X Marks The Spot

Part Two in an occasional series on terrible puns minimal GNU/Linux distributions

I’ve already gone over the basics of minimal Linux distributions (“distros” henceforth) and what benefits they can impart on older hardware, so let’s just get down to brass tacks. Today we’ll be looking at another lightweight distro running on another old notebook computer. The distro is Xubuntu, a derivative of Canonical, Ltd.’s popular (relatively speaking) Ubuntu Linux and, by extension, another variant of Debian. Xubuntu forgoes Ubuntu’s heavier, “kitchen-sink” Unity desktop environment for the lightweight and highly configurable Xfce. Xubuntu also strips out some of Ubuntu’s meatier packages in favor of lighter-weight alternatives. Despite this, you still get access to the Ubuntu software center and the large selection of semi-curated packages therein, all driven by Debian’s robust APT package management framework.

The hardware we’ll be looking at today is a little different than last time, though in many ways cut from the same cloth. I’ll be reviewing Xubuntu on a 2005-era Dell Inspiron 9300, a beefy 17-inch desktop replacement notebook powered by Intel’s proliferous Pentium M CPU.

  • Intel Pentium M 750 (1.86GHz, 2MB L2 Cache, 533MHz FSB)

  • 2 GB PC2-4200 (2x 1GB) DDR2 SDRAM

  • 256MB nVidia GeForce Go6800 (12 pixel/5 vertex, 300MHz core/600MHz mem)

  • Sigmatel C-Major AC’97 audio

Inspiron 9300
Those lines you can see on the screen? Stuck pixels, thousands of them, that started developing mere months after the 3-year-warranty mark. Hooray.
  • Intel 82801FB modem

  • 160GB 5400RPM Samsung IDE HDD

  • Hitachi-LG Data Storage 8x DVD-RW drive

  • Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG WiFi

  • Broadcom BCM4401 10/100 Ethernet

  • SD card slot

  • 32-bit PCMCIA card slot

  • 17.1” 1440×900 TFT-LCD

  • 15.5 x 11.3 x 1.7 inches (393.7 x 287 x 43.2 mm)

  • 7.7 pounds (3.5 kg) with standard 53 Whr battery

The big appeal here, of course, was the monstrously powerful (for the time, at least) GeForce Go6800 GPU, and the (again, at the time) reasonable price tag of about $1600 including the after-market upgrade from the stock 256 MB (and yes, that was laughable even back in 2005) RAM to 2 GB. The other main draw was Intel’s Pentium M CPU, which was such a resounding success from both performance and efficiency standpoints that the P6M architecture behind it went on to form the basis of every new mainstream Intel processor to this day. For comparison, the Pentium M 750 in this machine delivers between 80 and 100% of performance of the Mobile AMD Athlon 64 3400+ from the last review’s Gateway 7422GX – but it does so with a design power limit of just 27W, less than half of the Athlon 64‘s 62W.

Once again, we’ll start off with the installation process. Installing Xubuntu was about as easy as it gets. The Dell Inspiron 9300 can boot off of a USB stick, though even if it could not, the Xubuntu desktop image is just a tad over 400MB, easily small enough to squeeze onto a single CD. Xubuntu includes the same graphical installer as its bigger cousin, which guides you through the basic steps of selecting an account name, partitioning the drive, and so forth. Since I was installing from a USB flash drive this time, the entire install took barely fifteen minutes, and then it was off to the races.

Once again, the fact that this is older hardware seems to have granted us a bit of a respite from the usual Linux configuration headaches. There was one notable exception, however: Xubuntu defaults to the nouveau open-source driver for nVidia cards, which is about as useful as a bag of hammers. Broken hammers made of splinters and failure. Any attempt to actually use the once-mighty GeForce Go6800 for 3D acceleration resulted in the most spectacular failure imaginable: The X server would freeze up entirely, and attempting to go to a virtual terminal with Ctrl+Alt+F# resulted in a login screen for a split second, followed by a spam of errors from nouveau and then that terminal locking up. And what is the point of installing Linux if you can’t play TuxRacer, really? So I dove into the restricted drivers manager and installed the latest official nVidia binary drivers, rebooted, and quickly had a fully functional system. As a plus, this enabled the ability to not only go to S3 sleep (which was possible with nouveau), but also to wake up from it (which was not). Just about everything else was good to go right out of the box: SD card reader, optical drive, WiFi, Ethernet, special function keys, and so on. Sadly, the Alps touchpad utilized by Dell doesn’t seem to support multitouch at all – the option to enable two-finger scrolling and tapping is present in the Xfce settings manager, but does not work. (It similarly didn’t support such gestures in Windows, seemingly confirming a hardware limitation.)

ImageWhile Xubuntu doesn’t make such convenient claims about its design ethos as Crunchbang – Xubuntu is defined more loosely as “elegant and easy-to-use,” and as as using Xfce, which feels like it would be kind of cheating to use as a criteria for judgment – a similar three-pronged approach focusing on performance, functionality, and ease of use still makes sense. So to that end, let’s start with performance again. While the hardware this time around isn’t exactly the same, it shares a great many similarities to our last test system: single-core CPU, 5400RPM IDE hard drive, and OpenGL 2/DirectX 9-class graphics. As a result, a lot of the key metrics of performance are the same: how well does the system handle light multitasking, basic web browsing, boot-up, and application launch? Well, starting with the first area encountered, the system boots up quite quickly. From power button to login screen takes about 20 seconds, and from there the desktop is up and ready to go about 5 seconds later. Windows 8 did boot up a smidgen quicker, but then again it uses some minor trickery to do so (though that’s for another article). Once the system is up, application launch time is about what you’d expect for a 5400 RPM IDE hard drive; that is to say, sluggish but quite tolerable. There just not a lot an operating system can do in these areas, but Xubuntu definitely doesn’t feel lacking in any way, delivering an overall comparable experience to our previous Crunchbang system. As for basic usage, the system is definitely capable here as well. Once again, as I write this in LibreOffice Write, I have a couple of terminal and file manager (Thunar again, no less) windows open, Clementine playing music, Thunderbird for email, and a few tabs of Chromium open. Everything is humming along nicely, with just over a quarter of my 2GB of RAM in use and the CPU sitting comfortably with usage in the low teens. All in all, not too shabby for a seven year old system handling a typical daily workload. I wouldn’t try to use Gimp for any professional-level photo work on this machine, but everything is definitely snappy enough for your basic workstation or “Facebook machine.” (Truth be told, I wouldn’t try to use Gimp for any professional-level work period, but again, another rant for another time.)

As far as functionality goes, we again have a similar story to Crunchbang. All of the basic applications you could need are included out of the box, though some of the defaults aren’t quite as user-friendly. gmusicbrowser is included as the default media player, for example, and frankly it’s pretty bad. It took nearly half an hour to scan my relatively modest sub-40 GB music library, and in the end somehow failed to miss a large number of the songs. Fortunately, Clementine is waiting for you in the repositories, just a few clicks away thanks to the inclusion of the Ubuntu software center. Firefox and Thunderbird put in appearances as the default web browser and email client, respectively, complete with Mozilla branding thanks to Canonical’s backing. Flash, MP3 codecs, Java, and the like can either be installed with a simple checkbox during the install process, or afterwards from the repos. Once again, Gimp is on board for image editing, Transmission for BitTorrent, and xchat for IRC. Pidgin is the default IM application of choice on Xubunu (and all non-KDE Ubuntu derivatives) and works just like you’re used to on Windows or other Linux distos. The remaining included applications are what you’d expect, although in lieu of the larger and heavier LibreOffice suite, Abiword and Gnumeric are included as the default word processor and spreadsheet applications, respectively. While I like Abiword in principal (and it certainly fits the bill for “lightweight”), the version on display here has a few odd scrolling-related bugs and it’s still not as feature-complete as LibreOffice, so I elected to install the latter anyways. Once again, quick trip to the software center, etc. I don’t fault them for these choices, however, as the goal here was “lightweight and customizable.”

There is one truly boggling default, however, and that is Pulse audio. While I could write a dissertation on the mess that is Linux audio, Pulse is supposed to make things easier. Unfortunately, it does the exact opposite here. Since Xfce’s sound mixer daemon does not properly support Pulse, things like keyboard volume controls and connecting headphones function inconsistently out of the box. There is a simple solution: ‘sudo apt-get –purge remove pulseaudio’ (or use Synaptic to find the ‘pulseaudio’ package and mark it for removal), put in your password, wait for it to uninstall, and restart X (or just reboot). This forces the system to “fall back” to the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA), which actually works. As a bonus, this removes an entire redundant sound architecture that was running at boot, freeing up precious resources. Why isn’t this the default out of the box? One can only theorize, though the related bug reports suggest the developers ultimately want to move ahead with Pulse audio as the default in lieu of ALSA and simply elected to get it in sooner rather than later, and work out the kinks as they go. Frankly, that seems absurd and sloppy for a “Long-term Support” release, but I’m not a highly unpaid Xubuntu developer. An easily fixable gripe, but one that the average user shouldn’t have to deal with.

Xfce Settings Manager
Who decided a rat was a good mascot?

I suppose I should talk a bit about Xfce itself. In comparison to the Openbox desktop environment used by Crunchbang, Xfce is definitely more going to be more familiar to most users. There’s a “standard” application menu that automatically detects newly installed packages and adds them to the appropriate categories. The deafult panel layout, with applications launching at the bottom, a system menu in the top left, and system tray in the top right will feel rather familiar to users of Apple’s venerable desktop OS. There’s the usual battery of GUI-based configuration screens, and even a GUI front-end for editing the configuration files “directly.” There are GUIs for enabling “restricted” (read: proprietary binary blob) drivers, keeping abreast of updates, and managing repositories. Xfce is still very lightweight without being quite as spartan as OpenBox, but it is just a tad more resource-intensive at the end of the day. Most systems that aren’t going to choke on the mainline 3.x Linux kernel anyways shouldn’t have trouble with the extra weight, but those who want to squeeze every possible ounce of free RAM and CPU performance out of their systems at any cost may be put off. I can’t reiterate enough though: Xfce is still very light and very fast, much more so than KDE, Gnome Shell, or Unity on this older hardware. It’s just not the absolute lightest. Everything in the world is a matter of tradeoffs, and this is no different.

In the end, though, Xubuntu’s biggest differentiator over Crunchbang isn’t one of a few MB of RAM or hard disk space. It’s the presence of the Ubuntu Software Center, the most integrated and carefully curated repository front-end available on Linux. By and large, it provides a GUI front-end to the typical repositories you could simply access with Synaptic or even just apt-get from the command line, but there is also support for downloading paid binary applications from partners like EA and Frictional Games. That’s right, you can dominate little simulated people for your own sadistic pleasure, or get your pants scared off, with games installed directly from the integrated repository front-end. There is also support for user ratings of packages, “find more like this” discoverability, and all the similar things you’d expect from an integrated application market like Google Play or the Windows Store or that other unspeakable manifestation of evil. Truly, we are living in the future.

Ubuntu Software Center
A pay-to-win C&C MMO? “The future” is apparently where dreams go to die.

So, over two thousand words later, back to that promise to get right down to brass tacks: How does Xubuntu compare to Crunchbang? Well to start, if your system is truly among the eldest around, and therefore doesn’t have a DVD drive and can’t boot from USB, there’s no choice to be made: Xubuntu is an option, Crunchbang isn’t. If you’re a bit new to the world of GNU/Linux and want to jump in with an older system you don’t mind reformatting to get a few more years out of it, Xubuntu is probably a better starting distribution, thanks to the more traditional desktop and the excellent Ubuntu software center. If you’re an old hand at Linux and just want something that will get out of your way and leave as many resources open as possible while still providing a Linux 3.x base, Crunchbang is probably still more your style. On balance, I’d say more users will prefer Xubuntu, as it’s simply a more easily navigable, GUI-centric system out of the box. I’d even say it’s more “elegant and easy to use.” Huh, how about that?

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