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!

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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!

Sticking With Salix!

Well this is certainly unexpected! The first time I tried Salix, it refused to boot after an update, and I was like, “I’m done. I thought ‘borked by an update’ was uniquely a Debian/Ubuntu phenomenon until now. Screw this.”

What an ignorant and impatient fool I was. When an update includes a kernel update, you also have to update your bootloader to load the new kernel. That’s what I did wrong, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own, for not reading the instructions and assuming far too much. Typical, perhaps, of a technophobic user playing with a Slackware derivative for the first time after using almost exclusively Ubuntu-based distros previously. I was used to being spoon-fed and giving the operating system too much automation. Simplicity does not mean “everything happens automagically and you don’t have to do anything but click Okay.” The user is responsible for knowing what the heck he or she is doing!

Salix tells me what my choices might mean during installation and updates, and when it refused to boot after I made a stupid decision, I should have known. Silly spoon-fed Ubuntu user and Slackware rookie.

But y’know what? I think I’m just gonna leave Salix on my old ancient relic desktop computer for good. I’m probably all done messing around with other distros, at least on this particular computer. Here are my reasons:

It’s Slackware-based and fully compatible with it’s parent distro, unlike most of the other Slackware-based “lightweight” distros. This means it has Slackware’s legendary stability and reliability, and ultra-mega-super-duper-uber-long-term support.

It’s super simple! In keeping with the whole Slackware philosophy – and Linux philosophy, for that matter. One application per task. Do one thing and do it well. Stay the heck out of the user’s way.

It’s systemd-free.
I know, before you jump all over me about it, I’ve read all the debates and I think I’ve probably never personally had any issues with systemd, except that even my beloved Xubuntu began to slow down over time (almost like “Windows rot”) and had to be rebooted regularly just to refresh it and dump cache and stuff. It didn’t do that before Ubuntu (and thus Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Mint, and all their derivatives and spin-offs and remixes) adopted systemd, so I wonder if that might be part of the reason. The “one ring to rule them all” feature of systemd is counter to the “do one thing and do it well” principle that has made Linux so awesome to begin with (until recently). I don’t reboot Salix. I don’t need to. Could systemd be the reason? I don’t know, but it sure is nice not to have the gradual loss of speed over time that I experienced with Xubu and other old favorites.

Yeah, he’s talking to systemd.

Salix doesn’t include kernel updates by default. Why should they? The installed kernel works fine, it’s secure, and my computer doesn’t need support for all kindsa features it doesn’t even have. It ain’t broke, no need to fix anything. The only thing I change is the wallpaper occasionally, or fonts and stuff. It’s perfectly boring, as it should be.

My distro-hopper-stopper is Salix.

I haven’t tried it on the laptop yet, but that’s another post for another day.

Revisiting SalixOS

I’ve gotta say I have absolutely loved Xubuntu – up until anything after 12.04, and LXLE, the brilliantly mixed respin of Lubuntu – up until 14.04. Precise, 12.04, was rock-stable and fairly nimble on this ancient relic I’m still using. I could continue using it through April of next year, but it’s largely unsupported now except for security updates. So I upgraded to Trusty, 14.04. Xubuntu Trusty was too much for this aging dinosaur, halting and slow. So again, LXLE to the rescue. Gorgeous, full-featured, and much faster than Xubu. All was well. Until updates cumulatively made it increasingly buggy. I did a little research and found this interesting article on some changes to 14.04 that were um, unorthodox at least. Among other things, Trusty isn’t using an LTS kernel for an LTS release. They’ve opted for “greater hardware compatibility” by using a more recent kernel, which was updated two or three times on LXLE during my sojourn with it. They’ve got some apps that depend on systemd to work, but systemd isn’t the default init application / process manager. Maybe that’s one of the things that contributed to LXLE’s bugginess after some updates. It became slow, reluctant to boot, and themes got glitchy. Other users of Ubuntu Trusty and derivatives have reported frequent loss of networking (both wired and wireless) after updates. Borked after updating is a frequent complaint, and it always had me walking on eggshells with Ubuntu, and even more so with LXLE’s all-or-nothing way of updating (open Synaptic > Mark all upgrades > Apply).

I wondered if systemd, especially in an updated distro that didn’t ship with it but has a bunch of stuff that depends on it, was part of the problem. I never took a position on the whole systemd debate because as a self-confessed technophobe I never dabbled in that “advanced coder stuff.” Suffice it to say that the debate ignited a bloody war among Linux geeks which has kinda died down a little but still rages in spots, even though all the Big Players (Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, SUSE, Gnome, etc) have adopted it. It’s more than just a “initiating” daemon, it’s a process manager also. So it sort of goes against the traditional “do one thing and do it well” rule of GNU/Linux. It’s not “mature” yet, to borrow another Linux cliche, yet it got widely adopted with such speed that bugs are still showing up, and developers are being forced to “fix someone else’ mistakes” by adapting their own projects for systemd. Uncool. So, I looked around for a “systemd-free” Linux distro that might be less buggy with all the changes being forced on users and developers and maintainers. One of them is PCLinuxOS, which I have played with before. I downloaded two of the community remixes, LXDE and Xfce. I made bootable USB keys of each, but both refused to boot. I spent a few hours retrying, but with the same result. Okay, chide me for giving up to easily, but I remind you – I’m a technophobe anyway, remember?

Enter my second choice from the systemd-free list of Linux distros: SalixOS. I’ve played with this one before too, and fled back to Xubuntu when SalixOS suddenly refused to boot one day. But a few things are different this time out. One of them is this cool LiloSetup utility that works in whether in Live mode or installed SalixOS. So I’m prepared now in case the bootloader ever balks again.

SalixOS 14.1 ships with Xfce4.10 (yeah I know, the new one is 4.12 but y’know what? I don’t care. New isn’t always better) and Linux Kernel 3.10.17 (yep, the LTS kernel, yay!) This superb and simple little distro is based on and fully compatible with Slackware, which is known for it’s rock-solid stability even though some of the software in Slackware-Current is “older.” I guess using Slackware Current is kinda like using Debian Stable. Older, perhaps, but stable. Certainly more stable than Ubuntu or cutting-edge Fedora, except not polluted with systemd. Gnome3 users take note: The Gnome people have decided to make Gnome3 with a bunch of systemd dependencies. Xfce is still good, if you’re trying to avoid systemd.

The repositories are chock full of awesome stuff, including Seamonkey! It’s nice not to have to add a PPA just to get one particular favorite application and keep it updated. There are all kinda of installation options, from bare-bones to full-on ready-to-play; and multiple desktops to choose from (Xfce is the default in the main edition). Software installation is nice and graphical for us technophobic users coming from the Ubuntu family, using GSlapt Package Manager. It looks and acts a lot like Synaptic! And if it ain’t in the repositories, there’s Sourcery, which works for a lot of users but was troublesome for me during my previous flirtation with SalixOS. Perhaps it’s better now. Sourcery compiles packages listed from source code – all from a sweet graphical interface that also looks and acts kinda sorta like Synaptic.

Rather than post screenshots just yet, I would encourage readers who are interested to look into this little-known gem for themselves. I think it’s a great choice for timid technophobic users like me as a “next step” beyond the Ubuntu family and it’s derivatives.

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.

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.

 

 

My First Rolling Linux

I’ve always been scared of rolling-release Linux distributions. Perhaps because I’ve seen updates break things in other “distros” (geek shorthand for “distributions”). But re-installing the operating system every 6 months is out of the question, and even Ubuntu’s “long term support” versions require re-installation at intervals. I like the idea of a install-and-forget operating system that is maintained in a few simple mouse clicks. Here’s the one I’m testing today, just for grins while I have a half a day of free time.

The Mini KDE desktop with analog clock and weather widget
The Mini KDE desktop with analog clock and weather widget

When I first installed PCLinuxOS I decided ahead of time that KDE would be far too resource-hungry for this modest, aging hardware. I used the “mini” CD to install a minimal KDE version of PCLinuxOS, and figured I’d just tie Xfce on and go with what was not only familiar but proven to run superbly on my computer.

But before I did so, I thought I’d explore this KDE desktop a little just for grins. It wasn’t slow! Maybe adding all the goodies and extras would slow it down, but this “mini” version is quite speedy. KMail is broken (not even installed – I added it, tried it, tried to make it do something, then deleted it after reading a “don’t bother with KMail” post in their forums), but Konquorer is plenty fast, and doubles as a file manager! Not that Dolphin, the default file manager in KDE, is anything to sneeze at. Seems as simple as Thunar and just as fast.

Installation of PCLinuxOS mini is a snap. Once installed, it needs to be updated straight away before adding any new software. Open Synaptic Package Manager, Refresh, Mark All Upgrades, and Apply. That’s basically all the user does to maintain the operating system, presumably for years! It’s an all-or-nothing approach which is kinda scary to a noob like me who fears the “broken after update” scenario more than even having to reinstall. But I’ll explore this KDE desktop a little further and who knows – if it keeps behaving the way it has thus far in PCLinuxOS, maybe I’ll just keep it! PCLOS has some sweet configuration tools that make it simple enough for a sidekick.

My hopes are:

  • That KDE won’t become a resource hog before I’ve had a chance to plumb its depths and learn a little,
  • that this all-or-nothing update maintenance approach doesn’t prove to be as dangerous as I fear, and
  • that even if KDE disappoints me, Xfce will work as reliably on PCLOS as it always did in Xubuntu.

I don’t know what’s going on the “Ubuntu community” lately, but reading their forums one gets the idea that the community is feeling abandoned by the company behind the most popular Linux distro. There’s never been any such corporate shenanigans in the PCLOS community. Us ordinary folks can find the Supreme Developer hanging out in the forums and mailing lists, and the community is vibrant, friendly, and enthusiastic. Most are “ordinary end users” like me, several help develop this sweet distro (also frequently found in the forums), and all are equally enthusiastic about the distro and it’s users.