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.

ElementaryOS

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!

LXLE – A Delightful Surprise

Yesterday I set up dual-booting for the first time. Two things made me decide to do it:

First, I have an 80-GB hard drive for goodnessakes, and I’ve never run a Linux OS that used more than 6 GB of disk space. And all my collected pictures, songs, settings, school stuff, and whatever else has not amounted to more than maybe 7 or 8 GBs of storage space. There’s plenty of room to play.

Second, just when I was beginning to feel good about leaving my once-beloved Xubuntu because the latest version became slow and hesitant, MX-14 started acting the same way. To be fair, it’s not the fault of any Linux distro. Probably the main reason for the fits and starts is just the fact that this computer is an ancient, tired, relic dinosaur with only 512 MB of RAM and a little sissy Celeron processor. It’s like trying to run scientific calculations on an abacus or something.

For the past week, there have been times on MX that I needed to multi-task a bit for some school work. I’m editing a pdf and I have two browser tabs open. My Humanities professor has assigned another “web quest” due in two days. By the way, those web quests are awesome fun and very helpful to me in grasping the material. A very cool idea from a very cool professor. Anyway, even the most lightweight browser slows down, then the whole computer locks up. Unresponsive to any input. “Okay, it’s busy catching up with something I asked it to do,” I tell myself. “I’ll give it a few minutes to catch up.”

So I wait, and try just moving the mouse after several minutes. Nothing, still locked up. Fine. Go fix lunch and check again. Still locked. Eat lunch, clean up, walk the dog, read the paper. Still locked. Enough already! I hope my work has been “auto-saved” and do the Linux three-finger salute (cntrl-alt-backspace, which is kinda like the cntrl-alt-delete thing in Windows, only instead of rebooting it just drops you back to a command line). Nothing! What the…

Press and hold the power button to force a shutdown, while pressing and holding my tongue to avoid offending my housemates… Reboot.

Going back to work on my paper, I notice that I’m typing like crazy and nothing appears on the screen, so I stop. A few seconds later, my typed text appears as though someone else is typing it remotely while I watch. There’s some big delay between input from my keyboard and mouse, and output on the screen. This with no browser even open yet. So I save my work, close every running application, and check to see what is keeping the computer so busy. I had already “un-selected” a bunch of daemons and bells and whistles that used to start-up automatically, but there they were, running like crazy. Bluetooth, power manager, update notifier, all that junk I don’t use. So I turned them off – again – wondering how MX “forgot” my default settings, and went back to work on my paper. It’s the web quest, so I have to use a web browser. It requires having a few tabs open simultaneously and I worry that it’s gonna freeze up again. I’ve managed to answer two more questions when I notice the little “busy” wheel turning, so I wait. Move the mouse – the cursor doesn’t budge. It’s locked up again.

Go make coffee, pet the dog, grab the mail from the mailbox outside… that should have been enough time for the computer to catch up, right? Wrong. Three-finger salute again – nothing. Power off, reboot – again.

This isn’t new to me. Xubuntu (14.04) did the same thing except that it took a lot longer and happened more gradually – even predictably. “I guess I need a new ‘puter,” I tell myself. “It’s been a great run, but Linux has just outrun this old hardware. But why, then, did Xubuntu 12.04 run slow but at least okay without all this hesitation? What’s different about the newer versions of Linux that makes them impossible to run well on this old hardware? Rawr.

So I open one browser tab. Just one. Google “Linux for old computers” and find an old respected friend called AntiX among

the offerings. I could surely use that! I installed it on a laptop with less than half of my computer’s RAM and it did okay. But I’d rather have a real desktop, so I keep looking. Oh look, there’s Lubuntu. No thanks. LXDE was buggy as hell when I tried it before, and just plain ugly. I can fix ugly, but not buggy. So I skip that one. Oh, look, there’s Puppy! How cute! But it’s “against my religion” (not really, it’s just an expression, don’t get mad) to run as root all the time, especially on an Internet-connected computer. I’m a college student. I didn’t even have enough money for all my books this semester. I’m renting two of them! How am I supposed to come up with money for extra RAM (for all the good that would do) or a whole new computer?

Oh, look, here’s a new one: LXLE.

“Oops, it’s LXDE, probably as bad as Lubuntu,” I think, but look at the screenshots! Whoa! And is that a cool looking weather applet I see? So I read on, skeptical as I can be. But I find enough information to pique my interest, so I decide what the heck, I’m not getting any school work done anyway, why not. I torrented the iso overnight to be nice about it, put the iso on a thumb drive with Unetbootin (which took 40 minutes on MX – seriously?) and took it for a test drive. Amazing. But running it from a USB drive is not the same as running it installed, but it’s LXDE and I’m still skeptical, so I decide to install it alongside MX. When it’s done I’ll really test it. Then we’ll see. And if it totally fails I’ll throw Xubu Precise on there, finish my web quest assignment, save all my school stuff on a thumb drive and just do all my school work at school from now on, using one of their yuckky disgusting Windows machines.

LXLE installed as effortlessly as any OS with that terrific Ubiquity installer that’s nice and graphical for us technophobic types. It’s Ubuntu, not Debian, so the user password is the root password. I hate that. But whatever, if it works I’m good with it. But does it work?

Oh. My. Gosh. Does it ever! I swapped out Claws-mail for Seamonkey because I post to this blog via e-mail and I need the HTML editor. I added Xournal for school stuff, and … really, I didn’t need to make any other big changes. When you log in to LXLE, you get to choose your “paradigm.” It can look like WindowsXP, or Gnome 2, or Unity, or even OSX. Pick your favorite, but they’re all LXDE customizations. Very cool. Gorgeous default settings, wallpapers, and miserly little widgets (Conky, weather) that don’t weigh down the processor with busy work. Not a lot of background stuff turned on by default, either, so it’s plenty fast.

So I updated it and tested it. I mean really tested it. I had my web quest going with 6 browser tabs open plus the pdf annotator and LibreOffice writer all at once. Taxed far beyond anything that MX would stand for, LXLE still held it’s own and I finished my web quest, victorious! And amazed. No bugs! No hesitation! Not ugly desktop stuff to dress up or get rid of. I did my web quest on a freakin’ abacus for gosh sakes, with no slow-downs, no freezes, no lockups. Amaaaaaazing.

Who knew LXDE could look this cool and be so customizable? No this ain’t LXQt, which the developer of this amazing respin calls “a fat pig.” This is just Lubuntu done right. And I sat here in stunned silence after my glorious web quest, just giving thanks to God for this delightful surprise.

Discovering Enlightenment

I have written about some of the different desktops available in Linux, and today I’m fiddling with a new one called Enlightenment.

Actually, Enlightenment isn’t a desktop environment at all, but only a window manager. And it’s not really new, in fact it’s older than Xfce and Gnome; and only slightly newer than KDE! Either it’s a little buggy in PCLinuxOS or I don’t know what I’m doing yet, which is much more likely. 😀

Instead of a panel, we have a “shelf.” It can include an “Ibar” which acts like a dock for your favorite applications. But I like a “mostly clean” desktop, so I don’t use the Ibar gadget on a shelf. Mine has a weather gadget (in KDE it might be called a “widget,” in Xfce and Gnome it might be called an “applet”) and clock, and couple of menus. Yet I can reach a menu by clicking on any unused spot on the desktop, too!

Enlightenment offers several different themes which are gorgeous and can apply to all the gadgets and menus and windows as well as the wallpaper, or you can over-ride any one of them and use your own wallpaper and such. Mix and match!

Enlightenment seems to hover on the line between a window manager and a full desktop environment! It is far less resource-hungry than a full desktop environment though, yet it offers all sorts of “eye candy” like you might expect from KDE or Gnome with Compiz and compositing enabled and all that jazz.

Here’s a screen shot of my early customizations of Enlightenment:

Note the question mark over the weather gadget. That lil gadget was working until I rebooted to see if my settings would be saved. They were – all except for that gadget. And it wouldn’t let me input my location, so the question mark just hangs there until I figure out how to do it.

But dontchya just love that warm wood-grain shelf and the old-style antique wallpaper? I’ve got the clock up there on the desktop as well as the shelf just to demonstrate that the little gadgets which usually or “traditionally” go on a shelf (or panel) can be placed anywhere, independently of the shelf, unlike the applets in Xfce which must go in a panel. I might just throw the weather gadget up on the desktop and delete the shelf entirely, since I can instantly access all the menus with a click of the desktop anyway, and minimized windows appear in a simple middle-click anywhere on the desktop!

I was actually going to test-drive Bodhi Linux to try Enlightenment, but the LiveCD I burned refused to boot (prob’ly a bad burn, it happens). Too lazy to burn another one and worn out from moving furniture yesterday, I just opened good ol’ Synaptic in my trusty, awesome PCLinuxOS and added the task-enlightenment package along with several enlightenment themes and gadgets I found in the repository. I’m really impressed with the sheer size of that repository and the vast variety of software available there.

I have yet to try the Mate and Cinnamon desktop environments, and I’ve never messed around with the bare-bones window managers like Fluxbox and Ratpoison. But I did experiment with Openbox for a bit and that was when I learned just how powerful a “mere” window manager can be. Who needs a full desktop environment anyway when a “mere” window manager can do all the cool things that Enlightenment does? But I suppose it’s arguable that Enlightenment is kinda-sorta-maybe more like a full desktop environment than “just” a window manager. If it eventually get redefined as a “true” desktop environment, it will certainly be the most lightweight of all the choices available at the time of this writing!

I am thoroughly enjoying this new discovery and delighted to find it so fast and light on this old hardware.

It’s Still PCLinuxOS – But Xfce!

My exploration of KDE is over on PCLinuxOS. To be fair, the KDE-miniME installation disk is a minimal KDE intended for “advanced users,” but I explored for a week and found a few things far too resource hungry by the time I had it configured the way I like. It sure was visually pleasing and easy (easy but not simple – for a KDE newbie like me anyway) to use, but it did become slower with the added stuff I liked. I’m all pure Xfce now on PCLinuxOS, and it increased my speed as well as the simplicity I became accustomed to in Xubuntu.

Green is my favorite color, so I chose a simple green digital wallpaper. The icon set is Faenza (downloaded from PCLOS’s repositories along with the task-xfce4 and task-xfce4-plugins metapackages). Enable composting, make the panel invisible to show only the icons, add my favorite li’l Xfce goodies. It looks as good as Docky in my opinion, it it’s super-simple for a simple sidekick.

Now About Linux…

A conversation in one of the Linux forums I read was started by an Ubuntu user who expressed frustration at the problems he has had getting Ubuntu to work on his computer. Someone suggested that he buy a computer with Ubuntu pre-installed, that way all those bugs are worked out. Yeah, great solution – for about 6 months. Maybe three to five years if he gets one of their long-term-support versions and doesn’t mind doing without the newest versions of software.

Suddenly this rolling-release idea is a little less terrifying for me.I can’t blame anyone for being skittish about rolling release Linux, especially the all-or-nothing approach used by PCLinuxOS. But long-time users swear by it, and this distro enjoys fierce user loyalty that gives further credibility to its reliability. They have a testing team that does very thorough work, and when they do find a problem, they address it in the repositories very quickly. Stuff breaking after updating is the single greatest fear that I used to have about rolling release distros, but I’m feeling brave and school hasn’t started yet, so if I break anything there’s time to fix it in time for school.