Ubuntu essentials

Ubuntu is great, but here are some essentials and tips to get started and fix some issues that I regularly encounter. This post is from Ubuntu < 17.04, when Ubuntu shipped with the Unity desktop. Since 17.10+, Ubuntu ships with Gnome desktop, so some of this post is not relevant or out-of-date–check my notes about Gnome on Ubuntu for tips.

Install essentials

The quick and easiest method to install packages is to use the command line, sudo apt install packagename. Otherwise, search the Software Center.

  • Tweak Tool is handy to change the look & feel of the desktop, exposing many settings that are normally buried deep in config files. On Gnome (17.10+) gnome-tweak-tool or Unity (<17.04) unity-tweak-tool.
  • Play MP3s: many common media codec are not free and open source, requiring complicated licensing. Thus Ubuntu does not ship with them. There is an option to add them during install, but I don’t since it complicates the process. Install manually using ubuntu-restricted-extras (note there is a different package name for each desktop and version, so confirm by searching on packages).
  • Play videos: VLC, get a better video player right away, vlc.
  • Play DVDs: DVDs can’t be played until you install some non-free stuff. The codecs are not ready to go in the main repositories, so the easiest way seems to be to build it yourself: sudo apt install libdvd-pkg then sudo dpkg-reconfigure libdvd-pkg. You may also need to add these packages sudo apt install libdvdnav4 libdvdread4
  • Caffeine, turns off screen lock so that your screen doesn’t turn off while you are watching youtube! On Unity look for caffeine-indicator in the Software center. On Gnome, use the Caffeine extension.
  • Text editor: tweak the settings of Gedit, and add Visual Studio Code or Atom.
  • Git: sudo apt install git do it!
  • Simple firewall: gufw. Check out some more extreme security suggestions.
  • Image editing: GIMP, gimp (the first time you open it, click “Windows” > “Single window mode” for a more usable experience). If you use raw images, check out Darktable. To play with HDR, luminance-hdr.
  • Ebook manager: Calibre, if you have ebooks, this helps you manage them and connect with reading devices. It also has great built in editing and conversion tools.
  • KeePass2 (keepass2) or KeePassX for passwords.
  • build-essential adds Make and compilers necessary for building a lot of software.
  • curl is often to grab web stuff on the command line.
  • A few extra fonts: fonts-firacode fonts-noto


  • Python: Ubuntu comes with a system Python version installed. If you want to work with Python, its a good idea to install a more up-to-date version for your user account. I suggest Anaconda, a scientific Python distribution with comes packages with everything you need, including iPython and Jupyter Notebook. Then set up Jupyter with Py 2, 3, and R.
  • Java: default-jre or default-jdk
  • Ruby: it is easiest to use the repository (ruby-full), but it is slightly out of date. If you need specific versions, check the install docs.
  • Processing3: download
  • Arduino: download
  • NodeJS: download or add ppa

Older suggestions for Ubuntu < 17.04 with Unity

Tweak settings

Open the Settings app:

  • Appearance > Behavior > set options to Show the menus in the window’s title bar and Always displayed.
  • Screen Display > set the Scale if everything looks tiny on your High DPI screen. Start with this setting before tweaking other scaling options.
  • Use Unity Tweak to customize everything else…

If you like the night time color shift, check out Redshift.

Mouse doesn’t seem quite right

If its a logitech mouse, install solaar with Unity/gnome extensions, sudo apt-get install solaar-gnome3. Then unplug the mouse and restart the system. Or try lomoco to manually configure.

gvfsd-smb-browse uses 100% of one CPU core

This is an odd bug that has effected people for a long time, but hasn’t been fixed, particularly on 16.04. If you notice your machine heating up, check you system monitor and stop gvsd-smb-browse process, don’t kill it. There is 100 fixes available online, but all are sort of sketchy and odd. The best option: install samaba, sudo apt-get install samba. It seems Ubuntu doesn’t have the full package, and once you install it, the bug seems to go away.