Xubuntu’s crisis of identity

Before you read one more word, I need to make one thing clear: I love Xubuntu. I’d rather use it than just about any other Ubuntu derivative, with the obvious exception of my own personal variants. I think it’s smart and sassy and has a clean, professional feel that I just don’t get with either of its sisters, or for that matter, most of the Ubuntu knockoffs that are available.

Let me put it to you this way: If you were to knock down the door to my house and come charging in to where the computer is, there’s a much higher chance that you’d see a Xubuntu icon on the screen than the logo of any other complete, prepackaged distro.

But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, and quite some time ago, I think Xubuntu still believes itself to be a lightweight version of Ubuntu — and that’s where I’d draw the line. I know the home page touts itself as a solution for “old or low-end machines,” but I’d only agree if you think “old” means 1Ghz. In my book, that’s not old, and so for me, referring someone to Xubuntu for an old machine — a truly old machine, like 300Mhz — is a huge mistake. 300Mhz is still very, very usable.

But not with Xubuntu. It’s not the lightweight operating system it used to be, almost two years ago. It has matured, filled out and become complete — and that’s a good thing. But at the same time, it’s time to stop telling people with old computers — I mean truly old computers — to dash off to replace Windows 98 on their old Pentium II. Because I still think it’s misleading.

I’m not the only person on the soapbox this time. Steve Rosenberg over at Click is struggling under the weight of the same Xubuntu identity crisis, wondering why a supposedly lightweight distro comes bundled with the Gimp (and I would add a lot to that list), and why it takes more than a minute for the Gimp to start. Granted, that might be a different issue altogether (starts in 4 seconds on my 1Ghz), but the question should be asked.

All the same, I still feel Xubuntu — even in its 7.04 rendition, which I think is the best yet — is laboring under the outdated impression that it’s a viable alternative for “old or low-end machines.”

And don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting Xubuntu trim the fat. I’m saying it’s time for Xubuntu to stop labeling itself as a cure for archaic hardware … and start presenting itself as a full-fledged, complete distribution that uses an alternative desktop environment as a matter of user choice — not hardware requirements.

9 thoughts on “Xubuntu’s crisis of identity

  1. dosnlinux

    I just wish they’d stop compiling stuff with unecessary GNOME dependancies. Personally, I can’t see ANY added functionality between an app with GNOME compiled in and one without. The only reason I can see for doing this is a more unified feel of the desktop as a whole.

    If nothing else there are plenty of other “pure” GTK apps that don’t need GNOME libs and provide the same functionallity.

  2. Isaac Geronimo

    I have to agree with your thoughts on Xubuntu. I admit that I tried it out a long time ago on some older hardware (500 MHz), hoping that it was in fact a “slim alternative Ubuntu,” but I didn’t notice any significant speed improvement… although I certainly liked the desktop environment and was looking forward to watching its progress. I too hope that it stands by the KDE and GNOME-based distributions of Ubuntu as a strong third desktop environment (as many are saying of Xfce itself, of course).

    I also agree that for older PCs, sometimes Windows 98 is truly the only option. It’s pretty snappy, and there are a lot of free software projects out there that can give it almost the same level of desired GNU/Linux functionality. It can even do slightly more than a trim GNU/Linux distribution in this proprietary binary world, but of course has the caveats that come with a Windows (especially discontinued) operating system. I’ve nonetheless tried that “Fluxbuntu” distribution out on an old Win95/Win98 laptop, and it performed moderately well.

    This is slightly off-topic, but I was wondering if you could tell me which file manager is displayed in your “Most recent game” screen shot. I compared it to Nautilus, Thunar, Dolphin, Konquerpr and even ROX-Filer, but I couldn’t narrow it down. I want to say that it’s Thunar; Would that be correct?

  3. Danny

    I’d agree. Kinda. Sorta.
    I have Xubuntu on a 400 MHz PII machine, and it runs just fine. Of course, there’s 340 meg ram on it too. Xubuntu isn’t a speed demon on that machine, but it’s not sluggish. Apps open up soon enough, usually withing 45 seconds or so. Sometimes quicker.

    I’ve run Xubuntu on a 600 MHz machine with 128 meg. Way sluggish. Much slower than the 400 MHz machine.

    If a machine has the memory topped out, Xubuntu will run fast enough for complete use-ability. I’d take a SWAG that 256 meg is pretty much necessary for Xubuntu. And, 400 MHz probably would be the lowest I’d recommend. But how much memory the machine has, not necessarily the processor, seems to be the biggest factor.

    Today, I installed Puppy Linux for the first time (details on my blog). It’s not a speed demon either, but it keeps the little laptop working. Pretty easy to use, too.

  4. jon benge

    I agree with Danny, in that Xubuntu CAN be run quite successfully on older hardware, even Pentium IIs.

    I run Xubuntu Feisty Fawn on an aging Samsung Pentium II ~333MHz w/ 256MB of RAM. While the boot time is a little slow, once the desktop has loaded the performance is very reasonable.

  5. K.Mandla Post author

    πŸ˜€ Thanks for the comments. I could probably duck the argument by saying each machine is different and each user is different, but I think I’ll just leave it as it is. I don’t dislike Xubuntu, and I don’t want it to change, I just don’t feel it’s an acceptable solution for older machines. 😐

    @Isaac: That’s PCManFM, which is my favorite file manager over Rox or Thunar or anything, really. Light, fast and does tabbed explorer windows. It’ll also handle desktop backgrounds and desktop icons, but I’m an Openbox user, so that gets in the way. πŸ˜‰

  6. rp

    Well, its a year late, but I’m glad I found this site.

    I have a stack of 10 surplus P2-333 laptops with 128M ram and 6 gig hard drives. My company was going to throw them out, so I said I would try to refurb them and donate them to a local charity.

    I was contemplating trying the new Xubuntu 8.04 on them, but I see now that this will not be a vaiable option. I’ll go with the native OEM version of Win98SE on them and just install open office, firefox and some other freeware apps, plus a universal usb driver. Good enough to surf and write papers with.

    I’ve come to appreciate Win98 more as time passes by (geez, did I really just say that?) – it makes you appreciate how quickly we get used to the bloat.

    Peace from Canada

  7. K.Mandla Post author

    πŸ˜€ It is a little unfortunate. I haven’t used Xubuntu probably since I wrote this post, and I don’t imagine things would have gotten much lighter since then.

    On the other hand, there are a lot of distros that are much lighter than Xubuntu and will perform much better on those laptops. Keep watching; anything Linux-based will be better than an unsupported version of Windows.

    And send one to me, would you? I need one for testing. πŸ˜‰

  8. johnraff

    Hi rp, the total of my computer experience to date has been Windows 98 and Ubuntu, + hardware at that 95/98 level, and have to agree that W98 is probably the snappieest system in general. However there are still some reasons to move to Ubuntu, or other form of Linux:

    *Security is the biggie – Microsoft have abandoned W98 and, even with all the anti-virus and firewalls you can muster, if you use the net getting some kind of infection is only a matter of time. That’s what finally pushed me to make the switch.

    *More and more software no longer runs on W98, and hardware isn’t supported.

    *In spite of the initial hassles, especially with the kind of stripped-down systems that old hardware runs better on, Linux is more *convenient*. No searching the net for a driver to install every time you buy a new usb drive, one digital camera interface covers everything instead of a multi-megabyte driver for each maker’s model, Ipods work without Itunes…
    Also, all the handy scripts you can write to do your repetitive jobs.

    *Anyway I’m posting this from a desktop with 128MB of RAM, 450MHz cpu and about 6GB of hard drive, running Xubuntu 7.04 and I’m quite happy with it. Just don’t try to do do too much at once or you’ll have to wait while the hard disk thrashes away juggling with the swap space. Firefox (Swiftweasel actually) with a dozen tabs open? No problem, as long as you’re not running a bunch of other stuff at the same time. Eventually I’ll replace it with an Openbox setup (now running on an even older laptop) for some mmemory savings and a little bit more speed, but Xubuntu 7.04 is really quite usable I think. I don’t know how much changed with 7.10 or 8.04.

    The laptop: (260MHz Celeron, 192MB, 4GB) is a sort of testbed dual boot with W98 and Ubuntu 7.10 + Openbox. General speed seems about the same, startup is 2:30 for W98 (a pretty bloated installation maybe) and 1:55 for Ubuntu. Firefox comes up faster on Linux too, though again that might be because it’s got fewer extensions in.

    I guess it depends on how much time you have to set up a system on those machines. (Presumably once you’ve got one done you can clone the rest.) If it’s a question of giving inexperienced users a system that’s going to be hit by a virus as soon as they start using it, you might reconsider just stalling Xubuntu one one of them and seeing how it goes.

    Good luck! πŸ™‚

  9. johnraff

    (KM, you posted while I was writing that. It’s a pity wordpress doesn’t seem to let you edit posts. Hope you base your tests on one of those boxes – the specs would be perfect for me! )


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