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Installing and Updating Software on Xubuntu

This tutorial will explain how to manage software in Xubuntu, the version of Linux included on computers distributed by Computer Reach.

Introduction to software on Linux

The term “software” refers to the set of instructions and resources (like text and graphics) that tells your computer what to do. Without software, your computer would be only as useful as a paperweight. There are lots of different types of software, such as games; application software like Chrome or LibreOffice Writer that allows you to do useful things with your computer; and internal libraries and programs used by other programs to do everything from interfacing with your hardware (like your monitor or wifi adapter) to keeping track of the time. The collection of all the basic software you need to make use of your computer (ie, what came installed when you got the computer) is called the operating system (OS), and there are many different operating systems out there. The most popular operating systems for PCs today are Microsoft Windows, Apple’s MacOS, and Linux. Android and iOS, used on phones and tablets, are also examples of operating systems. The computers we distribute run a version of Linux called Xubuntu.

Keeping track of all this software would be very difficult to do on your own. Fortunately, Linux OSes like Xubuntu come with a special program called a package manager that greatly simplifies the process of installing and updating software.

This tutorial will explain how to use the built-in software managers in Xubuntu to find and install new programs and to keep your software up-to-date, which is important for both getting new features and improvements as well as for keeping your computer safe and secure.

How to keep your computer updated

Software, especially free and open source software like we usually use on Linux, is continuously updated throughout its lifetime, and it’s very important to keep what's installed on your computer up to date. One reason is that the developers of many programs are constantly adding new features and improvements to their programs which will make using the software easier or will give you access to new features. Another reason, which is by far the most important, is that these updates often include security fixes, which make it much harder for any bad actors to access your personal information or take control of your computer.

(Unfortunately, writing software can be very difficult, and small mistakes and unexpected behavior from a program, called "bugs", are unavoidable. This is why any reputable developer or software vendor will always supply updates to their programs for a number of years.)

Automatic updates

Fortunately, your computer is able to automatically check for updates periodically. However, for security reasons, your computer will not download and install new software or updates without your permission. In Xubuntu, you will be notified when new updates are available with a prompt that looks like this:

When you see a prompt like this one, click on the button labeled “Install Now”. You will then be prompted for your password.

Enter your password (the one you use to log in to your computer) in the prompt, and then click the button labeled “Authenticate” or press Enter on your keyboard. The computer will then begin downloading the updates. This may take some time–if you haven’t updated it in a while (or never have) then it may take upwards of an hour. Just leave it running in the background while you do other things.

Depending on what updates you have to do, you may be prompted to enter your password again to install the updates after they finish downloading. Enter your password and click “Authenticate” to complete the updates.

Lastly, if the update included certain important system programs, you may be prompted to restart your computer to allow the updates to take effect. Do this at your earliest convenience. Be sure to save any work you have open and properly close any other applications you have running before restarting. Once the restart is complete, your computer will be fully up-to-date.

Manual updates

If your computer has not automatically prompted you for updates and you want to force it to check for them manually, click on the orange icon on the panel at the bottom of the screen (circled in the image below).

The computer will then begin searching for updates. Once it finds them, you will be prompted with a list of updates like with automatic updates. Simply follow the instructions above for automatic updates to finish updating your computer.

Finding and installing new software

One of the best things about Linux is the large amount of high-quality software that is available for it. Whether you’re looking for a new game to play or something to help manage your budget, there are a multitude of programs available for your computer to help you.

It’s worth taking a moment to talk about the kinds of software you are most likely to find for Linux. Unlike other popular operating systems like Windows and MacOS, Linux is not the product of any single company, nor is it developed in the same way. The Linux operating system comes out of the Free and Open Source Software movements, made up of programmers and enthusiasts who have worked to make an operating system (including application software and games) that is free (as in freedom, not price), where everything necessary to make and run the software is distributed freely to all users of it, and those users are free to modify it and distribute if they have the skills to do so. In practice, this means that most software for Linux is free (as in price) and developed collaboratively and communally by interested programmers and other volunteers, rather than by a for-profit company looking to sell copies or services for money. 

Even if you’re not a programmer, this has a lot of advantages. For one, almost all software available for Linux is free of charge. (In fact, there isn’t even a mechanism for processing payments in the app store. If you really like a program, you can usually make a voluntary donation to the developers through their websites.) Another is that software developed in this manner tends to favor a more interchangeable, standards-focused approach, where programs are written to work well with other programs and to be easily replaced with other similar programs. Many users of free software feel that software like this tends to respect its user more, as the developers tend to be users themselves; free and open source software never requires payment to use its more advanced features, and never tries to restrict its users for the purpose of getting them to pay for new software. Such software is also usually very stable and dependable, and there are many components of the Linux system that are almost fifty years old at this point, and they still work so reliably that no one has had a need to change it significantly in all that time.

The down side of this is that a lot of popular commercial software available for other operating systems is not available for Linux. This includes programs like Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word, though there are similar and compatible programs that do the same things available. (For this reason it’s often better to search for what you want the program to do than to search for a program by name.) However, there are trends that point in the opposite direction, and it is possible that will become less-and-less of the case as time goes on. For one, the increased popularity of smartphones over the last decades has meant that, rather than rewrite popular programs for a half-dozen different operating systems, it has often been more economical for companies to make their programs available on the Web, making them available for users of nearly any operating system. This means that you can use a program like Google Docs running in Chrome or Firefox without having to install anything. Another trend has been the increased use of Linux on servers and other industrial computers, and the increased popularity of Linux for gaming, which may place more of an incentive on developers to write programs for Linux in the future.

Using the Snap store

While there are many ways to install programs on Linux, one of the easiest in Xubuntu is to use the Snap store. Other methods will be outside the scope of this article.

You can find the Snap store on the panel at the bottom of the desktop, circled in the image below.

Click on it and let it load. Unfortunately, this often takes a while to load, so be patient. When it’s finally loaded, it should look something like this–perhaps with different programs listed on the main page, depending on when and where you are reading this.

From this main page, you can see a search button on the top-left corner (which looks like a magnifying glass), and three tabs on the top panel, labeled “Explore”, “Installed”, and “Updates”. We will only be using the “Explore” tab for the purposes of this article.

If you scroll down, you will see a list of “Editor’s Choice” apps, which are popular and high-quality apps recommended by the editors of this page.

If you scroll down more, you will see a list of categories you can browse.

To give an example, we’ll be installing a program called Audacity, which is a powerful audio editor. However, these instructions will work for any app in the store.

Click on the search button on the top of the screen (the magnifying glass). A search bar will appear, and you can type the name of the program you’re looking for–Audacity, in this case. Once you type it (you don’t have to press Enter), you will see a list of programs relating to your search. In this case, we see two listings called Audacity and they look almost identical. If you click on them, you may notice that one is a lot bigger than the other. The bigger one is in a special format called a “snap”, and the other is in another format called a “deb”. These are essentially interchangeable for our purposes, and you can install either. We’ll be downloading and installing the second one, the “snap” for the purposes of this article.

Click on it and you should see the full page for the program come up. This page shows screenshots of the program, a brief description of the program and what it does, technical and project information about the program (eg, how big it is, what version it is, where its website is, etc.), and user reviews.

You should notice a blue button near the top labeled “Install”. Click on it and you will be prompted for your password. Enter it (the same one you use to log in to your computer), and the program should start downloading. Depending on how big the program is and how fast your Internet connection is, this may take some time. Be patient and wait for the program to finish downloading and installing.

Once it is finished, click on the “Linux Menu” button on the panel on the bottom-left of your screen and type the name of the program, “Audacity” into the search bar at the bottom. (You can just start typing once you open the Linux menu.) You should see the program name and icon appear once you’ve typed in a few letters.

Click on it once you see it and the program should launch.

You’ve now installed the program on your computer. You can use the same approach to download any application in the Snap store.

By Zach Peterson & Digital Navigator team, Computer Reach