MX-14 – Mepis Magic in a Lightweight Xfce Distro!

Most of my readers know how technophobic I can be. I need my computer’s operating system and software to be rock-stable and trouble free as well as simple and unburdensome on my old, modest hardware. As a starving college student I can hardly afford to buy a new computer, and I’m finding that I have to use a few techno-tricks to get away with using Linux for school when they want Windows. So far saving Libre-Office work in Microsoft format (docx or rtf) has worked, as has changing my browser’s useragent string to make the school’s web site think I’m using Internet Explorer. So far so good.

An update to my Xubuntu 12.04 disabled my printer and sound last week and I fixed it by re-installing Linux-firmware, but it scared me enough to Google in search of lightweight Linux distros (preferably with the wonderful Xfce desktop) based on Debian Stable. Now before you go chiding me for not just using Debian, let me remind you that I’m a technophobe! I actually did successfully install and configure Debian once, but it took weeks to get it working and it was still wild and buggy. One of the reasons that Debian is “the granddaddy of distros” is that others have to “tame” it for ordinary casual users like me. Ubuntu does it, for example. Mint does it, Crunchbang kinda-sorta does it, and Mepis does it. Another reason that there are a zillion and twelve derivatives of Debian, is that Debian Linux is just awesome, period. Huge, vast, worldwide, and wonderful. Just still not quite tame enough for a technophobic sidekick, and too difficult to share with the other Teen Titans. But Debian’s snooty elitism pisses people off all the time.  Another reason, perhaps, for it being forked all the time.

So Google came up with one I never heard of before: MX-14,  “a special edition of AntiX” in collaboration with the Mepis community! Based on Debian Stable (not Testing, which is great, because as a true technophobe, the word “Testing” gives me pause), it’s an Xfce Linux distro that bills itself as “mid-weight” even though it’s lighter and faster than most of the Xfce distros I have tried. Also a huge plus for me, it still fits on a CD! Here’s what MX looks like from the LiveCD:

Ain’t it pretty? The panel appears on the left by default, but you can put it anywhere you like. On rectangular screens it’s a cool space-saving idea to have it on the left or right. My screen is a flat square so I moved the panel to the bottom and added my favorite little applets and most-used applications to it for quick one-click access. I removed the Notifications from the bottom panel and put them on a top panel which is only visible when I mouse over it. This Xfce desktop is wonderful because it is infinitely customizable and stays out of my way. And the new Whisker menu is similar enough to the old familiar one that it was no challenge to adapt to. The only little bug was that I couldn’t add Screenshooter (the screenshot applet) to the panel:

The trick is to treat it like an application instead of an applet. Create a launcher first and then specify Screenshooter. But on this desktop, I can bring up the screenshooter with the PrtScr button on the keyboard! So I just skipped the launcher thing after learning that little trick.

Installing MX is as easy as installing Xubuntu, but it is less familiar which is why it seemed more difficult for the first few minutes. Just slow down and take time to read the prompts and it’s effortless. The only bugaboo was trying to eliminate a 1.2 GB “unallocated” partition on my hard drive that appears right in between “/” and “/home.” I don’t even know how it got there for goodnessakes. I never did figure it out (I’ll do it later when I don’t have a lot of school work to do), but on an 80-GB hard drive I’m not too concerned about it. So after a complete back-up I installed MX on my existing partitions, overwriting Xubuntu. Yeah, I know. I’m still a Xubuntu fanboy, but:

It doesn’t get any more stable than Debian Stable. We technophobes need ultimate stability!
Mepis magic! Mepis has “tamed wild Debian” for years without all the high risk, and
Every Xubuntu user is a Xubuntu tester, like it or not. I never could get why the developers put Beta software in a distro intended for Linux novices. Many like me have just been lucky, but it’s still unforgivable in my opinion, to make Linux newbies unknowingly into unwitting guinea pigs.

Mepis has gained a reputation for making Debian usable by ordinary mortals, but without all the drama, the hype, and the unpredictability of the Ubuntu family. So as soon as I found MX in a Google search and learned it was from the same people who develop Mepis and AntiX, I was anxious to try it. The result:

High-contrast icon theme, and a wee bit of compositing enabled just enough to make the panel background invisible. Simple wallpaper and none of the busy screenlets I had before. They’re cool if you want them, but I’m looking to conserve resources. And Xfce has the “goodies” in the panel where I can see them at a glance instead of minimizing something just to read the weather or see the clock behind my school project. Pft.

Now let me tell you about the default browser, Qupzilla! This is pretty darn cool. It’s as fast as Midori but without the font-rendering issues and crashing. It looks and acts very much like a slightly older version of Firefox, but cleaner and much faster. And Ad-Block by default in MX. Ha! I can even do my useragent trick in Qupzilla. Oops… nice while it lasted, then CRASH!  Re-installed, reworked, revamped, rewired, re-done and still CRASH.  Oh well, back to Firefox.

This is Debian Stable with up-to-date applications from the Mepis repository. And remember what I wrote before about choosing distros? One of the things to consider is the repositories. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing it’s repositories. Y’wanna talk about huge, vast, ginormous, mondo-mucho gargantuan repos? Debian has the biggest and richest repositories in the entire universe! And installing software in MX is easy with the Synaptic Package Manager. I always used Synaptic anyway rather than that slow, bloated Software Center, so again, this has been an easy transition from Xubuntu so far.

And when I need support, Mepis has forums where lots of wonderful people make themselves available to technophobes like me. On my first day they helped me solve two minor problems (one just by browsing the topics and reading, and the other in reply to my screenshooter issue).

I’m a happy li’l sidekick today. My technophobia has not stopped me from trying out yet another Linux distro, and this one looks like it could well take Xubuntu’s place in my heart, becoming the distro I would always “run home to.”

Debian’s awesomeness.
Mepis’ magic.
And none of Canonical’s relentless, unpredictable drama.

Praise be.

Linux Vs Windows

Most of you know I’m finally going back to school after more than 30 years. I don’t mind telling y’all that I’m not a little scared about it. My first class is Freshman English Composition 1. It made sense to me to take that one first so I’ll know how to write papers for all my other classes.

This is my second essay, a “comparison & contrast” essay. It’s probably not hard for my readers to guess what I wanted to compare and contrast, since I think the majority of my posts here have been about my desktop operating system. Borrrrrinnnnnng for most people, I know. And for this essay we were instructed “to inform and entertain,” which means I really couldn’t write a boring, technical comparison. I think I succeeded – a little late in the essay though – in making it “entertaining.” We’ll do peer reviews of each other’s work next week, but I’d like to start mine early, so please, offer some feedback as to how I can make this essay better, and especially more entertaining!

Desktop Operating Systems

Linux vs. Microsoft Windows®

Most computer users are content to use whatever operating system “comes with the computer” when they buy it, never giving their operating system a second thought – until it slows to a crawl, gets a virus, or freezes. They think about the operating system when the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) appears in Microsoft Windows®. Then the only operating systems most people are aware of are Windows and Apple’s Macintosh system. Now with support for Windows XP ending next month, many users have resigned themselves to buying a new computer that can support the new versions of Windows. That, however, is not actually necessary, because most Linux desktop and laptop operating systems support older, modest hardware and are available to most PC users free of charge. For most users Linux does everything that Windows can.

Home users use their computers for writing, spreadsheets, web browsing, e-mail, sharing music and pictures, and keeping up with Facebook. Since many Windows users are heavy gamers, Linux may not fully satisfy their needs, because the majority of people who write computer games have Windows users in mind when they write them. Yet players of many popular Massively Multi-Player Role Playing Games (MMPRPGs) are able to play World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy on Linux machines. Non-gamers are likely to have an even more satisfying experience on Linux than they had on Windows.

Almost all Linux desktop operating systems are available at no charge! Released under the General Public License, Linux and most of the software it uses are Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Thousands of coders from all over the world collaborate continually to maintain Linux and keep it updated. This is in stark contrast with Microsoft Windows®, which is proprietary and closed-source, and lavishly expensive; as is the “bloatware” needed to maintain it.

The term “bloatware” refers to software that is not intended for the user, but just for the operating system (OS). Anti-virus / security software, registry cleaners, and other optimization software is considered “bloatware.” Linux, by contrast, has no registry to clean and has virtual immunity from known viruses, spyware, and other forms of malware. One of the reasons for this difference is simply the fact that Windows users ordinarily operate with “Administrator” privileges, while Linux users have to enter a password and log in as “root” (Administrator) to access the vulnerable bits of the system. No need for “bloatware” whatsoever. It is an easy choice: Pay lavishly for an expensive, resource-hogging system, and for expensive “bloatware” to keep Windows happy and cooperative, or pay nothing for a virtually virus-proof system, saving your hard drive space for your pictures, videos, documents, and favorite miscellaneous digital treasures.

FOSS offers free (as in cost) alternatives to most applications that Windows users pay big money for: Evince does what Adobe Reader does; Firefox, Chromium, Opera, and Midori do what Internet Exlporer does. Thunderbird and Evolution do what Outlook does; and Open Office and Libre Office do almost everything that Microsoft Office® does. GIMP does what Adobe Photoshop® does. Pidgin is an all-in-one FOSS application that replaces AOL’s Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Instant Messaging, and Skype®. Most of the 300-plus free Linux distributions include all this software on their free and downloadable installation CDs and DVDs.

Linux users are able to keep their older hardware out of the landfills and lend their computers years of new life simply by switching from Microsoft Windows® to one of the completely free distributions of a Linux operating system. It makes good ecological sense to use Linux rather than to discard a perfectly good computer simply because the operating system has become obsolete. Linux is also more energy efficient, making full use of the computer’s resources without needing to run a half-dozen instances of “bloatware” in the background, robbing the user of the use of those resources for applications. Computer users want to run applications, not the operating system! Linux lets users do that, staying out of the way; while Windows is a resource hog that reserves vast resources for itself, keeping them unavailable to the user. In an interview with PC Magazine, the inventor of Linux, Linus Torvaldes, put it better than anyone before or since: “Computers are like air conditioners,” he said. “Once you open Windows, they’re useless!”

In the blockbuster film The Matrix, one if it’s major characters, Morpheus, describes the Matrix’ grip on the minds of its victims in terms that exactly and perfectly describe the majority of computer users victimized by Windows:

“You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.” Microsoft counts on that sense of dependency and fosters it by discounting their system to original equipment manufacturers who agree to sell Windows and other Microsoft products on their new computers. Windows has become an institution in itself: The default format for most documents is .doc and .docx, used in Microsoft Office®. Drivers for printers, monitors, and other peripherals are written overwhelmingly to operate on Windows. The grip of Microsoft, both on manufacturers and users is almost palpable. Yet as the most-used operating system worldwide, Windows XP, reaches the end of its life, more and more people, institutions, and governments are switching to Linux and saving millions by doing so. Among the most notable of these, according to Wikipedia, are the city government of Munich, Germany, which chose in 2003 to migrate its 14,000 desktops to Linux. The United States Department of Defense has switched all the servers for the US Army to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the Federal Aviation Administration is currently making the switch, and the National Nuclear Security Administration is using it. The city of Vienna, Italy scrapped Windows for Linux. The French Parliament has switched its desktop computers to Ubuntu Linux, as has their police force, the National Gendaremie, and France’s Ministry of Agriculture as well. The federal employment office of Germany has switched to OpenSUSE Linux. Several school systems in the United States and abroad are saving thousands by switching to Linux, and Daytona State College / University of Central Florida’s Writing Center is promoting Libre Office in place of Microsoft Office.

Put side by side, the two operating systems are so unevenly matched for cost, security, availability, support, and ability to function speedily on modest hardware that in the years to come, the Microsoft Matrix-like grip on the desktop computer may be loosened. One computer and one user at a time, a new standard may emerge to dominate the desktop.

Gee That Didn’t Work Out Very Well…

…But it was easy, even for this technophobe.

As you know I always keep “running home” to Xubuntu when things get squirrelly on other distros and the first few attempts to fix it fail. It’s not because I’m lazy and immature, but because I’m practical and busy with other stuff. Now a true Linux distro-hopper is always looking for something “better” (a relative and subjective term – better for me, better on my hardware, etc), but almost every distro-hopper has a default; a “safe-place” to run home to. My safe place is Xubuntu. Because:

  • Xubu has always been almost entirely trouble-free for me since I first discovered it.
  • Xubu still runs awesomely on my aging, modest hardware in spite of the fact that it’s no longer intended for older hardware.
  • Xubu has an awesome support community, arguable the best and most cordial of support forums for any operating system.
  • Xubu is a community-developed distro. Ideas are received, debated, tested, and implemented if they work well.
  • Xubu is good for technophobic users and much less “bloated” than most of the other “user friendly” desktop distros I have tested.

So it’s no wonder I want to help in it’s development, right? Yes, even a technically challenged scardycat like me can help in some small ways to develop his or her favorite Linux distro! Not just by writing enthusiastically about it like I would do anyway here on my blog, but also with testing when I’m feeling brave and have a little time on my hands. So yesterday I was feeling brave again.

Following a complete backup and update, I volunteered to test the upgrade path from one LTS version to the next. The current LTS version is 12.04, “Precise.” I tested the upgrade process to the upcoming 14.04 LTS release, “Trusty.” My interest in this is personal and practical, since my old relic hardware doesn’t have a DVD burner and the new Xubuntu iso images won’t fit on a CD anymore. I ordinarily upgrade with a fresh new installation rather than upgrading an existing system. I still recommend that, and I think most Linux users who don’t run “rolling release” distros do as well.

Running the command

update-manager -d -c

after fully updating my system opened the Update Manager, which now offered the upgrade to 14.04! Upgrading would be as easy as clicking on the Upgrade button, right? That would be awesome.

A new window opened to explain that many packages would be removed and new ones installed, and how much disk space would be required. I clicked “Yeah let’s do this!” (not treally, I think it was just an “OK” button) and off it went, fetching 700+ new packages from the Internet. The entire download took less than 7 minutes on my Cox Internet connection. And then:

After downloading the packages it got stuck on installation, “configuring apt.” I let it go for hours just to see if it would unlock itself and get going, but it was just frozen solid. And on top of that, everything else was frozen too. Rawr. So I tried a “hard reboot” (pressing and holding the Power button to turn off the computer, then restarting). It failed to bring up anything beyond the splash screen. The dreaded “partial upgrade” nightmare scenario. Pft. Heck with that. I simply reinstalled and updated 12.04 with no trouble at all. Then did my usual little tweaks like setting swappiness to 5 (I’ve only got a half-gig of RAM) and enabling cntrl-alt-backspace, uninstalling the Software Center and putting Synaptic Package Manager in it’s place, etc. My unformatted /home partition was fully intact, none the worse for the dreaded “partial upgrade.” All that took about 40 minutes from start to finish.

Still feeling brave, and finding that the weather applet still didn’t work, I installed screenlets (in place of the gdesklets I had used before) from Synaptic. Guess what?! It has a weather applet! It actually offered three different ones! I picked the prettiest one and added a clock, a calendar, and a wicked-cool looking CPU and RAM usage monitor for the desktop. It looks awesome on my green graphic wallpaper. I’m using the High-Contrast icon set in the lower panel:

Ain’t it gorgeous!? Best ever. EVVVERRRRRR. Now I don’t want to change anything! Maybe I’ll just leave this alone until Precise reaches the end of it’s support life (April, 2015!). Unless I get to feeling brave again…

Fixing Up Xubuntu 12.04 LTS

Well allrighty then!

Back on my wonderful favorite old default Linux, Xubuntu! And like the true wimpy scardycat I am, I’ll only use the LTS editions. I’ve found a way to make it a little bit leaner and meaner, and that effort continues. One way is to simply add an Ad-Blocker to Firefox. Another way is super easy: Simply remove some of the startup daemons and stuff that use resources but that I don’t need. Bluetooth, for example. This old relic doesn’t have Bluetooth, so why have a Bluetooth daemon running, right?

I unchecked the ones I don’t need, and the ones I don’t need running right at startup. Printing, for example. When I need it then I’ll run it. In the meantime I don’t need it gobbling up my meager little resources. Y’see the one I added? It’s a very resource-miserly little one called gdesklets that has a prettier clock and calendar than the ones offered in the Xfce panel. If there was a prettier weather desklet I’d use it too, but gdesklets doesn’t offer one. Waaaah.

Oh well, there’s always the weather applet in the panel, right? WRONG!!! The one that comes on the Xubu CD doesn’t work anymore. Oh, you can add the PPA and upgrade the whole desktop environment to Xfce 4.10, but that creates new problems on Xubu 12.04, like buttons that quit working.

So here is a way to get that wonderful Xfce weather applet working again without picking up new bugs that get dragged along with an upgrade of the whole Xfce desktop: First use Synaptic Package Manager to completely remove Xfce4-weather-plugin. Then open a terminal and type these four commands one at a time. Enter your root password when prompted:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:dtl131/mediahacks
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install xfce4-weather-plugin
sudo add-apt-repository –remove ppa:dtl131/mediahacks

Now your xfce4 weather panel plugin will work!

So have a look at my awesome Xubuntu 12.04 LTS desktop now! I’m using the High-contrast icon set, gdesklets, and the now-restored weather panel applet (not in the picture, lol):

If any readers have some other ideas on how to make my Xubu leaner and meaner yet, please pretty pretty pleeeeease offer them in the comments below. Thanks!

The Lubuntu Adventure Begins

Updating the kernel solved my major issues with PCLinuxOS, but as I wrote in my previous post, I wonder if I’ve just been kidding myself about getting this old relic to run these spectacular modern desktrop Linux distributions.

Even my most favorite and beloved Xubuntu seems to outrun this old hardware at times. And according to the Xubuntu team’s Strategy Document, that wonderful Ubuntu flavor is not specifically intended nor designed for older hardware like it once was:

Xubuntu does not explicitly target users with low, modest, or high powered machines but instead targets the entire spectrum. Xubuntu’s extra responsiveness and speed, among other positive traits, can be appreciated by all users, regardless of their hardware.

Although I must admit if I had a computer that could handle Ubuntu’s fancy new Unity interface, I think I’d give it a shot. But my computer can’t carry heavy loads. It’s over 10 years old for goodnessakes! So instead of trying to make these awesome modern Linux distros run on this old relic, it’s time to get real and choose one of those “ultralights” that is designed for hardware like mine. I am so grateful for Linux! It has already given this old dinosaur years of new life! But the Big Popular distros are outrunning my hardware.

So yesterday I promised to write about Lubuntu, the only remaining Ubuntu flavor that is actually intended and designed for older hardware. There isn’t a Long-Term-Support release of Lubuntu yet, but one is coming in April, and I suspect it’s going to become hugely popular as more and more former WindowsXP users find it a wonderful alternative when support of WinXP ends at the very same time as the new LTS editions are released.

There’s even a way to add a little eye candy to Lubuntu while still being as miserly as Scrooge with resources:

Ain’t it pretty!? This is Lubuntu 13.10! That’s no special fancy icon set, those are the Lubuntu default icons! My only additions are the wallpaper – a photograph taken out the window of a big ol’ jet airliner (can you hear the song?) of Mount Ranier towering over the neighboring mountain range – and a cute little application called gdesklets. I couldn’t find a weather applet for it in the usual places but I bet there is one to be found. Less resource-hungry, I’m told, than most of the alternative screenlets. I’ve got a calendar and an old-fashioned analog clock on the desktop since I’m always forgetting what day it is and where I’m supposed to be. :-[

Fully updated, Lubuntu is absolutely the fastest, most responsive operating system I have ever had on this computer. It performs even faster than the ultralight AntiX (which doesn’t even offer a full desktop environment) and is much more up-to-date. Is it stable? Well, I haven’t been using it long enough to know that yet, but so far nothing has crashed or hesitated or slowed down or frozen up. Unlike many of the Ubuntu-based spin-offs, multimedia codecs need to be added manually either during or after installation, since it is illegal in many countries to include that software in a freely distributed system. The only little glitch I have experienced so far was that choosing to include them during installation of Lubuntu didn’t work. But after installation of Lubuntu, adding them was a simple matter of a few mouse clicks.

This doesn’t seem to be as customizable as the Xfce desktop, but I’ve managed to get the whole desktop looking great, including the panel opacity and desklets, without the frustration I anticipated with learning a new desktop environment. That’s huge to me, since I ordinarily get bogged down in that kinda stuff. So I guess it’s intuitive enough, for me at least.

I recommend this Ubuntu flavor for ‘buntuers with computers having from 256 to 512 of RAM. Less than 256 is probably impractical for Lubuntu. But a lot of those old machines with WindowsXP on them fit in that range, and Lubuntu will be there to save countless numbers of them from an agonizing death in the landfill.

Linux for the Future

WindowsXP will reach the end of it’s supported life shortly. Millions of people will dump their old machines and buy mass-produced cheap-as-possible new computers with Windows 7 and 8 on them. Millions more will probably just keep using XP – unsupported – for as long as they can.

Once upon a time, Linux was “the answer” for older hardware, but have you looked lately at the big popular distros? I’m talkin’ ’bout Linux Mint, Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, etc. They won’t exactly fly along on that old hardware either! So you look for the popular “lightweight” Linux flavors like Linux Mint Xfce, Xubuntu, Lubuntu. Maybe they’ll run okay even on older hardware (I love my Xubu on the old Dell), but here’s the thing: When the current Long-Term-Support editions reach end-of-life, good luck finding any of them that still fit in a CD.

The most popular distros are great, but most of the newest versions will simply not run very well on machines that presently run WindowsXP.

My old Dell runs pretty okay on Linux Mint Xfce and Xubuntu, but here’s the thing with them now: The newest editions no longer fit on a CD, and my old machine can’t burn DVDs. And as the last of the top distros that still fit on a CD (“LTS” editions of “lightweight” Mint and the ‘buntus, for example) reach their end-of-life, there will be many more users like me looking for a stable, reliable, well-supported Linux distro that we can actually burn to a CD instead of ordering a DVD and waiting for it to arrive in snail mail.

There are other “light” distros, but very few that are Debian-based and still fit on a CD. Not even the venerable and ultralight Crunchbang Linux fits on a CD anymore! Coming from Xubuntu, Crunchbang was the first place I looked because I wanted a Debian or Ubuntu base, and Lubuntu totally misbehaves on my computer. But alas, it too is too big for a CD. And again, my old computer won’t burn DVDs. OSDisc.com sells Crunchbang DVDs, but their information is so out of date I don’t really trust it anymore. And don’t tell me to use Plop Linux to make my computer boot from a USB port. It has never worked on this old faithful box. Nor on two or three other computers I’ve tried it on. Next up: AntiX.

Bingo! Easy 45-minute installation from a slender little CD followed by warp-speed performance. With Debian’s rock solid reputation for dependability and stability, too, not to mention it’s huge repositories.

AntiX is on it’s way up the “distro chart” in a big way. It’s only a matter of time.

 

PCLinuxOS’s superb LXDE edition still fits on a CD and flies along on my very modest 10-year-old Dell (Celeron, 512 RAM).  And it’s a heckuvalot easier to install and configure than AntiX.  So for the technically challenged, it may be the better option.  PCLinuxOS just celebrated 10 years, by the way, and it sure looks like they’ll be around for at least another ten years.

 

More Joining Soon

With the introduction of Unity in Ubuntu Linux, Xubuntu gained a lot of new users. And soon, Xubuntu will gain many more users as support for Windows XP ends on April 8th next year.

The Xfce desktop in Linux lends itself perfectly to this influx of new users coming from Windows for two reasons:

  1. Most users of Windows XP likely have older computers that came with Windows XP pre-installed. Xfce was designed for older hardware, to operate with low resource requirements.
  2. Most users of Windows XP will find the Xfce interface easy to adapt to. In fact the Xubuntu-based Linux Lite bills itself as especially well suited to Linux novices, and Windows users in particular:

The goal of Linux Lite is to introduce Windows users to an intuitively simple, alternative operating system. Linux Lite is a showcase for just how easy it can be to use linux. From familiar software like Firefox and Thunderbird, to simply named menu items, to one click updates and software installs we hope that you will find Linux Lite an enjoyable computing experience.

I dare say, Xubuntu is very well suited to that task as well. Linux Lite has tweaked Xubuntu further and edited the menus with simplified names and categorized menu entries that make things easier yet for Windows users to make the transition. It’s quite brilliant, actually.

Hopefully my favorite Linux distro won’t forget that it was originally intended for older hardware, especially now with the impending influx of new users coming from Windows XP! If Xubuntu becomes to big for its britches (it won’t fit on a CD anymore, bad news for those of us with old CD burners that can’t burn DVDs), I’ll be sending my Windows XP friends to this newcomer distro – and pleading with the Xubuntu Team to keep these new WinXP users in mind when they work their wonderful magic in making Xubuntu – still the most splendid Xfce distro ever made.

Why So Many Linux Distributions?

There are literally hundreds of different flavors of Linux, for servers, for desktops, for mobile devices. A frequent line of questions among desktop computer users being introduced to Linux is,

Why are there so many to choose from? What are the differences? Wouldn’t it be better to have just two or three to choose from to make it easier?

This posting is an attempt at answering those questions as briefly as possible and in “plain English” for those of us who aren’t technically inclined.

What are the differences between Linux distributions?

  • Many Linux distros are built for “niche” markets. They may not use the same kernel or include the same drivers. Some distros are a good fit for older, modest hardware (Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Crunchbang, AntiX, etc) and some at new, high-end machines. Some distros are aimed at little kids, some at high school kids and college kids, some for “casual users,” some for geeks and some for technophobes. Some for gamers, some for musicians, etc. Some for business and some for home computers and laptops or netbooks. Different distros fit different users. Choose a distro according to your particular needs.
  • There are differences in package management, even among the popular “one size fits all” distros like Ubuntu, Mint, PCLinuxOS, OpenSUSE, Fedora, etc). These differences matter because they try to resolve software dependencies with varying degrees of success and completeness. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing it’s package management.
  • There are differences in software repositories from one distro to another, depending on their “niche” and/or a parent distro. For home desktop users this is a really big deal. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing its repositories.
  • There are differences in support options, like paid support services for server and desktop (Canonical, Red Hat, and SUSE offer these) and free community support for users (a distro’s Wiki, forums, community). Choose a distro and you’re also choosing one of these options, and some are just better than others.
  • There are different software tools that developers choose for their distro, from it’s boot manager (Lilo, Grub legacy, Grub 2) to it’s desktop. Many are unique to a single distro, like Ubuntu’s Software Center and Linux Mint’s Mint Updater. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing it’s tool set.

Why so many to choose from?

Partially answered in “niche markets” above, a lot of the reason comes from combinations of all the factors above.

Another reason has to do with the GNU license that Linux is released under. Anyone is free to copy, modify, and distribute Linux as they see fit. There are dozens of “distrolets,” as I call them, created only so that some narcissistic nerd can call himself a “Linux developer.” Take any existing distro and change the wallpaper and branding a little bit and bingo – a new “distro” is born. It’s not illegal, even though it’s tasteless and tacky. While the GNU license is wonderful because it facilitates a worldwide community of contributors to make Linux awesome, it also has the unintended consequence of enabling some people to “plagiarize” the work of others and release it under their own brand. There’s no such thing as plagiarism in Linux, other than names, logos, artwork, and that sort of thing, because of the GNU license that – when used for nobler purposes – benefits the entire Linux community and all Linux end-users.

The GNU license is also the reason Linux users don’t need a “certificate of authenticity” or have to agree to the terms of an “End User License Agreement.” It makes some novice Linux users uneasy, and quite a few have heard that Linux is “pirated” software and therefore illegal or unsafe. My goodness, nothing could be farther from true. The GNU license means that you actually own the software on your computer and are free to copy it, change it, reverse-engineer it, twist, pull, fold, spindle, and mutilate it to your heart’s content. But if you really think you need a license, here. Take mine, print it out, and stick it on your computer case so you’ll feel better:

xubuntu certificate
xubuntu certificate

Feel better?

Why not just a few to make choosing easier?

Under the GNU license it just isn’t possible. But that’s actually a very good thing, not at all negative in any sense even though it may be frustrating to newcomers to Linux. But you can narrow down your choices by knowing ahead of time what you want to use your computer for, what your computer can handle, whether the high-end fancy eye-candy and deluxe applications or if you need a “lightweight” operating system with lightweight applications that conserve RAM and processing power. And your own talents and limitations when it comes to “tech stuff.” Got mad tech skilz talents and want to let your inner geek out to play and do some real damage? Try Arch Linux, or Gentoo, or Linux From Scratch. Got no such talents and the mere thought of tinkering with your computer’s operating system terrifies you? Try PCLinuxOS, Simply Mepis, Ubuntu, or any of dozens of Ubuntu derivatives like Linux Mint, Zorin, or Easy Peasy. Got an old computer like mine? Xubuntu is my favorite for older hardware owned by casual and slightly technophobic users like me.

Hopefully this little posting has made choosing a Linux flavor a little easier, at least by informing you of what the differences are and what to consider in making your choice.

 

Minimal, Simple, Fast

So I’ve had some time to play with desktops and Linux distros over the past few weeks because I’m always up early in the morning and can’t make a lot of noise in the house that would wake anyone else. People who know me are like, “Make up your mind already for goodnessakes, dude!”

Really, my mind has been made up all along. I just like to explore sometimes. But until and unless I find anything to rival the speed, simplicity, and sheer awesomeness of Xubuntu Linux – and for as long as it works on this ancient-by-today’s-standards Dell desktop – I’m sticking with what works flawlessly and elegantly for me. I’m really not the Linux distro-whore I appear to be. It’s just that there’s a lot of new innovations and stuff I hear about and want to try out. For instance, Conky has a GUI (graphical user interface) now! Frankly I never bothered with Conky but when I get around to it maybe I’ll try it now that they’ve made it simpler (supposedly).

So this morning’s post is just a quick summary to defend my argument that I’m not a distro-whore!

My flirtation with the Enlightenment desktop (on PCLinuxOS and on Bodhi Linux) is over. To put it in bluntly, it’s experimental and beta-quality stuff, despite having been around a long time now. Wonderful, low-resource eye candy, but it didn’t stay where I put it on my desktop. It moved and morphed and migrated. Themes for it are pretty limited depending on what distro you’re using it on, and it’s not nearly as simple as the good ol’ Xfce desktop. Remember I’m only a sidekick, I need simplicity! But keep an eye on Enlightenment because I think it shows a lot of promise. Progress on it seems to be really slow, but worth the wait.

It was little different trying out a couple of docks (Cairo dock and Docky) on top of Xfce. Nice little desktop widgets and applets and gadgets and eye candy! But again, at least on this older hardware without the supercool video capabilities of anything newer than 5 years old or so, too many of these wonderful little goodies either wouldn’t stay where I put them, and/or they wouldn’t load and display after a reboot, and/or they insisted on being too big or too small. I like the quirky, bouncy way the icons behaved in Cairo Dock (it relies on Compiz, so buyer be aware), and I like the 3D shadows and reflective little “shelf” the launchers rested on. But the launchers seemed to be pre-programmed to launch only certain applications. I couldn’t create one for Abiword because Cairo-Dock thinks I should be using Libre-Office Writer instead. In Xfce I choose whatever icon I want and tell it to launch whatever application I want. It didn’t seem to be an option in Cairo and I don’t know why. That’s just weird. For now, I’ve decided that there isn’t much difference between a dock and panel anyway, and it isn’t worth the trouble to keep trying to figure out a bloated, misbehaving dock that needs a separate compositing window manager.

Bodhi Linux
is Enlightenment-only, so it’s gone.
PCLinuxOS scares me away with it’s all-or-nothing approach to updating. Maybe not an issue for folks with better hardware than mine, but that’s not the impression one gets from reading their forums. Cringing in fear during an update is just anathema to me. Still they have a warm, welcoming, helpful community of knowledgeable people, and their PCLinuxOS Magazine is absolutely first-rate no matter what Linux distro you use.

So today’s back-to-basics, minimal, simple, lightweight, trouble-free, quick-as-lightning desktop is Xubuntu 12.04 with the supercool Faenza icon set and two panels: One for my frequently-used launchers on the bottom (but put it wherever you like in Xfce!) and one for notifications and taskbar on top. Out of my way but instantly available even if I’m in the middle of two or three things at once.

Minimal, Simple, fast, flawless, fearless, rock-stable on this old Dell, and supported until April of 2017. See? I told you my mind was made up!

Oh, and that wallpaper, by the way, is a drawing, not a photograph!

A Linux Hitchhiker

When you think about it, computers users like me are just hitchhikers. I don’t have much to contribute, I’m just along for the ride and happy to have a ride at all. A hitchhiker usually finds himself or herself at the mercy of those he or she takes a rides from. That’s not really true in Linux like it was in Microsoft’s car. Microsoft held me for ransom. The only contribution they wanted from me was money – lots of it. And of course, I had to be a willing slave to their operating system. I found it’s demands excessive and got sick of the bullying. It’s my computer, it should do what I tell it to do, not the other way around! So I hopped out, said goodbye and stuck out my thumb in search of an alternative.

As a hitchhiking computer user, you’re not so independent unless you have skills at coding and programming and such. But fortunately not all those who offer rides are in it for the money or expertise. Many are looking for riders who are simply willing to ride along and evaluate the vehicle and it’s features from a non-technical, ordinary user’s perspective. Some Linux developers, particularly those who work in desktop projects, want to know if it’s something their friends will use, that won’t scare away technophobic parents and grandparents, that children can intuitively navigate. They need to know what unskilled hitchhikers think.

There are other things that people who pick up hitchhikers want. It’s the reason that hitchhikers suppose they have to flash some skin and act a little flirty since we think we have nothing else to offer. Like all geeks, Linux developers need affection, appreciation, and love. Fangirls and fanboys to sing their praises and make them feel successful and appreciated. Fan blogs get lots of readers and devoted fangirls and boys are rewarded with hits and listings on Linux Planet, Launchpad, Linux News and whatever else. ” Linux cheerleaders” are popular with “Linux jocks” I guess. I could be one of those if I wanted to be, and if I were to become a cheerleader and poster fanboy for a Linux distro right now, I would choose Xubuntu Linux to dance and cheer for. Because for right now, it’s awesome for me on my old hand-me-down Dell which Xubuntu has rescued from the landfill. I absolutely adore Xubuntu! But I’m not going to become one of those fanboy / cheerleaders for good reasons:

  • I may not always have this computer.
  • Xubuntu may not always work on this computer as awesomely as it does today.
  • Xubuntu has changed a lot since I first took a ride and fell in love. I still adore it, but let’s just say I’ve had to make some adjustments to our relationship.

I don’t need to be a cheerleader or have a popular, widely-read “Linux blog” to get rides. Besides, I can get rides without sacrificing my dignity, because I can write honest, articulate articles about my Linux experiences as an ordinary casual home computer user. That and an occasional donation to a worthy project is all I have to offer, and it ought to be enough. I’m not ever going to learn coding and programming because I have neither the time, nor the skills, nor the passion such work requires for boring stuff like techno-appliances and their peripherals. I just need them to work so I can pursue the things I am passionate about. My computer is just a tool, a means to other ends. I’m grateful for those whose passion provides me with such awesome tools to pursue my passions with. I have other interests but on occasion in this category I like to to chronicle my journey and tell about the rides I have shared with generous drivers, some that were wonderful fun and some that were duds. Your mileage, as they say, will certainly vary.

But remember, if you are a casual user like me, that you’re just a hitchhiker and don’t piss off the nice driver who is helping you out. Of course that doesn’t mean you have to put up with rude drivers, unsafe drivers, nasty, smelly or even boring ones. Just say thank you and hop out, unless you’re in the middle of nowhere without any other option. But with Linux it’s so darn easy to collect LiveCDs / DVDs, and you’re never out of options.