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EdUbuntu 12.04: Configuring to get work done

Last night we installed the new Ubuntu 12.04 Precise on our HP 6910p business class notebook from a USB memory stick. The installation went about as quick and painless as any we have done. We also installed Blue Fish, FileZilla, Chromium, Compiz configuration manager, and SSH Server, and did some configuring of the Launcher bar.

Today we paid attention to the details with some fine tuning so we could get down to work. All in all it went splendidly. Far better than we anticipated — we probably were unduly cynical when the Unity Desktop was introduced last year, due mostly to the absence of choice at that time. There is a lesson in that. With Microsoft preparing the very same scenario at the introduction of their Windows 8 later this year, the Microsoft stockholders could be spared some loss by using an appropriate approach to the customer: providing choice to try something new rather than issuing a unilateral dictation that we like it or lump it.

We installed the EdUbuntu edition for two reasons, first we provide training to a diverse demographic in our lab with ages from kindergarten up to 105 years old. EdUbuntu has a lot of nice K-12 learning material in it for students and for teachers. Also, EdUbuntu comes with the Gnome desktop in case we don’t want Unity. As it turns out, we are using Unity now because the compiz desktop Zoom comes closer to working in Unity than in Gnome.

From last night, first we did a “sudo passwd root” to set the root password to something we can control, then we ran

# apt-get install chromium-browser
# apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager
# apt-get install openssh-server
# apt-get dist-upgrade

We found FileZilla, Blue Fish and VLC Media Player in the “Ubuntu Software Center” (the shopping bag on the Unity Launcher) so we installed them from there. Then we compressed our .thunderbird and .fillezilla folders on our desktop in preparation for copying them to our laptop. We had a bit of a run around looking for the “Connect to Server” menu item, but eventually a tip lead us to open the FILE menu (top of screen) for the “Home Folder” and that allowed us to connect to our desktop with SSH and copy various files we use. We extracted both the .thunderbird and .filezilla archives to our desktop and test ThunderBird and FileZilla: all our mail and web site logins were correct and ready for us to begin work.

As you know, the way you choose which desktop you want is by clicking the little dot in the upper right corner of the password box at login time. You pick Unity or Gnome and then enter your password. We started with Gnome, moved the bar to the bottom of the screen, changed its height to 35 px, turned on the Show Hide Buttons, and added the launchers we use to the gnome task bar — you must hold down the ALT key while you right click on the task bar to get the pop up menu and click properties to configure the bar but you can drag and drop icons from the menus to the task bar as usual. We also changed the WorkPlace Switcher to use two rows and hold eight workplaces.

We also programmed the compiz Enhanced Zoom Desktop

Zoom in: Button4
Zoom out: Button5
Zoom box:Button2

Sadly, it didn’t work in Gnome…. But it did sort of work in Unity: the desktop itself does zoom, but the launcher bar does not. Of course it didn’t before either. So we are currently using Unity. It is nice to have a choice.

To configure the launcher in Unity is easy enough also, but a bit different than Gnome. To change the position of an icon on the Launcher you grab it and drag it up or down to where you want it. To add a program to the Unity Launcher, you can drag the icon right off the Dash Home (search results) onto the Launcher or run the program from Dash Home which causes an icon representing the program to appear on the Launcher at the bottom. Either way, then right click that icon and click “Lock to Launcher”. To remove an icon from the Launcher you right click the icon and then click “Unlock from Launcher”. We added Chromium, Blue Fish, FileZilla, and Text Editor to our Launcher as we use those daily, and removed FireFox and the Ubuntu Software Store from the Launcher to save space: we can always run them using the Dash Home (round red circle at the top of the launcher) when we need it.

When we opened the Chromium Browser to add it to the Launcher it asked if it could sync with Google to restore our browser settings. We said yes. It worked wonderfully. Nice to not need to retype all our bookmarks or figure out all our web site passwords. It does this for Android in our Nook Color and HP TouchPad also, but the form factors there are different and it was not quite as nice.

The real change for us is that the Launcher stayed put! It didn’t play the hide and seek game on us — jumping around as we opened or closed windows. This greatly enhanced the usability of the Unity desktop because we no longer had to fight with the Launcher to get it out of our way — the prior behavior often had the launcher jumping out from the side to cover up parts of the left side of the window that we were trying to use, especially when we were trying to click on mail folders in Thunderbird.

Configuring the Unity Launcher is also better now: Open the System Settings (bottom of Launcher, a Wrench over a Gear) and choose the first icon, Appearance. The size of the icons on the launcher is now controllable at the bottom of the window: we set ours to 35 px. There are also two tabs at the top of this screen — “Look” and “Behavior”. We never noticed “Behavior” before. But this is where you can turn the AutoHide feature for the Unity Launcher ON or OFF. You can also specify where to point to unhide the launcher and choose how sensitive it will be to your pointing. This simple control makes a huge difference in usability.

The thing we always forget to do until we get sufficiently annoyed is to change the time delay for the Grub boot loader. The ten seconds default setting is not enough — in the lab for our students who must read the boot screen to figure it out, or for us as we become distracted waiting for the system to reboot. Sixty seconds works much better for us.

To set the GRUB delay, do not edit the /boot/grub/grub.conf directly — the next time your system receives an updated kernel your changes will revert back to the default. Instead go to the /etc/default folder and edit the file named grub: for example by typing “nano grub”. Change the grub_timeout parameter to a number bigger than ten. I used 90 today: I can always press ENTER to get booted: we do not need to wait for the timeout: but when we are busy, having a wider time frame in which to specify which system we want booted seems to help. After you edit grub then run update-grub to change the /boot/grub/grub.conf file.

The next item we adjusted in the System Settings was the Brightness and Lock. We let the screen dim when unused, but not turn off into locking mode — that just annoys us. We also went to the Power Settings and adjusted the When Lid is Closed options so the notebook Does Nothing when the lid is closed. If we start a long job on the notebook, or plug it into a keyboard and monitor, we often close the lid. The default is to put the notebook to sleep when the lid is closed, which is not what works best for us.

The last thing we did there was to install a printer. And that is about a wrap for this posting. We installed EdUbuntu 12.04 on our desktop too, and it went about the same as our install on this notebook. We added the FireWall Configuration, VirtualBox, Samba, the Arduino IDE (bonus!!!), Eagle (PCB Design) We did try encryption on our home folder on the desktop, and we will report how that works later.