My essential Ubuntu applications

A few times recently i’ve had to think about the essential applications i use on my desktop.  The latest was Anthony Burke’s tweet, but the recent churn in the Linux desktop world and my unhappiness with Unity means that i need to be prepared for moving away from Ubuntu when Unity becomes the only option.  (I’m currently on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS “lucid lynx”, so this hopefully will be some time away.)  So here’s my list of desktop essentials, mostly for my benefit, but hopefully of use to others.  Many of these are simply Ubuntu’s default applications for their respective tasks and are provided in the base install.

Everyday essentials

Most of these applications are open all the time on my laptop:

  • Mozilla Firefox – recently updated to the fast-release versions on 10.04 LTS, which offers some great speed improvements.
  • Mozilla Thunderbird – I’ve been a Netscape/Thunderbird user for more than 10 years now, and i still can’t understand why people put up with a less-capable email client.
  • Pidgin – instant messaging for IRC, XMPP (Jabber, Google Talk), and Twitter (via
  • Amarok 1.4 – music player.  I use the older version because it pulls down my podcasts automatically, rescans my library automatically, and i can just type “198” into the search box and get a great selection of music from the 1980s, instead of having to write match queries (which the new version of Amarok seems to require).
  • Workrave – rest break software for preventing RSI
  • evince – the default PDF reader; it’s rare that i don’t have 2 or 3 PDF files open for reference, sometimes more like 20 or 30
  • Google Desktop – search for all of those local PDFs filling up my hard disk
  • OpenOffice – newer versions of Ubuntu & Debian have moved to LibreOffice now, but 10.04 LTS still uses the Sun/Oracle version
  • Tomboy – simple desktop notes
  • Getting Things Gnome (gtg) – my much-ignored todo list
  • icewm – I replace the default GNOME 2 window manager with icewm, which is a very simple, fast, customisable window manager
  • J-Pilot – my password database dates back to my PalmOS days, so J-Pilot is my password manager even though i don’t use PalmOS devices any more.  People starting fresh would more likely find KeePass or something similar a better choice.
  • By far the most-used applications on my laptop are gnome-terminal, ssh, vim, git, bash, and the suite of Linux/Unix shell script utilities.  I do most of my coding in vim, and rarely have less than 10-15 shell sessions open to different servers or network devices.  Most of my important work happens on the servers, not on the desktop.

Other applications

These are less frequently-used, and aren’t open all the time:

  • Liferea – RSS feed reader
  • Opera – i use this to keep my finance-related web sites separate from my main browser
  • Google Picasa – photo organiser which offers automatic sync to Picasa Web, and simple export to Facebook & Gallery; runs as a Windows application under WINE
  • baobab (Disk Usage Analyser) – great for tracking down where i need to trim back on my disk usage; its exploded pie charts are outstanding (Users of other operating systems might like to check out JDiskReport, which offers the same type of chart.)
  • Unison – file synchronisation
  • gns3/dynamips – Cisco IOS emulator
  • dia – diagram editor; much more rudimentary than Microsoft Visio, but still very usable.  I mostly work with pencil & paper when it comes to network diagrams and the like anyway.
  • GnuCash – double-entry accounting system; all of my business accounting happens here
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader 9 – for some reason, my bank produces PDFs that evince can’t read but Acrobat Reader can
  • Eclipse – IDE for Java coding
  • Audacity – sound editor
  • grip – old-school CD ripper which gives complete control over MP3/OGG encoding options


Back to the future for the Ubuntu desktop

The Register has a review of the Ubuntu 11.04 beta release which suggests there are some rocky times for existing Ubuntu users ahead.  The part the article that stuck out to me reads:

The highlight of the current launcher is the plethora of keyboard shortcuts, which let you to launch applications, open file browsers and call up system-wide searching without taking your hands off the keyboard.

This is basic functionality which X11 window managers have had for years.  I use IceWM which has had these features available through editing simple text configuration files for as long as i can remember (probably more than 10 years, since the SourceForge history for icewm’s 1.2 branch extends back to the year 2000).  And icewm provides many keyboard features which are simply not exposed to the user in current versions of the default Ubuntu GNOME desktop (e.g. go back to the previous virtual desktop used regardless of which number it was).

The paragraph continues:

There are also a few nice touches in the various indicator apps – for example you can simply hover your mouse over the volume indicator and use the scrollwheel to adjust the volume without ever actually clicking anything.

Again, this is basic functionality.  I use this feature in Amarok 1.4 (a really old version that i’m not supposed to admit that i still use – but that’s the subject of another blog post 😉 all the time.  Is it really so innovative?  Not only that, Ubuntu has been pulling functionality (like tooltips which tell you how much battery time is remaining) out of the indicator apps for the past several releases.

What this all suggests to me is that we’re about to embark on a period in Ubuntu’s history where functionality will be back to basics.  (Similar to what happened when Apple first released iOS and it lacked basic functionality like cut & paste.)  As for me, i’ll stick with Ubuntu classic desktop or perhaps take refuge on Debian while things settle down.  At the moment, Ubuntu 10.04 LTS actually fulfills all of my desktop/mobile computing needs, and i’m not prepared to iron out the bugs for them on a user interface which is targeted at users with very basic skills and with much more limited functionality needs than my own.