Updated 2013-04, Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.
The purpose of this page is to introduce people new to linux to some programs I use for common tasks on my computer (sorry, no games). I include a list of programs to install beyond the default Ubuntu Linux distribution. Most of these notes would also apply to Debian GNU/linux, because Ubuntu is based on Debian.
Micro Unity Desktop Review
With this release of Ubuntu, the default setup uses the Ubuntu-specific Unity Desktop. I did look around for a while because I was put off by it, but for my purposes, Ubuntu still turned out to be the best option. Bottom line: After a week of using it, I'm getting stuff done with my computer without any problems. I don't think it's much better than Gnome was, but it isn't any worse, either. I just wish the Gnome weather applet would work with it.
You can change the default applications for the most popular tasks by going to Settings (the gear).. System Details.. Default Applications
File Browsing & Settings
Navigating around your local computer it simple once you click on the File Folder icon in the launcher bar on the left of your screen. Your files are kept in your "Home" directory. Note that there is no "Control Panel" link like in MS Windows.
On the left-hand side of the window is a navigation pane that includes a Network link, for navigating around your Home Fileserver, for example.
You can control the setting of the computer through the "System Settings" link in the launcher panel. It looks like a gear and a wrench. To gain more control over the settings of your computer, install the "CompizConfig" and "MyUnity" apps.
I use the default web browser, Firefox. To view Flash content, like YouTube videos, or play streaming MP3 music, you should install the package Ubuntu Restricted Extras. You can find out details by following the link. I've used Firefox for over 10 years to do all the shopping, banking, and other tasks I need to do online.
I also use the Firefox add-on called NoScript. It gives you complete control over what websites are allowed to run scripts on your computer. Pages will load faster and your system will be more secure.
This is a page about what apps I use, and I mainly use web-based email because I want to access my email from any location at any time. Examples are Gmail and Yahoo. Now that Thunderbird email (pictured) is the default email program (hurray), I can start it up and have it check my less-used emails while minimized. The envelope in the status bar will turn blue if I get mail.
Play Music Files - MP3, ogg, etc.
My favorite music player by far is Decibel Audio Player. The reason is its simplicity. There is a folder pane on the left. Click (Shft-click, Ctrl-click) the music you want to play (folders and/or files). Drag them to the Playlist area. Press "Play" (or Shuffle then Play). For more full-featured media players, see the next section. Note: I think this is no longer in the repositories. Try using VLC and the Media... Add to playlist options for what you want to hear.
Play Music Files, Streaming Media, CDs, and DVDs
I wanted to share my favorite player for music files above. The default application to play music files is Rhythmbox, but I don't use it*. The most full featured media player, for all your needs in one place, is VLC Player. It can do what Decibel and Totem do, as well as create and manage playlists, like with iTunes, etc.
The media players Totem and Miro also plays music and video files. To play restricted DVDs, see the Ubuntu DVD Page.
Rip MP3 or Ogg from Existing Audio CDs
I think the best ripping program for linux is Asunder. Opening and closing a CDROM drive and switching discs is not something you normally want to be doing when you want to hear music. Whenever possible, consider ripping your existing audio CDs to a format more friendly to your computer and portable music players (like iPods). Ripping to the MP3 format in Ubuntu will require the installation of the Ubuntu Restricted Extras package.
I have a complete page on the basics of Ripping CDs to MP3s Using Asunder in Ubuntu Linux.
Download Photos from Your Camera and Manage Pictures
Here again I am totally biased. I do NOT use the default photo manager, Shotwell. It is a full-featured photo manager, but I don't need that much help. I use the file manager listed above.
What I have found very helpful for backing up my photo collection is the Flickr Uploader program and hidden in the eog-plugins package. As of Ubuntu 12.04, I can no longer login to my Flickr account using Flickr Uploader, so I have switched to Frogr, pictured at left.
Photos: Resize, Crop, Adjust Brightness, Contrast, etc.
There is a full-featured Photoshop-type program available in linux called GIMP. It is overkill for most common photo manipulation needs. I use gthumb to crop, resize, change brightness, etc. on a single photo or small group of photos.
For batch editing, I use my own free scripts.
Write a Formatted Letter, Create a Spreadsheet or Presentation
I don't have a lot of uses for word processors, but occasionally everyone needs to type a letter or list. I mainly use the word processor to "paste" a web page that I have viewed in Print mode, instead of actually printing the article. This has saved me a lot of paper-problems. I also regularly use spreadsheets for recordkeeping.
I use the default Libre Office programs included with Ubuntu Linux. There is also a free office suite called Open Office . I have been using versions of OpenOffice, and now LibreOffice, for 10 years and it's met all my needs for home use.
Burn a Data Disc or Disc Image
The default disc-burning program, Brasero has been working fine for me for a few years. Burn an audio CD, data CD or DVD disc, create a 1:1 copy, or burn a "disc image".
The program K3B is also very good, but I try to not run KDE programs that need to load a whole different set of libraries outside my default default desktop.
Research and decide what is best for you. I highly recommend using a network laser printer. The protocol for network printing is fairly standard and laser cartridges save you a lot of money over ink jets over the life of the printer. I have never had problems getting a linux machine to print from a network printer over the past 8 years, and you don't have to have another computer on to "share" it. If you want an example, I have used the Samsung ML-2851ND Network Printer B&W duplex laser printer that even came with its own software that could be installed under linux. That printer lasted about 4 years, but a similar, newer version, Samsung ML-3312ND Network Printer, has been working just as well recently.
News / RSS Feed Aggregator
This is not related to linux directly, but sometimes you just want to hear what other people are using. I did have a Google and Yahoo homepage, but they both ruined the news-reading experience. I tried Thunderbird and a couple of other Free Software alternatives before finally finding feedly.com. I'm very happy with the results. I set up the feeds once and can view them with my desktop browser or the feedly mobile app. The only "Con" I can see right now is that there is not a pervasive feedly button to click on like with a few of the larger RSS services. You need to get to know what the RSS URL looks like.
If you have any computer files you want to keep, then you NEED to figure out a backup solution. Your computer, tablet, and phone are all machines. It's not a matter of "if", but "when" they WILL stop working. I use a Backup Script to save files locally. I use Flickr for my photo backups and Spider Oak for documents and music (it also is fine for photos). I'm happy to let you know I'm a Spider Oak affiliate. It's a great solution.
Editing Web Pages or Code
As of the latest update, I can no longer recommend Bluefish text editor. The options available to me to easily change the interface have shrunk considerabley, most notably, the ability to change the font! That's okay, it helped me to search and come up with my new favorite text editor, Geany. It is very simple, I can change the font and font size, and it has auto-complete for HTML tags and search-to-replace features. That is about all I need. Plus, you can add an optional "dark" theme that is way cool.
Install the Apps All at Once
Here are some general-purpose apps that are not in the default Ubuntu linux distribution that I find helpful.
me@myhost$ sudo apt-get install asunder decibel-audio-player easytag eog-plugins frogr geany gimp gthumb lame miro soundconverter ubuntu-restricted-extras vlc
*The first thing I do after installing a new operating system is point my browser at somafm.com to start listening to music. For YEARS now, Firefox+Ubuntu has made Rhythmbox the default app for this task and it has NEVER WORKED. No error messages, nothing. You can use Totem (/usr/bin/totem) to play Shoutcast streaming MP3 type files if you requested the "add other software" option at install (sometimes I have to start a stream by clicking the Next arrow on the player). If not, add the package Ubuntu Restricted Extras.