Ubuntu Newbie Guide: First 24 Hours With Ubuntu

A good friend of mine, who is very computer savvy, recently bought a new computer and installed Ubuntu on it rather than Windows. Now, despite being a very smart guy when it comes to PCs and Windows, he was still a newbie to the world of Ubuntu, so he and I went through a series of questions and answers before, during, and after his Ubuntu install. I’ve turned those into a FAQ for Ubuntu noobs that should answer a fair amount of questions for the first 24 hours of a first-time Ubuntu installation.

Of course, don’t forget to read my previous post on Ubuntu Tips and Tricks as well, for some more ubuntu newbie help!

Ubuntu Pre-Installation Questions

Q: Should I install 32-bit or 64-bit Ubuntu on my new 64-bit machine?

A: The short answer is that most people should install the 64-bit version, even if they don’t see a noticeable (to the naked eye) boost in performance. Some reasons (beyond “just because”) to go with the 64-bit version:

  • If your machine has more than 3 GB of RAM, you’ll want the 64-bit version so that it can utilize the extra RAM. The 32-bit version is limited to recognizing and using approximately 3 GB (although there is a workaround you can try, but it’s not a perfect solution).
  • If you routinely run processor-intensive apps, such as running whacky MySQL queries against a large database, or heavy-duty Excel number crunching, etc., you’ll want to make use of the extra oomph you’ll get from utilizing your 64-bit power.
  • If you simply want to make sure you’re utilizing future-facing technology, and not backward-facing technology, choose the 64-bit OS.

Who should consider installing the 32-bit version on their 64-bit machine? Occasionally, it may be difficult or even impossible to install an app that you need or want because there is no 64-bit version for it, and the 32-bit version refuses to install and/or run on a 64-bit OS. *cough* Adobe products *cough* for example are notorious for causing problems in this area. Luckily, over time, most of these difficulties have been resolved or have decent workarounds. For example, I like to download music from Amazon’s MP3 store. Downloading single songs is not an issue, but for some reason, Amazon insists that you run the Amazon MP3 Downloader application in order to purchase/download an entire album. Unfortunately, that app doesn’t want to be installed on 64-bit Ubuntu, but some searching brings up a nice workaround that works perfectly. Still, the possibility exists that an app that is absolutely essential to you just won’t run unless you are using the 32-bit version. In that case, you’re a candidate for using 32-bit instead of 64-bit Ubuntu on your 64-bit machine. These days, I’d say that’s going to be a rare case.

Once you make a decision, it’s time to download Ubuntu and then burn the ISO image to a CD, so you can install it when ready.

One other note: If you don’t want to make the commitment to partitioning and installing, but want to either try Ubuntu or one-click install it through Windows, then you should be aware of these two options.

  • You can run Ubuntu straight from its Live CD without ever installing it. This is a great way to try it out first, but it’s not something you’d want to run all the time.
  • You can install Ubuntu via Windows using Wubi. This is more of a one-click solution where you install it like you would any other Windows application and uninstall it just as easily. Great solution for anyone squeamish about dual-boot installations.

Q: Will Ubuntu be able to read and write to my old Windows NTFS hard drive?

A: Yes! It uses a driver called NTFS-3G to make this magic happen. In previous versions, the driver had to be installed separately, but these days, it’s included by default, and you should be able to mount your old drive and read/write to it without a second thought.

Q: Will Ubuntu be able to read and write to my old Windows FAT32 hard drive?

A: Again, yes! And again, you shouldn’t need to do anything special to make that happen. It just works.

Q: Should I dual-boot Ubuntu with Windows and if so, how?

A: You probably should, just in case you need Windows for something, or you decide you don’t like Ubuntu for some reason. Here’s the tutorial I used when I did my install.

Q: Should I place my /home folder in its own separate partition and if so, how?

A: It’s a good idea, but it makes the initial installation a bit more complicated, as you’ll have to do a manual partition and that can get hairy for non-geekazoids. :) Still, if you want to have all your documents etc on one partition, here are a few guides to help you through it. Start here, then go here, then here. It’s absolutely not essential though, so just let the install process handle the partitioning automatically for you if you’d like.

Q: Now what?

A: The very first thing you should do is head on over to the Ubuntu forums, register for a free account, and bookmark the site. You’ll use it often. Having said that, as is the case with many forum software packages, the search function kinda sucks. The better way to search the Ubuntu forums is to search via Google with a search phrase something like this:

ubuntu firefox flash problem site:ubuntuforums.org

(where “firefox flash problem” is replaced with whatever you want to search for)

Keep ubuntu and site:ubuntuforums.org somewhere in the search phrase.

If that’s too much typing or too difficult to remember, you can also use the Google Custom Search Engine I created which will use Google’s search engine to search JUST the ubuntu forums without you having to do anything special. Just search as usual and you’ll only get results from the forums. Here’s the special search engine I created for you:

Search Ubuntu Forums

Almost every question or problem you can imagine has been encountered by someone and probably resolved by someone else. The forums are your friend.

Ubuntu Post-Installation Questions

Q: Ok, I got Ubuntu installed, but I have Nvidia graphics and the drivers didn’t load properly. Now what? (This question could be slightly altered in any number of ways, but the bottom line is that if you are having issues with Nvidia video, it’s a common problem, and yes, there are solutions).

A: Nvidia uses a restricted set of drivers (as in “not open”), so you’ll have to allow Ubuntu to use these restricted drivers. This is where you dive into the world of repositories. And while we are adding the appropriate restricted drivers repository so that you can use the Nvidia drivers, we’ll go ahead and make sure you have a few other repositories added (assuming you want the extra apps and goodies that are available in 3rd-party repositories). (And unless you are a purist freak, you probably do). (j/k on the “freak” comment…sorta). :)

  • What’s a repository? A repository is like a library filled with software applications. There are the official Ubuntu repositories, and there are 3rd-party repositories. Many of the apps you’ll want to install will reside in a 3rd-party repository, so you should add a few of the main ones now.
  • How do I add a repository and which ones should I add? Head on over to for detailed instructions. Pay careful attention to these instructions. Don’t skim the article, or you’re likely to encounter an error that freaks you out, without realizing it’s perfectly normal, and there’s instructions to deal with it. There are other repositories you might want to add later, but these will get you off to a great start.
  • Now you’re ready to use those restricted Nvidia drivers. If all goes well, you’ll only need to go to System->Administration->Hardware Drivers and check the box to enable the restricted drivers for your NVIDIA card if the option is provided. (Note that it may appear to hang for a while, but try to be patient and give it a few minutes before freaking out). You may also need to reboot when finished. You can now access the Nvidia settings (change resolution, etc.) by going to System > Administration > NVIDIA X Server Settings. If doing all that doesn’t work as expected, go here for detailed instructions. Unfortunately, the graphics issues can be very annoying until you get it all worked out, but I’m willing to bet you WILL get it worked out, and then it’s over and done with, so try to hang in there while troubleshooting.

Q: How do I find and install new software?

A: Here comes the fun part. Go to System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager, type in your password when prompted, and welcome to the world of finding new software! At this point, you can either browse or search. Browse around just to get an idea of what’s available. Search if you know what you want.

Let’s go ahead and install one nice little utility right now, so you can see how it works. Type “sysinfo” (without the quotes) into the Quick Search box. You see one or more listings come up, with a checkbox to the left of each. If the checkbox is empty next to the sysinfo listing, you can check it by clicking on it, and choosing Mark for Installation from the resulting drop-down box. This often brings up a box letting you know that in order to install this app, you’ll need to also install a list of other things. Just agree by clicking on the Mark button. Now that you’ve chosen to install sysinfo, click on the big Apply button (with a green check mark in the menu) and when asked if you want to apply the changes, click Apply.

That’s it! Sysinfo will install itself and you’ve just added a new piece of software to your system. Free and easy, eh? Wait, you say, where is this new application? How do I run it? Good question, let’s tackle that next.

Q: Where do I find new software that I installed?

A: That depends. The first place to look is in the Applications menu. For example, the Sysinfo app that you just installed is now located in Applications > System Tools > Sysinfo. Click on that and open up your new application! Not every app automatically installs itself into the menu however. In those cases, some digging might be required.

The first thing I’d try to do is run it manually by doing the following: Click Alt-F2 to open the Run Application window. Now start typing in the name of the app you just installed (such as sysinfo). As you type, it will try to find the app you want, and if it does, just hit enter to run it.

Q: How do I add that app to the Applications menu so I don’t have to run it manually any longer?

A: Right-click on Applications and choose Edit Menus. For more detailed instructions, go here. Just remember that “command” is the most important aspect of the process. That’s the field that contains the actual command that makes the application launch, so that’s the most critical field to get right when you add the information into the new menu. The command is “usually” the same as the program name.

Q: Great, but what if I install something that doesn’t automatically add itself to the menu, and trying to run it manually via the Run Application window doesn’t find it either. Now what?

A: Now it’s time to introduce you to the terminal. You may have already used the terminal in any of the previous actions when I sent you off to another link for detailed instructions, but if not, here’s your first foray into the world of command-line control via a terminal window. To start, open a new terminal window from Applications > Accessories > Terminal. Now type in:

whereis sysinfo

replacing sysinfo with the name of whatever application you just installed. You should see a list of directories that contain any bits and pieces of the app. One part of the new app is probably in one of the directories called bin (either /bin or most likely /usr/bin), and this is usually the file that you’d need to run or add to the command field in the menu. This may be getting you in over your head at this point, and I won’t elaborate further, but it would at least be a start at figuring out where it lives, and might help determine what to put into a command field when adding to the menus. You’ll need to dig deeper into the Ubuntu file system and structure if you want more details however. A good place to start is here.

Q: While reading some of the links above, I noticed people mentioning using sudo in the terminal to run as root. Huh???

A: Ah yes, permissions. Ubuntu likes to make sure your system stays nice and secure, so it requires that you occasionally jump an extra hoop to accomplish some tasks that might muck everything up. :) You should read more about sudo, gksudo and root here.

Q: Hey, why don’t I have any sound?

A: There may be lots of answers to this question, some more appropriate than others, but I’m going to start with the short (and most likely) answer. Ubuntu uses something called PulseAudio and it frankly just doesn’t always work right – right out of the box anyway. The quick and dirty method of getting your sound to work is probably by doing this:

Go to System > Preferences > Sound. Change the first 3 dropdowns on the Device tab to ALSA – Advanced Linux Sound Architecture. Does that make it work for you? If so, great. If not, or if you’d just really rather use PulseAudio which is newer and has some features ALSA lacks (such as the ability to change the volume of applications separately), then you’ll need to go down a (probably frustrating) road of research and trial and error. Start here, then read the posts nearer the bottom of this bug report, and good luck.

Q: Why doesn’t Flash (or insert some other audio/video/multimedia variant) work?

A: Ok, this is a big one. I’m not going to even TRY to answer it here. Instead, I’m going to send you here. Pretty much any of your questions related to Flash or multimedia will be addressed by following the incredible details in this post. Follow those instructions and you’ll probably end up with a big smile on your face, even if it did take a while to get through it all.

Q: How do I navigate my files and directories like I used to do in Windows Explorer?

A: Nautilus is Ubuntu’s version of Explorer. Click on Places > Home Folder. That gets you right into your user’s home folder within the Nautilus file browsing window. You can get into nautilus other ways, of course, but that’s enough to know for now. :)

Q: How do I see hidden files (like system files) in Nautilus?

A: Easy. While in Nautilus, click on View > Show Hidden Files or press Ctrl-H.

Q: How do I customize the bars that have the menus on them?

A: Those “bars” are called Panels, and it’s very easy to customize them. Just right-click on any empty spot on a panel to see your options. You can add launchers (shortcuts to programs) to any panel, you can move launcher icons around, you can move panels around, etc. It’s all fairly self-explanatory, so I’ll let you just play around with it and investigate your options.

Q: Ok, customizing the panels was fun. Can I customize anything else?

A: You can customize just about everything! A good place to start is System > Preferences > Appearance.

Q: I keep hearing about the whiz-bang graphics features like wiggling windows and rotating cubes. I’m not sure what it’s all about but I want it too!

A: What you want is Compiz Fusion composite manager (assuming your video card can handle the advanced graphics, and if your system isn’t very old, it probably can). Check out this video first to get an idea of what it’s all about.

Now to get all that fun eye-candy yourself, you’ll first need to install it from Synaptic Package Manager. Search for simple-ccsm and install it. Then search for compizconfig-settings-manager in Synaptic and install it. Now go to System > Preferences > Appearance, choose the Visual Effects Tab, select Custom. Then go to System > Preferences > Compiz Config Settings Manager, and play with the fancy effects. You’ll want to check the box next to Rotate Cube to get the rotating cube effect obviously. There are so many options with Compiz, that I’ll just send you here and here for all the info.

Q: I’ve heard I can run some Windows programs via something called Wine. True? And if so, how do I make that work?

A: True. You can install Wine from Synaptic Package Manager just like any other app. Once installed, you can then install some Windows programs just like you would if you were doing it on Windows. In other words, you can just double-click on the .exe install file, and it will install it just like it would on Windows. Yes, you’ll even see some “fake” C:\Program Files and other similar Windows type directories being created. (Sort of, like I said, it’s kind of fake, but it works). You can read more about Wine here, and see a list of apps that are known to work well here.

That should be enough for now. Like I mentioned early on in this guide, almost every problem has already been encountered by someone, and almost every problem has a solution documented somewhere. Searching the Ubuntu forums will become your best friend. Now it’s time to navigate the menus, open applications, see what your new operating system can do, and have fun. As the first 24 hours winds down, you may want to install some apps that are good alternatives to popular Windows software. Welcome to Ubuntu!

P.S. If you want, you can read the post I wrote not long after I first installed Ubuntu and was still a newbie. Well, I’m still a noob in some ways, but I’ve come a long way in the last 9 months. You will too, now that you’re armed with a guide for your first 24 hours as an Ubuntu noob!

*There are incredibly bright and generous people who have already written detailed documentation and guides to all of these issues, and I simply link to them in many places rather than reinventing the wheel. I’ve done some of the leg work in finding these resources for you. This way, you don’t have to waste time hunting for them yourself!

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  1. zeta Says:

    Where did you get this idea that a 32-bit Ubuntu won’t use mor then 3 Gigs of RAM? I think you are confusing this with Windows XP.

  2. WebChicklet Says:

    Thanks, but no, I’m not confusing anything with XP. There are hundreds (maybe more) of places around the web that discusses the issue. Here’s one as an example: http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=855511 Note that I said “approximately” 3 gigs, because you’ll probably see 3.25-3.5 gigs (maybe), but you won’t see the full 4 gigs+. As I also mentioned there are some workarounds, but none are necessarily a good choice for a newbie (which is who this FAQ is for). Perhaps you were thinking of the server version which has the workaround I mentioned built in – but again – that’s not exactly noob-friendly. :)

  3. Taylor Says:

    Great guide! It covers almost every problem I had as a new user. The only thing I would add is a brief explanation of .deb files. There are some programs that are simply not in the repositories that the average person would use. One of my biggest frustrations was that whenever I went to the main site for the application I wanted there wasn’t a simple “Linux” download with a subsequent “double click to install” like windows. Often there is nothing more than a tarball, which a new user would have no idea what to do with.

    A few hours of frustration could have been avoided if someone had told me that ubuntu uses .deb packages and those packages can be double clicked and installed just like a windows .exe would be. Add the normal warning about trusting the source of your .deb package to avoid malicious software and then point them to getdeb.net if the main site does not have a .deb package available for download.

  4. I have to disagree with you on the 64 vs 32.

    If this is intended to be a “newbie” guide, then I would go with 32 no questions asked. As a non-newbie who has been using Ubuntu for several years, I finally decided to give up and replace the 64bit version with the 32 about 2 months ago, and have never looked back since.

    It is not simply that some software will have trouble with the 64 bit version, but much of the software does. The 64 version is almost always an afterthought to new projects, such as my much beloved Boxee. However, even ubiquitous, important software like Flash decoders are hard to come by, often requiring you to hack around to get it to run in 32.

  5. Arnold Says:

    Great stuff, thanks for the guide.

    What is the compatibility with PC games and Ubuntu? Is pretty much any game playable? I really like the idea of installing Ubuntu but will in no way compromise my ability to game 😛


  6. Nicely done. Thanks for this. My System76 Pangolin laptop with Ubuntu should be here this week. I can’t wait to dive in!


  7. WebChicklet Says:

    I actually don’t mind you disagreeing with me on the 64 vs 32 question. It’s one that I waver on myself. On the one hand, I agree with you to a point, but on the other hand, if someone has paid for 8 gigs of ram, for example, I’d sure hate to tell them they wasted their money, ya know? In the end, I made the recommendation I thought was best, but I agree that it’s a tough call for newbies.

  8. WebChicklet Says:

    Arnold, I’m definitely not a gamer, so don’t depend on me for the best answer to that. You should probably check the Wine link to see if your favorite games are listed or not. Of course, dual booting would give you the best of both worlds. You really don’t have to give up one OS to get another.

  9. Nick Says:

    Definitely with you on the 64-bit question, I built a new PC 6 months ago and installed 64-bit (Kubuntu) from day one. No problems.

    I also agree with your comments on manual partitioning; it can be a bit hairy until you get your head around it BUT the benefits are worth the effort. If you keep /home on a separate partition you can re-format / and re-install the OS without touching your data. Not something I’d recommend unless you fully understand manual partitioning but, believe me, it’s magic when you startup your applications and find the settings and data are just as you left them!

    Finally have you looked at virtualization? I ditched dual-booting for my new PC and run XP and Vista inside Kubuntu using VirtualBox, it works really well (but NOT an option for gamers).

  10. Great post! I for one have done about a half dozen 64bit installs, with absolutely no problems. I’ve never had to use any hacks or workarounds to make anything work, except the Google Gears extension (http://nielspeen.com/blog/2009/02/google-gears-64-bit/). 64bit related bugs were a big issue a few years ago, but no longer.

    As far as 64bit performance, the applications that will benefit are anything that uses large integers. Examples: encryption and graphics. I have my entire drive encrypted and have 6GB ram, so 64bit is definitely a plus for me.

  11. Frank Says:

    I would recommend that new users go with 32-bit unless they have a compelling reason to go 64-bit.

    Many applications have stability issues with 64-bit Ubuntu. A number of legacy AV codecs (Indeo 5 for example) do not work properly under 64-bit Ubuntu.

    If a user has a compelling reason (>=4G of RAM), then by all means go for it. Remember to contribute any issues that you have to the Ubuntu forums, and to Launchpad if necessary.


  12. tigris Says:

    Just install Linux Mint (ubuntu-based) instead of Ubuntu, and the majority of those issues will be solved out of the box. Those things that don’t work immediately are usually only a click or two away. Linux Mint is what Ubuntu SHOULD be.

  13. willt Says:

    FYI if you navigate to ubuntuforums.org there is a ‘Search’ box in the top right that searches within the forum.

  14. WebChicklet Says:

    Yes, willt, but as I mentioned, the search within the actual forums itself is pretty bad (as is many forum search scripts). It will generally take a lot longer to find the threads that are truly relevant to a multi-word search phrase when using the forum’s own search than it does to use Google’s algorithm.

  15. Ezdineg Says:

    Thanks for the guide, web! IMHO, since the release of the 64-bit Flash plugin there really isn’t any reason to go 32. We need to push forward and let it die.

    A nice, well rounded noob-thorough article. A fine job indeed.

  16. nobodyimportant Says:

    @Tigris: Mint is a bloated form of Ubuntu, filled with things people don’t need. Nice try at an ad/troll.

    @author: Loved the guide. The more documentation like this on the net, the better.

  17. zelrik Says:

    That’s a very nice FAQ. I would add :

    – A description of Gnome-do.
    – A link to gnome-look and other eye-candy websites.
    – A description of .deb
    – Talk a bit about the update/upgrade process for ubuntu ?

    All those might just be extras…

  18. Tigris Says:

    Nobodyimportant, your name says it all. Linux Mint contains the features people both NEED and WANT from an operating system. The Ubuntu standalone is mediocre, not to mention, deficient and a hassle compared to Mint.

  19. Perspectoff Says:

    Ubuntu Guide (ubuntuguide.org)


    Kubuntu guide (kubuntuguide.org)

    No need to reinvent the wheel.

  20. WebChicklet Says:

    @Perspectoff, while those are great resources, they are (imo) extremely overwhelming for someone who is having their first experience. Still, good to have around, absolutely.

  21. sear Says:

    They don’t pay you enough.

    Awesome primer!

    Looks like I’ll be taking the OS plunge.

  22. I just gave it a try on my spare laptop and I gotta say your little primer is just what the doctor ordered! this is my first try on linux in many years. Thanks for all the tips. I love ubuntu!

  23. I am so glad I found this post on google, as I just installed Ubuntu on my laptop and needed some help. First time linux user here!

    Thanks very much!

  24. Devon Says:

    A mí me encanta Ubuntu pero quiero probar Kubuntu, alucino con su apariencia pero no me acostumbro a sus aplicaciones, acabo de instalar el 9.10 y estoy completamente 0, buena guía
    y de verdad apoyemos y exijamos todo en 64 bits

  25. Mike_tn Says:

    Thanks for this intro
    I made several web page archives from it.
    I’m reading prior to my second install of Ubuntu. My first used Wubi. It took 2 full days to get my Wireless Driver fixed right because I had no other Linux Internet access and I was new. When I got online and when I installed the 250+ “updates” the Program Manager suggested, the boot system malfunctoned. It went straight into an error message at boot.
    “error: no such device”, followed by a 36 alpha numeric string, then “grub rescue>”
    I had no idea what to do and no web access to find out. I used a Windows Repair Boot CD to restore my PC back to a save from 3 weeks ago. I’m going to reinstall using an isolated partition for Ubuntu (no Wubi) and will run Backup just prior to install. And this time I do no pile of “program manager updates”. Be warned newbies!
    Oh by the way, I’m trying the 32-bit OS on my 64-bit Dell because the main Ubuntu install sight suggested it.
    Again, thanks for this page!



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