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Free Stuff!

 

Free Stuff!

By the Computer Quack

While many in Thailand enjoy the freedoms of lax copyright enforcement, those that own the copyrights do try and make it harder to pirate and use their software; look at Microsoft and their “Genuine Validation” efforts, which produce more pop-ups here than the famous blue pills.

So for the next few columns, I’m going to concentrate on Free Stuff: software that will perform most of, or in some cases more than, the functions of well known commercial software.

I’ll start with the Operating System itself. If you’re a Mac user, you really don’t have much choice, but in the Windows environment, you may have Windows XP, Vista, or even the relatively new Windows 7. (If you have any older version of Windows, there is really no comment I can make other than that you must really need it for some reason!).

However, there is another option for Intel PC’s which is growing in recognition and support, but which still, for the most part, remains completely free of charge, along with the thousands of free applications developed for it.

Linux is the generic name for a cornucopia of free (or “open source”) versions of the Unix operating system, most of which are designed to run on Intel-based Personal computers, and many of which will run surprisingly fast even on a PC five or six years old, should you have one kicking about in working condition.

For the purpose of this set of articles, I’m going to concentrate on one of the more popular distributions (or “distros” as they are commonly known): Ubuntu. Ubuntu literally means “humaneness” in Zulu, apparently. But all you really need to remember is the name.

What is Ubuntu? Ubuntu is a version of Linux for the average user, designed for easy installation, a user friendly interface and broad hardware support. It has a graphical interface like Windows, so for example you can click, and cut and paste, with a mouse. Like Windows it also supports keyboard shortcuts and function keys.

In addition to a basic operating system, with those utilities you have in Windows like Paint and Notepad, Ubuntu, once installed, opens up a massive repository of free programs for you, many of which can be installed with just a few clicks.

Once you become familiar with Ubuntu, you can customise the desktop to suit your requirements (well, desktops actually, because Ubuntu is particularly good if you want multiple desktops, which you can switch between at will).

Do I have to install it to try it out? No! Ubuntu realised a while back that many people are comfortable with their Windows setup, and are not willing to give it up blindly without knowing what to expect. So they invented Wubi, a self-contained, harmless Ubuntu installer for Windows. This simply installs Ubuntu like a Windows application, all neatly packaged in one folder, and doesn’t require anything more than free space on one of your Windows disks (about 8 GB to be precise, if you are going to want to download and try out some applications as well).

So if you want to try it out on your own, just go to http://wubi-installer.org and click the “Download Now” button, and follow the simple instructions. You’ll have time for a coffee and maybe a sandwich while Wubi downloads, depending on the speed of your Internet connection.

When you run the installer, you’ll see a screen like the one below; there are different versions of Ubuntu available, but for now, I’d stick with Ubuntu, as the rest are all variants with different capabilities (MythBuntu, for example, is a designed to help you set up your own home multimedia system, whereas the Netbook remix is especially formatted and cut down to run on a Netbook PC). You also have options to install accessibility options if you have some disability that impairs your use of the PC, or if you want a language other than English (Ubuntu supports Thai and all of the common languages).

In no time at all you’ve have a working Ubuntu running on your Windows machine, which can be uninstalled at any time from Windows. All that happens is that your boot menu will have an option to load Windows or Ubuntu when you power up your PC. Select accordingly and Ubuntu will boot. You will end up with a desktop that has menus, icons, etc., as you would expect from an OS. Have a play, try it out and see what you think. And remember – it is free. Once you’ve done that, you might even want to try and install a few applications. I’ll cover this more next time, but for now, look for “Add/Remove Applications” in the menu. You’ll see a nicely laid out repository of what’s available, and you just point and click to download and install. Like Windows, many of the messages you see make little sense, and in this case you can press “OK”, because Ubuntu is isolated from your Windows setup.

You may have heard about Linux being daunting to the novice user, but you may be pleasantly surprised, so go ahead and give it a try. The worst thing that can happen is you decide you don’t like it, and simply uninstall it from Windows, never to be seen again.

Next time I’ll cover other means of application installation, and what to do if you experience problems when Linux doesn’t know about your hardware. I’ll also talk you through some of the fantastic free software that Linux offers. Your questions and comments are welcome at [email protected]