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Five must-have apps for a new Linux install

By   |  February 17, 2008

I tend to hammer my Ubuntu laptop. Running a website like Tectonic means I am constantly installing new applications to try them out. Many of which I later have to remove or lie forgotten on the hard disk until I start to wonder where the +40GB of free hard disk space went to. And when that happens I tend to back up the essentials – email, documents and website backups – format my hard disk and install a clean version of Ubuntu. Doing this every few months means that a few times a year I get to really consider what the most important applications on my desktop are.

My most recent re-install was this weekend. I was running short of hard disk space and things were slowing down noticeably. I could have spent a good few hours cleaning out my hard disk but I don’t really want to. Sometimes a good clean-install is what is required.

The essential tools
So, having re-installed a brand new copy of Ubuntu and required updates, there are a few applications that I immediately download because, without them, I would not be able to do most of my day-to-day work. Here, in no particular order, are the five application or tools I have to have but aren’t included in a default Ubuntu install. If you work in media or website development many of these might sound familiar.

gFTP has been around since the early days of Linux and while not flashy and full of features it does the job at hand, which is upload and download files for the sites I manage. gFTP’s clear interface and simple navigation make it an essential part of my desktop arsenal. I know that Ubuntu has the ability to connect to FTP sites using the nautilus file manager but I still find the side-by-side arrangement of gFTP, and the ability to compare a local development site with a live hosted one, essential. gFTP is also lightweight and quick, which makes it essential.
Install gFTP:
sudo apt-get install gftp

For most graphic and drawing needs Inkscape is the best possible application. I use it every day for simple logos, icons and pictures for the websites I manage. There are many other, sometimes more feature-full, graphics alternatives available but I find that Inkscape is straighforward to use and the many features it does have don’t get in the way of doing simple graphics tasks. Combined with the Gimp, which is included in the Ubuntu default install, pretty much any graphics task is easy to do.
Install Inkscape:
sudo apt-get install inkscape

Apache, MySQL and PHP
I’ve put these together because there really is no point in having one but not the others. If you do any web development you’ll want to install the lot. Running a webserver on your own machine is the only way to develop and test websites. There was a time when installing these three and getting them to work together was something of a headache. In Ubuntu now it’s pretty much taken care of. To install MySQL you need to:
sudo apt-get install mysql-server-5.0
During the install you will be prompted for a root password. Make sure to give one so you can log into MySQL when you’re done.
Installing PHP and Apache next is equally simple:
sudo aptitude install apache2 php5 libapache2-mod-php5
Once you’ve done that restart the Apache server:
sudo /etc/init.d/apache2 restart
Point your browser to http://localhost to test if it works.

This is another of those applications that have been around since the early days of Linux and I have grown to feel quite attached to it. Bluefish is a programming tool ideal for HTML and PHP work but equally at home with other languages. Syntax highlighting and a collection of pre-built HTML and PHP elements make Bluefish an everyday tool of mine. Like many of my other favourite and most-used applications Bluefish hides a great number of features behind a seemingly simple interface. One of these is Bluefish’s colour dropper feature which picks colours from anywhere on your screen and converts to HTML-friendly codes. It’s ideal for colour-matching for website designs.
Install Bluefish:
sudo apt-get install bluefish

Firefox extensions
The only other thing I need to install on a clean install of Ubuntu is a handful of Firefox extensions: Firebug, TinyURL Creator and Web Developer. I find Firebug is fantastic at pinpointing weaknesses in the wbsites I am working on. It can isolate elements that are slowing down the site or just not working correctly. Web developer does similar things but I find that it is better for collecting amazing amounts of information about any website, from the size of the website to embedded images and styles. On a daily basis I use both.The other extension I always have is the TinyURL Creator. I spend a lot of my day sending or storing links to information I want to share. 300-character URLs are ugly and cumbersome.

Got favourite applications you can’t live without? Tell us in the comments.



37 Responses to “Five must-have apps for a new Linux install”

  1. nanog
    February 17th, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

    Have you tried filezilla? Its much more polished and robust than gFTP.

  2. Alastair Otter
    February 17th, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

    I tried Filezilla some time back. Perhaps I should try it again? I find gFTP to be fairly robust and when it does occasionally crash it is quick to restart it. But thanks for the suggestion. I’ll give Filezilla another go.

  3. Francois
    February 17th, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

    Rather than Bluefish, have a look at Kompozer. It picked up where nvu left. It does html, CSS, and much more., all platforms

  4. Alastair Otter
    February 17th, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

    Thanks for the suggestion. I haven’t tried Kompozer before though I did use nvu for a while quite a long time ago. I’ll give Kompozer a spin but I am fairly big fan of Bluefish which does just about as much as I need. Thanks for the tip though.

  5. Paul_one
    February 17th, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

    I’ve always taken the veiw that re-installing the operating system is always a BAD thing. Not only does it take the system down without reason, you blank certain settings.
    I was glad to get away from it when moving from Windoze.

    So I see this, and wonder why?

    I don’t 100% know apt, but surely there’s a way to get a quick list of what you have installed and simply write that out to a file (like yum can).
    This means whenever you need to get back to a base-install, all you need to do is remove the additional programs!

    If you untar / make – make install applications, then why aren’t they being put into /opt or /usr/share/ ? Or, your own home directory?
    That way you simply remove the directory and have a good clean system.

    There are only 3 reasons I can think of to re-install the OS.
    1) Upgrading to new OS version (which doesn’t, in my experience, often need a ‘re-install’).
    2) Installing a different OS (Suse for Mandriva, Fedora for Ubuntu, etc).
    3) Hard drive corruption, leading to files which may be all over the root partition.

    Please tell me you’ve got a /home partition so you don’t actually loose your data!

  6. Trueash
    February 17th, 2008 @ 11:50 pm

    What a pretentious headline for just another personal opinion… Out of your five “must-haves” I use one – FF extensions. I use others – e.g. showFoto or Drivel – but who cares?

  7. frogstar_robot
    February 18th, 2008 @ 12:26 am

    >I don’t 100% know apt, but surely there’s a way to get a quick list of what >you have installed and simply write that out to a file (like yum can).
    >This means whenever you need to get back to a base-install, all you need >to do is remove the additional programs!

    To create the list
    dpkg –get-selections > installed_packages.txt

    To re-install the packages from the list
    # dpkg –set-selections < installed_packages.txt
    # apt-get dselect-upgrade

    I also keep backups of the /etc directory
    # tar cvfz etc.tar.gz /etc

    I don’t ever dump that entire config directory on a new load but if something was configured better on the old system, I can look at the the old config or cherry pick old config files.

  8. Alex
    February 18th, 2008 @ 1:54 am

    I often find that an upgrade (Ubuntu) stuffs my machine so I end up installing a little less often than yearly too. It doesn’t bother me because apt-get is so simple to use I just add the things I need as I go along again and it acts to purge my system of the masses of things I install to look at but don’t get around to removing.

    As suggested. provided you have a separate home it’s pretty painless. And those couple of hours (accumulated time with installing app’s again along the way) compared to a totally stuffed machine due to the failed upgrade?

    Just installing Kompzer to look at.

  9. Herman
    February 18th, 2008 @ 2:30 am

    Why are you installing evaluation schtuff on your regular system? You should use a virtualizer like VMware and install schtuff in that.

  10. Flak Magnet
    February 18th, 2008 @ 4:04 am

    Apps I can’t live without?

    openssh server and client – secure remote CLI access between machines.

    conky – Very configurable system monitor, like gkrellm but it stays out of my way.

    kate – Excellent text editor with ability to edit remote files through KDE’s KIO slaves.

    scite – Another excellent editor I find more useful for my efforts in learning programing.

    pidgin and the pidgin-encryption plugins – Gotta keep in touch with my GF.

    yakuake – If I’m running KDE. It’s a terminal that’s “always on” for those quick CLI sessions.


  11. IMQ
    February 18th, 2008 @ 5:40 am

    For Debian-based and Ubuntu-based, running command

    dpkg -l

    will list all the packages installed.

    I believe the reasons some people re-install the OS instead of remove packages to free up some space are:

    1. It’s clean. No worry of left-over from packages removal
    2. Because he/she can

    Think about it. If you installed lots and lots of packages on your system for whatever reasons, it is much quicker to re-install than to look at the list of installed packages, then filter out the ones to remove.

    This, of course, depends on the speed of the installation process. Sidux, for example, can be installed in less than 10 minutes. My own experience was between 5 and 8 minutes.

  12. Linux addict 1981
    February 18th, 2008 @ 6:36 am

    hi, I’ve made a quick sum up of my 5 essential Linux apps on my blog:

  13. nataraj
    February 18th, 2008 @ 6:55 am

    i agree that kompozer is better than bluefish. some of my fav apps are, gEdit, gnome-Do, deluge bit-torrent client, cheese webcam app, k3b and comix

  14. Fireashes
    February 18th, 2008 @ 7:23 am

    you also need java, flash player too

  15. foobar
    February 18th, 2008 @ 9:40 am


    > Think about it. If you installed lots and lots of packages
    > on your system for whatever reasons, it is much quicker
    > to re-install than to look at the list of installed packages,
    > then filter out the ones to remove.

    you could do a diff on the output of a regularly performed dpkg –get-selections. But I agree, if you install too much stuff, even this would become too cumbersome. I further agree with Herman, virtualization is the way to go (and take a snapshot from time to time). But with a HD of only 40GB, maybe the Laptop is too weak a performer …

  16. Alastair Otter
    February 18th, 2008 @ 11:01 am

    In theory you’re right. About all of it. There should be a single directory with all the applications stored in it and I simply need to remove that.

    There are two problems, however. The first is that I don’t just use apt to manage packages. A lot of the testing I do is with source files etc. The second problem is that you assume that I am as organised as all that. Sadly, I’m not.

    I’m not sure about blanking settings. In my experience this is sometimes a blessing.

    But I take you’re points. Thanks.

  17. Alastair Otter
    February 18th, 2008 @ 11:05 am

    you’re right. I do it because I can and because because it is way simpler than spending hours figring out what’s-what and what can or cannot be deleted.

    When I say 40GB free hard disk space I really meant completely free space. That’s after I install Ubuntu and the basics I need to do my job.

  18. Devin Henderson
    February 18th, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

    If you’re a PHP programmer like myself I would recommend Geany ( over Bluefish because of its builtin PHP function help up in the form of pop-up tooltips for known PHP functions.

  19. Chris Cox
    February 18th, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    For Firefox, GreaseMonkey and Platypus. Makes is trivial to edit web pages as they come in and make them do/look the way you want them to (eliminate large header banners, ads, etc).

  20. forwardslash
    February 18th, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    I use gFTP and Inkscape too. I also use GIMP and Scribus quite a bit. Abiword for documentation. Gyachi and Skype for communications and No Script and TinyURL FF extentions. When I upgrade, I back up /home to extenal drive, strip all non-standard packages (after inventory), then do an “apt-get dist-upgrade” with no problems. I have done this since “Breezy”. There was only one time it did not work for me. That was when I forgot to uninstall one of the non-standard packages.

    BTW nice article.

  21. john
    February 18th, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

    For FTP I like fireFTP – It’s a firefox extension, so it’s cross-platform.

  22. jamesman
    February 18th, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

    Yes, reformatting your system is a bad habit you picked up from one of those other operating systems. 😉 Every distributions allows you some way to remove crapware and crapware dependencies. It may take more time at first as you learn but after that it will save you time and headaches in the long run. Nice read through.

  23. paul_one
    February 19th, 2008 @ 1:47 am

    Thanks for the apt/dpkg info.. I’ve had reletively lax experience in debian/gentoo/etc.

    If everything’s done with packages, the only remainders *should* be config files – and unless you’re fooling with sendmail/iptables (meg-sized?) configs, you’d rarely save much and indexed EXT2/3 filesystems should be fine with access times.

    As you mention, building from source is always the bad grape of the bunch – but you should be able to put in a destination… Unless things get worse the bigger the project (I’m thinking KDE 4.0 here).

    I’ve gotta laugh at the organized remark.
    I’ll have to agree with you and raise you “multiple copies of the same files (15x) across 3 computers”.

    Keep up the blogs – I’d more enjoy a generic list then a personal list.

  24. Chris Lees
    February 19th, 2008 @ 2:47 am

    Reinstallation will also remove old programs that have been compiled from source (although you should always use Checkinstall where possible).

    And, as opposed to just removing things with Apt, it will effectively defragment the disk.

    Even if you don’t have /home as a different partition, you can literally drag the contents to a couple of DVDs (including the ~/. files) and restore it on the new installation. That’s what I do.

  25. Paul_B
    February 19th, 2008 @ 3:42 am

    Why not use Acronis True Image, or for the free software purist, Partimage to make a backup of your base install after installing your favorite apps, onto CD, DVD, or external hard drive? That way, when you want to clean up, you just restore your partition(s), and you’re back to a functional system in less time and with less fuss.

  26. Businessgeeks
    February 19th, 2008 @ 5:59 am

    I find Geany as a better editor than Bluefish and from my machine its much faster.


  27. foobar
    February 19th, 2008 @ 1:11 pm


    > Why not […] make a backup of your base install after
    > installing your favorite apps, onto CD, DVD, or external
    > hard drive? That way, when you want to clean up, you
    > just restore your partition(s), and you’re back to a
    > functional system in less time and with less fuss.

    I do this regularly (in case a d-u breaks my Debian testing/unstable). But depending on your distribution, re-installing a very, very old release may be hard to update. Well, you can do regular diff-backups of the changed system, but this still requires that you carefully track when you install what software (i. e., do a backup /before/ you install some testing stuff, but /don’t/ do a backup as long as this testing stuff is installed).

    Concerning this blog post’s topic: rdiff-backup is definitely a must-have app for a new Linux install.

  28. Martin
    February 19th, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    Sorry, but gFTP without SSL support is useless… although nice, yes, but not secure.

  29. John
    February 19th, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

    I think you should rename this to: Five must-have apps for a new Linux install FOR A WEB DEVELOPER. In addition, I doubt these are all the best options anyways.

  30. tomcat
    February 19th, 2008 @ 7:20 pm

    postgresql is much powerful that mysql.

  31. Rebenga
    February 19th, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

    If you actually do go ahead and install Apache, then make damn sure it’s only listening on localhost. Otherwise you’re opening up a very broad vector of attack for anyone doing malicious stuff on the net. This is also assuming you’re not hiding behind NAT or have IPtables configured.

    All in all I’m very vary of recommending people to install Apache in such sweeping terms. Apache is very powerful, but with that power comes a high requirement for knowledge and responsibility.

  32. Peter Gasston
    February 19th, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

    I guess your title did what you wanted and got you plenty of traffic, but I think it’s a little dishonest; only to you are these “must-have” apps, most people wouldn’t have much use for them.

  33. Adam M
    February 19th, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

    I would agree this should be “must have apps for a web developer”. I’m suprised that Eclipse ( ) was not mentioned. With addon’s like Aptana, CFEclipse, JSEclipse and so much more, this extensible IDE is one of the first things I install when I set up a new desktop, Windows or Linux. A Firefox plugin called Fifebug is helpful. Inkscape and Gimp are must have for image manipulation, and the only other thing I’d need is VLC.

  34. Jonathan
    February 20th, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    I wouldn’t call these 5 pieces of software *must have* for a Linux system. They seem to be more orientated to someone who would be doing web work. Most Linux desktop systems would probably be fine without these specific pieces of software.

  35. Philip S. Ruckle Jr.
    March 5th, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

    So . . . we read a list of must-have apps for a new Linux install by a technical editor and we are surprised at the apps on the list.

    Am I missing something?

  36. Tectonic » Best of 2008: The year’s top posts
    December 12th, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

    […] – Five must-have apps for a new Linux install (17 520 […]

  37. Michael Robinson
    June 8th, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    I clean install my ubuntu every now and then…but I use two different partitions. / and /home. Doing this when reinstalling, there is no need to backup everything in my home folder as I don’t format the /home dir. When the installation is complete, simply delete all the folders & files in /home except for Documents, Music and any other folders containing your information. Ubuntu will automatically recreate any files it needs in the home folder.
    Now you have a fresh install without needing to backup anything! [Just remember which partition is which for next time!]

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