Elementary OS: A Surprise

It’s really a surprise to me that a desktop environment with almost no configurability and with so few features could be such a drain on older hardware! The Pantheon desktop is so stylish and good looking, nice and simple and clean, uncluttered, just the way I like it to be. But it’s so very slow!

The file manager is so sparse that in order to actually manage any files, like moving collected images to the directory that stores wallpapers, I had to install an alternate file manager. I guess the eOS file manager is good for finding and opening files, but not so much for actually managing them.

It claims to be lightweight, but it doesn’t compare even to Xfce for speed and demand on CPU and RAM. Even KDE – at least the way PCLinuxOS does it in their awesome light implementation of it, was quicker and more nimble than the Pantheon desktop, which offers so much fewer features and options than any other desktop environment I’ve tried.

I would still recommend ElementaryOS for newcomers to Linux, whether coming from Mac or Windows – in fact, even those new to desktop computing would benefit from it’s simple, beautiful, and very intuitive design. But it sure ain’t for older computers with less than 3 or 4 GB of RAM. And for that kind of demand on resources, it ought to offer a lot more options than it does.

But y’know what… any desktop can be made to look like Elementary’s beautiful Mac-like desktop. I’ve been doing it for years in Xfce and LXDE.

Xubuntu is still the coolest Linux distro ever, for this sidekick who likes things simple, nimble, beautiful, and unobtrusive.


So I had two days off in a row, and after I got all the important stuff done I decided to tinker with a new Linux operating system I had heard a lot of cool things about. I’ve messed around with several different desktops, from minimal Openbox with no “real” desktop environment at all, to the big major popular ones like KDE, Gnome, Xfce, LXDE, and Enlightenment. One I never tried is the newest one, called Pantheon, created especially for ElementaryOS, a wicked cool Ubuntu respin. It’s available for Arch Linux too! It doesn’t mix well added to the Ubuntu family (Kubu, Xubu, Lubu, etc), even though ElementaryOS is an Ubuntu-based distro. This ain’t just Ubuntu with a PPA tied on, it’s Ubuntu with a bunch of bloat and junk removed to make it nimble and fast, and a special wonderful desktop that is the most intuitive I’ve ever seen! Users coming from Mac or Windows will navigate around this system effortlessly. In fact, I’d bet that new computer users who may never have even used a desktop or laptop computer would find this system has a very gentle learning curve.

It isn’t especially configurable like Xfce or even LXDE, but the cool thing is that it doesn’t have to be! It’s not really for tinkerers anyway, just people with modest to modern hardware who just want to load up and go to work (or play). Very Mac-like in appearance, with basically two desktop features – a top panel for accessing the menu and setting the volume and stuff like that, and a dock at the bottom that looks like Docky, kinda sorta. It’s set up very much the way Xubuntu is by default, with a few differences: None of the resource-hogging “goodies” run in the background, the cool icons “leap” when you click on them, and open apps have a “reflection” under them on the launcher. Screenshots are easy to find by just Googling “ElementaryOS screenshots,” but you know I can’t resist posting my own anyway, even though I’ve done very little to make my own desktop especially unique. But it’s just so simple and pretty!

The current stable version, based on Ubuntu 14.04 (Trusty), ships with Midori as the web browser (nice easy browser from the Xfce project), Geary as the e-mail client (no longer active, but being forked and developed by the ElementaryOS team), and none of the usual bloat. It has it’s own simple file manager with would probably suit most casual users and not scare them away with “options” that just confuse and frustrate newbies and technophobes. I reluctantly added Thunar after fiddling with the default one a little bit, and worried that adding Xfce stuff would mess something up, but it didn’t.

I added Seamonkey after trying Geary and finding it comparable to Kmail, kinda broken and lacking some features that matter to me. Midori has a history of crashing a lot when I’ve used it before, so I just ran home to my default favorite. But I just love this desktop to bits, and it’s every bit as nimble and lightweight as LXDE, and stays out of my way. If you like icons on the desktop itself, this Pantheon desktop is not for you. I don’t think it’s even an option! But I like my desktop clean, and I’d rather open apps and stuff from the dock or the menu anyway. The only thing I might add to the desktop is a Conky display, which is easy, but I probably won’t bother. Conky is just more extra noise to me.

This is a totally cool desktop, preconfigured almost exactly the way I always customized my LXDE and Xfce desktops anyway. People who judge only by screenshots say the Pantheon desktop is “a Mac clone,” but it’s not at all. It just looks super cool like Mac, but it’s lean and simple and fast. I’m really enjoying it!

SalixOS Does it Again

The first time I used SalixOS, I was delighted for the first few days, then it began to slow way down and lock up. No input was accepted from mouse or keyboard, and I had to reboot using the power button. I searched their forums for info on that, but apparently no one else suffered from that problem. I ended up dumping SalixOS when it refused to boot at all one day. Re-installs are just too easy, and actually take less time than trying to figure out why the damned thing won’t boot up… and certainly easier than Googling without a computer!

Trying it again last week, I hoped for a better result, but the same thing happened. Hard drive spinning like mad, screen frozen, mouse frozen, keyboard useless, power-off and on again. This time I didn’t want to give up so easily, so I tried to join the SalixOS forums for help. I was able to register but couldn’t use the account until an Administrator approved my registration. Days went by without any approval. “If you need help, contact an Administrator,” it says, but offers no way to contact an administrator. So I posted to the SalixOS mailing list (supposedly non-members can post there, but posts from non-members are moderated, as they should be). I wrote that I was trying to register for the forums, and that there is no link or info on how to contact an administrator. Several days later, my post is still awaiting moderation. What that tells me is that the little distro is largely unsupported, except for those who were lucky enough to get “in” before the “administrator” went on hiatus.

After another dozen or so times hitting the power button on the CPU cabinet to reboot and get anything done, and in light of the fact that I can’t even ask for help, much less get any, I’m saying goodbye and good riddance to SalixOS. “For Lazy Slackers,” the description on their web site says. And I have to agree. Too lazy to fix it, too lazy to check their own forums and mailing list. Unless there is only one person who is responsible for those things and he or she is laid up sick or something, new users can expect no support for this distro other than Googling and trial-and-error.

Revisiting SalixOS

I’ve gotta say I have absolutely loved Xubuntu – up until anything after 12.04, and LXLE, the brilliantly mixed respin of Lubuntu – up until 14.04. Precise, 12.04, was rock-stable and fairly nimble on this ancient relic I’m still using. I could continue using it through April of next year, but it’s largely unsupported now except for security updates. So I upgraded to Trusty, 14.04. Xubuntu Trusty was too much for this aging dinosaur, halting and slow. So again, LXLE to the rescue. Gorgeous, full-featured, and much faster than Xubu. All was well. Until updates cumulatively made it increasingly buggy. I did a little research and found this interesting article on some changes to 14.04 that were um, unorthodox at least. Among other things, Trusty isn’t using an LTS kernel for an LTS release. They’ve opted for “greater hardware compatibility” by using a more recent kernel, which was updated two or three times on LXLE during my sojourn with it. They’ve got some apps that depend on systemd to work, but systemd isn’t the default init application / process manager. Maybe that’s one of the things that contributed to LXLE’s bugginess after some updates. It became slow, reluctant to boot, and themes got glitchy. Other users of Ubuntu Trusty and derivatives have reported frequent loss of networking (both wired and wireless) after updates. Borked after updating is a frequent complaint, and it always had me walking on eggshells with Ubuntu, and even more so with LXLE’s all-or-nothing way of updating (open Synaptic > Mark all upgrades > Apply).

I wondered if systemd, especially in an updated distro that didn’t ship with it but has a bunch of stuff that depends on it, was part of the problem. I never took a position on the whole systemd debate because as a self-confessed technophobe I never dabbled in that “advanced coder stuff.” Suffice it to say that the debate ignited a bloody war among Linux geeks which has kinda died down a little but still rages in spots, even though all the Big Players (Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, SUSE, Gnome, etc) have adopted it. It’s more than just a “initiating” daemon, it’s a process manager also. So it sort of goes against the traditional “do one thing and do it well” rule of GNU/Linux. It’s not “mature” yet, to borrow another Linux cliche, yet it got widely adopted with such speed that bugs are still showing up, and developers are being forced to “fix someone else’ mistakes” by adapting their own projects for systemd. Uncool. So, I looked around for a “systemd-free” Linux distro that might be less buggy with all the changes being forced on users and developers and maintainers. One of them is PCLinuxOS, which I have played with before. I downloaded two of the community remixes, LXDE and Xfce. I made bootable USB keys of each, but both refused to boot. I spent a few hours retrying, but with the same result. Okay, chide me for giving up to easily, but I remind you – I’m a technophobe anyway, remember?

Enter my second choice from the systemd-free list of Linux distros: SalixOS. I’ve played with this one before too, and fled back to Xubuntu when SalixOS suddenly refused to boot one day. But a few things are different this time out. One of them is this cool LiloSetup utility that works in whether in Live mode or installed SalixOS. So I’m prepared now in case the bootloader ever balks again.

SalixOS 14.1 ships with Xfce4.10 (yeah I know, the new one is 4.12 but y’know what? I don’t care. New isn’t always better) and Linux Kernel 3.10.17 (yep, the LTS kernel, yay!) This superb and simple little distro is based on and fully compatible with Slackware, which is known for it’s rock-solid stability even though some of the software in Slackware-Current is “older.” I guess using Slackware Current is kinda like using Debian Stable. Older, perhaps, but stable. Certainly more stable than Ubuntu or cutting-edge Fedora, except not polluted with systemd. Gnome3 users take note: The Gnome people have decided to make Gnome3 with a bunch of systemd dependencies. Xfce is still good, if you’re trying to avoid systemd.

The repositories are chock full of awesome stuff, including Seamonkey! It’s nice not to have to add a PPA just to get one particular favorite application and keep it updated. There are all kinda of installation options, from bare-bones to full-on ready-to-play; and multiple desktops to choose from (Xfce is the default in the main edition). Software installation is nice and graphical for us technophobic users coming from the Ubuntu family, using GSlapt Package Manager. It looks and acts a lot like Synaptic! And if it ain’t in the repositories, there’s Sourcery, which works for a lot of users but was troublesome for me during my previous flirtation with SalixOS. Perhaps it’s better now. Sourcery compiles packages listed from source code – all from a sweet graphical interface that also looks and acts kinda sorta like Synaptic.

Rather than post screenshots just yet, I would encourage readers who are interested to look into this little-known gem for themselves. I think it’s a great choice for timid technophobic users like me as a “next step” beyond the Ubuntu family and it’s derivatives.

Another Unexpected Delight

I don’t know what came over me. I put Xubuntu back on this old ancient relic of a desktop. I was feeling nostalgic I guess, and I wanted a look at the new Xfce 4.12, too. And I’ve gotta say, it’s awesome! That desktop is top notch, simple, beautiful, extremely configurable, and out of the way. Exquisite! But it’s still to resource hungry for this poor aging desktop computer. Aaaaaaaand,

My printer started arguing with me. That’s never happened in any Ubuntu-based distro before. In Xubuntu 12.04 it was fine. The new-and-improved version doesn’t work with my HP printer at all. Sound was functional, but at half the volume I was used to, even with the Xfce Volume Control turned all the way up. Also, putting the 64-bit version on a used laptop (with 4 times the RAM of my desktop), the WiFi won’t work. I suppose I could have Googled and tinkered, but the last time I did that I got frustrated and ended up buying a WiFi dongle from ThinkPenguin.com that doesn’t use proprietary drivers. But heck, I shouldn’t have had to. And as it turns out, I didn’t. Because LXLE works flawlessly right out of the box. WiFi, printer, sound, everything. I could tinker, but hey, I’m a technophobe! I run applications, not the operating system. I just want it to work. Now. Check out this desktop screenshot:

This gorgeous desktop is LXLE with panels set to disappear when not in use, and Conky Manager’s apple-green widget installed, because I don’t care for the little mouse thingy up in one corner, cool as it is, by default in LXLE. Because both of my computers are pretty old and under-powered by today’s standards, this is the go-to distro for me, despite my fondness for the wonderful Xfce desktop. I could add it, but the last time I tried that it just confused this old machine, and again, remember I’m a technophobe! LXLE’s tinkerings with LXDE have made it just about as awesome as Xfce anyway. And I like the options the file manager offers, and the perfection of the Openbox window manager.

I expect this to last as long as my hardware does.

Why Linux is Great for Missionaries

Most of my readers know that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ, and a big supporter of Christian missionary efforts, especially church-planting missions like New Tribes Mission. I have written a bunch of articles on why GNU/Linux and open-source software is better for starving college students, people with older hardware (like the many thousands who are still using Windows XP without support because they can’t afford to buy a new computer); why it’s great for schools and governments and businesses. For many of the same reasons and for several others, Linux is great for missionaries! Here’s a few reasons why:

  • It costs nothing. Even ancient relics like the desktop I’m writing this on are kept humming along, fast, simple, and trouble-free with an elegant, point-and-click simple Linux operating system like LXLE. Download, burn to a DVD or USB thumb drive, boot into the DVD or thumb drive, and install. Pay nothing.
  • It supports older and modern hardware. Whether you’re doing translation work on an old hand-me-down laptop in a remote area or running a base of operations server in support of several field missionaries, Linux supports a very wide range of hardware.
  • Software for home schooled kids is abundant and free of cost. Whether in a remote forest, jungle, rainforest, desert, big city, or mountain range, home for missionary families is “wherever the Lord calls.” But most missionaries don’t want their own children going to school and learning what the non-Christian tribal school (if any) teaches. There are literally thousands of free software titles for home schooling available in many Linux distribution repositories, always up-to-date.
  • Linux has no registry – no registry errors. No defragmenting. No need for antivirus software, anti-spyware software, registry cleaners, and system optimizers. No system is virus-proof, but Linux users do not ordinarily run in “Administrator mode” as Windows users do. Malware simply doesn’t have access to critical system files. A Linux user would have to consciously and deliberately open the door to his or her computer’s vital system files by entering a password.
  • It’s not just for geeks and tech-savvy nerds. Even this technophobic sidekick can use it effortlessly. Point-and-click simplicity.
  • Free software for every imaginable use: LibreOffice does everything Microsoft Office does. Firefox does what Internet Explorer does (only much better and much more safely). I like Seamonkey on any hardware because it’s a lot less of a resource-hog than Firefox, and when it comes to e-mail, compared to Mozilla’s Thunderbird, the difference really shines. It’s the old Netscape suite, revived by the folks at Mozilla – free and open-source! Only it’s free, legal, and safe. The thing about Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) is that you own it. Feel free to reverse-engineer it, tweak it, modify it, copy it, distribute it, install it on a thousand computers. If you improve it, great! Just share your improvements with the developers, please. That’s why FOSS is so great: It’s worldwide collaboration and sharing. There are no licenses or terms to worry about for most of the software available to Linux users. Copy and distribute to your heart’s content.
  • Customizable: Make it your own! It is, after all, yours. If you loved Windows XP like I did, then use a Linux distribution that looks and acts like WinXP (ElementaryOS, LXLE, others). If you love Mac (and I do too), try Ubuntu or LXLE, which comes with multiple “paradigms” to choose from that mimic and behave like your favorite interface. In Linux you can change much more than just the wallpaper.
  • With missionaries it’s really important to keep expenses down. Having to send a computer to a tech for software issues like virus removal, recovery of corrupted files, fixing that awful slow-down that inevitably happens over time in Windows (it’s called “Windows rot,” the only cure is to re-install Windows) is rarely ever necessary with Linux systems. Hardware issues, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing. If you drop your laptop in the river that’s different. I’m talkin’ software here, not hardware. But Linux users almost never have to send the computer away to a gifted geeky technician because of a software issue.

Linux is different, but not difficult. We get our software from safe online repositories. We don’t download it from some web site we hope is safe, double-click an .exe file and pray that it doesn’t install something we didn’t bargain for. Linux users have to be wise with software updates. We don’t blindly accept all updates for the operating system the way others do. So most Linux users learn not to blindly apply all updates, but wait to hear if an update has caused a problem for other users (and there are a lot of wonderful geeks who test new updates constantly) before accepting it. But updates are rarely needed! If you’re using a reeeeeeally old version of a web browser, perhaps, that your favorite web site won’t display properly on maybe then. But as long as it’s working, just go on using it as is. That is why I recommend only the Long-Term-Support (LTS) editions of the popular Linx distributions like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, ElementaryOS, and LXLE.

So, missionaries: Keep expenses down and security up. Keep maintenance down and simplicity up! Reduce downtime. Raise uptime. Run fast and light, not hindered and weighed down with “security suites” and other unnecessary bloatware running in the background all the time and slowing you down. Use an operating system that stays out of your way and lets you do the things you bought a computer for. Be a good steward of the funds people donate for your work! Don’t be locked in to single proprietary vendor who can change the whole system on a whim and charge you extra to keep using your own computer long after it’s paid for. Spend only a little time, not money unnecessarily. Keep your work as free of cost as possible! Keep it simple, safe, secure, and free of legal encumbrances like licensing fees and End User License Agreements. Show your donors that you are doing everything you can to keep costs down and use the Lord’s money wisely. Use that portion of your support funds that used to pay for software on more important things!

From Linux Mint to LXLE

Your mileage may vary, of course. But for me the choice has been an easy one:

I bought a modest, used Dell Latitude laptop computer for school and work. It is a 64-bit machine that shipped with Windows 7 and has 6 times the RAM of my desktop, an ancient Dell Dimension desktop with 512 MB that still runs better on LXLE than when it was brand new running Windows XP! I was a Xubuntu fanboy until even Xubuntu got to be too much for the old desktop. Lubuntu (at the time) was a halting, buggy mess that while plenty fast, operated with fits and starts. It didn’t last even a day before I was trying alternatives like MX-14 which was great for a while and then troublesome and rebellious later on. So I experimented with LXLE and it has been fantastic and trouble-free for over a year now.

But when I got the new laptop with 3 GB of RAM and all that power, I thought I should try good ol’ Xubuntu again, maybe play around with some other distros that would surely run better on this new high-powered 64-bit beauty. First to find it’s way onto the hard drive was Xubuntu, my old favorite for many years. Because it is stable, functional, simple, and has that wonderful Xfce desktop I love. It refused to run the computer’s built-in wireless card, and all efforts to install the Broadcom driver failed to remedy the situation. On a desktop it wouldn’t have mattered, but for goodnessakes, a laptop is supposed to be wireless!

So I tried Linux Mint Xfce 17 (codenamed Rebecca). Same great Xubuntu base, fantastically easy and safe updater that helps avoid the whole “borked by an update” scenario that the Ubuntu flavors are famous for (not so much on the long-term-support editions though). I love Rebecca! She’s gorgeous, down-to-earth, compliant, low maintenance, and eager to please. Best Mint yet! But again, wireless didn’t work. I actually ended up buying a wifi-dongle just to regain the functionality required of a laptop! I shouldn’t have to do that, but that’s just a fact of the times when you buy a computer that is “built for Windows.”

tpe g54usb 0

This little gem from ThinkPenguin.com cost only $25 and made my laptop a laptop again.  It was the only option after spending a couple of frustrating days following every step of extracting the driver from Windows and “ndswrapping” it into Linux without success.  Money well spent.

In the meantime I have been doing most of my work on the desktop, and growing increasingly fond of that ultralight and super-simple LXDE desktop. I hadn’t liked it on buggy, frustrating Lubuntu, but that PCManFM file manager is wonderful, the management and configurability of the panels and applets is every bit as elegant and easy in LXDE as in it’s older sibling, Xfce.  Basically, I just got used to it, and since I use it here on the desktop all the time, I figured my laptop should be the same way instead of confusing myself between the two.  And in front of other people too, since I use the laptop at work and school a lot.  As much as I adore the lovely Rebecca, I decided to try out the new 64-bit LXLE 14.04 and see how it compared with my desktop’s 32-bit LXLE 12.04.

The new one very closely matches the old one, but omygoodness, the default applications are the very same ones I always use (and usually have to install, sometimes from a PPA).  LibreOffice of course, but lookie here: Seamonkey!  Heh heh!  See I’m not the only one who thinks it’s wonderful, and knows how much less resource hungry this Netscape-based suite from Mozilla is than it’s more famous and popular Mozilla siblings.  It’s even faster than Chrome!  It’s almost completely set up the way I always set my own desktop configuration up, panels and all, right from the start.  Almost no tweaking to do.  And to my surprise, the wireless card works right out of the gate in LXLE!  Even Rebecca couldn’t manage it, but here’s this “lesser” distro for older hardware that just recognized it and enabled it instantly.  No more need to plug in my USB wifi dongle.  Maybe I’ll use it on my desktop instead, so I can move my desk to where I want to without running wires around the house.  Praise be!

I don’t even miss that once-beloved Xfce desktop anymore.  LXLE does LXDE better than Lubuntu, and better even than Xubuntu does Xfce.  It is elegant, lightning-fast, absolutely gorgeous, and stays out of my way when I’m working on school stuff.

Your mileage may vary, and people have their own reasons for choosing a Linux distro. But for me, switching from Linux Mint to LXLE was an easy choice. Now my laptop offers the same familiar interface and beautiful functionality of my desktop – and no longer needs special hardware added to give it the functionality I need.