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The pain-free guide to switching Linux distros

The -R causes chown to recurse through all files and sub-directories in /home/jimubuntu; the colon : following the username tells chown to also set the group to jim's primary group. If you have more than one user, repeat this for each.

Retrieving your files

This is one of the reasons we didn't simply re-use the old home directory – if the file ownerships are far enough out, you wouldn't be able to launch the window manager.

The other reason is that some files are specific to the distro, particularly those for the desktop environment. However, you can now copy over configurations for some of the 'standard', distro-independent programs, such as OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Thunderbird.

The directories you need to copy for these are .ooo-2.0, .mozilla and .thunderbird, although Ubuntu uses .openoffice.org2 and .mozilla-thunderbird, so you'll need to rename them. You can move the directories with the terminal or a file manager, but anything beginning with a full stop is hidden by default in file managers, so you'll need to enable the option to show hidden files.

You can also transfer data files, like your music and video collections, digital photos, word processor documents and spreadsheets – now's a good time to do some tidying up, delete old files and organise others into meaningful directories, just like you've been promising to do for years.

If you want to copy entire desktop environment configurations, like the .kde directory, keep a backup of the original directory for the new distro in case things don't work as you expected.

Themes, wallpapers and fonts

If you've installed any wallpapers, you'll probably want to move these over, although themes are only of any use when using the same desktop environment. Gnome themes from Ubuntu won't be a lot of use with OpenSUSE's KDE 4 (for that matter, neither will KDE 3 themes).

Transferring themes can be a tricky task, because installing a theme can place files in various directories. Missing just one of these can cause problems, so the safest option is to reinstall the theme from scratch.

Many are available as packages for various distros, or you can download them from www.kde-look.org, www.gnome-look.org or a similar site for your preferred window manager.

Wallpapers and system sounds are standard graphic and audio files, so you can use those with any desktop and distro. There are no standard locations for wallpaper images, as they are simply added to the list of available files or directories in the desktop's configuration program, available by right-clicking on the desktop.

We're sticking with KDE here, keeping our wallpapers in .kde/share/wallpapers, but you can put them anywhere you want, as long as you remember where. The same goes for system sounds, the default sounds used by Gnome and KDE are installing into specific directories in /usr, but user sounds can be installed anywhere in your home directory.

Fonts can be installed globally or for a user. KDE users can type fonts:/ into Konqueror's location bar to see a listing of either set. The user fonts are stored in .fonts in the home directory, and you only need to move them to your new home directory to make them available.

If you've installed fonts into the system directory, either /usr/share/fonts or /usr/local/share/fonts, you should copy them to your user directory before installing the new distro, as everything in /usr will be deleted. Fonts installed to /usr/share/fonts have usually been installed by the package manager, so you may prefer to let them disappear then install them from the new distros packages.

Transfer emails

We have looked at copying your personal data and settings, with one significant exception: email. If you're using Thunderbird and intend to do so with the new distro, don't worry – we copied the hidden .thunderbird directory earlier.