Making the most of Linux multimedia

No single Linux distribution can compete with Windows’ hardware compatibility. But you’ll find a surprising breadth of support for graphics hardware

Early Linux desktops were crude affairs, sharing more in common with scientific workstations than modern consumer PCs. But thanks to the efforts of Linux vendors, video card manufacturers, and open source developers, today’s Linux distributions offer GUI flash and sizzle to rival the latest offerings from Apple or Microsoft.

Ubuntu enables many graphics features by default during the installation process, but a few situations still may require additional tweaking.

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Power up your video card

The graphics hardware market is highly competitive, and video card makers are reluctant to release much information about the internal workings of their products. Because of this, developing open source video drivers that support modern features such as 3-D acceleration has been an uphill climb.

Fortunately, both ATI and nVidia offer custom Linux device drivers for their products. These drivers are proprietary software, which means Ubuntu will not install them by default. If your PC includes hardware from one of these vendors, you can enable the accelerated driver from the System > Administration > Restricted Drivers Manager control panel.

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Fancify  your fonts

If you’ve installed Ubuntu on a laptop or a PC with an LCD monitor, you can improve the readability of onscreen text by enabling subpixel font smoothing, the equivalent of Microsoft’s ClearType technology. You’ll find the option under the System > Preferences > Appearance control panel, in the Fonts tab. Experiment with the options under the Details menu to find the settings that best suit your taste.

If you’d like to recreate the Windows font experience even further, use Synaptic to install the “msttcorefonts” package, and your Linux applications will have access to familiar Microsoft typefaces, such as Arial, Courier New, and Times New Roman.

Configure desktop effects

The most talked-about recent development in the world of desktop Linux is Compiz Fusion, a new GUI manager that offers a variety of eye-popping animations and other graphical effects for common

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GUI functions. The most striking is the “desktop cube,” which allows you to switch between multiple desktop workspaces by rotating a 3-D box with your mouse.

Ubuntu 7.10 is the first version to ship with Compiz Fusion effects enabled by default. The Visual Effects tab of the System > Preferences > Appearance control panel allows you to choose between a modest level of effects or a flashier desktop. To enable an additional menu for custom control of the full range of effects, use Synaptic to install the package called “compizconfig-settings-manager.” If, on the other hand, your GUI seems too sluggish, you may prefer to disable Compiz entirely.

A mixed bag of multimedia

Because of the abundance of patents covering audiovisual technology, multimedia support has always been problematic for

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open source software. Ubuntu does not ship with support for patent-encumbered multimedia formats installed by default, but the Ubuntu developers have made it as easy as possible to install those codecs if you wish to.

The first time you try to play an MP3 or a Windows AVI, for example, the Totem Movie Player will show a dialog box asking if you would like to find the appropriate software to play it. You should have to install each codec only once. Similarly, the Firefox Web browser in Ubuntu 7.10 includes a new feature that can automatically find the appropriate plug-ins for new content types it encounters, including Java applets and Adobe Flash.

It’s worth mentioning that Ubuntu’s multimedia support does not extend to DRM-encrypted (digital rights management) media files. So far, none of the protection schemes for audio or video has been ported to Linux. That means MP3s you’ve ripped from your own CDs will play fine, but songs downloaded from the iTunes Music Store, for example, will not.

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