Its beauty is in its potential

I spent most of this week in various shades of the new Ubuntu, with everything from pure command-line installations to full-blown Gnome desktops, and just about anything in between. I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs, but it was nice to get back to the system that started me out, so to speak.

It hasn’t all been daisies and happy puppies though. To be perfectly honest, the newest Gnome edition of Ubuntu just doesn’t do it for me.

I have any number of reasons to say that. Aesthetically I think it’s a bit clumsy — yes, putting the buttons on the left is a hazard, the purple-black-orange color scheme is bizarre, and the wallpaper is amateur at best — but I say that as a founding member of the Your Default Desktop Doesn’t Matter Club. Three clicks and it’s gone.

It’s more than just looks though — I get sluggish performance in Lucid, a slow mouse, Nautilus takes seconds to open the home directory, system updates take forever, the hard drive is constantly churning for something, ext4 seems slow compared to ext2 … and so forth. If I was still using my old 1Ghz machine I would expect that kind of drag, but on 3-year-old core duo … ?

In the old days I probably would have gone on a quest to trim back all the things that make it slow and unwieldy, but these days I have a different philosophy. Ubuntu is slow because Ubuntu is slow, and me wasting my time trying to perk it up is just that: me wasting my time. There are dozens — no, hundreds of distros out there all designed and intended to run fast or light or speedy or flexible, and trying to cram Ubuntu into that category is like trying to cram an elephant into a Volkswagen Beetle.

The funny part is, if you strip down Ubuntu’s Gnome — or even better, start without it in the first place — the underlying skeleton is actually quite efficient. Not lightning-fast, but at least workable. Aside from minor points of core design — like the fact that aptitude is a slug when compared to other package managers — you gain an immense amount of speed and function just by whacking off the tumor and grafting on something new.

And Ubuntu’s repositories are immense, so your selection of prepared software is vast. That fact coupled with the previous says to me that, if your hardware is willing and your mind is creative, you can come up with some impressive home-grown systems that run circles around anything the Ubuntu overlords dictate. If you want a system that’s very easy to put together the way you want it, Ubuntu would be my first suggestion.

A long time ago I made a wish that Ubuntu would concentrate more on performance and reliability over looks and flash. This was back when Beryl and Compiz were the rage, and every cool kid had a 3D spinning cube on their desktop, and the lure of accelerated graphics by default was powerful.

I didn’t get my wish, or at not from where I stand now. The trend turned toward razzle-dazzle, and from my perspective the result is an orange-purple-black splash that only looks kinda good, and eats up a lot of my system’s resources even when idle. I could have asked for a lot more from Ubuntu, given the two or three years I have watched it grow.

But the bright side of that — and the reason that I will still use it on occasion — is that it is so very easy to peel off the outermost layers of that onion, and find something useful to start with inside. That’s what makes it worth keeping, in my opinion. šŸ™‚

13 thoughts on “Its beauty is in its potential

  1. jayveesea

    i have found crunchbang quite useable as well as slim, with the benefit of ubuntu’s repositories… this is where i start when i new ubuntu comes out.

      1. steve

        “Unforunately then, crunchbang will from now on use debian testing”

        That’s a *good* thing. Ubuntu is buggy and stable as a termite hill. I’m biased because 8.04 ate most of my precious data.

        1. koleoptero

          I said that as a reply to the above comment. Whether it’s good or bad is debatable.

  2. koleoptero

    Thank you kmandla for this wonderful post. It’s just what I was trying to say for some time now. It might seem odd to some to strip down a “heavy” distro instead of building up a lighter distro, but as you said it’s much easier.

  3. patrick

    I’m still at a loss to explain what on earth all of the Canonical staff actually do. Although not freely admitted, depending upon reports there are 200 to 300 of them. When I compare the brown/purple monster to some of the ‘one man’ distros, there isn’t a vast difference in functionality…

  4. Ubuntu4life

    Nice and honest blog.

    But Ubuntu is for new people to Linux. Those people are used to an old vista installation an ancient XP installation. For them Linux is blazingly fast !
    Ubuntu is slow for a Linux distro, but its still pritty darn fast.

    But working a bit more towards speed and stability wouldnt hurt Ubuntu.

    Its hard… They need to compete with M$ with adding more and more new and flashy features but when they dont change their theme fast enough other people start crying. At the same time they need to be the fastest distro and after all it needs to be as stable as a truck…
    Its hard to do it all at the same time.

    My suggestion; Gain as many people as possible with new features, usability and looks and after some years just focus more on speed and stability.

  5. KenP

    If Ubuntu really wanted to attract the Windows crowd, they should have avoided GNOME altogether … it copies too much from OSX and continues to do so!

    Usability is a matter of opinion, really. We still have almost 95% Windows users out there and making something that looks like Mac OS has not worked very well so far. Otherwise, Linux share should have been at least 5-10% by now — at least the way Ubuntu crowd raves about each new release!

    Take a moment, consider Ubuntu going with KDE as default and customizing it (just like they did with GNOME) and you will realise that it could have been a much wiser choice. Of course, its all water under the bridge and GNOME is well and truly entrenched as the default desktop of Ubuntu. What is worse is that other desktop environments get a step-sister treatment. This is unique to Ubuntu, btw. All other distros give equal weightage to all DE’s. OpenSUSE and Mandriva being the prime example here.

  6. Adrian

    My thoughts exactly. I recently took the plunge to pure linux again. No dualbooting, no windows anywhere. I was a bit rusty on my “linux skills” and didn’t have a lot of time so i picked Xubuntu. Damn is it slow. Browsing, going trough folders, playing music, .. It all takes up at least 30% to 40% of CPU-power.

    Granted, my computer -P4 3.0ghz with 1,5GB RAM and a 6600GT graphics card- isn’t near lightening fast, but it could’ve done much better.

    Looking forward to a barebone installation of Arch Linux this weekend. At the least, I’ll be able to decide what I want on my system, down to the very basics.

    1. Jake

      Stripping down Ubuntu is difficult. Obviously Compiz enabled by default is a slug on systems. If you want those resources back, you disable it. I tried to remove it and it broke X. The thing with all these enhancements to GNOME and Ubuntu is that you don’t really know what you’re peeling away. If you build up a lightweight distro, it’s yours. You built it, you know what’s what, and you chose what to have and what not to have (to more an extent that Ubuntu anyway).

      I don’t understand how computers P4@3ghz, 1.5gb ram, 6600GT lag on Xubuntu, or its Gnome counter part. Isn’t Xfce supposed to be lighter than WinXP? With the aforementioned specs, i’ve ran worse and XP was always responsive and fast for me just by using common sense: msconfig clear out, performance setting, standard system approved tweaks sometimes done by default.

      I’m not a software engineer but it’s starting to seem like it’s not software like Gnome or Xfce that are the problem with performance but the implementation of them in Ubuntu and friends.

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