My Return to Xubuntu: A Review
A few months ago, I had a Linux first — I reached the end-of-support of a distro. I never thought of myself as a distro hopper, especially with my main laptop, but I guess I hop around enough to have never made it to the end-of-support.
I was using OpenSUSE 12.1 GNOME, and I loved it, but I saw end-of-support as a chance to really explore my options. I’ve messed around with a few distros on my testing machine, but nothing really grabbed my attention, other than the dearly-depart Fuduntu.
OpenSUSE actually lets you upgrade via disk (and rather scarily, live), but I didn’t want to upgrade two versions (12.1-12.2 and then 12.2-12.3), having to back up all of my work and settings, only to be back in a similar situation in less than 18 months (assuming nothing horribly broke). So even though I love OpenSUSE, it didn’t seem like the right option for me at this point in time.
OpenSUSE has a rolling release concept, Tumbleweed, that interested me, but I was never able to get it to work on my testing machine, a ThinkPad T43. I suspect the problem might have had to do with bouncing between GNOME versions, but I was never really able to pin the issue down.
I played with Manjaro’s GNOME edition on my testing machine for a few weeks, and that seemed pretty nice, but eventually an update broke my setup and I wasn’t able to even triangulate on what the issue might be. I don’t blame Manjaro, though. Part of running an Arch-based distribution means accepting a willingness to go through log files. I thought I was willing to do that right up until I couldn’t figure out the issue in less than a few hours. I enjoy trouble-shooting a lot of different Linux issues, but reviewing log files is completely unrewarding to me. It’s not a knock on Arch or Manjaro — it’s more a self-realization.
I also played with Linux Mint Debian Edition, another rolling release, but aesthetically it was a bit raw, and there seemed to be some concerns about the rate at which Mint pushes out security updates. In general, it’s a nice enough distro, but it felt and looked old to me.
With rolling releases ruled out, I decided to focus on long-term stability. That meant either an Ubuntu Long Term Support release (LTS; 12.04.2) or a Linux Mint one (Maya 13).
Now down to two distros, I had to think about the desktop environment issue. I love GNOME, but I haven’t had the most luck getting GNOME shell working in Ubuntu. In the past it’s been glitchy in a way I haven’t seen in other distros. Ubuntu now has a GNOME edition, but because it’s brand new, there’s no LTS version.
Poking around Ubuntu, I remembered how much I enjoyed Xubuntu back when I ran it a few years ago. While Xubuntu won’t push out Xfce-related updates as long as it will push the general Ubuntu ones, it felt long-term enough for my purposes.
Looking at Mint, I’m not a huge fan of Cinnamon or Mate, so I decided to try Mint’s Xfce version, too.
I installed Mint and Xubuntu side-by-side on my testing machine. As you might expect, they’re both very, very similar, what with Mint based upon Ubuntu. In the end, I decided to go with Xubuntu for purely aesthetic reasons. The default Xfce configuration was nicer, with a single panel across the top of the screen, much like my beloved GNOME. There was more contrast due to a darker theme. It shipped with the beautiful elementary icons already installed. The fonts and rendering were all sharper within Xubuntu (say what you will about Ubuntu, but no distro renders fonts better). Obviously, I could have configured Mint to look just like Xubuntu (it even has the elementary icons in its repositories), but it seemed like an unnecessary step. Why bother going to the trouble of getting Mint to look like Xubuntu when I can just use Xubuntu?
And so, with that, I was settled on Xubuntu as my new distro. Now, I had to get it on my main work machine, a ThinkPad T420.
I moved my files over to the testing machine, just to make sure there were no issues with file versions. It was time well spent. OpenSUSE was using KeePassX 2 while Xubuntu is still on 0.4.3. Despite what the numbers imply, they are two completely different programs. The Linux version of KeePassX 2 won’t let you roll back a file to version 0.4.3, so I had to do it in a Windows version of KeePassX via a virtual machine. It represented work, but far less work than losing all of my passwords.
I had some PDFs zipped up with a password. For some reason, the PDFs wouldn’t open on Xubuntu. I had occasionally had the same thing happen on OpenSUSE, so I’m not quite sure that issue was, but the files weren’t anything irreplaceable, so I didn’t even bother trying to resolve the issue.
I had a virtual Windows XP machine in OpenSUSE. I archived it and reinstalled it in Xubuntu without any drama, other than that my flash drive was formatted as FAT32 and couldn’t handle the archive size until I reformatted it as NTFS. I didn’t pick up on the FAT32 size limitation until the Xubuntu virtual machine told me the archived image was defective. Once I reformatted the flash drive, moving the virtual machine over was effortless (and much faster than reinstalling a Windows image from scratch).
Once everything was working on my testing machine, I quickly installed Xubuntu on my main laptop. It was quick and easy, like most Ubuntu installs are. I appreciated that Xubuntu didn’t require me to manually configure my TrackPoint scroll, like so many other distros do. Although I had my files backed up on my testing machine, I was able to move them over using SpiderOak, and that was shockingly quick.
I’ve been tweaking Xubuntu and the level of customization is very impressive. As I’ve mentioned, I really loved GNOME, but there isn’t much you can do to change its look. Xfce is quite the opposite. Of course, I’ve been using that customizability to make Xubuntu look more like GNOME. I turned off the button labels so it just shows program icons in the top panel. I’ve mostly been ignoring the bottom dock, since it autohides. I might remove it at some point, but so far, I rarely see it. I installed the Microsoft fonts from the repositories and manually added Courier Prime, my favorite font. I set PCManFM as the default file manager and configured the application finder/launcher to come up with the Super/Windows button (one of my first Xubuntu tricks). I miss not being able to open specific files from the launcher, like I could in GNOME, but it’s really not much of an adjustment — especially with the gedit dashboard plugin enabled.
Xfce is great at making tweaks very easy to implement. Keyboard shortcuts take a few seconds, where in GNOME they could be hidden in gconf and dconf configurations. Once you know what you want to do with Xfce, making changes is remarkably quick.
The biggest compliment I can pay my current setup is that it doesn’t feel different from my old one. I’m still able to launch things by clicking the Super button. If I have that ability in any operating system, I’m pretty happy. I appreciate the range of software available within the Ubuntu repositories. Everything is in there, where with OpenSUSE I often had to enable certain separate repositories to get software I wanted.
Changing distros is stressful. The main lesson, which I’m sure everyone knows, is to make sure all of your files are backed up. I back up everything to SpiderOak, but I also backed up my files to a flash drive, just in case something went sideways with SpiderOak (which it didn’t).
I’m lucky enough to have an old laptop I can use as a test machine. That was huge. It let me flag problems and resolve them before they were live on my main laptop. If you have a second machine you can test on, I strongly encourage you to do so. Especially if you’re going between different distributions.
Also, in general, when choosing a distro, think about what you really want. I started looking at rolling releases because I didn’t want to deal with reinstallations down the line. But with rolling releases, the cost for having to do a reinstallation every few years is having to be vigilant and observant on a regular basis. In the end, I realized I’d rather spend a day or two on a reinstall every few years than constantly watching and maintaining my system. I just don’t have the skillset to understand the implications of each update. I need a distribution that parses that information for me.
On a related note, try and spend a few weeks with a rolling release. Just about all of them are easy to manage at the beginning. But as you make changes and as updates come in, things can become more complex. Testing over time will give you more of a sense of if you have the tools to keep a rolling system running.
Finally, I really urge people to take Xubuntu for a spin. It’s a beautiful distribution that has a lot of nice default settings. I really thought more people would flock to Xfce when GNOME 3 came up. Some of the default implementations, or lack of implementation, can make Xfce seem old-fashioned and kind of ugly. Xubuntu does a great job of showing how contemporary Xfce can look and feel. It’s got that familiar, menu-driven interface that so many people seem to like, but it also works well via its own application launcher/finder. It’s fast and simple. I loved GNOME 3, but Xfce is just as impressive. Plus, it’s really nice to have my weather applet back.
The Linux Setup - Vince Bardsley, Author
Vince Bardsley says he’s a hobbyist, but his hardware is no joke. I definitely recommend checking out his clean machine, which is a physical setup more of us should probably try and emulate.
Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Vince Bardsley. I am, in order of decreasing importance, a Christian, a husband, grandfather and father. I am also, in no particular order, a retired science teacher, novelist, cyclist, RV’er, computer hobbyist, Linux advocate, amateur radio operator (KB3OM), bridge player and Corvette owner.
What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?
Presently I have Mint Maya (Cinnamon) on my production computer. Maya requires only a few tweaks to get it just the way I want it and between the Update Manager and the Software Center it stays that way. I admit to being a ‘distro hopper;’ to allow me to do that easily I have a number of hard drive racks and drawers, so trying something new is as easy as pulling out one drive and sliding in a different drawer with a different drive.
What software do you depend upon with this distribution?
I use LibreOffice for writing and spreadsheets and either Rhythmbox or XBMC to listen to music. I’m afraid I don’t do anything exotic.
What kind of hardware do you run it on?
The production machine is based on an ASUS M4N68T-V2 mobo and AMD Phenom II X4 955. It has 8GB of RAM and a Nvidia GeForce 9300 GS for video. The OS and related directories are on a 64GB Patriot Torqx 2. Home directories and swap space are on a WDC WD3200. This is clearly overkill for what I do. Backup, etc. is on a Zyxel NSA 221. The display is a Samsung SyncMaster 2493HM. Audio is output through an ancient Altec Lansing speaker system. There are also various other boxes around the house including my wife’s HP laptop (running Maya) and a Raspberry Pi.
What is your ideal Linux setup?
My ideal Linux setup is a clean machine. I get to repair a fair number of computers for friends and acquaintances (if you’re reading this you know exactly how this goes). The vast majority of these boxes take the term dust bunny to a whole new level. I like my computer to be clean and cool. My solution is made from poster board and a furnace filter. All the holes and cracks except for the exhaust fan have been sealed:
Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?
The objet d’art is entitled, Self Portrait, in pipe cleaner, by Zoe, my five-year-old granddaughter. The open box in the lower left corner is a page from Crossthread my latest novel, now available on Kindle.
Interview conducted Sept. 28, 2012
Linux Mint Xfce Versus Xfce Debian Testing
I don’t quite know why, but I really like the idea of a rolling distribution.
Rolling distributions are constantly being updated, so you never have to go from a version X to version X.1. Instead, everything is being updated constantly.
A while back, I used Arch Linux, which is a bleeding-edge rolling distribution, and I really loved it, but eventually an update broke my system and I didn’t have the time or the skills to repair it.
But despite that experience, I like knowing I can hold onto an OS for as long as I want. Because right now I’m running Xubuntu 10.04, which is a long term support release. But that just means I get three years of updates instead of 18 months. We’re about a year into that LTS release. If I get a new computer in the next year, I’ll have to upgrade to a new LTS about a year or so later. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a little bit of a hassle I think about from time to time.
To start thinking ahead, I looked into Debian Testing. Testing is the pre-release form of whatever the next Debian stable release will be and as such, it’s a rolling release that’s constantly being updated. I spoke to some people who use it and even though it’s technically not considered stable, just about everyone said they see very little breakage (with the caveat that Testing is much more stable toward the end of a development cycle than at the beginning of one).
I’ve been playing with Debian Testing (of course, with Xfce) in a virtual box for a few weeks and so far it’s pretty good (details are here). There have been no real issues. The look and feel isn’t as polished as Xubuntu, but some of that could be because it’s running in a virtual environment. Finding software in testing is sometimes a challenge. I had to wait a few days for Chromium because of a package holdup. But that was resolved.
One thing that surprised me about Xfce Debian Testing is how little software bloat there is. There’s no graphical package manager. There’s no update manager. It’s pretty bare-bones. Obviously, one can easily install these things if one wants them, but I opted to just run update and upgrade from the command line, whenever I happened to remember. Testing doesn’t get a lot of updates, or at least it hasn’t up until now.
Right around the time I was playing with testing, Mint announced the release of Linux Mint Xfce, which is the Mint take on Debian Testing with an Xfce desktop.
I decided to try that in a virtual machine, too. In terms of software, it seems like Mint just moved over a lot of GNOME-y stuff. There’s pure GNOME stuff, like the GNOME system monitor instead of the Xfce task manager. Mint opts for LibreOffice instead of lighter office programs, like AbiWord. Mint also chose Rhythmbox over Exaile. I wish the software selection was a little more Xfce curated, like Xubuntu’s software selection increasingly is, but I think Mint is positioning its Xfce Testing as an alternative for people who don’t want to move to GNOME 3, so they want to include as much GNOME software as possible.
I was shocked at how ugly the default Mint icons are. I usually can’t be bothered to change icons in a virtual machine, but it was one of the first things I did. Mint ships with an impressive array of icon options, though.
But in terms of performing very simple tasks, I didn’t feel much difference between Mint and Debian Testing. Neither rendered fonts very well. Both seem to lose application focus on open (but that could just be a Chromium bug), and neither could run Grooveshark in Chromium.
Flash worked right out of the box for Mint but needed to be massaged with Debian, which one would probably expect, given Debian’s stance on free software.
Other than that, it’s hard to say which was better. Because I was in a virtual machine, I can’t speak to how they handle wifi and printing, which are kind of huge things in an OS.
Debian Testing is lean and mean, but it requires more work to get everything configured. It starts you with a very basic system and it’s up to the user to enhance it. I’m a bit concerned about software availability, since Debian is sometimes a bit sluggish with updates. But from what I’ve read, you can often access more cutting edge software in some of the other Debian repositories (although with Volatile gone, I’m not sure what those might be).
Mint makes more assumptions and choices for its users. The GNOME focus isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t take much to remove the GNOME stuff you don’t like and add in the Xfce stuff you do. Plus, I imagine there are less media issues with Mint, since they’re less concerned about free and open software.
If I had to reinstall an OS today, I’m still not sure if I would go Mint, Debian, or Xubuntu. Xubuntu is probably the nicest product, but the update cycle can be a pain. I want to keep an eye on Mint and Debian and see if either breaks or if one emerges with better software selection.
But for now, it’s nice to see some interesting rolling release options for Xfce lovers.