Fair but honest? Xubuntu 8.10

Xubuntu and I parted ways a long time ago. When I started using Ubuntu, I quickly orphaned my $3000 laptop in favor of a $300 secondhand machine, and Xubuntu became my weapon of choice. Over the years it became quite chunky though, and as a result I said goodbye, preferring to build them myself or pick a distro that was truly lightweight.

A few months ago I promised a fair look at Xubuntu 8.10, after reading a note by one of the developers insisting that the Intrepid release of Xubuntu would shed some pounds. I had my doubts at the time, but I promised to be fair. And so I’ll try.

My guinea pig this time was the VAIO desktop, shanghaied in its cleaned and rebuilt state to serve as test subject. The Xubuntu home pages don’t offer any specific system requirements, and the documentation guide for Xubuntu 6.06 LTS only says my computer “will most likely feel quite fast with Xubuntu.” At 800Mhz and 192Mb of memory, the VAIO is rather high-end for my household, so I’m hoping this is within the bracket of Xubuntu’s target. But unless I’ve overlooked a page somewhere, I have no way of telling.

Installation from the alternate CD went rather slowly — start to finish was probably an hour and a half — but that may be in part because I used a rewritable CD. A clean and fresh CDR might have been a little faster on the read for my particular optical drive. I’ll try that the next time I install.

Hardware detection went flawlessly, which I would expect from Ubuntu running on an out-of-date machine. Any more, it’s really only the cutting edge hardware that should give you any problems. Xubuntu found my network device, partitioned the drive, found the sound card, arranged the keyboard — all without any stress. A solid +1 for that.

Once in place, the desktop was quite attractive.

Say what you will about it, but Xubuntu looks good. Of course, it looks the same as Gnome Ubuntu, it’s just blue. But the background is nice, and the interface and window manager themes are pretty, so there’s a plus.

(And while aesthetic points are hardly worth noting, I have to say that I’ve always been a little disappointed that Xubuntu was so eager to abandon its XFCE-ness, and dupe a Gnome desktop. I understand that the ordinary Ubuntu-to-Xubuntu convert probably expects the top-and-bottom panel arrangement, but I also remember the early, early days of Xubuntu, and the fun of exploring the unusual desktop XFCE offered. A moot point though, since changing it back to the old shape takes only seconds.)

As you can see, I installed the Japanese desktop arrangement, which puts the overwhelming majority of the system interface into Japanese. That’s a bit of a necessity for me, since the machine is likely to end up in the hands of either (a) a Japanese user, or (b) a foreigner studying Japanese, or (c) a Japanese speaker studying English. There are a few menus and messages that don’t adhere to the translation demand though — most notably the Gnome-esque notification balloons, which still told me in English that there were updates awaiting my approval. After the updates, those improved.

Updating was a bit time-consuming, which I’m also willing to blame in part on hardware. One-hundred and thirty-eight packages needed to be downloaded from the main Japan repositories (I usually switch to the University of Toyama, which is scary-fast for me), and installation was a knuckle-grinding two-hours-plus to complete. Honestly, I didn’t know that much of Intrepid had been updated since the ISO came out three months ago.

For software, the same arrangement in Gnome Ubuntu appears to be the case in Xubuntu. Core utilities that aren’t native to KDE or integral to XFCE are what you get with Xubuntu — the update manager, for example, is the same as the Ubuntu version, but the settings manager, for example, are the XFCE versions.

Software selection is strong, which is what you should expect for something that uses Ubuntu as its base. The Gimp is on board, as are Abiword and Gnumeric. Look for GPicView though, which was a surprise to me. Pidgin, Thunderbird, Firefox and Brasero are all holdovers from the standard Gnome fare. And there are a solid number of Gnome games and so forth.

Performance is … well, I’m trying to be fair but also honest, so I’ll just spit it out: Performance is still where Xubuntu falls down for me.

For example, remember those 138 packages that needed updated? Well, that activity consumed any available memory I had, and the system became near-unresponsive until that finished. Skipping mouse pointer, lagging menus, four- and five-minute program startups, continual thrashing at the hard drive. When the screen-blanking timeout happened, a keypress could take up over a minute to bring back the desktop image. And after a while, it just never came back.

Now I know aptitude is a complete slug when compared with, for example, pacman. But at the same time, I have a 550Mhz Celeron with 192Mb running Arch, and a graphical interface for pacman will not cause a complete and utter system slowdown. Maybe I’m not taking everything into account, but I really don’t think an 800Mhz machine performing software updates should have to sit alone and devote everything it has to downloading, unpacking, setting up and configuring. That’s not very impressive.

But that’s also not Xubuntu’s fault either. Faults or deficiencies or poor performance in aptitude are upstream issues. Now, using the update manager and a heavy desktop environment and all the Gnome whirligigs running in the background … those are the fault of Xubuntu. I daresay I could have trimmed the time to update by at least an hour or so by killing X and jumping to the console, and running aptitude from the command line. And so I learned a lesson there.

Boot times (which I hold as an informal indicator of system bulk) are about where I expected them: 1 minute 7 seconds to the login manager, and another 0:45 before the desktop is in place and the drive stops spinning. I don’t get the impression that it’s paging on startup, so I assume I have an acceptable amount of memory. The numbers that are bandied about on the Ubuntu Forums suggest 256Mb is the bare minimum for Gnome or KDE Ubuntu, and 192Mb is okay for Xubuntu. That’s strictly hearsay though.

Firefox can open to the Ubuntu 8.10 start page in 25 seconds, which is a bit slow for my standards, but seems about right for a full desktop environment on this hardware. Xfce-terminal takes around 8 seconds from menu click to (non)blinking cursor. And Thunar, being incredibly lightweight when compared to Nautilus, still takes about 7 seconds to show the contents of the home directory. And all those times are from a fresh boot, so there’s no caching involved.

I’m not sure what other indicators of system performance I could offer — find an old machine of your own, install it, and see what it gives you.

As for me, I find myself at the painful position of trying to summarize my brief return to Xubuntu. I promised I would be fair and yet honest, and I hope that shows through when I say, “It’s not for me.”

It does have a lot of positive points. It’s pretty, it’s complete, it’ll find your hardware, it manages just about every facet of your computing experience for you. It has Ubuntu at its core, so you can rely on it. It has a lot of great features that weren’t available when I was using version 5.10, years ago … like login management, or automounting USB drives, or. …

But there are too many impediments for me to endorse it as a solution to older computers — and my definition of “older” is well below 800Mhz. Performance is just too weak at the desktop for me to consider it for my personal use.

The best explanation I have for that appraisal is a very short note: Way back in November 2005, when I first tried Xubuntu, I was installing it on a 233Mhz Pentium II with 128Mb. That’s two hundred and thirty-three megahertz, with one-hundred and twenty-eight megabytes. And performance was fine.

But there’s no way in the wild, wild West I’d ever consider Xubuntu 8.10 for that machine. It’s true, Xubuntu has more bells and whistles than it did three years ago, but most of those bells and whistles have come at the cost of considerable system demands. And I don’t believe a 233Mhz Pentium II could do it.

Furthermore, peformance at 800Mhz was sufficiently disappointing to rule out me using it on a Duron. It’s true, I’ll be exporting this particular machine with Xubuntu 8.10 on it, but I don’t suppose the new owner will keep Xubuntu (or Windows ME, which is the legal version for that machine), so I feel no compunction in installing it one more time. My long-ago line-in-the-sand of 1.4Ghz is still where I’d put Xubuntu, if I had to guess at a reasonable speed for using it.

No: I appreciate that some effort may have gone into lightening Xubuntu on the whole — for that, I am thankful. I’m sure there are some people who use Xubuntu regularly who will install Intrepid and say, “Wow! This is so much faster!”

But this was the first time I’d installed Xubuntu in a very long time, and it will probably be the last time I install it, for a very long time to come.


28 thoughts on “Fair but honest? Xubuntu 8.10

  1. Anjinsan

    Reading your blog sparked my interest in reviving some of my friends’ nearly-discarded yesteryear machines. Your how-to guides have been great, and my friends have been grateful. But for me, personally, if my Thinkpad R51 ever goes south, thanks to you I’m now confident I don’t need to break my bank buying a replacement. I’d be happy to grab an older laptop for 100 or less knowing I’ll have all the features I like.

    But I can’t help wondering what you’d do if you flipped a bit and decided what you need is more power, not less. Last night I was reading about PS3 clusters, including a claim that a 16 node PS3 cluster has more power than a 200 node Blue-Gene from IBM.

    I know from reading your blog that economy and thrift are virtues and, let’s face it, PS3s are expensive. Mayne what I should be asking is, it is possible to cluster older machines so you’d have the kind of power for a few hundred dollars that others spend tens of thousands to get? (I’m looking squarely at you, Apple, and your ridiculously overpriced Mac Pros)

  2. Guitar John

    Interestingly, my wife’s laptop is 1.4 GHz – and 512 MB – and we are running a default Ubuntu install on it. The speed difference between Gnome and Xfce flavored Buntus was negligible on this machine, and the trade-offs were not worth it.

    I agree with your assessment. And I will add that I really wanted to like Xubuntu but in the end, it was not for me.

  3. IceBrain

    I also use a laptop with a 800MHz CPU (512MB of RAM, though) and I’ve installed Gnome, XFCE, Fluxbox and now I use Awesome, and it runs pretty fast. I can have a terminal compiling stuff and watch a video on Youtube on FF3 at the same time, even in a low end graphics card.

    The only problem I have with this machine is finding batteries for it. Paying 70 bucks for a battery when the whole machine was only 150$ seems to me like wasting money. I tried “refurbishing” the battery, but the cells don’t fit well in it 😐

    I read all the time about people who find or get from friends “old” computers but I never could 😦

  4. Mikko

    I have not bothered to install X8.10 on my P1000 with 256 as my experience with X8.04 was less than satisfying. At the moment, Vector is my choice for that old HP.

  5. leftystrat

    Here’s a different point of view:

    I like Xubuntu. I have been trying different Ubuntus out for a while but Xubuntu seems to work best for me. KDE is just way too flashy (and KDE4, well, if I wanted Vista, I’d have bought Vista), and I don’t like Gnome.

    I started using Xubuntu because of its reputation as being slimmed down and functional. As you might have guessed, I’m not a flashy guy.

    What is not common is that I install it by default on all of my computers out of the box. While I’ve never speed-tested it against the other Buntus, I just happen to like it better anyway.

    I feel better knowing that even my new hardware is being used efficiently, not for making things pretty.

    Very fair review. Keep up the good work.

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  8. zmjjmz

    I’ve installed Sidux 2008.3 Xfce on my Gateway Solo 5300 (1999) with a 700MHz PIII and 192MB RAM, and it ran speedily. I upgraded it to 256MB because I had a spare 64MB stick, and I changed to dwm out of sheer preference, but Xfce definitely ran at an acceptable speed. Suspend worked (I never made a swap partition, so I can’t say whether or not hibernate works) out of the box, and the wifi card I got with it worked after I installed the new Broadcom driver. Even while running Folding@home, I can still comfortably use Firefox 3 without any lag.

    Now compare that to my Dell Inspiron 1200 (2005) with a 1.3GHz Celeron M, 256MB RAM, and a vanilla install of Xubuntu 8.10. Although it’s probably unfair to judge it while it’s running Folding@home, I can attest to updates taking forever too, and completely eating system resources. It’s generally pretty laggy.
    Suspend and hibernate work out of the box, but it’s not worth the slowdown.

  9. urukrama

    I have the impression it is not only Xubuntu that has become heavier. I have a Breezy install CD and LiveCD here (my first version of Ubuntu). The system requirements for that version are 128 MB RAM and 1.8 GB of hard disk space. The official documentation now recommends 512 MB RAM and 5 GB of disk space (https://help.ubuntu.com/8.10/installation-guide/i386/minimum-hardware-reqts.html).

    I used to have a full Breezy and Dapper Ubuntu install on this 8 year old computer. It was a little slow, but workable. When I redid a full Ubuntu install on this computer (after a year and a half of minimal installs), I was surprised by how slow and unresponsive the computer was — definitely a lot worse than the speed I had with Dapper or Breezy. Some of Xubuntu’s weight might be inherited from its parent distro.

    It would be nice if Xubuntu would be the slim member of the family. It seems, however, that it is primarily aimed for XFCE fans, rather than for users of old hardware.

  10. K.Mandla Post author

    I think that’s the bottom line, and one of the reasons I originally left it. When I started using it, the core principle was a GTK2-only desktop. I used to have a link to that wiki page around here somewhere.

    But the core fan base is XFCE users who still want all the flair of a full-size desktop environment. Hence the basic state, which is generally Gnome with XFCE over top.

    And that’s okay, I don’t mind. There are a lot of options out there for older machines. I use those, and Xubuntu fans should use Xubuntu. There’s space for everybody. 😉

  11. johnraff

    On my testbed laptop (266MHz, 198MB) I’ve been playing about with Intrepid + openbox/lxde and xfce/xubuntu.

    Of course the Openbox desktop runs faster, and openbox has some neat features lacking in xfwm4. Worse, something that came in when I added Xubuntu-desktop over plain xfce added a minute to bootup time! (I’d love to know what it was, and yank it out again.) On the other hand, while Xubuntu’s speed on this box is only just usable, it does look nice, thanks to xfce’s window manager. People’s priorities vary, but a nice-looking interface is important too, if you’re spending any time looking at it.

    A plain install of “xfce” over the command-line Ubuntu system might be a nice compromise. Have a look at the dependencies of “xubuntu-desktop” and you can install the bits of it you want. Or, along with the new Ubuntu/Debian policy of installing recommends by default, Xubuntu-desktop seems to have moved some of its dependencies to recommends so a –no-install-recommends install might give you a slightly leaner Xubuntu-desktop.

    Two by-the-ways:
    1) I’m not quite sure if hardware being old guarantees Ubuntu support: going from Gutsy to Intrepid on the above laptop made it much harder to get the ess sound card working.
    2) Is aptitude the backend for package installation on Xubuntu, not apt-get?

  12. K.Mandla Post author


    1) That’s true, actually. I always assume things will work in Ubuntu, and one of these days that’s going to bite me on the

    2) Actually, now that you mention it, I think you’re right. apt-get might be the actual tool, and aptitude is the more complex, menu-driven interface. I’m accustomed to referring to both of them as “aptitude.”

    And for what it’s worth, when I installed Xubuntu the second time I upgraded from a terminal window after killing GDM and X, and it only took 40 minutes. 😐

  13. sertse

    One thing I wanted to ask, how does a Ubuntu minimal install, following your software and speed tweak pages, compare on old computers.

    Ubuntu will never be as fast as Arch or Crux, but doing this way is still much lighter than the standard x/ubuntu.

  14. K.Mandla Post author

    sertse: A minimal install of Ubuntu is a fantastic way to use it on an old machine. If you start with nothing and build up, you get a much, much leaner system and you have the added bonus of learning how things interact.

    The only downside is that there’s an invisible limit to Ubuntu’s performance, and after a while your systems will only go so fast. It’s comfortable to use and does a lot of the setup for you, but it’s not going to ever break that limit.

    You could try putting together a minimal system with XFCE and add a few of those tweaks, then compare that to a full Xubuntu installation. The difference will be night-and-day. 😉

  15. Ksennin

    What do you think may be the speed difference if you had installed instead the previous LTS version of Xubuntu? 6.06 should remain supported until June, I think, and maybe there was a significant bloat difference.

    I have Xubuntu 7.10 running on a P3-667mhz/512mb at acceptable speed using your tweaks, and 8.10 on a P3-1.0ghz/512mb at slightly better performance, but the more intense use I give them is letting my kids play SuperTux or open ten or so tabs in firefox. So it works for me and is still easy enough so that my daughter started using it without much bother at 8 years old.

    Yet the Canonical page states the RECOMMENDED sys reqs at

    # 300 MHz processor
    # 256 MB of system memory (RAM)
    # 8 GB of disk space
    # Graphics card capable of 800×600 resolution

    Which is quite understating it…

  16. K.Mandla Post author

    I used to run Xubuntu 6.06 on this 1Ghz machine, and while it wasn’t exactly a speed demon, I had fewer complaints then. I have my doubts about a 300Mhz machine running any edition of Xubuntu after 6.06, even with 256Mb of memory …. 😐

  17. Guitar John

    Actually, I have Xubuntu installed on my old Dell 3500. It originally came with:

    -6 GB HDD
    -333 MHz Celeron
    -16 MB RAM
    -Windows 98 SE

    Current specs:

    -60 GB HDD
    -333 MHz Celeon (not much I can do there)
    -256 MB RAM
    -Xubuntu 8.04 LTS

    It runs – no, it walks – very slowly. But everything works and it isn’t any slower than when it ran Win98. You can even watch a YouTube video – one frame at a time. 😐

    My Sister-in-law is using it and she is happy with it.

  18. Ksennin

    The lowest have I installed xubuntu on was 7.10 on a p2-450mhz with 384mb. Firefox worked, but you could not open more than five tags without noticiably bogging down the system, and when I had to remove a 128mb chip for a while, updates at 256mb were quite slow. So I think 450/256 should be the working minimums, and at least 1.0ghz/512mb be the recommended specs. Because, really, if you RECOMMEND xubuntu for a 300mhz processor, and it works like molasses, people are going to get a very bad impression of the os, and of linux in general.

  19. Ksennin

    YouTube one frame at a time? Oy. Well, so maybe 300mhz/256mb is workable, but as RECOMMENDED specs? I wonder if simply nobody has bothered to update the documentation/webpages in 3 years.

  20. thoughtcriminal

    Funny you have such a problem running xubuntu on that machine.
    My grandmother is running Ubuntu 8.04 on a 900mhz 256mb machine and it has nowhere near the slowdown you are experiencing. I even turned on some desktop effects and it still runs, although not anywhere near up to my specs.
    I have tried nearly ever flavor of ubuntu on my machine (1.8ghz C2D, 1gb ram) and xubuntu is by far noticeably faster than kubuntu or Ubuntu. Only Fluxbuntu was faster (but I don’t like fluxbox), and Geubuntu was a hair slower (now known as OpenGeu, uses enlightenment)

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      I’m sure part of it is just my intolerance for slower performance. I will admit I don’t give Xubuntu much leeway — at least, certainly not enough leeway for a 1.5+ minute boot time and sketchy responsiveness once it’s up.

      But a lot of that comes as a result of running faster, lighter distros like Arch or Crux, and knowing that the same machine can be online and ready in under 15 seconds. To each his own, I guess. …

  21. Mark76

    The problem with the Ubuntu spin on the xfce4 desktop is that they’re slowly and inexorably turning it into GNOME jr. It can only be a matter of time until someone on the development team suggests a Systems option on the menubar would be neat.

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