Friday, May 11, 2012

Xubuntu 12.04 REVIEW

Most of the machines I use are laptops or tablets, but I also have a desktop that I use for recording my music. On that desktop, though, I have two different hard drives split in three (roughly 250GB) partitions, something that allows me to have different distros installed on it. Since late 2010, that machine had Ubuntu 10.10, PCLinuxOS KDE and Ubuntu Studio 9.04 spread across those three partions available. It was about time I went for a change, for a number of reasons, including the fact that Ubuntu 10.10 recently went out of support (needless to say, so did Ubuntu Studio 9.04). On top of that, PCLinuxOS had been stuck on KDE SC 4.6.5 for about a year, so I wanted a fresh update on all my partitions to get fully supported distros and up to date applications and features.

The first thing that came to mind was to go for Fedora 17 GNOME and KDE on two of those partitions and then Dream Studio on the third one. However, I had doubts about that approach, mostly because of the feverish Fedora tendency to keep updating the Kernel time and again (which may lead to trouble on somewhat old hardware when planning for a 2-3 years installation). Along the same lines, the fact that Dream Studio releases happen several months after Ubuntu ones do meant that I had to wait a few more months if I wanted the LTS release. All in all, I felt it was somewhat risky to go for Fedora, plus I wasn´t willing to wait that long for Dream Studio. Moreover, Dream Studio sports Ubuntu´s Unity, and let's just say it is not what I want to see on my Audio Production setup.

I recently stumbled with the latest Ubuntu Studio release announcement and it quickly grabbed my attention. The lack of a low latency kernel which had put me off in recent releases had been remediated, and a move to XFCE (as opposed to Unity) made this release all the more interesting. Not only that, but the fact that it is an LTS (Long Term Support) release and the huge array of Multimedia production tools available in the DVD made it the perfect candidate for me (expect an Ubuntu Studio 12.04 review soon!.)

I had had very little experience with XFCE, though, so before installing Ubuntu Studio, I wanted to use the opportunity of the recent Xubuntu release to give it a go and learn more about it. Long story short, the experience was so positive that I decided to use it as a replacement for Ubuntu 10.10 on my desktop, which is saying a lot. Kubuntu 12.04, which continues the improvement pace from recent releases, was the perfect candidate to close the circle, taking over PCLinuxOS as the KDE "representative" on my desktop (I will post a Kubuntu 12.04 review in the next few days as well!.)

...SO HOW ABOUT XUBUNTU?

As I was considering Xubuntu, trying to get an understanding of what XFCE could do, I started trying things on the LiveCD, checking configuration options and learning more about its flexibility and power by researching on the Internet. All I found was positive, including immediate, complete and correct hardware recognition and configuration out of the box. It didn´t take long before I made up my mind and went for the installation.

As can be expected, installing Xubuntu is very similar to installing any other X-buntu distro. The installation process is great, smooth, and if running in a system connected to the Internet, it can provide a fully up to date desktop right off the bat (albeit with a significantly slower installation time).

Aesthetically (and I know this is very personal), the default Xubuntu setup is, well... not beautiful. However, the good news is that most of the good old customization that was very easy in "classic" Ubuntu, still is in Xubuntu. Icons, window decorations, fonts, rendering, wallpapers, even Conky, Compiz and Emerald are easily set up and customized. In other words, don´t get too caught up by the initial impression, because it does not take much to make Xubuntu look stunning, as hopefully the screenshots in this article show.


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(Just to provide some background on what I changed, I added the Faenza icon set, the Ambience theme and window decoration and then changed fonts from Android to Ubuntu. Cairo Dock, Conky and a fitting wallpaper complete the list of changes.)

From a functionality stand point, as could be expected from a lightweight DE like XFCE, Xubuntu is very responsive, but also simple and intuitive. The System Settings application is clear and easy to grasp, but in general I would say Xubuntu just makes sense.


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Common settings are right there where most users would expect them to be. For instance, I know it is a small and probably meaningless detail, but I was happy to see window controls (minimize, maximize, close) on the right. Similarly, right clicking on the desktop brings back most of the relevant options one would expect to see.


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Thunar, a fast and no-nonsense file manager is consistent with this simplistic approach. It does lack some features that other more powerful alternatives like Dolphin offer, but it should satisfy most regular users needs.


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DEFAULT APPS

Xubuntu is great in itself, but it obviously helps if the default applications of choice are just as good. In that sense, I have to admit that the preinstalled applications list is full of good and interesting choices, some of which surprised me very positively. Firefox, Thunderbird and Pidgin take Internet browsing, email and instant messaging duties respectively. Music is managed by the impressive GmusicBrowser, which surprisingly loaded my entire music collection without complaining one bit.


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Image viewing is handled by Ristretto.


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Parole is in charge for video playback.


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Office productivity apps Abiword (text processor) and Gnumeric (spreadsheet) are simple and lack some of the features available in more popular alternatives, but in turn they are simpler and more responsive. If, like me, all you use them for is to open a spreadsheet every once in a while, they probably suffice. If not, a quick visit to the Ubuntu Software Center should fix the issue in a few seconds.


Click on image to enlarge.

All in all, the set of applications accompanying Xubuntu is consistent with its spirit, sporting somewhat modest yet powerful features, fast and easy to use. If the default set of apps does not fit your needs, though, installing other apps is easier than ever with the latest version of the Ubuntu Software Center, which works great, but I will save my speech for my soon to come Ubuntu 12.04 review.


Click on image to enlarge.

NOTHING IS PERFECT

Xubuntu is no exception to the rule, it is not perfect, and I did find my share of minor issues here and there. Here's a short list of the issues I have found so far:

  • Double clicking on the window bar does not maximize windows, even if the window management settings say it should. Not sure if this is a Xubuntu or an XFCE issue.
  • Thunar is lightning fast once it's been run for the first time, but the first run takes longer than I was expecting from such a lightweight file manager. On the same hardware, Dolphin needs less time for that first run under Kubuntu.
  • When booting the system, once I enter my credentials on the Xubuntu login screen, the time to load the desktop is a bit slower than usual with other distros/DEs.
  • Configuring automounting external drives on startup is not possible through the UI (at least I didn't find how), so I had to do a bit of /etc/fstab tweaking.
  • Loading Conky scripts as I ran them in Ubuntu didn't bring the expected results. The Conky window was not below nor transparent, so I had to do a bit of research before I found the right parameters to make it work correctly.

Like I said, minor stuff, but maybe someone can benefit from sharing my experience and issues.

UBUNTU FOR THE NOSTALGIC

Moving from Ubuntu 10.10 (sporting Classic GNOME) to Xubuntu 12.04 was extremely easy, pretty seamless. Ubuntu users who feel alien to new desktop paradigms brought forward by the likes of Unity or GNOME Shell, will feel right at home with Xubuntu. In fact, given it incorporates many of the latest Ubuntu improvements and features, as well as a set of apps that bring a fresh take to daily tasks, I would say many will feel positively surprised after giving Xubuntu a go. Personally, I can only recommend it, for it has truly surpassed my expectations.

NOTE: I do enjoy the new desktop paradigms GNOME Shell and/or Unity propose and I use both regularly. This article is by no means opposing or demeaning those alternatives, it´s just that XFCE and Xubuntu are a great alternative as well and that´s why I encourage using them. In other words, I have no interest in getting into the "A is better than B" discussion that is usually around when talking DEs. The way I see it, most are good in one way or another.

19 comments:

  1. nice review & desktop configuration

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  2. Hello! I'd like your config file Conky for me..

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  3. With Xfce/Xubuntu, you can manage removable drives by opening Thunar's 'preferences' dialogue and clicking on the 'advanced' tab.

    You might want to try PCManFM, which works like Thunar but has a multi-folder, tabbed interface.

    Dolphin works fine as well, although it brings along ca. 100MB of KDE dependencies, which is a lot for a file manager.

    Finally, tint2 will let you switch efficiently among open programs and from one virtual desktop to another. Very efficient; supplements the basic Xfce dock nicely, and it all looks great with the Faenza icons.

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  4. @Green Tea: That's conky grey I am using. The changes I had to make to it in order to get it to work correctly were:

    own_window_type normal (as opposed to override)
    own_window_argb_visual yes - To force transparency
    own_window_argb_value 0 - 100% transparency

    @Anonymous: The removable drive tip that you mention is the same I have tried because the advanced tab takes you to the same screen you get to from System Preferences. In there, the only option I see to automatically mount external drives like that is "Mount removable drives when hot plugged", which was ticked to start with and never worked for me.

    I am happy with Thunar as is, and if I want more power or other features, Kubuntu is right there for me to run Dolphin natively. Benefits of multibooting! :)

    As for tint2, it looks interesting, I will give it a go at some point.

    Thanks!

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  5. Sir,
    How did you manage to lose the black background on the Cairo dock and get that translucent effect?
    Your blog post was immensely helpful in customizing my install.

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  6. @Nikhil: Glad it helped. I didn't do anything, just chose the elementary theme in Cairo dock and that was it.

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  7. "...(expect an Ubuntu Studio 12.04 review soon!.)..." ?
    Thanks for the Xubuntu 12.04 review, ...and can't wait for the UbuntuStudio 12.04 review.
    Have you had a chance to play around with US-12.04 yet ?
    :)

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    1. Yes, I have been using it for the last few days and I am very happy with it. It took me a couple hours to get my Ubuntu 9.04 setup back to live (configure Jack, create drum libraries again, etc.), but it is rocking now.

      Back in the Jaunty days, there were many things I had to give up on, like having wireless or using my two soundcards at the same time (was probably possible, but would require tons of researching and trial/error, and I couldn´t be bothered), and it all works pretty straightforward, easier than ever.

      Hopefully will get the review out next week!

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  8. "...I do enjoy the new desktop paradigms GNOME Shell and/or Unity propose and I use both regularly..."
    Is that why you're now playing around with Kubuntu, and Xubuntu as you said ?
    Ubuntu/Unity/Gnome SHell SUCK the big one, and everyone else knows it. just get a Tablet of you want Unity.

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    1. That´s really not it... I have used KDE for years, way before any of the new stuff appeared. Xubuntu is just another distro I have tried and liked, but like I said, I have Unity and GNOME Shell in my other machines and use them regularly. Both are great and I am particularly happy with GNOME Shell, just a shame that nobody takes the time to give it a proper chance or learn the couple things that are needed for a proper experience.

      Btw, for a tablet I would get Plasma Active... ;-)

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  9. Hey I just installed xubuntu on my laptop.
    unfortunately being with 512 ram my laptop is but sluggish on Ubuntu and Kubuntu is out of reach.
    so i installed xubuntu.
    nice post, This is the first post i read after installing xubuntu. I just installed and i quote "Faenza icon set, the Ambience theme and window decoration and then changed fonts from Android to Ubuntu. Cairo Dock, Conky and a fitting wallpaper complete the list of changes"
    Keep it up !!

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    1. Glad it helped, thanks for the feedback!

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    2. Could I ask, are faenza icon set and ambiance theme from regular repository?

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    3. No, Faenza has its own PPA for Ubuntu. The ambience and radience themes I downloaded from xfce-look.org.

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  10. Nice review, for the Thunar issue check the Xubuntu FAQ (#2):

    http://xubuntu.org/news/faq-1204-precise/

    Cya

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  11. Thanks for the tip and glad you liked the review!

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  12. Great review, I love xubuntu also. I was a huge Ubuntu 10.10 fan and really hate Unity, I tried Cinnamon and Gnome classic on top of Ubuntu 12.04 but it just was not the same. It took me a little to figure out how to setup panels but once I did it was really great. I somehow deleted the Mac like panel at the bottom and can't figure out how to get it back but that is ok, I don't really need it.

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  13. xubuntu is now my main distro. I use crunchbang or antix mepis for machines under 1ghz and SliTaz for my 300mhz dinosaur. Mint 13 is good for machines that are only 3 or 4 years old.

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  14. Does macro from libreoffice calc work on gnumeric? I still consider this feature to install Xubuntu on my Acer 3684, Intel Celeron 1.84 Ghz and 512 MB RAM.

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