Ubuntu-Base, Debian Base, Systemd

I love my Linux Lite! On decent hardware it is light, fast, simple, and best distro for newcomers to Linux, bar none.

On older hardware, especially legacy hardware, not so much anymore. I can’t run it nimbly on the old Dell Dimension, so I’m loading up an ultralight OS on it called AntiX. Reading up on this distro and it’s mid-weight sibling, MXLinux, I found some very cool stuff that has me thinking hard about even my newer machine.

MXLinux has some great advantages for a mission-critical computer:


1. – It is based on Debian Stable.

That means several things: Ubuntu-based distros are famous for including beta and beta-quality stuff in their updates! Debian Stable simply does not. Breakage in Debian Stable is very rare. So there’s really no need for a “Mint-Updater” to filter out the high-risk, dangerous system-breaking stuff. That’s a biggie for me.

It also means access to the huge, vast, far-flung Debian repositories of free and open-source software. The largest on Earth. No beta stuff, not cutting-edge, the latest and greatest, but definitely more reliable.

2. – Systemd is there, but not used in MXLinux.

A lot of software depends on systemd now, so installing just about anything from the Gnome project and other software means you have to have systemd as a dependency. But MXLinux doesn’t use systemd as it’s init, nor as the invisible lord and master of every process and daemon on the system, as it does in both Debian and Ubuntu and most of their derivative distros. For most users – including me, actually – this is not any big deal. But in the back of my mind I wonder what systemd may become as it takes over more and more functions in Linux in the future.

3. – In addition to the Debian Stable repositories, MXLinux has their own, with up-to-date and tested software. No more adding PPAs just to get this or that bit of software. That is a big deal to me, since I think it’s dangerous to add PPAs to your software sources.

Just for these three things, I would thing seriously about adopting MXLinux as my “default” distro, especially on modest hardware.

AntiX has no systemd at all, by the way! Debian-base, systemd-free. That’s going on the old Dell Dimension.

The Last Thing Before Upgrading RAM

I suppose I could “downgrade” my OS to AntiX, a wonderful Debian-based Linux distro intended for ancient, relic hardware like mine. Or maybe LXLE, an Ubuntu derivative intended for older computers. But I just can’t be without my awesome Xfce desktop! My earlier flirtations with LXDE were dismal – at least on any Ubuntu base. It may not be the same on a Debian base, but since Ubuntu is built from Debian I have little reason to think LXDE would be any less buggy on a Debian base than it is – on my computer at least – on even a minimal Ubuntu base.

Xfce is wonderful, simple, and infinitely configurable. Even for a technophobic user like me, it’s easy on the eyes and doesn’t tax much brain power. Besides, I’m in college for goodnessakes, my brain is already being taxed near it’s limits. So I just won’t part with that Xfce desktop. Period, finished, end of story, end of discussion, game over, don’t even think about asking me again!

So I’m lovin’ my MX-14, Debian-Stable, rock-solid. Except when I had to do a little multi-tasking between Iceweasel (Debian-branded Mozilla Firefox) and Icedove (Debian-branded Mozilla Thunderbird). All I wanted to do was copy a URL from an e-mail into a post to a forum. No big deal, right?

So I’ve got Iceweasel open to the page I want to write a post in, and I click to open Icedove so I can copy the link from an e-mail message. And I wait. And wait. And wait. The little round cursor thing spins away, then disappears. No Icedove. It’s not indicated in the tool bar that Icedove is even running, so I click again, and wait some more. I have to quit Iceweasel just to get Icedove to open. The same thing happens when I click on a link in Icedove and waaaaaiiiiiiiiit for Iceweasel to open. They are both set as the default browser and e-mail applications in my Xfce Settings Manager, so that ain’t the problem. Still waiting. Aw, come ONNNNN! “This ain’t Xubuntu, get on with it,” I shout at the monitor as though it gives a damn.

It doesn’t.

Seamonkey (or it’s Debian-branded equivalent, Iceape) does not appear in the regular MX repositories. But in Synaptic I can enable other repositories that offer it. Why Seamonkey? Because the browser and e-mail are integrated; because, Seamonkey uses less RAM than Iceweasel/Firefox; and for me at least, it loads a lot faster than either the separate browser or the separate e-mail client. It uses the same add-ons that I use on Firefox. Win, win. Why not Clawsmail, the ultralight default e-mail client in MX-14? Because you have to use an external editor to compose HTML mail, like this post (I post to WordPress by e-mail)! So I’d be waaaaaaiiiiiiting for a third program to load up on this poor old dinosaur. Old hardware, yeah, but perfectly good if I can solve this problem.

But mark this thread [SOLVED]! It’s Seamonkey to the rescue, and setting it up is as effortless as good ol’ Thunderbird. The interface is familiar to users of previous versions of Thunderbird and Firefox, too. Good ol’ fashioned buttons and stuff, instead of scrolling through menu options. Built from the wonderful old Netscape Internet Suite by the folks at Mozilla, Seamonkey has – for the time being at least – staved off the absolute necessity of adding RAM to this old relic hardware.

But I’m still gonna do it. Because no matter what, I’m not parting with my beloved Xfce desktop environment.

It Ain’t Broke So Stop Fixing It!

So this morning I’m looking at a web page when Seamonkey becomes unresponsive. Then I remember that it’s Tuesday, and that’s when I have set up the Xubuntu Updater to do it’s weekly update.

“Oh, fine, just let the thing run,” I think. “I’ll get back to the web later.”

If it’s just updating software, I have it set to just go ahead and put in the latest version of whatever software is installed. But if it’s a system update, then I have to enter the root password and authorize it. And sure enough, like almost every Tuesday since I installed Xubu 14.04, the Updater wants to update the Linux kernel again. Uh-oh. Every time it tells me I need another kernel update, I’m like

No, not again! This is terrifying stuff to me, even though most kernel updates are safe haven’t borked my system, it has happened before. And even though I can reboot to an older kernel, it leaves me wondering what was wrong with the old one that it needed to be updated anyway. If it’s a security thing, well, I guess that’s different. But most of the big scary kernel and firmware updates aren’t addressing some security vulnerability, they’re “improving” some existing feature or adding new ones.

I’ve got a lot of college course work going on and I need a rock-stable OS that isn’t gonna be suddenly slowed or crippled by the next “improvement.” Updates to programs like my browser and stuff are fine, but what “improvements” to vital stuff like the Linux kernel do I really need to keep this ancient relic of a perfectly good computer running? Older versions of Xubuntu were considerably faster than the latest version. I used to be able to multi-task without having things hesitate or grind to a complete halt. While I understand that some updated applications probably use more resources than the older versions, why do the kernel and firmware require more resources? And for cryin’ out loud,

It ain’t broke! So stop fixing it!

So there’s another advantage to using an OS that is based on Debian Stable. It’s stable! It doesn’t get “fixed” unless it needs fixing. Even as I write this post, the computer halts and balks and makes me wait until it finishes with some other invisible process it has going on in the background.

If I had a newer computer I’d probably switch to Linux Mint because the ingenious updater helps technophobes and newbies use it intelligently. But on this old relic, it’s gonna be MX-14, the wonderful AntiX/Xfce mixture built from Debian Stable with “the magic of Mepis” in support.

My distro-hopping days may be over, even after I upgrade this old hardware some day when I have money for that. And this blog may just get really boring after that, since it’s such a trouble-free system.

Debian vs Ubuntu

I’m truly puzzled by some of the comparisons between Debian and Debian-based Linux distros and their Ubuntu and Ubuntu-based counterparts. I know this is an old debate and that it is complicated by rants from rabid fanboys and zealots on both sides. I don’t care. What I care about is what works for me, on my computer.

On the Linux forums I lurk in, both sides appear to agree that Debian + the Xfce desktop is a hundred zillion times faster on modest hardware than even minimal Ubuntu + the Xfce desktop. This is supposedly because of the Ubuntu changes to the Debian system. They claim that the trade-off of making Debian “easy” and “user friendly” is a loss of speed and efficiency. That’s what they say, frequently, on both sides of the debate. This makes the debate more about simplicity-vs-efficiency, and users of older, modest computers have to choose between them.

My experience has been exactly the opposite!
I have tested all of the Ubuntu variants including derivatives like Mint, and Debian proper and several direct-compatible derivatives from AntiX and MX-14 to Mepis, SalineOS, and Crunchbang Linux. They are all delightful in their own way, and all are supported by large communities of users. But even in their most light weight configurations, Xubuntu and Mint Xfce were much faster than Debian and it’s Debian-compatible spin-offs on my computer. In my own experience with this very modest 12-year-old Dell with its Celeron 2-GB processor and half-gig of RAM, every single instance of Xubuntu, from 10.04 through 14.04 has been much snappier than any Debian-compatible, non-Canonical counterpart – even with the same desktop environment and applications. Linux Mint Xfce, from 10 to 13 also ran faster and more elegantly than Debian, AntiX, Crunchbang, and MX-14. From all I have read, it should  be 10 times slower, but it just ain’t so.

I don’t know what Canonical does to the Debian kernel, but in my experience it has had two effects:

On one hand it makes the Ubuntu family largely incompatible with it’s parent distro. Software from the Debian repositories may or may not actually run on Ubuntu derivatives and vice-versa. It’s a crap shoot, and potentially bad for whichever OS you’re using.

On the other hand, Ubuntu’s changes make Debian not only easier, but also more responsive and compatible with a wider range of hardware. It seems that the trade-off of speed for ease is a myth – at least for this user, on pretty old hardware. And I bet I’m not the only one.

So all of this brings up another mystery for me: If Debian wants to be “the universal operating system” and “ready for the desktop” by users other than the geekiest of techno-nerds, why won’t they adopt some of the huge improvements that the Ubuntu developers have made? The Ubiquity installer, for example. Highly graphical and wonderfully simple, it makes installing the ‘buntus and Mints, Zorin, Pinguy, UberStudent, WattOS, and countless other Ubuntu derivatives fast and easy. While Debian’s new graphical installer is much easier now, it’s still confusing and clunky by comparison. Why make it harder on Debian users? Why not adopt some of the changes Ubuntu has made to the kernel and firmware to make Debian run better?

Because it’s “pollution from downstream,” perhaps? It reminds me of an old boss I used to work for. The only way to get an idea past him and applied to the workplace was to make it look like his idea. If it was his idea, it was brilliant. If it was anyone else’ idea, it was bad, not well thought out, poorly designed, too costly, whatever. And it never got implemented, period. Yeah, that’s pretty bad bossing, and if it hadn’t been a government job he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did.

This is all free software, Debian. Take it! Use it! Make Debian better! Why not?

It it because Debian wants to remain aloof and “superior?” Is it because Debian doesn’t want “mere ordinary mortals” in it’s community since they don’t write code? As if code is all that matters. Debian and Ubuntu even share many of the same developers and coders! So you would think they’d still be compatible and both would be awesomely fast and super-efficient, elegant, easy, simple, and beautiful. All I can conclude from all this is that Debian is a haughty, nose-in-the-air snob that has nothing but disdain and contempt for her most popular and successful child. Debian is simply jealous of Ubuntu. And for good reason. They claim that Ubuntu is “copied” from Debian and that Ubuntu has “given nothing back.”  WRONG.  Ubuntu has given a lot back, but Debian is too arrogant and elitist to accept it.

C’mon, Debian, you can’t have it both ways!  Either take what Ubuntu offers and make Debian better, or quit whining and crying that your “little sister” is prettier and more popular than you.

 

 

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.