, really find shillings not so plentiful (to quote Mr. Henry Baker), why, just reduce that huge tmp partition to, say, 5 GiB (the capacity of a standard, single-sided DVD); that would reduce fixed overhead to 28 GiB, leaving tons of space even on an old 80-GiB drive.
It is vital that if you are not going to accept the "for idiots" single-partition scheme, and choose to roll your own, you have your decisions fully thought out and made before you undertake the install: it is between difficult and impossible to change after. (Nothing is quite impossible, but there are levels of annoyance that need not be reached.) We feel that the scheme above is perfectly satisfactory for any substantial-sized drive (say 250 GiB or over), but the only thing we would change if drive space is cramped is that tmp partition, and we'd never make it less than 5 GiB.
Those are recommendations. It's your system, and it's up to you to make the decisions--or to decide not to decide, and abdicate to the one-partition, let-uncle-do-it scheme. If you have questions or doubts, spend some time doing homework on the web (or usenet) and see what you see. When you're convinced that you're ready--which might mean installing a new drive before proceeding--it's time for the actual installation. If you want some starting points, here are a few; keep in mind that several of them are years old, and that the cost of disk space has plummeted since those were written.
And, of course, as always, Google is Your Friend.
There are many different schemes for storing information on a hard drive, known as "file systems". Linux can handle almost any file system, but the commonest are the Reiser filesystem and the three flavors of the extN filesystems (ext2, ext3, and ext4). Many people use and are happy with Reiser, but--owing to bizarre personal circumstances--the developer is and will probably remain unavailable for any further work, so the system will inevitably fall ever further out of date. The ext2 system is a fine and in most ways satisfactory one, but it is not a "journalling" system. A "journalling" system, at the cost of a little overhead in speed and disk space, is a vast improvement: it keeps records ("journals") of what it does, in a way that makes detecting and repairing problems vastly faster and more reliable than with a non-journalling system. If, for example, you lose power (and are so foolish as to not have a UPS--Uninterruptible Power Supply--installed), your disk files will be left in an anomalous situation. Such programs as the old Checkdisk can, when normalcy is restored, try to review and fix as possible what they find; but with a journalling file system, the process is, as we say, vastly faster and vastly more likely to succeed. The ext3 file system is essentially ext2 with a journal, and till quite recently was the Linux norm. The new ext4 system is an improved ext3; while a few super-cautious souls still hold back, owing to the newness of ext4, it is already the de facto standard. Perhaps for super-critical missions, like a major corporate server, such ultra-conservatism makes sense; but for most users, ext4 is the obvious choice.
There is one small exception to that obviousness: the /boot partition. That is because that partition is, 1) very small; 2) close to never-changing; and 3) ultra-critical. The combination of those factors makes bare ext2 a better choice, as there is no overhead plus no need for journalling in an essentially static fileset. It's sort of like an automatic transmission in an automobile: vastly more convenient 98% of the time, but just one more thing to go wrong. So we advise ext2 for your /boot partition.
You should also be aware the Linux swap space (where the system goes for scratchpad storage if the RAM is completely filled) has a special, unique filesystem of its own, and none but that one can be used for the swap area. In fact, once you designate a disk area as swap space, you can't designate the filesystem, which is automatically set.
Unlike many install instructions, these do not include any screen-shot images, largely because most of the requisite steps are extraordinarily simple and clear from the installer's few interactive inquiry screens. We have put the procedures on a separate page, in as condensed a form as we could get them, so that you can conveniently print it out for use during the install proper (that assumes you do not have handy a second computer, ideally a laptop that you can set down where you are working, and so read these pages as you go.)
If you are 100% sure that you have backed up everything you could not stand to lose--backed it up off your hard drive!--and 100% sure that you are clear in your mind about partitioning (though we give a simple model you can follow exactly) and file systems and everything else we have talked about, then gather up your Ubuntu installation CD/DVD and let's get going.
One aside first: when we come to enter partition sizes during the install, you may be perplexed by some of the numbers used, which will seem oddly non-round. That is an artifact of the difference betwen the decimal number system and the binary number system; those can be confusing because 2 to the 10th power is 1024, distractingly close to 1000. Properly speaking, numbers measured in decimal are listed as KB, MB, GB, TB, and so on, whereas numbers measured in binary are supposed to be listed as KiB, MiB, GiB, TiB, and so on--but that difference is often ignored. So when we want a space of "1 gigabyte", that could mean a space of 1,000,000,000 bytes (decimal, 1 GB) or it could mean a space of 1,073,741,824 bytes (binary, 1 GiB). That diference is why, for example, drives sold as, say, "a 250-GB drive" turn out to have only about 93% of the gigabytes the buyer expected (around 232.8): the maker and/or seller is talking decimal gigabytes, while the buyer is, perhaps foolishly, expecting binary gigabytes, which are what really matter in the computer world. So, when we set out our partition sizes, which the Ubuntu installer frivolously gives in decimal megabytes, we need to use jacked-up counts to get the true binary values we want. Clear?
The actual instructions are on our Install page; click the link and let's go.
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