On 1 June Ubuntu 6.06 (Dapper Drake) was released. New versions of Kubuntu (Ubuntu with a KDE desktop) and Edubuntu (a version for young people) were also unveiled. Perhaps the most interesting release was the newest member of the Ubuntu family, Xubuntu, a derivative distro based on the forthcoming XFCE 4.4 desktop. In this review I am going to focus heavily on the desktop since that is really the only thing that sets Xubuntu apart from Ubuntu.
In the article where I renewed my complaints about Gnome I touted XFCE 4.4 as an up and coming challenger to both KDE and Gnome on the desktop. The 4.4 version includes a new file manager, Thunar, added panel functionality to rival what KDE and Gnome users are accustomed to, new applets, and greater configurability. The release of Xubuntu is actually built on a beta of the new XFCE, version 126.96.36.199. While I was originally a bit concerned about this it turns out that Xubuntu has relatively few bugs and a very polished look and feel.
One of the claims made on the Xubuntu web page is:
It’s lighter, and more efficient than Ubuntu with GNOME or KDE, since it uses the Xfce Desktop environment, which makes it ideal for old or low-end machines, as well as thin-client networks.
I decided to put this to the test, installing Xubunu onto a Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204, a laptop with a 1 GHz Celeron processor and 512MB of RAM. This was one of the systems I used to evaluate and review Fedora Core 5. At the time I found FC5 to be substantially faster on this somewhat dated laptop that Ubuntu 5.10 (Breezy Badger). Over a roughly two month period I used this laptop running Fedora with an XFCE 188.8.131.52 desktop and my usual favorite applications so my comparison of Xubuntu 6.06 to Fedora 5 is apples-to-apples.
Xubuntu, like Ubuntu, offers two installation methods: boot to a live CD and choose to install to the hard drive or use a text-based installer. Your choice is decided by which iso image you download. I chose the text-based installation since the CD-ROM drive in my old laptop is painfully slow. I found the install process to be a bit primitive, similar to Red Hat Linux 5.0, circa 1998 or so, but with fewer opportunities to customise the installation. On the positive side it worked flawlessly and correctly detected all my hardware, right down to my Atheros chipset based wireless card and my Toshiba BIOS. It enabled the kernel Toshiba ACPI module right out of the box, something no other distro has done for me. Even better, ACPI actually seems to finally work as it should without any user intervention.
One thing I like about Xubuntu is that it installs just a few core GTK2 applications that most users would probably want on a lightweight distro, including Firefox, Abiword, and Gnumeric. Beyond that you pretty much have to use apt-get or the graphical package manager synaptic to add what you want. Most full distributions throw in tons of applications and cruft into their default install and the user is left to strip out what they don’t need while trying not to break what they do need due to dependency issues. Not so for Xubuntu. I very much appreciate the bare bones approach. Synaptic is easy to use so even a relative newcomer to Linux should have no problems adding what they want, particularly if they enable the Universe and Multiverse packages, rougly equivalent to Extras and FreshRPMs in the Fedora/Red Hat world.
If I had performance running Xubuntu similar to what I had running Fedora I would have been very happy with the results. I didn’t. Xubuntu surprised me by being substantially faster still. My aging Toshiba hasn’t been this responsive in a very long time. Under Fedora when I opened a couple of rather resource intensive applications, for example Open Office and Seamonkey, the system would begin to drag. While these apps still take a moment to get started on Xubuntu they are crisp and responsive and don’t seem to slow anything else down. I never expected this sort of performance and that alone made Xubuntu an instant favorite of mine.
The claims made for the XFCE 4.4 branch also stand up. I had to chuckle when I first saw my new desktop. The Xubuntu team had configured XFCE to look just like a default Gnome desktop. That wasn’t quite possible with 184.108.40.206. It’s wonderfully easy to change it back to the old CDE look and feel or something completely different. One commenter to my Gnome article wrote in part:
[I] tried XFCE in the form of Xubuntu and found it to be the right middle ground between either [KDE or Gnome]… pretty enough to be appealing and down to business enough to let me stay focused on my work and on the whole it is alot faster than either.
With only a couple of reservations I have to agree. What don’t I like? XFCE itself is built on GTK2, so the same file and print dialogs I complained about in my Gnome article are present. This is one place I wish XFCE was more like KDE. One exception I’ve found is in configuring launchers. Yes, I can actually type in a filename in the dialog box when I configure my launchers by default. I hope this functionality spreads to other native XFCE applets and applications.
I’ve also noticed that Firefox 220.127.116.11, which had random crashes when I ran Fedora, exhibits the same behavior running Xubuntu. Epiphany 18.104.22.168 also tends to lock up at random, something it didn’t do running Fedora. That may be due to the fact that I don’t have all of Gnome installed, just the libraries and apps I need to run a few applications, or it may be due to some interaction between Epiphany and the beta of XFCE. The only gecko based browser that seems to be stable for me is Seamonkey and it isn’t even offered in the Ubuntu Universe. I had to go to mozilla.org to grab it.
The Xubuntu 6.06 release notes list one XFCE bug:
The menu editor (xfce4-menueditor) doesn’t work as expected, and might eat your menu. To restore the default menu: remove ~/.config/xfce4/desktop/menu.xml, log out from Xfce and then log in again.
Since I’ve been known to be long on curiosity and short on good sense at times I tried it anyway. I added Seamonkey, Seamonkey Mail, and Flock to my menu. It worked just fine for me. Having read the warning above I quit while I was ahead and did not try to completely reorganize my menu as I often do. XFCE still offers CDE-like launchers on the panel, each of which becomes, in effect, it’s own custom menu of related applications. That functionality pretty much replaces going to the main menu most of the time for me.
The new Thunar file manager is pretty. It doesn’t open a ton of windows as you navigate through various directories the way Nautilus does by default. It offers some very basic customization and works extremely well. It is, however, still very simplistic and feature poor when compared to Konqueror or Nautilus. On the other hand, it is extremely fast and lightweight, something neither Konqueror nor Nautilus can claim. It is very much an improvement over the old xffm file manager, though. For those of you who liked xffm it is still there as well.
Xfburn, the CD burning applet, is a pleasant surprise. It’s as easy to use as K3B and just as reliable. It does not, however, support DVD media and lacks any sort of advanced customization. For basic CD burning it works well and is also very lightweight.
Overall I am impressed and Xubuntu, for the moment anyway, is my favorite Linux distribution despite a few rough edges, probably largely due to the use of a beta desktop. The feature set of the new XFCE really does approach or, in a few cases, surpass that of Gnome while remaining very fast and lightweight. Mutilingual support, including bidirectional support for languages like Arabic, Hebrew, Thai, and Yiddish, is every bit as good as in Gnome or KDE. The ability to customize and configure the look and feel of the desktop, though still a far cry from what KDE offers, is better than Gnome at this point.
Xubuntu isn’t just for older, slower machines. The feature set of XFCE has evolved to the point where it really can stand toe to toe with KDE and Gnome. What features are lacking are more than made up for by being lightweight. Let’s face it: even on the best, newest, fastest hardware any memory or CPU cycles not swallowed up by the desktop are available for something else. Using XFCE strips away bloat and with the 4.4 tree it doesn’t leave you lacking creature comforts.
Under the hood Xubuntu virtually identical to Ubuntu and is a rock solid distribution rather than a true newcomer. Three years of support is promised, making Xubuntu 6.06 appropriate for a corporate desktop or even for the corporate server room.