The third release of Xubuntu, the variant of Ubuntu with the lightweight Xfce desktop, appeared last month. Feisty Fawn (version 7.04) uses the final gold code of Xfce 4.4.0 rather than the release candidates in Edgy Eft (version 6.10) and Dapper Drake (version 6.06). I had very positive experiences with both Edgy and Dapper so I had very high expectations for Xubuntu Feisty Fawn. In some ways the new release does take a step forward but in some truly important areas it took a couple of steps backwards and has been something of a disappointment.
Once again my test bed for Xubuntu has been my four and a half year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204 laptop which has a 1 GHz Celeron processor and 512MB of RAM. With this relatively slow processor KDE is sluggish. Xfce is also noticeably faster than a recent release of Gnome when doing significant work. Two Xfce based distributions, Xubuntu and Vector Linux, perform very well on this laptop. I really like Xfce 4.4.x. It strikes the right balance between brisk performance and features. I feel that Xubuntu is a good candidate for newer, more powerful systems as well. Having said that I’m not at all sure that upgrading from Edgy Eft to Feisty Fawn is a terribly good idea while Edgy is still well supported.
Once again Xubuntu fits on a single CD and is downloaded as a single iso image. You have a choice of a live CD which includes a GUI installer or an “alternate” desktop CD with an old fashioned text base installer. Network based installations, including automated installation using kickstart or the Ubuntu installer are also supported. Documentation is also provided for doing a hosted install from within an existing Linux system.
I started with the live CD as recommended on the Xubuntu website. I was surprised that when Xfce came up the panel appeared and then promptly disappeared. What I was left with was just a clean desktop and some icons. For a moment I thought this might be a new look for Xubuntu but I quickly discovered that the desktop menu wasn’t enabled. The net result was that I had to right click on the desktop and choose Desktop Settings from the existing menu to enable the desktop menu. This is easy enough for someone who knows Xfce but is hardly intuitive for the newcomer. This bug essentially means you boot into what is probably the least new user friendly Linux desktop I’ve ever seen. Until the desktop menu is enabled there was no obvious way to get at any applications at all.
Installation from the live CD also proved problematic. I had installed Edgy Eft in an xfs partition and my intention was simply to reformat the partition during installation and do a nice, fresh install of Feisty. Everything seemed fine until I reached the point where the bootloader was to be installed. I received a warning message that grub doesn’t always work well with xfs partitions. Hmmm… it’s always worked for me but, OK, maybe there is an issue there that I just haven’t run into. The warning message told me that I needed to install lilo. The problem: there is no way to install lilo from the graphical install program. My choices were to make an ext3 or reiserfs partition instead or else bail out of the installer completely. I was not happy about this at all.
I went with an ext3 root partition and finished the installation to my hard drive. Guess what? Yep, the same unfriendly desktop configuration awaited me. I enabled the desktop menu, opened a terminal window, and attempted to start the panel from the command line. It would appear for a second and then promptly disappear. I thought I might have a bad CD but the integrity check within the installer said it was perfectly fine. A friend of mine had exactly the same results on his system. In addition the Live CD contains fewer applications and utilities than the alternate CD. OpenOffice, for example, is on the alternate CD image but not the live CD.
The text based installer on the alternate CD proved to be much, much better. The look and feel might seem dated (think Red Hat Linux 5.0 or so) but the functionality is very good. I was able to create my xfs partition this time and the installer automatically installed lilo for the bootloader. My one complaint is the same one I had when I did a text based installation of Edgy: I was asked which network interface (ethernet or wireless) was my default. I chose ethernet and my wireless card was left unconfigured and disabled. That’s really easy to correct after installation.
I booted my newly installed system and the familiar Xubuntu Xfce configuration was unchanged from Edgy. The panels, top and bottom, work just fine when Feisty is installed from the alternate CD.
Changes Since Edgy
There are some significant changes since Edgy. One I like very much is the Restricted Drivers Manager. I use a PCMCIA wireless card with an Atheros chipset. The madwifi driver I need has questionable licensing so it’s considered “restricted”, as are all the proprietary binary drivers that are included with Ubuntu. Canonical seems to have found the proper balance between Free Software purists and people who want their systems to just work. Whatever drivers are needed to make all the hardware work are installed but if anything restricted is included you get a warning at first boot. The Restricted Drivers Manager lets you know what non-free software is installed and makes it easy to rip out anything that you don’t want.
Another notable improvement was system-config-printer, the GUI printer configuration tool written by the folks at Red Hat. The Xubuntu installer still doesn’t handle setting up a printer. Under Edgy my Epson Stylus C66 printer wasn’t supported even though the same configuration tool worked perfectly under Fedora Core. The version included with Feisty correctly identified my printer and told me I needed to download and install the foomatic-db-gutenprint package. Once that was installed configuring my printer was simple and straightforward.
In addition to the final release code of Xfce 4.4.0 most applications in Feisty have been updated. OpenOffice Writer 2.2 is now installed by default in addition to AbiWord 2.4.6. The rest of the OpenOffice applications are included in the CD image and can be installed without net access if need be. Bugs in gxine and in Xfce4 that were present in the release code of Edgy are now fixed. Out of the virtual box Feisty sports a 2.6.20 kernel.
I was very pleasantly surprised at how well Edgy supported my Toshiba laptop. Everything worked except the built in winmodem. Sadly Feisty has taken a huge step backwards in this area at least for my specific model. Rebooting no longer works. Feisty hangs my laptop powered up after stopping all of its processes. This is what most Linux distros do on my laptop but Edgy handled a reboot perfectly. In addition the toshiba_acpi kernel module loaded when I booted into Feisty but the toshiba kernel module did not which I found very strange. I had to add toshiba to /etc/modules myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if other Toshiba laptop models also prove to be problematic.
Running Xubuntu Feisty
The performance of Xubuntu Feisty Fawn on my laptop is excellent and seems to be slightly better than Edgy Eft. The only other distribution that runs as fast is Vector Linux 5.8 Standard with an updated 2.6.20 kernel. Other full featured distributions (SuSe, Mandriva, and Fedora) are noticeably slower even when running an Xfce desktop. In addition Xubuntu installs into a relatively small footprint of 1.5GB. Xubuntu remains an outstanding choice for older hardware and systems with limited resources.
Feisty Fawn gives you a pretty minimal set of applications after installation. This is the price you pay for limiting the distribution to a single CD image. I have no objection to this at all as it’s perfectly easy to download and install packages with synaptic or with apt-get at the command line. It’s always easier to build up a bare bones distribution than to figure out what bits to remove from a bloated one.
Xfce really hasn’t changed since Dapper Drake or Edgy Eft other than the bugs one would expect in beta code are blissfully absent. Xfce doesn’t have quite the features of KDE or Gnome but it has all the important things I need. It strikes the right balance between features and being fast and lightweight. KDE is probably more familiar looking to someone migrating from Windows. Once you get used to the way Xfce does things most people seem to find it user friendly, simple, and relatively intuitive.
Xubuntu Feisty includes all the Xfce Goodies and applications except for xfmedia, a truly simplistic and very limited media player. xfmedia is available as a Universe package for download. xfapplet, which allows you to run Gnome applets in the Xfce panel, is available for download but isn’t included by default. I use xfapplet mainly to run hdate-applet, a Jewish/Hebrew calendar and it continues to work perfectly well running Feisty.
Xubuntu is a DMCA complaint distribution so, as you’d expect, multimedia support out of the box is terribly limited. Instructions for adding proprietary formats can still 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 the process a bit much to follow.
Xubuntu continues to use the same package sources as Ubuntu and Kubuntu. There is no lack of software you can add once you enable Universe packages (similar to Extras for Fedora users). The available selection is quite comprehensive. The Multiverse packages of proprietary applications are also still available. As was the case with Edgy and Dapper you need to leave the Multiverse disabled if you want a system with purely Free and Open Source software.
Ubuntu/Kubuntu/Xubuntu internationalization and localization is now as good as any distribution I’ve seen. A fairly large selection of languages are now supported during installation. Once Feisty is installed you can add full support for the languages you need from the Xfce menu by selecting System -> Language Support. Just check off the languages and locales you want to download. As always the number of translations does vary. It’s easy to setup an account using a different default language or to switch languages once logged in. The Xfce Keyboard Layout Switcher applet correctly handles my external Hebrew/English keyboard a and also changes the input mode to right to left for Hebrew and back again for English.
If you stick with the alternate desktop CD I think most users will find Xubuntu Feisty Fawn to be excellent in most respects. Most of the applications received only minor updates from Edgy Eft. Live CD users will definitely want to stick with Edgy for now as will Toshiba laptop users. While some nice touches have been added I was disappointed to see hardware support for my laptop fell short in the new release especially in light of how well Edgy Eft worked. All the rough edges that existed in the Xubuntu desktop under Edgy seem to have been polished in this release. I still recommend Xubuntu for most users but there are a few more caveats than before. Folks who are happy with Edgy may want to think twice about upgrading. For a new install I’d probably try Feisty first and hope that it all works.