Xubuntu 15.10

My first gander into Ubuntu territory was Linux Mint 17.3 Xfce. My quick journey there was to explore Xfce 4.12 rather than Mint or Ubuntu. As that system is based on Ubuntu 14.04, that means Upstart. I do not want to learn Upstart, especially now that systemd is the adopted Ubuntu init system. As I have been using Fedora and CentOS for the past 18 months or so, I am at least superficially familiar with systemd.

Often Linux Mint is touted as “Ubuntu done right.” I never paid much attention to that snarkism, but when I looked around the web I did not find any meaningful evidence to justify the saying. The only connection I found was Mint replaces the Unity desktop with Cinnamon and MATE, both of which are traditional desktop designs. Otherwise there is no meaningful difference — the base Ubuntu is the same. Throw in a few Mint applets to add some Mint personality.

With respect to the Mint developers using a Long Term Support (LTS) version as a base, no big difference there either. People can choose the Ubuntu LTS version and choose a non Unity flavor. Thus Ubuntu enthusiasts need not subject themselves to the disruptions of rapid release. Mint offers nothing new there.

So in all, serious reflection found me discovering no notable difference other than fanboyism and zealotry.

As I have been using Xfce more lately than MATE, my first effort into Ubuntu land is Xubuntu. I downloaded 15.10.

I found the installer one of the better ones I have used. I installed 15.10 three times. None of the systems were low-end hardware.

  • In a virtual machine that used the entire drive.
  • In a test machine where I wanted to use the same swap and /home partitions without reformatting.
  • On a laptop with multiple distros using a common swap, /home, and /usr/local.

Only in the latter case did the installer mildly confuse me because I did not want the Xubuntu installer to install GRUB to the disk MBR. I wanted one of the other distros to be the primary boot loader controller. I chose to install GRUB to the system root partition rather than disk MBR and then rebooted to edit my master GRUB config file.

A second pass on the laptop with the 64-bit version resulted in frustration. The installer repeatedly (three times) failed to get past the formatting point of the root partition. I had to reboot and reformat the partition manually. I then ran into another glitch when the installer never asked me about how I wanted to install GRUB. GRUB was installed automatically. This perturbed me — installers never should be designed to presume. That is how the proprietary folks operate.

Interestingly, the installer presented an additional check point with the laptop to ensure the laptop is plugged into AC power before continuing. That is nice professional polish.

Installing the restricted extras is optional during the initial installation. Many new users will not be aware of the legal issues around codecs or that extra effort is required to obtain that support. They likely will not understand the check box option.

Related to that option, the installer does not provide active feedback for the long delay when downloading packages. The only clue is watching the network, switch, or router LEDs that there is activity. The installer itself provides only a “dumb” spinner mouse pointer. A progress dialog similar to the remainder of the installer would be more helpful. Or continue the slide show.

The Xubuntu wiki lists four areas of focus:

  • Usability
  • Performance
  • Ready to use product
  • Community

Despite a few nominal design disagreements, I believe the Xubuntu developers have succeeded.

The desktop is simple and plain. The wallpaper is simple and tasteful. The wallpaper color and design is mildly reminiscent of the Windows 7 wallpaper, which should provide comfort to converts. There are no geek poop conky displays. The base apps are sufficient to get most users working. Despite the lightweight focus, installing LibreOffice as the default office suite is an appropriate choice with respect to a ready-to-use product.

Upon logging in for the first time the user is greeted by the update notifier. That is good design.

Technical users seem to be a tad harsh when reviewing Xubuntu. One popular reviewer seemed upset there was no dock or work space switcher. The lack of a work space switcher is an appropriate design decision. Technical users know how to add additional features. Non technical users do not know how to avoid or remove unwanted features. Most non technical users have no idea how to use multiple work spaces. I have seen this many times. Most do not care — one work space is all they need and want.

Interestingly, this specific complaint is now obsolete because Xfce 4.12 includes a new tool called the Xfce Panel Switcher. This tool allows quickly configuring different panel designs. For the reviewer the correct selection would be the Xfce 4.12 panel configuration. For me, the correct selection would be the Redmond option.

My one design judgment against having a single panel rather than two is the panel should be on the bottom of the desktop to offer new users familiarity to the only operating system they have known — Windows. Or in Xfce Panel Switcher parlance, the Redmond style but with the Whisker menu.

Another popular reviewer found Xubuntu bland. Bland is good. Noisy, geeky looking desktops do not attract non technical users. Just the opposite. Again, let the technical users dress the desktop and leave the non technical users to focus on function and just use the computer.

I accept that people want to be different and that changes in certain expectations lead to discoverability. I do not know whether Xubuntu developers target Windows converts, but if such users are part of the Xubuntu focus then I would make the following nominal default changes to encourage Windows converts.

  • Use a bottom panel (with the Whisker menu).
  • Increase the height of the panel.
  • Add the Show Desktop icon.
  • Add the File Manager icon.
  • Add the Web Browser icon.

Other nominal changes?

The terminal should not be in the Favorites menu. Terminals frighten non technical users. Fortunately, there is no terminal icon in the panel as often is the case in many distros. Nicely, the Xfce terminal is configured for a solid black background rather than geek transparency.

Strangely, the top level Settings Manager is not in the Whisker Settings menu and is available only through the All menu. That is a head scratcher. Conversely, the Whisker menu provides an icon to access this parent dialog.

GIMP is not preinstalled, which is okay. When GIMP is installed the default should be preconfigured to single window mode. There is a zip file of preconfigured defaults to help make GIMP more like Photoshop. Adding that zip file would be a good start.

AisleRiot Solitaire is missing. Solitaire is more or less a staple in the Windows world and expected on consumer desktop computers. Expected in many enterprise desktops too. Now that Solitaire is adware and nagware in Windows 10, providing the quiet and well designed AisleRiot would be a pleasure for converts to discover.

The installer easily could be updated to add a check box control to swap mouse buttons when creating the default user account. Left-handed mouse users would be grateful and the Xubuntu folks could be the first to adopt such a friendly gesture.

Being a long-time Slackware user I never gave GUI software managers much attention. Just no special itch to do so. Thus from that perspective the Ubuntu software manager seems adequate, although I understand that will change to the GNOME Software manager in 16.04.

While I like old-fashioned straight-up text menus, the Whisker menu is an appropriate default choice for most users and is similar to the Windows XP and 7 menus to comfort Windows converts. I would preconfigure the menu based on locale. For locales where people read left-to-right, configure Whisker with the menus on the left. In locales where people read right-to-left, configure Whisker with the menus on the right.

Most if not all GTK related desktops suffer from a flawed definition of “Removable Device.” An internal hard drive partition is mountable but not removable. There should be a distinction to avoid cluttering desktops with unmounted hard drive partitions. Likewise in file managers. Xfce does not seem to provide any means to distinguish this.

I am looking forward to seeing how updating to the next release works through the update notifier. Fortunately for me, the next release is the next Long Term Support (LTS) version. While I accept and support that other than security and significant bugs most software is not updated in the LTS branch, I would like to see one exception: LibreOffice. At least continue updating LibreOffice within the same branch release. Perhaps this is the case but as I am unfamiliar with Ubuntu I do not know.

One aspect of Xubuntu that appeals to me is the same reason Slackware appeals to me: minimalism. Let the user decide. Provide a base system from which users decide. Do not presume how users want to customize. Do not cater only to the geeks.

Some helpful system tools included in the default Xubuntu?

  • A GUI desktop search tool (catfish).
  • A GUI app to configure users and groups.
  • A GUI app to configure system date/time.
  • A GUI menu editor.
  • The Xfce Panel Switcher.

I like that the Xubuntu developers use the Xfce Settings dialog as a general control center. Some Xfce distro maintainers will not do that, citing that the Settings menu is focused on desktop settings. Without treating the Xfce Settings dialog as a control center, system related tools remain hidden from users. Adding a second control center is confusing and creates clutter.

I am impressed with Xubuntu, despite never being warm about anything Ubuntu related. I now am considering Xubuntu as my default distro to install for new users.

I am aware of other Xfce based distros. None compare to the support Xubuntu provides through the Ubuntu ecosystem. Too many of the other distros are here today and gone tomorrow. I think Xubuntu is a good distro. I plan to dig deeper and tinker more.

Posted: Category: Usability Tagged: Xfce, Xubuntu

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