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Linux Mint – Configuring software sources

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In most Linux distributions, Mint included, software is distributed by repositories. As mentioned earlier, one of the most distinctive differences between one distribution and another is the format of the available software packages and the way they are installed. Typically, packages are changed and then placed into a repository. By default, a distribution would ship with the default set of repositories allowing you to install new packages right away. For most users, the default repositories are all that’s needed. However, over time, you may find that you want to use a software package but you’re unable to find it while searching for the package in the Synaptic Package Manager or Software Manager. This could simply mean that you mistyped the name of the package while searching, but most commonly it means that the package may not be available in the repository.

One example of this is Google’s web browser, Chrome. If Chrome is a web browser you like to use and you searched for the package, you would get several results but not the actual Chrome web browser itself. The Chromium web browser would likely show up in the search, but it’s not quite the same thing (though it is very similar). If a user didn’t know better, they may assume that Chrome isn’t available for Linux. However, that’s not the case. It’s just not included in Mint’s repositories as an available package. There may also be other software packages you might want to run which aren’t included in the default repository. When this occurs, usually a quick Google search will point you in the right direction.

In the case of Google Chrome, Google makes a number of packages available for Linux. In order to install it, go to the page that comes up in the search, and you should stumble across a page that contains packages for Debian-based Linux distributions. Choose your package, and when it’s done downloading, Mint should recognize the file and allow you to install it by double-clicking on it. Just make sure that you choose the right package. For example, recall whether or not you installed the 32-bit or 64-bit version of Linux Mint.

Downloading a package manually from the Internet and installing through the downloaded package is not a typical way of installing new software in Linux, but some softwares are made available via this method from time to time. In the case of Chrome, it will install its own repository to your system, so that way when a new version is released, Mint’s Update Manager will catch it and offer it to you. Over time, software repositories may add up, and at some point or another you may wish to remove an add-on repository that you no longer need. In other cases, when you search the Internet for a package that’s not available in Mint’s own repository, you may find that an article calls for you to enter a repository manually.

In the past, this meant that you would need to open up a terminal, then open the /etc/apt/sources.list file in a text editor, and then add the required entry to add the extra repository that contains the software you need. While this is perfectly fine for intermediate and advanced users, it would be so much better if there was a graphical application that you could use in order to manage software repositories. Actually, Mint does include such a tool, which is simply called Software Sources. If you search for it in your Applications menu, you should be able to find it in the search results. The following screenshot shows Mint’s Software Sources application:

On the first screen, the one that opens up when you first launch the application, you’re given various regional options. In a nutshell, Mint’s software sources default to a software repository near you. As you can see from the American flag in the screenshot from my machine, it’s defaulting to a software repository in the USA. If I were to visit another country and take my machine with me, I could select a different repository (otherwise, reaching the same repository from somewhere else may take a long time). If these values are correct and are already set to your local country, you probably won’t need to make any changes here, but it’s nice to know that you can make changes if you ever needed to.

Where the Software Sources app really shines is with the other options it gives you. The second button down on the left, PPAs, allows you to set up a PPA ( Personal Package Archive), which are smaller repositories set up to fill small gaps in the available software. One example of this is the Handbrake program, which allows you to copy DVDs to your hard drive (those that you are legally entitled to copy, of course). Handbrake isn’t available in Mint’s software selection at the time of writing this tutorial. So, if you searched Google for the keywords “Linux Mint” and “Handbrake”, you would most likely find yourself reading an article regarding an available PPA that allows you to download and install the software.

Personal package archives are not specific to Mint. PPAs are an Ubuntu technology that allow developers to set up repositories to host software that they have compiled for Ubuntu to easily make their software available for others. There are PPAs available for all kinds of different packages. Since Mint uses Ubuntu as its base, it automatically inherits the ability to use PPAs. Mint went a step further though, and facilitated the installation of PPAs in its Software Sources application. This is a great thing, because in the past, the only way to add a PPA was to use a terminal command. A complete beginner would likely feel intimidated by having to manually install a PPA. Thanks to Mint, you can use the Software Sources application to add a PPA to your system. To add a PPA, all you have to do is click on the Add a new PPA… button and enter the URL you are given from the PPA site and then follow the prompts to add it to your system. After adding it to your system, the software included in the PPA would then be displayed in search results in both Synaptic and the Software Manager. The following screenshot shows the PPA insertion dialog:

Generally, PPAs are created by volunteer developers who want to make a package available for Mint/Ubuntu that normally isn’t part of the default repositories. While PPAs are useful to fill any gaps in the software available for your distribution, the continued usefulness of the PPA solely depends on the individual who created and/or maintains it. If for some reason the volunteer abandons the PPA, new versions of the application would no longer be made available. It’s recommended that you use PPAs only if you really need to. PPAs are not tested by Ubuntu developers, and if a package stops being updated, that means you aren’t getting security updates for it either. Use PPAs at your own risk.

The third option, Additional repositories, is very similar to the idea of PPAs, though repositories are usually larger and maintained by developers closer to the project; however, this isn’t always the case. If you find that a software package you would like to install requires its own repository, you can set it up in this section of the Software Sources application. You may find some additional repositories listed in this dialog, especially if you’ve installed software packages from the web, such as Google Chrome. Google Chrome, for example, creates its own repository, so you would see it listed here. If later on you would like to remove a repository, you can do so through this section. The following screenshot shows the software repository section with an add-on repository installed:

In the Authentication keys section of Software Sources, you are shown a list of currently installed authentication keys and you can also add a new one. These keys are used to sign packages to make sure that they are trusted, and each repository has its own key. This is not a section that you will make use of very often, typically only when instructed to do so when adding a new repository or when you would like to remove keys for a repository that you no longer use.

Finally, the Maintenance section gives you two options: Fix MergeList problems and Purge residual configuration. These options are useful to solve error messages that you may run into down the road, and are shown here in case you need them. However, in normal usage, you should not run into these issues, and detailed information about these options and why they are needed is beyond the scope of this tutorial. However, if you do end up getting an error message regarding a mergelist issue, you may make use of this tool. In regards to residual configuration, this refers to the ability to remove dependency packages that were installed when you installed an application that may not be installed anymore. Unless you really want to clean up your application list or you are running low on disk space, it’s best to avoid this option. An application that’s considered a dependency application may be something that you use, so using this option is not advised on a normal basis.

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