Moving On

My beloved Xubuntu 18.04 is good until next April, but I won’t wait that long to replace it. In my previous post I wrote about the Future of Ubuntu, and have looked closely at the new default package management, snap. The old .deb packaging will still be around for legacy apps and stuff that we all depend on, but the default in 20.04 is snap packaging. To me this will mean a ton of duplicated libraries and cruft, since snaps are kinda-sorta sandboxed and snaps do not share libraries. Bad for those of us who don’t have super-ultra-mega-terrabyte hard drives, right?

Ordinarily rolling-release distros scare me a bit. But even without selectively updating (other than the kernel), there are cool tools like Timeshift that can put things back to a “restore point” in a few clicks and a few minutes’ time. And I dislike the idea of re-installing an OS from scratch and configuring everything the way I want it, adding and removing applications, fonts, themes, and all the rest of it. Updates breaking things has always been a kind of phobia for me I guess, but maybe it’s one that I have overcome with the reassurance offered by super-simple backup-and-restore tools, and the fact that my new distro of choice has a thorough vetting process for updates that filters out a lot of buggy stuff before it hits the stable repositories.

Experimental, beta, or too-new-to-be-proven stuff appears in Ubuntu (and all it’s flavors and downstream distros) without warning all too often. I still remember how buggy PulseAudio was when it foisted upon us all. I dumped it for ALSA with every new installation for months until it wasn’t possible anymore, but by that time it was stable enough. Then Unity. Then systemd. All buggy as hell at the start, but everyone became a tester, like it or not. In a distro intended for newcomers, novices, simpletons, technophobes, and other “ordinary” desktop users, this buggy experimental stuff thrown in as the new default is – well, bullshit. Snaps is the last straw. While I grant that snap isn’t replacing apt for the time being at least, by making it the default, Ubuntu has again brought buggy beta crud to “ordinary” users. No lessons learned from the last several times they’ve pulled this kinda stuff. I’m all for innovation, but let’s not use the LTS versions for that! Enough surprises.

Goodbye again, Xubuntu. Hello, PCLinuxOS!

Why Xubuntu – Another Reason That Might Surprise You

I have written about a lot of Linux distros, and they’re all great in their own way and for a whole bunch of varied reasons. Sometimes I would try one out just to try something new. More often I would “distro hop” (change my Linux operating system from one distribution to a different one) because of other Linux users (hereafter “‘Nixers”) reviews and opinions. Sometimes I hopped to get away from systemd, which other ‘Nixers have written horrible stuff about, like “they’re watching, they’re spying, they’re gathering info, and systemd will eventually become Skynet and wipe out humanity!” I’m already scared of technology by nature, but all the fuss over systemd (used in most Linux distros now by people a lot smarter than I kinda freaked me out and I binged on distros that aligned against the coming takeover of human society by the Robotic Overlords.

I have already described why I love this distro, Xubuntu. But in this post I want to go beyond the user experience, and explore another compelling reason that I have settled on Xubuntu and expect to stick with it.

Sometimes I read blogs from other ‘Nixers who railed against Linux distributions made by corporations hoping to profit from free and open-source software (FOSS). How dare they! Profit is evil! The pursuit of money leads to all kinds of evil, exploitation, and ecological disaster! Red Hat, IBM, Oracle, and Canonical among others, all create and give away great Linux operating systems for desktops and servers. There’s nothing in the GNU license, under which Linux is offered, that forbids anyone from copying, modifying, selling, and mixing up Linux any way they please. Yet many ‘Nixers seem to be awash in anti-corporate and anti-capitalist sentiment. They insist that any decent Linux OS must be created and maintained by volunteers supported by donations from users, period. Yet look at what many of these volunteers supported by donations are building on: Corporate Linux! How many Ubuntu-based spinoffs are there, all asking for donations to “improve” Ubuntu with some unique software and shiny wallpaper? How many from Fedora, same thing? It seems so hypocritical. Using Ubuntu as a base and relying on Ubuntu’s software repositories, these spin-offs claim some higher morality? Pfffft. Use Debian as a base, then. Use Arch as a base, or Slackware or any other “non-corporate” distro to improve upon and release as a “new” distro (or “distrolet,” as I call many of them).

Now consider why Ubuntu is far and away the most popular “base to build a new distro on.” There’s always Debian, from which Ubuntu is based, and it’s not an evil profit-seeking corporation. But noooooo, they build their distro on Ubuntu. Why? Because Ubuntu has vastly improved upon Debian, from the easiest installation software ever devised to whatever “non-free blobs” they have added to make Ubuntu “just work” on a huge variety of hardware. The “evil profit-seeking corporation” that developed and maintains Ubuntu has done a heckuvalot to improve on Debian, and it’s so very much easier to build a new distro on than Debian is.

So: Why Xubuntu instead of Debian, Slackware, Arch, or Mandriva? Because of the amazing work and innovations of the corporation behind it, for one thing. Also because it is officially supported by that corporation, yet community-developed at the same time. It’s not going to disappear when it’s “lead developer” gets sick, dies in a car crash, or has a stroke and can’t work anymore (like almost every other non-corporate Linux distro). And because it is built from Debian, great grand daddy of distros, which is also backed by a large community and not just one guy or one small group.

The Lead developer of Xubuntu at present is also a developer of the wonderful Xfce desktop! Both projects benefit from sharing developers. Under the hood (or bonnet, for you chaps on the other side of the pond), it’s Ubuntu. But only minimally so. Updates are far less frequent on Xubu than on it’s flagship Gnome-desktop counterpart, and updates don’t seem to break things on Xubu. I’m using a well-broken in Long Term Support release of Xubu, so it’s far less prone to having an update break anything.

So if you’re a ‘Nixer because you’re an anti-capitalist left-leaning FOSS zealot, you’ll hate this post, and you might hate me for writing it. But if you’re a ‘Nixer because the locked single-vendor system of Microsoft or Apple has let you down, try Xubuntu.

Newly Installed Xubuntu 18.04

Ah, I can relax now. I’m back home, and it’s as warm, cozy, familiar, and easy as I remember. And the neighborhood is lovely, upscale but not snobby and uptight.

Home is Xubuntu, of course. I’ve been away a long time! But this is just exactly the way I remember my home distro, except that it seems a little slower than before. That might be just because the last time I was here was before systemd and all that extra junk was foisted on users. But I think I can speed things up a bit with the usual little things, like turning off services I don’t use, adjusting the “swappiness,” maybe going back to Seamonkey instead of the usual separate Firefox and Thunderbird applications.

This time instead of the usual Xfce panel with launchers on the bottom, I thought I’d throw a liiiiiiiiittle bit of eye candy in, so there’s Cairo Dock with weather applet, analog clock applet, and silly bouncing effects when you mouse over them and click them. Yet it’s lightweight, and just prettier than a plain ol’ Xfce panel. And I like that 3D shelf thing.

Lots less bloat than Linux Lite, and all I added was Synaptic Package Manager, because it’s what I’m used to and I think it’s better than “Software Center.” I added SystemBack and MintStick, just because they’re super-simple graphical tools for formatting and writing images to a USB drive, creating restore points and allowing me to make a bootable and installable copy of my installed system and write it to a pendrive. All done in under 40 minutes. On Debian this would have taken me a few days!

But this is Xubuntu. Almost perfect as-is, right out of the box, saving me lots of work and letting me get right to work, doing what I love.

Xubu instead of Linux Lite

I used to recommend an Ubuntu derivative called Linux Lite. But he idea of putting extra software like Virtualbox service on the Live iso, that is not for the user, but for reviewers (and thereby to benefit the developer) strikes me as kinda putting yourself ahead of the users. Perhaps I have misjudged him, so to be fair I won’t be too critical of that decision other than to say I think it’s weird. But Linux Lite another one of those one-man show distros, and I’m friends with a former developer for the project. That too might be influencing my decision not to recommend Linux Lite anymore.  Linux Lite (and LXLE, by the way) also comes with several PPA included by default, which cause no end of update issues.  Some of these PPAs are for software that is already in the Ubuntu repositories anyway, just perhaps not the latest version.   Again, why make unwitting Beta-testers out of Linux newbies??  Unforgivable.  One of the first things I always did after a fresh installation of Linux Lite was to remove almost all of those extra PPAs!  Xubuntu, on the other hand, is community-developed and doesn’t include a lot of “weird” stuff nor a whole lot of cruft. It’s a sweet, fast distro and I will always be a fan of Xubuntu.

Plus, for all it’s “newbie friendliness,” LinuxLite just isn’t all that “lite” anymore, which kinda concerns me.  For a nice long run, Linux Lite defied the “axiom” that newbie-friendliness was a trade-off for speed.  Removing the extra PPAs was probably part of the reason my experience was so good… But out of the box, so to speak, Lite isn’t so lite anymore.  Xubuntu has been and probably always will be the distro I run back home to after straying off because:

  • I got scared of systemd after reading someone’s panic-post about Robotic Overlords taking over Linux, or
  • This other distro is new and shiny, or
  • some Linux snob scolds me for using “a kiddie distro” (see here), or
  • I got scared about systemd again because of the panicky stuff I read on some other web site

But I always end up back on Xubuntu, because it’s simple, it’s super-fast, perfect right-out-of-the-wrapper, already configured the way I like, and takes only a few minutes to install and/or upgrade. I’m a busy boy lately, and just don’t have time to hop a lot.

In Praise of Linux Lite

In reply to someone’s suggestion in another forum that “Linux distros which are derived from other Linux distros contribute nothing new to the larger desktop Linux world:

The thread was entitled Linux Lite vs Xubuntu, and a reader asked what the differences were and why they mattered.

There are important differences. I did a little homework before switching to Linux Lite from my all-time favorite Xubuntu:

In Linux Lite, applications are named for their function, not their “real” names. A newbie wouldn’t know that Evince is a pdf viewer or that Thunar is the file manager. Linux Lite is for novices who don’t know even what they don’t know. This one little thing is very thoughtful, all by itself.

The Xfce desktop is highly customized in Linux Lite, yet still infinitely customizable by the user. Again, with newbies in mind, and simple people like me who would rather run applications than running the operating system.

Linux Lite includes a magnificent set of tools to make maintaining and tweaking the OS effortless and non-stressful, with point-and-click simplicity and explanations for us non-tech types. If unsure, there are explanations and the support of this awesome forum, in which the Lead Developer actively participates. That is rare!

This is better for newbies than even Linux Mint in my opinion. From the start, it has always been designed with newbies and simplicity-loving technophobic users like me in mind. And lastly, and most importantly:

Before Linux Lite, it was an axiom in the desktop Linux world that speed and performance was a trade-off to achieve “user-friendliness” with a GUI. Linux Lite has proven that you can “have your cake and eat it too,” so to speak. No longer does it have to be a trade-off of lost performance to achieve a newbie-friendly GUI.

As in any Ubuntu-based distro, the hidden danger to newcomers and inexperienced Linux users is in the quality of updates from upstream Ubuntu (newbies cannot be expected to update selectively), and in the addition of several PPAs to the standard Ubuntu repositories. The simlest work-around in my opinion is the addition of the Updater adapted for Linux Lite from the Linux Mint treasury. Find it here.

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!

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!