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.

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.

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.

How Non-Geeks and Technophobes See Linux

In a Linux forum I read but haven’t joined, a “typical” desktop user replied to a geek who hoped to shame us “typical” users of “easy” desktop Linux. The reply to his point is classic! Too right-to-the-point not to share here, on behalf of us “typical” users and technophobes. Here is the original post and reply on Linux Mint forums:

“Typical users” don’t expect to type commands. Too complicated, that’s for experts, I’m no geek, I just want to use my computer the easy way so I can get in touch with Susan. And then Mr. Typical User will click (or — God forbid — “touch”) his way into Facebook somehow, and once there, he will type, he will type away all day long and make Susan happy. Go figure.

I am one of those “typical” users who doesn’t expect to type commands, but expects to use the keyboard for applications rather than for maintaining, tweaking, or fixing the OS. The times that I have used the dreaded terminal have been very few and far between. If not for Linux Mint’s simple GUI, I would have run right back to Windows!

But I don’t think it’s just us “typical” users that benefit from the GUI. I have read these forums enough to know that there are plenty of very tech-savvy geeks who prefer to click their way through things instead of using the terminal. I respect the power of the mysterious, foreboding terminal too much to mess around with it without knowing exactly what I’m doing! When I first learned to use a gun I felt exactly the same way. A gun is too powerful to use without knowing what you’re doing, potentially lethal to you and to others!

Overcoming my dread of guns took a lot of gentle coaching and patience. I’m glad I did though, and now I’m a pretty good shot with both my pistol and my shotgun. But without the gentle, patient, compassionate coaching of my dad and the instructor, I would have walked away from shooting even knowing that without those skills I would be more vulnerable to “bad guys.” The thing for us “typical users” is the lack of gentle, kind, patient coaching and instruction in the use of such a powerful tool as the terminal. OMG, even the name of it is scary: Terminal. As in “The End.” “That’s All, Folks.” “Game Over.” The Linux community – and Debian’s in particular – is famous for chasing away people who are scared of the terminal. In fact I wonder if we respect it’s power more than some geeky people do!

I can use the keyboard to “make Susan happy,” but you just have to forgive me if I don’t use a “GUN” to make you happy.

Xubuntu 14.01 LTS, 64-bit

Xubuntu has been a mainstay for most of my 4 years or so as a Linux user. In spite of numerous flirtations with other distros, Xubuntu has been the one I kept coming “home” to. Until now.

My desktop is too old and underpowered to run my old favorite anymore, so I switched to a delightful Lubuntu spin-off called LXLE. Featuring the LXDE desktop but wonderfully and luxuriously configured, it has been pure joy, and has given the old relic yet another new lease on life.

Now…

I recently acquired a refurbished Dell laptop, 64-bit, with Windows 7 and decided to dual-boot it with my old favorite distro. Xubuntu 14.04.1, 64-bit. It installed effortlessly as usual but would not recognize the built-in stupid Broadcom wifi network card. I ended up purchasing a wifi dongle from ThinkPenguin that doesn’t require special proprietary drivers. No big deal.

Boot up Xubuntu 14.01 with the wifi dongle in and wifi works perfectly. Update, no problem. Did my usual stuff that I always do with a fresh installation of an OS: Install favorite applications, wallpapers, fonts, etc. Now a reboot, since the update contained a new kernel. Please wait while Xubuntu reboots. Keep waiting. And waiting. Eat a sandwich, down a Dew, still waiting. Aw, heck with that. Hard shutdown using the power button. Reboot into Xubu, log in, launch my favorite Internet app, Seamonkey.

No go. “Seamonkey is already running. First end the current process or restart your computer.

Really?

Kill Seamonkey using the terminal, re-launch. “Seamonkey is already running…

FINE! Reboot. Please waaaaaaaiiiiiiit…. screw that, hard reset. Boot into Xubu. Launch Seamonkey. You guessed it, “already running.”

FINE! Opened Synaptic, selected “completely remove Seamonkey – including configuration files.” Done.

Opened Thunderbird. “Would you like to import stuff from Seamonkey?”

So I guess it wasn’t completely removed after all. Prob’ly still running, somehow.

It’s not that I’m stupid or lazy. I’m just busy!
Too busy to take a lot of time for something that should be done in a single click! Yes, I’m a bit phobic when it comes to the terminal – or any tech stuff for that matter. But something as simple as launching a newly-installed application should not require me to Google for solutions and mess around with terminal commands and all that. I’m busy! I’ve got a bunch of school work to finish and work to do. So…

Goodbye, Xubuntu. It’s been wonderful until today. Maybe a corrupted install process, I dunno. Perhaps no reflection on Xubuntu at all if something went awry during installation. It could be I suppose, since I’ve never dual-booted before. But y’know what? Here’s why I won’t bother to reattempt it with Xubuntu:

  • Probably every single 64-bit computer ever built has more than enough RAM and processing power to run LibreOffice instead of Abiword and Gnumeric. So why bother with those old applications anymore? There’s as much old stuff for low-end hardware to remove in Xubuntu has there is to install in a more modern machine. It isn’t like I’m using Xfce in a modern 64-bit computer because I need a low-resource desktop environment, I just happen to really like like Xfce. This ain’t Lubuntu for crying out loud, installed on some ancient relic like my desktop. It’s 64-bit! 3 GB of RAM for goodnessakes.
  • The Xfce menu is weird in Xubuntu 14.01. I like the Whisker menu, but it’s too many clicks to find and launch an application from it. The default configuration could stand a little dressing up and simplifying.
  • Do I really need PulseAudio? I’ve always removed that abomination right after a fresh install unless I have some other application that depends on it, which I don’t. It’s still a buggy resource hog in my opinion, even though it’s the default in almost every major Linux distro anymore.

If it weren’t for the fact that I might still need Windows for future school work, and for some applications I think I’ll need as a new Aflac associate (my new job, just started this week), I wouldn’t bother dual-booting. But Windows gets in my way and won’t let me get any work done without a bunch of interruptions. If I can avoid using it at all, I will. But Xubuntu? Not on the new laptop, sorry. Too much for the old desktop, and not enough for the new laptop. Even if it would reboot properly and launch Seamonkey properly.

The End of an Awesome Distro

It’s the end of an era for an enthusiastic and loyal group of Linux users who benefited from Corenomial’s unique Debian mixture known as Crunchbang Linux (abbreviated #!). When Crunchbang was first started, it filled a much-needed gap for older computers by adopting for the desktop only the Openbox window manager without the other features of a “full” desktop environment. Originally using a minimal Ubuntu base and later switching to a Debian base, Crunchbang was – at first anyway – specifically targeted to users of old, modest hardware that would have been bogged down under the weight of the popular desktop environments of the time, Gnome and KDE. There was Xfce for older hardware too, a full desktop environment, kinda-sorta like “Gnome Lite” at the time. Using only a window manager was a rare and gutsy experiment to try when Corenomial first introduced Crunchbang, but it was Crunchbang that taught many users that – guess what – you don’t really need a full desktop environment to have an awesome point-and-click desktop experience! You can save your computer’s resources for applications instead of “eye candy.” Dark and almost sinister looking, the Crunchbang desktop allowed even beginners to adequately master basic desktop Linux while having an intimidating super-techno-geeky looking desktop to impress their technophobic, Ubuntu and Mepis using friends who were terrified to even gaze upon a terminal interface. Much more impressive than that old spinning cube trick that impressed so many kids for whom having a dazzling desktop was at least as important as what you might actually use the computer for.

But today Xfce is so much more than “Gnome Lite.” And some wonderful new players have joined the game now. LXDE, RazorQt, Enlightenment, and others. These are full desktop environments rich with features that in some instances rival the “big old dogs” that have dominated the Linux desktop for years. For a little while Corenomial included several Xfce features in Crunchbang that gave it pizazz without adding the “bloat” that brought so many users to Crunchbang from other distros. His improvements and default settings taught the Linux community to focus on what matters – performance, good stewardship of resources, and making the most of what our computers offer. There have been other distros built on window managers without a “full desktop environment,” like Puppy and AntiX, but it was Crunchbang more than any of the others that provided an example of just what can be done with “just” a window manager.

Loyal users and admirers of Crunchbang will maintain the forums and community spirit of the distro, but the chief of the project, who I would call “Cap’n Crunch” if I had earned the right to be so informal with such a great developer, has come to feel that with the incredible advances of the ultralight desktop environments and other great Debian mixtures, the gap that Crunchbang used to fill no longer exists. I never used Crunchbang beyond installing it and playing with it intermittently on an ancient old relic, and never took part in it’s community. Now that this landmark distro is disappearing, I’m getting a sense that I missed out on something really wonderful. Long live Corenomial and long live the loyalty of the Crunchbang community. Read Corenomial’s announcement here.

More Eye Candy for the Linux Desktop

It’s called Mascopix, and it can be downloaded from this web site or if you are using Ubuntu or an Ubuntu derivative you can find it in the Universe repository. At the moment I’m using the ultralight LXDE desktop on a Lubuntu re-spin called LXLE. It’s minimal and plenty fast, but it needs a little eye candy to make it nice looking and – I admit it – a little bit playful for the kid in me. So besides the screenlets I described in a prior post, I’ve added this cutesy little animated “window sitter:”

The big picture:

She blinks her eyes, sips a drink, or folds and unfolds her arms while looking out at me from her perch atop an open application window. Installed from the Ubuntu Universe repositories, Macopix is still incomplete. In addition to installing the package, the user has to download the “mascots” and configuration options from the web site in the form of a tarball. The good news is that the user doesn’t have to unpack the tarball, only “point to it” and let Mascopix automagically unpack and install them. There are dozens of mascots to choose from too!

I removed the Conky applet that ships with LXLE because it was too small for my old eyes to see without glasses and a couple of attempts to change the font size and other settings – even with directions from a forum thread – fell frustratingly short of expectations. And if I want a conky-like screenlet to tell me about RAM and CPU useage and stuff I can add it to my other screenlets without having to figure out Conky. But I sincerely doubt that my little “window sitter” uses much in the way of system resources. There has been absolutely no loss of speed or system responsiveness with this playful addition to my Linux desktop.