Sunday, 20 January 2008

Restricted Formats

Due to licensing restrictions, in some countries (most notably the United States), it's not possible for free Linux distributions such as Ubuntu to offer many popular proprietary media formats such as MP3 and Adobe Flash Video 'out-of-the-box'. Distributions which are sold commercially, such as Linspire or Xandros, can offer these preinstalled because the purchase price includes a license to use them. Because Ubuntu is free, this option isn't available, so Ubuntu comes without the codecs (short for coder and decoder) necessary to support these formats. For more details, check out this link.
Fortunately, there is a way around this. There are still many countries where it is legal to use these codecs (for instance, anywhere in the European Union), so it is possible to install these quickly and easily. But if you're unsure, check out your country's legislation to make sure you're allowed to install this.
All you need to do is install a metapackage called ubuntu-restricted-extras (or for Kubuntu users, kubuntu-restricted-extras, or in Xubuntu, xubuntu-restricted-extras). You can open Synaptic or Adept Package Manager and find it in there, or you can go to the command line and enter the following:
sudo apt-get install ubuntu-restricted-extras
This installs the Java Runtime Environment (including a browser plugin so you can run Java applets in your browser), Adobe Flash Player (so you can watch YouTube), MP3 playback and recording, and DVD playback. The reason there are different metapackages for the different Ubuntu versions is that they have different applications installed and it includes MP3 playback for different applications.

I actually found that in Kubuntu an extra step was needed as DVD support wasn't enabled after I installed kubuntu-restricted-extras (I don't know if the same applies in Ubuntu). What you have to do is enter the following on the command line:
sudo usr/share/doc/libdvdread3/
This runs a shell script (a type of program) which adds DVD support. After I ran this, DVD's worked fine in the Kaffeine media player. If you've followed the above instructions in Ubuntu or Xubuntu and DVD playback still doesn't work, try this and it should sort it out.

One other thing the kubuntu-restricted-extras metapackage seems to leave out according to apt-get is the msttcorefonts package. This package is present in ubuntu-restricted-extras and xubuntu-restricted-extras, but apparently is not in kubuntu-restricted-extras. Basically, this package consists of the fonts you see in Microsoft Windows such as Arial, Helvetica, etc. So it's not essential, but still a good idea to have. So just open Konsole (or whatever other method you're using to access the command line) and enter the following:
sudo apt-get install msttcorefonts
You should now have the fonts you're used to from Windows available, so you can set your web browser to use them by default, which will make things look a bit more familiar!

I know this seems like a lot of hassle, but believe me, there are good legal reasons not to distribute Ubuntu with these restricted formats installed. There are other ways to get around the issue, though. Linux Mint is a Linux distribution which is based on Ubuntu, but takes a slightly different tack when dealing with the issue of restricted formats. Linux Mint has two versions, a Main edition for downloading in countries where it's legal to use these restricted formats, and a Light edition for countries where this is illegal. The Main edition includes these restricted formats so that they work 'out-of-the-box', whereas the Light edition lacks these. If you really don't want the hassle of dealing with installing support for restricted formats yourself (but honestly, it's not that hard), then Linux Mint makes an excellent alternative to Ubuntu, and is similar enough that much of what I discuss in this blog still applies.

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