Edgy Eft (version 6.10), the second release of Xubuntu, a variant of Ubuntu Linux built around the Xfce4 desktop and designed to be lightweight, was released in October. I’ve been using it since then and I’ve been impressed. The bugs and rough edges seen in the first release, Dapper Drake (6.06) are gone and the end result is a solid, reliable distribution that’s a pleasure to use. The introduction to the Xubuntu Desktop Guide says, in part:
Xubuntu generally uses GTK+ 2 apps that don’t have KDE and Gnome dependencies and, in general, performance is definitely improved compared to the heavier desktop environments. In my opinion Xubuntu is not just for older equipment that needs a more lightweight distribution. It’s polished enough for use anywhere.
I’ve mainly used Xubuntu so far on my four year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204 laptop which has a 1 GHz Celeron processor and 512MB of RAM. Though this system has adequate memory for any current Linux desktop it’s sufficiently challenged in terms of processing power for KDE to be sluggish and for Xfce to be noticeably faster than a recent release of Gnome when doing significant work.
Xubuntu is available for download as a single .iso image. There are two isos available for download: a live CD and an “alternate” desktop CD with a text based installer. So far I’ve only done a conventional installation from CD-ROM. However, network based installations, including automated installation using kickstart or the Ubuntu installer are also supported.
The live CD is nice for getting used to the look and feel of Xubuntu with some caveats. First, you get a really limited set of applications to play with. Second, at least with my laptop DVD-ROM drive, live CDs are pretty painfully slow in general. There’s a nice install icon on the desktop and if you click that a graphical Xubuntu installation begins.
In general I found the graphical installer quite limited. While it does offer QTParted for partitioning your hard drive it asks very few questions after that and does what it thinks best. For a newcomer to Linux this is probably fine but a seasoned user will likely want to be able to customize his or her installation. On the plus side the installer correctly detected and configured all my hardware except for my Epson Stylus C66 USB printer which was attached at the time. OK, my scanner wasn’t detected either but Xubuntu doesn’t have sane or any scanner software on it’s single CD-ROM. You add that later. Overall, for a plain vanilla install it did a good job.
Installation with the “alternate” desktop CD was better. This is an old fashioned text based installer, kind of like what all Linux distros had a decade ago. While it’s not pretty this installation method is very customizable provided you know about debconf priority, a Debianism which is also found in Ubuntu. The default debconf priority is “high”. Setting debconf priority to “low”, which can be done as a kernel boot parameter or later from the installer menu, gives you a highly flexible expert mode install. There is also a “medium” setting which, as you’d expect, falls somewhere in between.
The text based installer did every bit as well for me as the graphical and left me with less configuration work to do after the initial installation. The only place it fell down a bit was that I was asked which network interface (ethernet or wireless) was my default. I chose ethernet and my wireless card was left unconfigured and disabled. Fortunately that’s easy to correct after installation.
Xubuntu, much like Ubuntu, gives you a very minimal set of applications to start with. You’ll end up using apt-get or the graphical synaptic package manager to add what you want or need to the system. I actually prefer this to big, bloated distros with lots of interlinking dependencies to things you don’t really need. Starting small and adding just what you use generally means better performance in the end. I should note that Xubuntu installs AbiWord and Gnumeric by default but does not install the heavier OpenOffice suite. OpenOffice is on the CD-ROM so you don’t have to download it if you want and and are still living with a dial-up connection.
Changes Since Dapper
Most of the applications included in the Edgy Eft release are incremental upgrades from Dapper Drake. One notable exception is Mozilla Firefox 2.0. I had complained bitterly, and also took quite a bit of abuse from Mozilla’s defenders for complaining that Firefox 1.5.x was unstable under Linux. I experienced frequent crashes and freeze ups in that series of releases. 2.0 is a huge improvement. In more than six weeks I’ve managed to crash Firefox just twice and hang it just once. No browser is going to handle every web page perfectly and Firefox 2.0 is about as reliable as anything out there.
While the version of Xfce provided is still 4.3.99 RC1 a number of patches and bugfixes have clearly been applied. Everything I found that wasn’t quite right in the original Dapper release works properly now. xffm4, the older file manager, has been deleted from Edgy, thought it remains available for download. It seems the Xubuntu developers have decided the new Thunar file manager is ready for prime time. I have to agree. xfmedia, the rather simplistic media player for Xfce included in Dapper is also gone. However, you can download an xmms applet for the taskbar that integrates that very nice media player into your desktop.
Another nice addition to Xfce which probably should be included on the CD-ROM but isn’t is XfApplet. Fortunately you can download this handy little add-on that allows you to run any Gnome applet in the Xfce taskbar. I tried hdate-applet, a Jewish/Hebrew calendar for the Gnome taskbar, and found it worked perfectly under Xfce in Edgy. Very nice.
The Dapper release of Xubuntu lacked a graphical application for setting up printers. The one now included will be familiar to Red Hat/Fedora users. However, system-config-printer also failed to detect my Epson Stylus C66. I found this odd as Fedora Core did detect my printer correctly. As was the case in Dapper you can download gnome-cups-manager. That application did successfully detect my printer and configure it properly.
Xubuntu Edgy is the first distribution I’ve found that not only installed all the proper tools and drivers for my Toshiba laptop, but also has everything that works under Windows working under Linux with the sole exception of the winmodem. For example, I’ve never seen Linux correctly handle a reboot on this laptop before. The Ubuntu family of distributions has always had excellent hardware support but they seem to have outdone themselves with the release of Edgy.
What hasn’t been updated is a lot of the documentation. The Desktop Guide, for example, is the one released with Dapper and is out of date.
Xubuntu comes from the land of the DMCA and as a result multimedia support is extremely limited after install. To make matters worse the one media player included in the default install, gxine, is the only app in Edgy I’ve found to be quite broken. Crashes and freezes are common. Downloading xine with it’s original interface or else mplayer solves the problem nicely. Instructions for adding proprietary formats can be found in the Ubuntu Wiki on the Restricted Formats page. Please note that following these instructions may not be legal in some countries including the United States. A moderately experienced Linux user should have no problem following what’s on the page. A newcomer to Linux may find it a bit daunting. The various flavors of Ubuntu are not among the growing number of Linux distributions that have chosen to offer licensed, proprietary DVD players.
Running Xubuntu Edgy
One of the reasons I’ve been so pleased with the Edgy Eft release is that Xubuntu is now one of the two fastest distributions I’ve tried (tied with Vector Linux) on my aging Toshiba laptop. I’ve tried an Xfce desktop on Fedora or Mandriva without seeing the same kind of performance. This is especially noticeable when loading OpenOffice or running a number of heavier applications.
Xubuntu uses the same package sources as Ubuntu and Kubuntu. There is no lack of software you can add, particularly if you enable Universe packages (similar to Extras for Fedora users). I am always pleased to see how many truly specialized applications are packaged for Ubuntu. There are also Multiverse packages: proprietary applications like the Flash Player plugin for Firefox and Adobe Acrobat Reader. Those who want a system with purely Free and Open Source software will want to leave Multiverse disabled. I was surprised to see that, at least so far, Seamonkey hasn’t been offered. I had to get it from the Mozilla website. I could name a bunch of other applications I’d like to see added but no distribution offers everything and the selection for Xubuntu really is quite excellent.
While Xfce has a subset of the features of either KDE or Gnome it does have pretty much everything I need. Like KDE (and unlike Gnome) I find that Xfce can be easily reconfigured to my taste and most of the configuration tools are quite intuitive. While the default Xubuntu desktop looks a whole lot like the default Ubuntu desktop running Gnome I can easily change it to the classic Xfce look and feel or pretty much anything else I want.
When I touted Xfce some months back in an article where I complained about Gnome one person commented that Thunar, the file manager, is primitive. In a sense he’s right. Thunar doesn’t have an integrated CD burner like Nautilus and it isn’t a browser like Konqueror. It’s just a simple, old fashioned file manager with a nice, clean interface and just enough options to be useful. Similarly, Xfburn, the Xfce CD-burner, is feature poor when compared to K3B or XCDRoast. In other cases, like the Orage clock/calendar applet, what Xfce provides is every bit as configurable and sophisticated as what the larger desktop environments have.
Internationalisation and localisation is generally excellent. While the number of languages supported during installation is somewhat limited once you’ve got Xubuntu installed you have many choices. Just go to System -> Language Support in the menu and check off the languages and locales you want. The number of translations does vary, of course, but in general it is no problem to setup an account using a different default language or to switch languages once logged in. The Xfce Keyboard Layout Switcher applet not only correctly handles my external Hebrew/English keyboard but also changes the input mode to right to left for Hebrew and back again for English. In general bidirectional support in Xfce under Xubuntu is just as good as in KDE running Kubuntu.
Once I had everything I like installed and configured I’ve found Xubuntu to be truly a pleasure to use. It’s user friendly for the newcomer and highly customizable for the experienced user. The basic application set on the single CD is, as expected, limited but I’d rather build up a distro with what I need and exclude what I don’t need than try to remove cruft. Performance is the best I’ve seen in any current distro. Most of my complaints are nitpicking and in general Xubuntu Edgy Eft is as good as any Linux distribution I’ve used so far. Highly recommended.