Open source is an ideology that is very dear to me and I wanted to build an open source only setup for my one computers running Ubuntu. Here’s what and how I did it.


First, the hardware. I took an old PC that I bought from Alliance Computers and upgraded the hardware specifications. I wanted to make sure that whatever I would be running wouldn’t slow my machine down. The basic specifications of my computer are these.

Intel Core i5 3.1GHz Quad-Core Processor – Not a bad processor

8GB DDR3 Memory – Decent amount of RAM

1TB Hard Drive – Fairly decent size internal memory

DVD+/-RW Optical Drive – Because why not

BitFenix Prodigy Mini-ITX Case – Somewhat small, but fits all of the necessary components.

This was my only expense, right around $300 for everything. I already had a 4 port HDMI KVM switch for my large format 40” monitor. The 40” monitor is a bit overkill, but anything that can make my desktop setup look like the Bat Computer from Batman is OK by me. The BitFenix case I already had lying around. The reason for the KVM switch is because I have three other computers hooked up to that one monitor; my Mac Mini, my PC and my server. Initially, the computer is running on an old install of Windows 7.

Operating System

When it came to picking an open source operating system, I went with Ubuntu 15.04. I considered using Elementary OS Freya because it visually resembled Mac OSX, but Ubuntu was what I was most familiar with. I really like Ubuntu’s default UI, but I also wanted to check out transformation packs. I found out about Nooblabs from Nixie Pixel and checked out their MUbuntu transform pack that does a very good job at mimicking the OSX UI. After I installed Ubuntu, I ran updates and installed restricted packages and codecs. After running it for the first time, I decided to get rid of the old Windows operating system and solely dedicate this machine as an open source setup.

Install Ubuntu

Install Ubuntu (video)

What to do after installing Ubuntu 15.04

Nooblabs MUbuntu Tranform Pack


Now let’s get into software. I wanted to recreate my setup that I enjoy on both my Mac and PC and that means having certain software and applications.

Raster image manipulation program

Vector image manipulation program

Desktop publishing software

Code Editor

Spreadsheet and word processing program

Video editing software

Audio editor

3D animation

Here’s what I ended up using (in the same order as above)

GIMP: GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is an often cited open source contender for Photoshop. GIMP’s UI is a little clunky, so I transformed it to look more like Photoshop.

Inkscape: The latest version, .91, is a big improvement of its previous stable release. I find it intuitive enough even after using Illustrator for most of my career. It has some very powerful features like exporting illustrations as HTML5 Canvas elements and native SVG export.

Scribus: This program came highly recommended. Being able to create page styles, layers, CMYK output on PDF and an intuitive UI that allowed me to transition from InDesign without too much fuss. It’s not often that I do much print based work, but if I was laying out a book or creating a mailer, this program is solid.

Atom: Atom has become my de facto code editor. The hackable text editor made by the team at GitHub is fantastic. What is really nice about Atom is that it’s cross-platform, I have it on my PC and Mac machines as well.

LibreOffice: Sort of the de facto open source alternative to Microsoft Office. Another good option is OpenOffice, but LibreOffice came with my Ubuntu install. I really only use it for word processing and spreadsheet tools, but I find its UI easier to navigate than Microsoft’s.

Blender: It’s true that Blender is known more as a 3D animation tool, but it’s one of the most robust open source programs out there. It has a multitude of applications (many of which, I have never even attempted) from 3D modeling, animation, video editing and game design.

Audacity: I have used Audacity in the past for a number of projects and while it’s a powerful tool, it also has the lowest learning curve. It’s not often that I need an audio editor, but having it as a resource is definitely helpful for my setup.

Blender: well, it is known as a 3D animation tool…I don’t do much 3D stuff at all, but the little bit I do has all been done in Blender.

Why an open source setup?

For a long time, I have toyed with the idea of having a dedicated open source setup for my design and development needs. My first foray into an open source creative tool was GIMP. My good friend Derek wanted to be able to colorize old manga comics and at the time my only solution I knew of was Adobe Photoshop. We both searched for other solutions and came across GIMP. We tried it out and it I was thoroughly impressed with what it could do. Since then, I discovered more software that is analogous to proprietary products and I realized that a fully open source setup could be possible. The most difficult solution was finding a replacement for Adobe InDesign. I found Scribus to be very confusing at first, but after a few major updates and released versions, it became much more user-friendly.

The main reason why I wanted an open source setup was to prove that it can be done. When I got into developing with WordPress, I loved the fact that I had access to everything. I could look at core and understand what was happening behind the scenes. I could take themes and customize them or build them from scratch. I could write a plugin to do something that previously didn’t exist. WordPress was my gateway to really understanding the power of being open. I look at these open source programs and know that if I want to, I can join the development process for them as well; either for my own setup or helping to improve the software for everyone’s enjoyment and use.

How does it compare?

Simply put, these are tools. The computer itself, the programs and applications…they are all tools and they are only going to be as successful as the person who knows how to use them. With that said, I have found that the work I have done with them are completely fine. Native files, output files…all are at a production level quality. The only thing that have found to be annoying is the time I take to work.  When you used to a certain setup, it’s hard to change. I still find myself fumbling over how to do certain things in GIMP and Inkscape mostly because I am so familiar with the workflows in Photoshop and Inkscape. That familiarity will come with time and use, but for all intents and purposes I have found that the work that I can produce in these open source programs is on par with the work I produce in their proprietary counterparts.

The working environment of the applications is pretty easy to get used to. Once I develop more familiarity with the naming conventions and locations of the tools in the UI of the programs then my speed at using them will greatly increase. Because I am using the Nooblabs transform pack to mimic Mac OSX I am finding myself having momentary mind blanks when I see an Ubuntu specific interaction and I expect to see something a MAC interaction.

Are you completely open source?

I don’t think I will ever be completely open source for two reasons; legacy/vendor files and industry standards. Legacy and vendor specific files and setups still need support. Depending on who you talk to, supporting vendor specific files and frameworks isn’t too much an issue anymore. If I’m doing .NET projects, I can easily develop them with MonoDevelop. The question is do I want to? Same goes for PSD files. GIMP can open them, but some files are so incredibly detailed with layer styles and such that if/when they don’t translate, it have lost much of what I have created. So for that reason, I don’t think I will ever go completely open source.

The other reason is because of the industry. The majority of my peers and colleagues use industry standard applications. The standby is Adobe products, but I have seen an ever increasing devoted base of creatives using tools like Sketch, Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer (I am actually a big fan of the Affinity products from Serif). Proprietary products come with dedicated customer support, whereas open source support largely falls on you as the user to know how to figure out your system. From a business standpoint, proprietary makes sense in this regard. As professional, I need to keep up with how the industry progresses and stay marketable; so that means using industry standard tools.

Benefits/drawbacks of an open source setup?

As I continue to develop my skills with programming languages, I want to be able to customize my setups further and make it unique to me. There are opportunities, like this post, to continue to share what I am learning about open source design and development setups. When it comes to client work, I don’t see a benefit or drawback when utilizing open source programs, the output of work will still be of the same quality. The only drawback that I can see is with collaboration with others, specifically with native image files. Those drawbacks can be lessened by using open source file types (like using SVG instead of native vector files), but they still exist.

So what started as an experiment with tinkering around with open source alternatives became a full project in building a dedicated open source Linux machine that serves as a worthy alternative for my proprietary setups.


October 5, 2015

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