Testing Conclusion: Linux Mint 18 Xfce

So I have been testing out Linux Mint‘s latest “lightweight” Xfce edition for about 2 and a half months now. It’s truly a wonderful distro, great for Linux novices, and good on most hardware newer than 5-10 years old. I have modified only by adding some cool tools from my friend Ralphy’s treasure chest of awesomeness. My “findings” are unscientific as far as actual measurements of performance and features other than what is observable to a casual user. And here they are:

Linux Mint Xfce is packed with features and tools that keep it safe and fairly stable, but it has gradually slowed more and more over a period of weeks. To be fair, some of the slowness may be due to the major kernel updates that have come in rapid succession in order to patch the recently discovered Intel vulnerabilities. Even the creator of Linux, the venerable Linus Torvaldes, has called many of these security updates “junk,” unnecessary and burdensome. I remain unconvinced that this Intel vulnerability is serious enough to justify the cure, which seems to be worse than the disease.

While these security updates to the kernel (known to slow some machines by as much as 30 percent!) might help explain the recent slowdown, I still find Linux Mint’s most “lightweight” edition much more “bloated” with extra stuff that may or may not actually make it “better” – whether “better” for new Linux users or “better” in some other way I don’t really understand.

The old paradigm – that greater ease of use means greater loss of speed and efficiency – definitely holds true in this otherwise awesome distribution. That paradigm has become an axiom in the Linux world. But there is one exception that I have found and cannot explain. It’s Linux Lite! It is built on the same Ubuntu base as Linux Mint, yet suffers none of the loss-of-speed-in-exchange-for-user-friendliness issues that we all thought was “just the way it is, inevitably.” Even if the kernel updates account for a lot of this difference, it’s the highly-modified Xfce mixture in Linux Lite that accounts for this amazing exception to the rule. Too many Xfce distros aim at compositing window managers and unnecessary daemons running in the background. While Linux Lite has both compositing and background processes running, they are well-chosen and don’t demand the same resources as the most commonly found ones.

The only negative on the back burner is the Ubuntu base. Not that Ubuntu isn’t a great – maybe even the best – base to build a distro upon, but because the updates Ubuntu sends down the chute to it’s users (and all the Ubuntu-derived distros “downstream”) include Beta software and beta-quality software. Only Linux Mint has effectively addressed this hazard through the use of it’s wonderful Mint Updater. Fortunately, that superb safety net is also available to users of Linux Lite (at unlockforus.com), so you can have your cake and eat it too! Though I haven’t tried it, I suspect it might work just as well on any Ubuntu-derived distribution, from L/K/Xubuntu to Zorin, Bodhi, and Peppermint.

Were it not for the fact that I love restoring older computers and giving them new life using the most beginner-friendly distribution possible, I might not be a Linux Lite user because I remain always a bit leery and suspicious of Ubuntu and it’s inherent updating issues. But I use Linux Lite (modified with selected tools from Unlockforus, especially the Updater) to restore those old machines and introduce new users to the wonderful world of Linux. And I find that it’s easier to support these new users if I am a user myself.

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Updates in Linux

Hi everyone!

In previous posts extolling the awesomeness of Linux Lite, I have said repeatedly that even as awesome as it is, I would not dare use it – or any other Ubuntu-based distribution (including my long-time favorite Xubuntu), without a safe means of updating it. It’s one of the reasons I am such a big fan of Unlockforus.com. It not only offers a special adaptation of Linux Mint‘s wonderful updater which helps users avoid most of not all of the “broken after updating” issues that Ubuntu and it’s derivatives are infamous for. Linux Mint users enjoy this protection instantly by default. Users of Ubuntu and it’s other derivatives should get this application and use only that updater. In today’s post, I want to explain why.

First, because of this warning which appears in Updater’s Help Contents menu:

In other Ubu-based distros I have used, updates are ordinarily done non-selectively. Often by open Synaptic Package Manager and Reloading it, then selecting Mark All Upgrades and Apply. This is exactly what should never be done, especially since Ubuntu tends include ridiculous Beta stuff in their updates! I remain a huge fanboy of Ubuntu/Canonical for their pioneering stuff, and for being the most successful at making Linux useable for us mere ordinary mortals. But the inclusion of Beta (and Beta-quality) stuff in a Linux distribution intended for new and inexperienced users is simply unforgivable. Were it not for the safety afforded by Linux Mint’s updater (and it’s adaptation for other Ubuntu-based distros at Unlockforus), I would probably be using – as troublesome as it is – Debian Old Stable. Or a Slackware derivative like Salix. Gosh, now that I think of it, I should probably try Salix now that I have the means to do so… well, that’ll be for another post.

How it works

Levels One and Two usually only update or upgrade a single software application. It’s an update only to Firefox or the music player, for example. Unlikely to affect anything else. So if that update breaks anything, it’s easy to fix, and you know right where to go. Levels One and Two are the preselected defaults on a new installation of Linux Mint. Absolute beginners can select “Just keep my computer safe” and only Level One updates will be applied, except for Security updates, which should always be applied, but with care if they are beyond Level Two.

There’s a Level 5 category too, which might include updates to the kernel, the bootloader, and other critically important system stuff. These are likely to cause regressions.

What’s a regression, you say?

More good advice from Linux Mint 18’s greatly improved Updater Help Contents file. A regression is any update that breaks something that was working perfectly well before the update. You can read about these damned things in Ubuntu Forums frequently. I can only imagine it’s worse in those rolling-release Linux distros which maintain the cutting edge. I have used only one rolling-release distro – PCLinuxOS – and I must admit it was trouble-free for months! But that is because there’s a great team of testers try out all the new stuff before it finds its way into the repositories. They do an awesome job of protecting the users from regressions even though updates are all-or-none. HOWEVER, as awesome as the testers are, they can’t possibly be testing updates on every single hardware configuration their community is using. Rolling-release isn’t all bad, but for me it’s just too scary. PCLinuxOS is the only one I might trust, but it would have to be on hardware I was absolutely sure of.

Cheers!

Testing Linux Mint Sylvia Xfce

It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Well, I kinda sorta stopped because for one thing, it’s our peak season at FedEx, and I’ve been working crazy long, frustrating workdays learning a new route at the worst time of year to do so. And for another, my ancient old Dell really won’t run anything other than the leanest of 32-bit Linux distros anymore, which really limits what I can write about! Salix, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, LXLE, then PCLinuxOS’s Xfce edition, and most recently Linux Lite. Of these, Linux Lite remains my favorite as long as the cool tools from Unlockforus are used to make it safer and simpler. In fact I wouldn’t use any Ubuntu-based distro without those tools, except for Linux Mint, which includes most of them. Also among the favorite lightweight Linux distros above, only Slackware-based Salix will continue to support for 32-bit computers after the others have abandoned support for this older hardware.

This week a friend has gifted me with a 64-bit machine with 4 gigabytes of RAM and a speedy dual-core processor. There’s no need to run a “lightweight” operating system for now, and it came to me with the latest version of Linux Mint Xfce pre-installed. It’s already safer and more secure than a freshly-installed and updated Linux Lite system would be, in my opinion, because of that wonderful Mint Updater which prevents the installation of high-risk software and beta stuff in regular updates. And to reiterate what I’ve said probably dozens of times, putting beta software in a distro meant for newbies (and technophobes) is unconscionable and unforgivable. Linux Mint comes with that vital safety feature, plus some super cool tools like MintStick, the USB-stick formatter and writer that I find so intuitive and simple.

So, here’s a little look at my slightly customized Linux Mint Xfce, 64-bit at last!

That star at bottom left is the menu (I replaced it, it’s ordinarily the mint leaf), then a launcher for Seamonkey (effortlessly installed using Ralphy’s awesome “Unlock Me” application) and a few other frequently used applications, plus the weather and clock/calendar widgets. One other cool thing I couldn’t do with Linux Lite was move the UnlockMe icon from the desktop to the panel. In Linux Mint, I simply right-clicked desktop icon and selected “add to panel,” and done! I used UnlockMe to install Seamonkey instead of adding the Ubuntuzilla repository and that was super-amazing! It actually goes to the mozilla’s website, downloads the tarball, unpacks it and installs it in seconds. “Look, Mamma, no hands!” It’s cool that I don’t have the hassle off adding a PPA. What about updates, you say? UnlockMe handles that too. Everything I love about Lite Tweaks can be found there too, and more.

If you are a use of any Ubuntu-based distro, I would urge you to visit https://unlockforus.com and make your own system easier and safer using the awesome tools to be found there.

Linux Lite 3.6

Some might say it’s “Xubuntu done right.”

But “right” is a very subjective term. Right for me is first simple, second, fast, third novice-friendly (because I prefer to use the same distro I’m sharing with so many people new to Linux, since it’s so much easier to provide support to them), and fourth suitable for modest, older hardware that can’t handle newer versions of Windows or the big fancy mainline Linux distributions. For others, Voyager is “Xubuntu done right.” For others, Linux Mint Xfce is “Xubuntu done right;” and for many others, it just doesn’t get any better than Xubuntu right out of the chute. Until I discovered Linux Lite, Xubuntu was my go-to distro. The others are all wonderful, but most were either to “heavy” for my old hardware, or not suitable for sharing with “newbies” who never used Linux before. Linux Mint Xfce would ordinarily be my first choice for newcomers to Linux, but many of these new arrivals are here because their computers are older models with low resources, and even the “lightweight” Mint can become a bit resource-hungry.

Linux Lite is built from Ubuntu core (minimal) and uses a very highly modified Xfce desktop which makes it far less demanding on resources than most Xfce-flavored Linux distributions.

But it doesn’t stop there. That would be enough, but Linux Lite aims to be beginner-friendly as well. The trick is to be “newbie friendly” without adding so much GUI stuff (graphical user interface) that you weigh it down and make it slow and cumbersome.

Ease of use used to be a trade-off, sacrificing speed. Or if you wanted speed and miserly demand on RAM and processors, you sacrificed the GUI stuff that makes Linux “friendly” for us ordinary mortals. Linux Lite blows that old paradigm away. You really don’t have to sacrifice speed and resource-demand to make Linux “play nice” for beginners, kids, great grandparents, and even technophobes.

Linux Lite achieves this “impossible” blend of simplicity and speed in three ways:

The first I already mentioned – the very highly modified Xfce desktop. Xfce is ordinarily easy on processing power anyway, but by not mixing it with Compiz and other extra goodies outside of Xfce’s own designs in hopes of making it “elegant” or whatever, it retains it’s undemanding qualities. Other tweaks make it even less resource hungry than “plain vanilla” Xfce.

The second is Linux Lite’s collection of awesome tools, not least of which is the Welcome Screen (which you can bring up on demand long after your first use of the distro) which offers step-by-step links to updating and upgrading, maintaining, cleaning, adding or removing software – all with point-and-click ease. Other cool tools include Lite Sources, which lets you choose from among software repositories anywhere in the universe, for faster updates and upgrades. Choosing the one closest to where you live is generally best, of course. And Lite Tweaks lets you personalize your desktop, clean up any junk, recover wasted space, and speed things up even more!

How is a new user supposed to know that Thunar is a file manager? They don’t know Thunar, but they know Files – Home – Pictures and whatever. So other than the applications everybody probably knows, like Firefox, apps are named for what they do, not the whimsical names that don’t really offer any clue as to their function. That’s simplicity without bloat if ever there was.

A feather is the official symbol of Linux Lite, and it’s completely appropriate. And that heart, well, that just means I love it! That huge dagger behind my back in the picture simply represents hacking out all the extra bloatware and cruft that most people assume is necessary to make a Linux distribution “user friendly.”

To make this Ubuntu-based distribution even more safe and secure, I recommend unlockforus – an “unofficial” repository of wonderful stuff not approved by Linux Lite (yet?) but either developed for Linux Lite or adapted for Linux Lite from other Linux distributions, like the awesome MintStick app and of course the must-have Mint Updater adapted for Linux Lite.

Enjoy!

A Totally Boring Operating System

Tinkerers on Linux like excitement. They enjoy messing with a distro until it breaks, then learning how to fix it. They like testing new updates, new software, new ways of doing ordinary things.

Developers, testers, experimenters – thank God for them – love that stuff. I say thank God for them because if it weren’t for all the wonderful geeks that do the scary stuff, trying out the new versions of stuff, coming up with cool ideas and making sure they work, the rest of us would be on the phone to tech support all the time, searching the forums for answers to new issues and better ways to fix old ones.

But for this technophobic sidekick, a positively boring OS is lots better! It’s stable, reliable, stays out of my way and lets me get my work done, and with no surprises, no interruptions, no random mysterious malfunctions. I bet I speak for the majority of computer users, too. Unfortunately most of them are still using Windows just because that’s “what came with the computer” and they either don’t know there are alternatives or they’re not aware of how easy it is to change their OS.

I have a wonderful, totally boring operating system on my old 32-bit desktop – just the way I like it.

I also have, on a spare 64-bit laptop, a more exciting one: Rolling-release, a little more techno-drama to challenge my inner geek, yet popular with beginners, and systemd-free. It dual-boots with another systemd-free favorite of mine that is every bit as boring as the old desktop.

All three are awesome.

It’s hard to pick a favorite from among these wonderful Linux mixtures. So much so that I’m stuck with all three of them! I suppose if I had to choose only one, it would be Linux Lite, but not without the added – and not officially supported – additions that help make it so wonderfully boring.

SalixOS doesn’t need any such safety features as the Mint Updater (adapted for Linux Lite by the venerable and talented “Ralphy” from unlockforus.com), because updates simply don’t break it. It’s Slackware! Legendary stability, ultra-long-term support. Salix is “friendly” enough, but better for experienced users than for newcomers to Linux. It’s Linux “for Lazy Slackers,” a phrase coined from the common term for Slackware users – “Slackers.”

If I ever get wildly paranoid of systemd again, Salix is where I would run to for safety, I think, rather than PCLinuxOS, because it’s Xfce by default and design, based on and fully compatible with it’s parent, so you get these vast repositories of awesomeness and some cool tools for compiling your own favorites. I even have “MintStick” in my Salix! It’s rolling-release kinda sorta, but not quite the all-or-nothing update methodology of PCLinuxOS.

  • For beginners, I recommend Linux Mint.
  • For beginners with modest hardware, I recommend Linux Lite with modifications I have described in a few posts here.
  • For beginners who want to explore and learn about this wonderful world of Linux, I recommend PCLinuxOS without reservations.
  • For experienced users with older to modern hardware who like stability and simplicity, I recommend Salix without reservation.

I’m enjoying the best of Linux with these three distros!

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.

Linux on Old Computers

One of the things I really take joy in doing is restoring old throw-away and hand-me-down computers and making them run better than new, using lightweight Linux operating systems and free software. I can then donate them to a local school, church, or other charity. Mostly desktops, because laptops are harder to do because of the wifi tweaking I have to do. I prefer the Xfce desktop because it’s so very intuitive, even people who never used a computer before can just point-and-click their way along with an easy learning curve.

By the way, I got in trouble at school for my silly answer to the professor’s question, “What was the first point-and-click interface?”
My answer: “Colt Firearms.”

Where was I? Oh yeah – old hardware. I may have to quit when 32-bit Linux systems become impossible to find. It may not be long, but while it lasts I’ll keep that ancient, one-step-up-from-an-abacus Windows98 machine running along for as long as I can.

Here’s one I won’t ever donate:

Xfce desktop with desktop icons for school stuff I’m working on

Sizzle, pop, clickety

The dial is a thermometer. The gauge doesn’t show degrees, but whatever. The speaker is covered by a collander-type slotted spoon.

Okay, okay, it’s not really an old computer. It’s Steampunk!

Antique-looking awesomeness.