TER Volume 14, Number 1, June 2007: Review of Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks

Technology Electronic Reviews
Volume 14, Number 1, June 2007

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REVIEW OF: Rickford Grant. (2006). Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks: A Pain-Free, Project-Based, Get-Things-Done Guidebook. San Francisco: No Starch Press (ISBN: 1593271182 ; 9781593271182). 360p. $34.95.

By Julia Bauder

Rickford Grant's Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks: A Pain-Free, Project-Based, Get-Things-Done Guidebook does a remarkably good job of living up to its name. The book is structured as a textbook for beginners rather than as a reference manual; it walks readers through the use of Ubuntu step-by-step with plenty of hands-on exercises along the way. The enclosed live CD/installation CD makes getting started with Ubuntu a painless two-step process -- insert CD into CD drive and reboot -- and from there the chapters build upon each other in a logical progression, moving readers from the basics (how to install Ubuntu and navigate in the GNOME desktop environment) to the advanced (how to hook an iPod up to Ubuntu and play encoded DVDs). Overall, Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks is a good introduction to Linux for average people who just want to be able to surf the Web, type up documents, and listen to music on their computers.

Grant says that he wrote Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks for people who are "familiar with computers, but unfamiliar with Linux, or somewhat familiar with Linux but not with Ubuntu" (3), but in both cases the level of familiarity that he assumes in his readers is quite low. Grant explains even basic concepts clearly, without being condescending to his readers. He also engages in plenty of hand-holding along the way, explaining such mundane but necessary details as how to force a Mac to boot from CD or how to defragment a hard disk in Windows in preparation for repartitioning. Just about anyone who has previous experience using computers should be able to follow the instructions in Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks with no problems.

Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks also covers more than just Ubuntu. Brief guides to such vital Linux applications as Firefox, Thunderbird, the OpenOffice.org office suite and more are also included. However, some of these applications are covered in more depth than others. Four pages are devoted to Firefox, including explanations of how tabbed browsing works and how to install extensions. The OpenOffice.org suite gets eight and a half pages: four pages of overviews of the different programs within the suite and four and a half pages of instructions on how to use some of OpenOffice.org's unique features. On the other hand, Thunderbird and Evolution get a page each, and are mostly discussed in terms of "these are the major options for e-mail clients in Ubuntu" rather than "this is how to use the features of these programs."

Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks isn't Grant's first entry-level guide to using Linux. He is also the author of the previous No Starch Press books Linux for Non-Geeks: A Hands-On, Project-Based, Take-It-Slow Guidebook (2004), which was based on the Fedora Core 1 distribution, and Linux Made Easy: The Official Guide to Xandros 3 for Everyday Users (2005). Readers of Linux for Non-Geeks will notice a number of similarities to Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks, right down to chapter titles and sub-headings. Some chapters have been totally re-written (mostly due to the differences between Fedora and Ubuntu and general advances in Linux over the two years between the books) and some of the applications discussed have changed. For example, Goobox and amaroK replaced Grip and Audacity in the chapter "Tux Rocks: Music a la Linux," and Firefox replaced Mozilla as the recommended Web browser. However, overall, the two books are extremely similar.

My only major complaint with Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks is the section "Why Should I Use Linux?" (11-12) in the first chapter, "Becoming a Penguinista: Welcome to the World of Linux." Grant emphasizes the fact that Linux and the applications that run on it are free (no cost, i.e. "free as in beer," although Grant doesn't use that term), and he also mentions in passing Linux's advantages over Windows in stability, customizability, and ability to run on older hardware. Nowhere in this section does Grant mention the free-as-in-speech philosophy behind Linux -- that software users should be free to examine the source code of the software that they use and to adapt and share that software as they see fit -- and the advantages of using software that is free-as-in-speech as well as free-as-in-beer. (Other notable terms missing from the index of Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks: "GNU General Public License [GPL]" and "open source.").

From one perspective, this isn't a critical flaw in the book. A reader who simply wants to learn how to use Ubuntu can do so without understanding the philosophy behind free and open source software. If Grant had decided to write a book that was purely about "how to use Ubuntu" and didn't take on the question of "why to use Ubuntu," that would be a perfectly valid choice. But if Grant is going to devote half of a chapter to "get[ting] you up to snuff on what this Ubuntu thing is all about [and] why you might want to install and use it" (p. 9), then it seems very difficult to do that without at least mentioning the free-software philosophy underlying Linux.

Another unavoidable problem with any book of this nature is that it quickly becomes outdated. The bundled live CD/installation CD contains the Dapper Drake version of Ubuntu (release date October 24, 2005); as of April 19, 2007, when the Feisty Fawn version was released, the bundled CD was now two releases behind.

These are, however, the only real problems with Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks, which is otherwise an excellent introductory guide to arguably the easiest-to-use Linux distribution. The already computer-savvy may find the book a little slow and elementary for their taste, but for beginners who have already decided to make the switch to Linux, Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks is highly recommended.

Julia Bauder is a student in the Library and Information Science Program at Wayne State University.

Copyright © 2007 by Julia Bauder. This document may be reproduced in whole or in part for noncommercial, educational, or scientific purposes, provided that the preceding copyright statement and source are clearly acknowledged. All other rights are reserved. For permission to reproduce or adapt this document or any part of it for commercial distribution, address requests to the author.

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