Sometimes curiosity is to blame. Other times, more practical concerns obtain. What ever the reason, there usually comes a time in a Windows or Mac user’s computing experience when they hear about open source software, and more specifically, of an open source operating system that costs nothing to download and install, and that can even be used in industrial or commercial applications with no licensing fees or patent concerns. Linux is that operating system. Well, sort of.

In fact, Linux is only a part of an operating system. An operating system, as the name suggests, is a system of integrated components that manage separate concerns. Linux is an operating system kernel, and the kernel is like the brain of an operating system. The other components, including a file system or a desktop environment, are provided by various distros (distributions) of Linux that can be downloaded and installed on typical PC hardware – even old hardware, in most cases. Ubuntu is one of those distributions, and I’ve chosen to highlight it because it is without question one of the exemplars of what the open source operating system can become, and an excellent first exposure to Linux for users of other systems who are ready to try something different.


A PC or a virtual machine – Ubuntu will run on standard PC hardware. Even an older PC that used to run Windows XP can run Ubuntu, as long as it meets the following specifications:

  • 2 GHz dual core processor or better
  • 2 GB system memory
  • 25 GB of free hard drive space
  • Either a DVD drive or a USB port for the installer media
  • Internet access is helpful

Ubuntu provides a 32-bit version of its desktop operating system, for very old PCs.

Ubuntu Desktop – Ubuntu also provides a non-graphical, server-oriented version of it operating system. There is a whole downstream ecosystem of operating systems derived from Ubuntu, which are Ubuntu under the hood, but which offer a different desktop environment, and/or a cultivated set of software suited for particular tasks. For example, Kubuntu uses the KDE Plasma desktop environment instead of Ubuntu’s own Unity environment, which would be very familiar to users of other Linux distros such as openSUSE. Download the .iso disk image and use disk writing software to write it to a blank DVD, or simply copy it to a bootable USB device.


Boot from the installation media

Upon first boot from the installation media, this should be the first screen you see. Click the Install Ubuntu button.

first boot
First screen presented after booting from the installation medium


Decisions, decisions

The next screen asks you to make two decisions. The first is an easy one. Would you like to download updated versions of some of the installation files from the Ubuntu update servers during installation, or would you rather install everything from the disk and install updates later? Obviously, you’ll want to go ahead and check that box. I’m not even sure under what circumstances not checking the first box would make any sense.

The second decision is easy for most people, assuming that most people are installing Ubuntu Desktop for their own, personal use. If you are using Ubuntu as a personal computing platform, you will probably want to check the second box. If you are using Ubuntu for commercial purposes, or any purpose besides personal use, you may want to double-check the copyright restrictions on any third-party software that you want to install.

When you’ve made your decisions, click the Continue button.

most will choose to update
Most users will choose to download updates during installation, and to install 3rd-party, proprietary software necessary to open common media files.


Partitioning the disk

Unless you know what you are doing, and you have a good reason to change the default partitioning plan, it’s best to just leave the first option selected and click the Install Now button.

disk partitioning
The Ubuntu installer will manage disk partitioning for you


A confirmation dialog will appear. If you are ready to continue, click the Continue button.

partition confirmation
Confirm the partition plan


Pick your time zone

Ubuntu needs to know where in the world you live, by time zone. I live in the same zone as New York, so it is already selected for me by default. If you live elsewhere, just click in the region where you live on the map. When you are ready, click the Continue button.

time zone
Pick your time zone


Choose your keyboard layout

Your selection of time zone automatically selected a keyboard layout for you, but you may prefer another keyboard layout. When you are done, click the Continue button.

Choose your keyboard layout

Who are you, anyway?

Here is where you create a user profile, and this user will be an administrative user by default, being the first and only user defined on the system. Choose a proper name, and a username that can be used for logging on. Choose a name that identifies your computer’s host name on the network. I have named this system “ubuntu-virtual”. Your preference may be to automatically log on upon startup, and that’s fine. You’ll notice I have decided not to allow the user to log on automatically. When you are ready, click the Continue button.

Define a user and the user’s login credentials, and name the host on the network.


Installation is underway

Okay, great. Now hurry up and wait while the system is installed to the hard disk.

Ubuntu is now being installed.


Finishing the installation

When the installation is complete, you will be told as much in a dialog. Click the Restart Now button.

Click the Restart Now button.

The installer will finish up and finally present you with this dialog. It will also try to eject the installation media, reminding you to remove it before the system is rebooted. Remove the installation media, and press the Enter key on your keyboard to restart the system.

eject media
Ubuntu will try to eject your installation media at this time, and after removing it, press the Enter key to reboot the new Ubuntu system.


Log on to the system for the first time

You have rebooted the system and now you are presented with a login screen. Joy. Enter your password and press the Enter key on your keyboard.

This is the Ubuntu login screen.


Et voila! The Ubuntu Desktop

It’s so purple. They really like purple, those Ubuntu people. Well, no worries, as you can change your desktop wallpaper and other stuff by first clicking the gear icon over on the bottom of the launcher bar, on the left side of your screen.

Behold the purpleness that is the Ubuntu desktop.


The System Settings app

Explore this app at your leisure, but for now go ahead and click the Software & Updates icon down at the bottom.

system settings
The Ubuntu System Settings app.


The Software & Updates app

This app presents the options available to you based on the details of your own system. For our purpose, we need only add the additional software repositories which make available certain proprietary software, such as the Adobe Flash player, the libraries needed to play and create MP3 files, encrypted DVDs, and more. Select the Other Software tab.

add repos
Add and remove software repositories here.


Extra software is available

You will be presented with the available extra software repositories known to the system. The first represents the installation media used to install Ubuntu, so leave it unchecked. The second checkbox represents software that Canonical, the company that packages Ubuntu, cannot legally include in the otherwise fully open source installation package.  The third checkbox represents the same software, but in uncompiled form; source code. This is not necessary for most people, and in any case can be selected at a later time if it becomes necessary. So, check the second checkbox. You will be asked to provide your password.

software permissions
Selecting or deselecting anything here requires permission
additional software
Most people are going to want to add this software.

When you click the Close button, another dialog will pop up, providing you with the option of reloading your software manifests. You are going to want to do that, so that when we next go to downloading and installing system updates, the newly available software will be included. Click the Reload button.

reload repo indexes
Reload the software manifest files and let your system know about the newly available software.
update software cache
Ubuntu downloads and stores the new software manifest.


The terminal emulator: time to face your fears

Okay, maybe it’s not actually a fear so much as a dread. Many people who are used to Windows or Mac machines are unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable with using the command line interface. It is probably not possible to entirely avoid using the command line interface on any Linux-based system, and I highly recommend against resisting the learning that comes from using a different kind of software environment. Embrace the suck and pretty soon you will be glad you did.

By the way, the terminal emulator is called that because way back in the early days of computing, users logged on to a mainframe computer using a terminal, which was just a keyboard and a screen, connected by wire to the mainframe. The Linux kernel is our local mainframe, and our terminal emulator is an emulator, meaning it emulates the same text-based experience shared by the computer users back then. Mostly, people just refer to it as a terminal and drop the “emulator” part.

Here are two ways to access the terminal. The first is to use a keyboard shortcut key combination, Ctrl+Alt+T. The second way is graphical. Click the Ubuntu icon at the top of the launcher on the left side of the screen. Alternatively, you can press the Menu key (sometimes called the Windows key) which is on most PC-compatible keyboards between the Ctrl key and the Alt key to the left of the Spacebar, and sometimes also between those keys on the right side of the Spacebar, too. When the flyout opens, enter “terminal” into the search input. Just press the Enter key, or click the Terminal icon.

find the terminal
Typing “terminal” into the Ubuntu flyout menu’s search input box is one way to find the terminal.

And here is the terminal emulator.

terminal emulator
The terminal emulator

By default the terminal emulator emulates a terminal, but not fully. In order to get full operation from your terminal, hover the mouse cursor above the title bar until the menu is revealed, and then go to Edit -> Profile Preferences -> Command. Select “Run command as a login shell”.

menu options
Open Profile Preferences
login shell
Select “Run command as a login shell” for full terminal functionality.


Finally, let’s update the system

Okay, we’re just about ready to begin learning how to use Ubuntu, but before we move on to other tutorials, let’s finish this one by downloading and applying all available system updates .

Ubuntu uses the APT package manager to install, update, and remove software packages from the system. We’re going to enter a command telling APT to go out and fetch the latest list of available updates as of this very moment. Note that this is not something that a regular user has the permission to do, but you’ll recall that your user profile is an administrative user profile. As an administrator, you can run privileged commands by prepending the word sudo before any command that requires the authority of a system administrator. So, in order to command APT to update its software manifests, type the following command into the terminal and press the Enter key on your keyboard.

sudo apt update

You will now be asked for your password. Type it in, press the Enter key again, and APT will do its thing.

apt update
Using APT to update the software manifests

Okay, now type in the command to upgrade the system software and press the Enter key on your keyboard.

sudo apt upgrade
apt upgrade
Using APT to upgrade the system software

Because it is the first time you are upgrading the system, you will probably have a rather large list of upgrades to download and install. When asked for confirmation, type “y” into the terminal and press the Enter key to continue.

upgrade confirmation
Confirm your desire to update the system

Once again it is time to hurry up and wait while the upgrades download and install.

upgrades underway
Waiting for the upgrades to download and install


We’re done, here

There is plenty more work to do, but this tutorial is complete except for one, last task, and that being the need to restart the system. Here are two ways to do that from the terminal. You can run either this command:

sudo shutdown -r now

…or else you can run this shorthand command which accomplishes the same thing:

sudo reboot

Thanks for you interest, and good luck.

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