Compare, Ponder, Choose

So for a few weeks I have had a great chance to compare two awesome Linux distributions (hereafter “distro” or plural form “distros”), each with unique tools and features. So much of choosing a distro has to do with completely subjective stuff like the user’s ability, tastes, and values. There are desktops and Window managers to choose from, levels of risk to choose from, rolling-release vs. point releases (both have their advantages and disadvantages), system tools and system toys that may be unique to a particular distro. One is not better than other as far as most of the objective measures are concerned, it’s about “which is better for me.”

I had a big fancy 64-bit hand-me-down HP all-in-one desktop that ran PCLinuxOS Xfce “mini” in spite of it’s abundance of RAM and processing power. Until the hard drive finally failed completely. I also have a Dell Latitude laptop, also 64-bit, with 3 gb of RAM and a decent processor, running Linux Lite. Both ran well, except as noted in the following few paragraphs, and either one may suit any particular user – except new users, perhaps, in which Linux Lite has a decisive edge if, in my opinion, an additional safety feature is added. Without that added safety net, Linux Lite is no safer than any rolling-release distro as far as things being broken by updates – a very common complaint in most Ubuntu-based distros. Recently, “upstream” Ubuntu included Beta software in an update that broke a whole bunch of systems “downstream” until a later update fixed it. There’s no excuse for that! Especially in a Linux distro that is targeted at novice users.

PCLinuxOS

The “main” version is KDE, which has been doing through big huge changes recently to the new KDE5. Breakage is probably to expected with all the big changes, and KDE4 is no longer supported in PCLinuxOS. It is definitely a “KDE-centric” distro, and even the standard Xfce community edition has abuncha KDE/Qt stuff in it. That’s fine on a hearty machine, but many people choose Xfce because they want a lean, fast desktop, and KDE is a long-time resource hog. I used the Xfce “mini” after getting a little frustrated with the “regular” Xfce edition, and it was decisively more nimble and responsive. Unencumbered by systemd or “KDE stuff,” I enjoyed the speed, but experienced very frequent crashes in both of my two favorite web browsers, Seamonkey and Midori. I was more than a little spooked by the all-or-nothing approach to updating, even though PCLinuxOS has a large number of people who test newer versions of software before it gets added to the repository for the rest of us. Perhaps it’s just because of the big changes to KDE right now, but “broken after updating” threads have dominated the support forums. I experienced no breakage in my KDE-free system. Still, it’s a rolling-release distro with all the advantages like install once and update forever without ever having to install it again – and the disadvantages like “oops look what got by the testers” and “we didn’t anticipate it’s impact on other (non-KDE) desktop applications.” Is rolling release better? Well, for some, yes, and for others, no. I don’t think it’s for me, though, and that’s just a personal choice.

PCLinuxOS has an awesome tool kit for tuning and tweaking the system and doing other tasks. Several are unique to the distro, and I love the innovation. The community is absolutely second to none; cordial, knowledgeable, welcoming, generous, patient, and full of good humor and enthusiasm for the team and the distro. The monthly PCLOS magazine is wonderful, and users of any distro can benefit from reading it’s tutorials, recipes, puzzles, interviews, and reviews.

The reason I ran to PCLinuxOS to begin with was that it is systemd-free. Not that I ever had any issues with systemd myself, but the potential for big problems and back doors is very big and very scary. But that’s potential, not realized/actual, at least not yet. It bears watching. Yet on the other hand, it’s so widely adopted in the Linux world that there are now thousands of developers and coders to keep watch of it and to prevent it from becoming a major threat to privacy and security. Most of the objections I have found to systemd make a lot of sense, but they are years old already, and many of the vulnerabilities discovered have long-since been patched. The bottom line is reliability, simplicity, and speed. Especially for us “casual” desktop users and technophobes. I have decided that for now at least, I can’t make such a big deal of systemd based on vulnerabilities discovered and patched long before it finally appeared in most Ubuntu-LTS-based distros. Technophobia is one thing. Paranoia is a whole ‘nother critter.

With the loss of my fancy hand-me-down 64-bit all-in-one HP ‘puter’s hard drive, I dug an ancient Dell Dimension out of mothballs and decided to test out the 32-bit version of another favorite of mine, Linux Lite (32-bit).

Linux Lite

Xfce desktop, of course, because it’s lightweight, infinitely configurable, gorgeous, super-simple, and totally awesome. It also has a cool tool kit unique to Linux Lite, like “Lite Tweaks that lets the user safely do all kindsa system stuff in a few mouse clicks. This is great for new users!

Also unique to Linux Lite is that applications are named for what they do, not by their “real” names that tell the user nothing about them. How will a new user from Windows or Mac know that Thunar is a file manager? They wouldn’t, so in Linux Lite it’s simply called “File Manager.” What a concept, huh? Yes, this won’t matter to most long-time Linux users, but for introducing newcomers to Linux awesomeness, this is thoughtful and wise.

My browsers behave better in Linux Lite than they did in PCLinuxOS, though I have no idea why. I just know that they do. Fewer crashes, fewer freezes, fewer surprises.

Now about updating: What I am about to suggest is only my opinion, and plenty of people who are a lot smarter than I am will strongly disagree. The following suggestion is not officially supported by Linux Lite and in fact, opposed very strongly by it’s lead developer. But I find myself in very good and numerous company when I say that updates can do as much damage as good, and nothing frustrates new Linux users than unexpected breakage caused by updates. As I have already mentioned, “upstream” Ubuntu is known to include beta software in it’s updates, and there is absolutely no excuse for making unwitting beta-testers out of novice users (and simple people like me, and technophobes like me) without their knowledge and consent! This is unforgivable. Users of Linux Mint enjoy true freedom from these ridiculous, highly risky upstream updates, because their Updater allows the user to selectively update their system according to risk. A wonderful, awesome former member of the Linux Lite development team has adapted Linux Mint’s awesome Updater for Linux Lite and made it available to Linux Lite users (here). He also has taken another of Linux Mint’s cool tools, called MintStick, and included it in his repository of awesomeness. In PCLinuxOS you can use GParted and MyLiveCD to do the same things that MintStick does, but the process is cumbersome and time-consuming compared to the “click-click-done” simplicity of MintStick. The Updater from unlockforus.com I consider a vitally important safety measure for Linux Lite, and whenever I introduce new users to Linux I will include it by default, it’s that important. Otherwise, new users should start with Linux Mint if their hardware can handle a heavier load than Linux Lite ordinarily uses.

I now have Linux Lite running on all my machines, and have no plans to change.

Spooked and Hopeful All At Once

A friend on Diaspora has been asking a lot of questions about systemd lately, and the more he learns and posts about it, the scarier it seems. Not so much for the present, but for the control it takes over everything in the OS (and choice is a big deal for most Linux users, even for simple technophobic “ordinary users” like me). It’s a “supervisor” for all running processes on a Linux system which has it built in (Debian, Red Hat, Fedora, CentOS, Ubuntu and all it’s children and grandchildren like Linux Mint, Linux Lite, ElementaryOS, Bodhi, and dozens of others). He had asked why systemd requires it’s own password, which I didn’t know about. And like the nice helpful boy I want to be, I searched for the answer to share with him. Here’s a a little of the conversation:

I’m not trying to start a new debate, since I don’t know enough about it to contribute anything except that there are still some great systemd-free Linux OSes around, from AntiX and Devuan (Debian-based) to PCLinuxOS and of course, Slackware (the oldest active Linux distro in existence) and it’s derivatives like Vector Linux and SalixOS. That’s all I can contribute to the debate, but here’s why I’m a little spooked by all this systemd stuff:

Politically arch-conservative, my “default setting” is to completely mistrust the government and big intrusive corporations like Microsoft and Google anyway, but from the conversation above (and about 70 more comments in that thread), it seems almost like systemd is trying to take over Linux! It’s initialized on boot-up even before the kernel for goodnessakes, and has “agents” to coordinate and keep a record of every process. Okay, it’s supposed to make everything better somehow I guess, but keeping a record of everything? This really does sound like the start of a “slippery slope” that is supposed to be the new standard for the most popular Linux desktop and server operating systems.

That’s why I’m spooked.

Now for the hopeful part:

If I jump back to Salix to avoid systemd, I would really miss the cool tools I have with my modified Linux Lite – particularly the tools from this wonderful site maintained by a quiet coder who has adapted stuff from other great Linux distros for Linux Lite and Linux Mint. So just for giggles, I searched for a Slackbuild of MintStick, the supercool USB utility that not only writes iso images to a USB thumbdrive, but also lets you format USB sticks with two mouse clicks. And guess what?! Sure enough, there’s a Slackbuild for that! Updates are never an issue in Salix (fully compatible with Slackware). It’s stability is legendary and “broken after updating” is so rare I’ve never even read any such thread in the Salix forums. Linux Lite is awesome for now – modified with the unlockforus stuff – but it’s future is uncertain.

Perhaps I’ll revisit PCLinuxOS again, too. It’s been probably 2 years or more since I played around with it. But Salix was always awesome, even without any Gnome stuff in it at all (there are plenty of places to find “Gnome for Slack” packages and scripts anyway). I’m not a big fan of Gnome, since it seems they really didn’t listen to the community at all when they came up with Gnome 3 and ended up losing a lot of users to Mint’s fork of Gnome called Cinnamon, and to other desktops like Xfce, LXDE, etc.

Linux is about freedom. Systemd seems a threat to that freedom. But thankfully, it’s easily avoided – for now.

EDIT:  I just finished deleting a few paranoid posts about systemd.  As it turns out, most of the issues I uncovered were two or three years old (before systemd showed up in Ubuntu-LTS-based distros) and have long since been patched.  And now that it is in such widespread use, there are literally thousands of freedom-loving developers, users, testers, and coders to keep an eye on it.  Fear of systemd is not going to rob me of an awesome, simple computer experience.

 

Ready for What, Exactly?

Why “Kiddie” Linux Distros are Awesome

In a Diaspora post, a user shared this Linux humor post, which I “liked” and am re-sharing – with a little twist:

There’s an assumption in the comic that the “kids” will “grow up” to become super-duper master geeky techno-wizards with “mad programming skillz” and create a master race of sentient androids or something.

I say, in reply to this assumption, “until you are ready:”

Ready for what? Some of us are just ordinary users who surf the ‘net, write letters and term papers, share e-mail, watch videos, and play games. It’s all we did on Windows or Mac, and it’s all we care to do on any OS. We run applications, not the operating system.

Ready? To do what, exactly, besides customize / personalize the desktop, and install peripherals like printers, speakers, joysticks and stuff? The most inexperienced novice can do all those and keep everything updated effortlessly in the “kiddie distros” as they have been called. And you can add Linux Lite to that list – and you see what all the “kiddie” distros have in common? They are Ubuntu-based. More than anyone else, Canonical (Ubuntu) has brought Linux to us ordinary, non-geeky mortals and kept thousands if not millions of computers out of landfills. Others are doing similar work! Salix, for example, is doing for Slackware what Ubuntu did for Debian. And it’s crazy simple to use even though Slackware is certainly not (I just wish Gnome stuff was available in Slackware!). Even Arch has a derivative or two that are made for simplicity and “friendliness.”

I have installed and used at least a dozen distros, from Debian and Ubuntu (and derivatives including Mint, ElementaryOS, LXLE, and Linux Lite) to Salix and even the newcomer, VoidLinux. I’m not a novice, but in the end I’m really “just a computer user” and I really only want to get my school work done, surf a little bit, blog a little bit, play a little bit, and listen to a little music. Why make it complicated?

The funny thing is, a whole lot of very gifted geeks worked very long and hard to make Linux available and usable by us “ordinary desktop users.” And many of us ordinary mortals are grateful, supporting our favorite projects with translation help, monetary donations, and getting the word out.

And a whole lot of very gifted geeks use the same “kiddie distros” as we mere mortals do, either to help develop them further or just because they want to run applications instead of the OS for ordinary tasks.

– An unashamed “kiddie distro” user

Treat Your Moderate-to-Severe Technophobia With Linux Lite!

I’ve written before on both my own fear of technology, and about Linux Lite. Today I’ll combine both subjects. It all started with a flare-up of my moderate-to-severe technophobia that started last week, triggered by a discussion on Diaspora about systemd, the evil “one ring to rule them all” program manager used by most Linux distros these days. Just click on the systemd tag for a little more about it (but not much – I’m no expert).

But it’s big and intrusive and “does too much.” Some people complain that it’s an attempt to wrest control of Linux from it’s end-users to the developers, maybe more. The interest of so many “big evil corporations” in adopting it has the same familiar red-flag properties that have people running scared of Google and Facebook, using TOR and proxies online and that kinda stuff. Well I guess it just got to me, having gone on for so long.

I mean, it just depends on how you look at it, right? Or maybe…

I had already dumped Google, killed my gmail account, and quit facebook over fear of becoming a commodity for these companies to sell to advertisers and government agencies or whatever. Now, oh my Lord, systemd is threatening even the sacred refuge I fled to for privacy and safety and dignity! I’ve never experienced any issues – that I know of – with systemd as far as functionality. My Linux OS does what I want it to, does it well, and stays out of my way (unlike Microsoft’s OS). But still…

So…. I went and did something really stupid. Please don’t laugh (at least not where I’ll see you or hear you).

Instead of just switching back to Salix, PCLinuxOS, or any number of other systemd-free Linux distros that I have run before (because there’s no Gnome in any of the Slackware derivatives and PCLOS is too resource-hungry), I tried to rid Xubuntu of it’s horrific, demonic, intrusive systemd. I read on how to do it “safely” before I gathered my courage and ventured into the dark, fearful, mysterious netherworld of the command line interface (CLI). I didn’t do so recklessly or without a plan. I checked and double checked, referred to several official and unofficial sources, and proceeded with all deliberate caution.

I don’t care what the experts say. The only Ubuntu-based stuff that is free of systemd and that can function without it, is based on version 12.04 and older. None of those are supported anymore. I not only crippled my operating system, but apparently something I did in my efforts to exorcise the evil systemd demon from my machine seems to have physically damaged it somehow. Every technophobe’s worst case scenario! Push the wrong button and

Poor old Dell Dimension desktop. It served me so well for so many many years! Linux kept that old relic out of the landfill for decades! And then killed it, mercifully fast. No, I killed it, in a fit of technophobic panic over something that I really know too little about to be so worried about. Rest in peace, you trusty old friend. <sniffle>

But I didn’t spend a dime for my new one. An HP all-in-one with a huuuuge 500 GB hard disk drive! It was unresponsive after an upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 10. My partner used it to play one of those Windows-based MMPORPGs (Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game) on Windows, and bought a new one to keep playing, and for Skype and other stuff she absolutely has to have for her job… All of which, by the way, will run in WINE on Linux. Now’s my chance to show her just how effective Linux can be as a drop-in replacement for that bloated, expensive OD from Redmond!

So:

I’ve loaded up Linux Lite again, because it has cool tools, Xfce desktop’s simplicity and beauty, and readiness for the tasks I want to demonstrate for my Windows-addicted partner. This new computer is many times more powerful than the noble old relic that preceded it, and I hope it will help me win over one of the most challenging Windows addicts I know.

Stay tuned!