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.

PCLinuxOS Mini Xfce Edition

I have been writing about why I jumped from Ubuntu-derived Linux Lite to PCLinuxOS. Linux Lite – with addition of a vitally important safety feature from the awesome and venerable Ralphy’s own repository – is by far the best newbie-friendly distro for older hardware I have ever had the pleasure to use. Just one issue: It’s “daemon possessed.”

And I don’t mean it’s administered by a Ferengi starship commander, either. A daemon is a program that runs in the background. Every decent operating system has daemons, or it would hardly be useful for us ordinary mortals. But this one particular daemon, named systemd, is a dangerous, invasive, “supervisory” one that does more than just initialize programs and applications and allocate the proper resources to them. It oversees, overrules, overextends, and keeps a record of every process. It has many security vulnerabilities and other issues that sent me fleeing away, at least until it can be tamed and put on a leash or something, if ever.

I wanted a Linux distribution that was not only not possessed by that evil daemon, but also beginner-friendly and technophobe-friendly. Salix would have sufficed in the first department, but not really in the second. A little more research and I re-discovered PCLinuxOS. There’s a nice community Xfce edition with lots of extra stuff in it that I actually don’t need or want, but that is true of every newbie-friendly Linux mixture. I found a “Xfce mini” edition, put together by the revered and praiseworthy Ika, a long-time member of the very loyal and enthusiastic PCLOS community. I installed it today on the old laptop and just wanted to describe the experience a little, for the benefit of any readers who are looking to escape the systemd threat without losing the simplicity and “friendliness” of wonderful Linux distros like Mint, the ‘buntu family, LXLE, Linux Lite, ElementaryOS, and many more built from Ubuntu. For them, if they have decent hardware that isn’t more than a couple of years old, there is the flagship KDE edition of PCLinuxOS. It has it all! I prefer the lightweight, infinitely configurable, and super-simple Xfce desktop. It’s the default desktop of Linux Lite, and also the default desktop of several Linux distributions meant for use by children! So it’s not complicated, but it’s powerful, simple, and nimble on older hardware. The Xfce flavor of PCLinuxOS is available in two different forms: The standard one is basically kinda sorta PCLinuxOS with Xfce tied on. The “mini” Xfce version has few installed applications, just enough to run it and then install the software you really want and prefer to use. It uses Synaptic Package Manager (yeah, you read that right, Synaptic, even though it’s not Debian or Ubuntu-based) to update and install software from a vast, hyooooge, very extensive repository! It even has Seamonkey! Cool, no adding PPAs and all that high-risk nonsense. LXLE has like six or eight added PPAs besides Ubuntu’s, just to get the latest versions of LibreOffice, to make Seamonkey available to their users, and the latest daily builds of other popular software. That’s nice, but the more PPAs you add to an Ubuntu-based OS, the greater the risk of something breaking when installed and/or updated. My other complaint with Ubuntu-based distros is the inexplicable presence of beta software in a distro intended for novice users! I just think that is unconscionable. Systemd, by the way, is beta quality even if it’s not billed that way.

Okay, end of lecture on why I switched (and why others should, in my opinion). Now the good part.

The Xfce Mini Live USB cranked right up and ran fast and responsively in Live mode. Installation may be unfamiliar to folks who are used to the Ubuntu-based stuff, but it’s pretty easy. Clicking on the “install PCLinuxOS” icon brings up a nice step-by-step set of instructions. The DrakLive installer uses GParted, but helps the user along. BACK UP ALL YOUR STUFF to an external media first!

I don’t do the dual-boot thing, and I didn’t install PCLOS alongside another distro. So I chose “custom partitioning.”

A swap partition, traditionally about 2X your computer’s RAM. I gave “/” 20 Gigabytes of space on my HDD, and all the rest of the drive is “/home.”
WORD OF CAUTION: If you already have a /home directory on the drive that you used with a different distro, format that sucker! “Foreign” settings and stuff will definitely interfere with PCLinuxOS default settings. Keep your documents, pictures, videos, browser / email profiles etc on external media to use after installation.

Now tell the installer what bootloader and device you want to use. The default is Grub on the hard drive.

Now the magic happens!

Ohhhh, it’s wonderful! The entire process from start to finish took under 10 minutes on my laptop. My only issue was that I needed to use my little non-proprietary USB wifi dongle to get an internet connection. That’s common with the stupid Broadcom wireless hardware in Dell computers. Not a show-stopper really, just a minor annoyance. Easily fixed after installation. On a desktop with a wired internet connection, no issue at all.

Then reboot when it’s finished, but do not remove the Live media (USB or DVD) until prompted to do so.

On first boot, you’ll choose your root password and set up a user (with a different password – this ain’t Ubuntu!). Log in and enjoy!

The mini Xfce version has enough to get you going. First thing: Update! You can do it when prompted to, but on the mini you’ll want to open Synaptic and choose your favorite apps. I install Seamonkey, ddCopy, xournal, Faenza icon set, and a few other favorites. LibreOffice isn’t included in the mini version, so install it from Synaptic if you want it. GParted and ddCopy do what Mintstick did in Linux Lite (and Mint), so I’m comfortable with that. This is a truly customized mixture, and the cool thing is, you can use MyLiveCD to roll your own custom-made, just-the-way-you-want-it iso to install on another computer. It does what Systemback did (and by the way, Systemback is about to lose it’s maintainer, so it may not be available in the next LTS releases of Ubuntu and it’s derivatives).

I’m just enjoying this so much, and I feel so much better to have exorcised the systemd daemon from my OS.

Plan A After All

Plan B was going to be to leave my laptop on Linux Lite, just so I could have the easy, simple, clickable USB utilities I enjoyed in Linux Lite (borrowed from Linux Mint and adapted for Linux Lite by the Great and Venerable “Ralphy,” of unlockforus.com fame).

Since then, however, I have found that GParted can quickly – but not quite as simply – format any USB drive in a few clicks, and an app in the PCLinuxOS repositories called “ddCopy” performs the other function I relied on Mintstick for. So….

Plan A will work after all! Next post I’ll write about the newest Xfce “mini” edition of PCLinuxOS, when I install it on the old laptop.

Happy Canada Day (belated, it was July 1st) to my Canadian readers and happy Independence Day to my US readers!

More PCLinuxOS Awesomeness

It’s not just the bestest, most wonderfulest, and awesomeful Linux distro in the history of ever, it’s even more! It’s free e-mail, free image hosting, chat, the best Linux-related monthly magazine (viewable on the web or downloadable as a PDF). The community is very active, and not just in the forums, but elsewhere contributing to the whole project in a thousand ways. This is truly a community-driven distro – with wonderful perks no other distro offers that I know of.

It’s also, apparently, some kinda well-guarded secret or something. I’m absolutely amaaaaazed that this distro hasn’t been Number One for all this time. But I suspect that a lot of users of other distros who would flee from systemd, commercialism, and corporate disregard for the community, will find there way to PCLinuxOS as I have.

Linux is Outrunning My Hardware!

Welllll, my goodness.

It’s getting harder and harder to adapt really awesome Linux distros to my aging, older computer. I have tried out “Linux distros for old computers” before, and have never really been pleased with what I found. My poor old computer is slowing and locking up on my “lightweight” Xfce edition of PCLinuxOS. The issue is temporarily fixed by a reboot, so it isn’t likely a video driver issue. There’s a bit of “swappiness” going on, which is normal I suppose (“Swap” is when your computer creates “virtual RAM” on the hard drive to supplement RAM), but it slows everything – including lightweight browsers like Midori (which has the worst font rendering imaginable) and Chromium – to a crawl. Even the mouse freezes. I know, my computer is old!

Running Bleachbit helped, for a couple of days. Now it’s back to acting like Windows, slowwwwwwing dowwwwwwwn and eventually becoming unresponsive. Except that it took Windows a lot longer to decay like this. Time to face facts, I guess: My computer is probably too old and too underpowered to run any version of PCLinuxOS for the long term. So I renewed my search for a Linux distro intended for older hardware.

Surprisingly not intended for older hardware is Crunchbang Linux. It looks like it would run okay on really old hardware like mine, because it’s so minimal. But on their website (“About Crunchbang”) it says that while not intended for old computers, it’ll probably work okay on most. Two things give me pause: First it’s too close to Debian, which has been difficult on my machine. And second it’s not intended for old computers. I think I should quit kidding myself and find one that is specifically designed for old hardware.

Puppy Linux runs in RAM. Which means there’s less RAM available for applications. And you’re always running as root, which is against my religion now, having left that vulnerability behind when I quit Microsoft Windows!

AntiX works on a laptop I installed it on, but it isn’t very pretty and again, too close to Debian. Works great on the laptop, but not on my old Dell.

I could fall back on my old favorite Xubuntu, but again, it is not intended for old computers like it used to be. It’s now mainly an awesome desktop alternative to Ubuntu‘s Unity desktop. Best desktop environment I ever tried. But a bare-bones Xfce desktop is just plain ugly on Debian and minimal Ubuntu. The Xubuntu team makes Xfce elegant and awesome. Once the lightweight flavor of Ubuntu intended for modest hardware, Xubuntu has changed it’s vision to focus on the traditional desktop, not so much on conservative use of CPU and RAM.

Enter Lubuntu, the one remaining Ubuntu flavor that is actually intended for and designed for older hardware like mine. My previous forays into the LXDE desktop experience have been sketchy, buggy, and frustrating. But LXDE is undergoing rapid development and getting rave reviews lately. Another very nice thing LXDE has going for it is the switch to a Qt base rather than GTK. GTK’s evolutionis wreaking havoc with Gnome and Xfce applications, some of which worked fine on GTK-2 but haven’t adapted to GTK-3. Conflicts and incompatibility mar the transition to GTK-3, and in turn mess up desktop environments and applications that are GTK-dependent. This might be a bumpy ride for LXDE and me. But I think I’ll stick with a proven name I trust – Canonical/Ubuntu – and use whatever version of it is aimed specifically at older hardware. The only caveat: Long-Term-Support only.

Look for a review – well, more like a report – on Lubuntu sometime after the next LTS version is released.

My Technophobia

Any fan of the Star Trek movies will remember this little guy from the movie Star Trek – Insurrection:

That’s Artim, of the Baku. His ancestors came from a planet where technology had developed weapons that threatened to destroy all life. Determined never to allow that to happen again, some of them decided to colonize a new world where most technology would be forsaken, and to build an agrarian society where machines do not do all the work of the people, leaving the idle to make mischief. Despite being technologically advanced, Artim’s people have rejected technology.

“Artim” is the moniker (and image) I chose to identify myself by in the wonderful forums they have at PCLinuxOS. Because I’ve always been pretty scared of technology. I’m an artist, and the last thing I ever imagined I’d be doing would be repartitioning a hard drive and installing and configuring my own operating system! “Linux is only for techno-geeks,” I had always assumed, and whenever I had computer problems I simply took the machine to a Microsoft Certified repair geek and paid whatever ransom was required to get my computer running again. I didn’t want to have anything to do with fixing my own tech stuff. I was scared to even open the tower cabinet to blow dust out of it! When the new smart phones came out, I asked for a “regular” phone, preferably one like this:

Please, just keep it simple! I don’t want a fancy one that can track the orbits of planets and comets, or predict the weather, or tell me what my dreams mean and whatever else those “smart” phones do! I just want a mobile telephone for goodnessakes, can’t I just have a phone? Noooooo. They don’t even make those anymore. And the old bricks that once served only as phones won’t work anymore with the current technology.

I really do get freaked out by technology. But like Artim’s people in the movie, technology was imposed upon me by outsiders, and I had to overcome my fear and distrust of all things technological. When I joined the fire department it was all techno-stuff. In college it was techno-stuff. Lifesaving techno-stuff, good and beneficial techno-stuff. But no less frightening to me than the walking, talking android Starfleet Commander was to little Artim at first.

So am I some kind of tech guru now? No way. Have I lost my fear of technology? Not entirely. I’m still just an ordinary reluctant user of computers and smart phones and technology by necessity. And frankly I still fume at having it imposed upon me. I am far from embracing this new world I find myself in now, where – like Artim’s ancestors – technology threatens to destroy all life. “When you build a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man,” Artim’s father explained to Captain Picard.

Linux is not the fearful technology I imagined, though. It is simply the means by which I have overcome the tyranny imposed by Microsoft, just as the Enterprise’ technology liberated Artim’s world. In fact, Microsoft’s operating system is a lot more complicated, confusing, and bewildering than desktop Linux is. And look at the prices! Microsoft’s bloated, high-risk operating system: Two to three hundred dollars by itself, plus the cost of all the bloatware needed to maintain it (antivirus, anti-spyware, etc) and the cost of whatever software you need (Microsoft Office – $100 or more), and of course, the repeated cost of having a Microsoft Certified techno-geek repair the damage of ordinary use. Compare to Linux: Free. Completely free of charge for the operating system, no need for bloatware to maintain it, and free, open-source software like LibreOffice to do what others charge big bucks for. Maintaining it is also free of charge. Safe updates from software repositories maintained by volunteer developers, packagers, and maintainers. My Linux installs effortlessly in about 25 minutes. Try that with Winblows or Mac! I point-and-click my way through easily navigable screens, choose a name and a root (administrator) password and presto, done.

The only confusing thing for me has been all the different “flavors” Linux is available in, and the different desktop environments to choose from. But trying them all out costs nothing, and one can’t help but learn along the way. It took me a year to finally choose a favorite desktop, and two new ones have come along since then! Such wondrous variety, and all free.

More Reasons Not to Fear Linux

Linux has no “registry,” and thus no registry errors to slow it down to a crawl and no need for more software to “fix” it.

Linux is not susceptible to most viruses and malware like Winblows is, for two reasons: First because there aren’t many ‘Nixers as compared to ‘Dozers, so not much malware gets written to attack this “obscure” operating system. But second, because executable files don’t run in Linux like they do in Winblows, and the user doesn’t ordinarily operate in Linux as “Administrator” like Winblows users do. Viruses simply don’t have access to the system, and even if they get it through some act of deliberate stupidity on the part of the user, they may not even be executable there.

Linux works on just about any hardware nowadays, and it’s ideal for keeping older computers running better than new instead of replacing a perfectly good computer because Winblows doesn’t support the version that was installed when you bought it. Did you get that, WindowsXP users? Next April you don’t have to spend big bucks for a whole new machine just because support for WindowsXP is ending! There’s a completely FREE alternative that should not scare you like I was scared at first. Like Artim was.

I’m no Linux guru or techno-geek. I’m not running off to join Starfleet. I’m just an appreciative Baku boy with a better perspective of technology (and a new android friend). A little less bewildered and scared of it, and better able to help others just like me, who try to avoid technology and have been willing to pay tribute to a tyrant (Microsoft or Apple) rather than live free and on their own terms. Technology is meant to serve us, not the other way around! Remember Artim when April gets closer and your XP machine is about to become obsolete and more threatening than ever. Even a little sidekick can handle most desktop Linux distributions without any special geek-training. You can too. Don’t be scared.