posted by Howard Fosdick on Mon 24th Jun 2013 03:00 UTC
IconI volunteer as tech support for a small organization. For years we relied on Ubuntu on our desktops, but the users didn't like it when Ubuntu switched to the Unity interface. This article tells about our search for a replacement and why we decided on Xfce running atop Linux Mint.


The users' desktop computing requirements are straightforward:

1. Low to no-cost hardware and software
2. Easy to use
3. Stable and bug-free
4. Easy to set up
5. Easy to support

Cool visual effects, high-end graphics, the latest features, geeky apps, and rolling updates aren't important. Easy, simple, stable, and cheap are what we're after.

The Ubuntu Era

Starting in 2006, we used Ubuntu. It ran well on low-cost used equipment. Even Pentium 4's give decent performance, and its 5G footprint fit any old hard disk. Ubuntu has huge free software libraries, and the initial install supplies the most popular apps. Ubuntu's big user community can answer any question. Its LTS (Long Term Support) desktop releases get updates for three years, since increased to five years with version 12.04. Best of all, once the PCs were set up, our users could employ Ubuntu on their own, without training, and without seeking help. This is critical because they are not computer sophisticates; some are only occasional computer users.

Ubuntu served us well for years. But Canonical's switch to Unity caused discord. The users saw no point in making their big desktop displays imitate handhelds. Accustomed to fast roll-over menus, they found typing queries into empty boxes like Dash and Head-Up Display slow and awkward. One former Windows user typed "Task Manager" into HUD and retrieved nothing in response... instead of the System Monitor. Unity expects you to know its keywords. For a while I played around with changing Unity to be more like the old GNOME 2 interface. It was a fun project but probably wasn't worth the effort. (Read the results in the OSNews article How to Undo Unity.)

As a support tech, I had my own complaints about Ubuntu. Canonical would routinely introduce new features to the product without protecting existing users from their impacts. To recount just two quick examples: Ubuntu upgraded GRUB to GRUB 2, but failed to provide an easy way to edit the start-up menu. Instead of editing the menu.lst text file, you had to change bash scripts. Another example: suddenly you could no longer manage the display by editing the xorg.conf file. These changes would have been fine if the means were provided for transitioning to them -- but none were. Ubuntu routinely upgrades without insulating users from disruption. Why? We started looking for an Ubuntu replacement.

The Search Is On

Since our main issue was Unity, we started our search with Ubuntu-based distros with different user interfaces. We tried Xfce-based Xubuntu, but its performance disappointed. (Distro reviewer Dedoimedo documented its shortcomings in his reviews of Xubuntu 9.10 and 11.04. He finds that Xubuntu 12.04 has since fixed the issues and calls it "a most pleasant surprise.")  We also tried the LXDE-based Lubuntu. I liked it and wrote it up in OSNews, but organizational timing (unrelated to Lubuntu) prevented us from switching to it. We never considered Kubuntu, assuming that KDE might be a bit resource heavy for our older equipment.

We didn't consider Windows or Mac OS, due to their high costs and licensing restrictions. Also, new Windows versions impose a learning curve for little apparent benefit. My users who tried Windows 8 complained about it. As one summarized, "Why on earth do they keep changing Windows?"

Please keep in mind, you who are reading this are expert computer users; my clients are not. You and I look forward to new Windows versions and new Linux distros as a chance to play and learn. But what we consider interesting, my users see as a waste of their time. They look at computers the way most of us look at driving a rental car. You should be able to hop in and go. If you have to read instructions or ask a lot of questions, something's wrong.

After a brief hiatus, our distro search resumed in 2012. Based on a glowing review in the Register, we tried Linux Mint. Mint retains many of Ubuntu's advantages, including its solid fundamentals and huge free software repositories. It has a big user community and good support: Mint 13 LTS receives updates through April 2017. In contrast to Ubuntu, Mint ships ready-to-run straight out of the box, complete with codecs and multimedia support. The project's biggest attraction is that its developers have a knack for identifying where Ubuntu falls short and providing alternatives. Don't like Unity? Mint's got both 32- and 64- bit versions fronted by:

  • KDE
  • Cinnamon
  • MATE
  • Xfce
Cinnamon is forked from the GNOME 3 shell. Its features Compiz-like desktop effects including animations, transitions, compositing, and movable panels, and is modifiable by themes, applets and extensions. You can drag-and-drop with the menu and activate Expo Mode via a hot corner. Cinnamon requires 3D acceleration and employs the Clutter graphics toolkit for its slick features.

We tried MATE because it's based on GNOME 2. It sounded most similar to Ubuntu back when it used GNOME. MATE includes GNOME 2 applications that are forked and renamed: Caja file manager (from Nautilus), Pluma text editor (from Gedit), MATE terminal (from GNOME Terminal),  Marco window manager (from Metacity), and Eye of MATE image viewer (from Eye of GNOME).

Xfce: Simple Hits the Spot

My users liked MATE, but then I downloaded Xfce and added it to our base install. Bingo! Xfce was an instant hit. With its simple, straightforward desktop, you can see why. How to use Xfce is obvious, regardless of whether one comes from a Windows, Mac, or Linux background. Even beginners can use it without help. Xfce buries the old canard that Windows is easier to use than Linux once and for all.

Xfce Menus
Xfce Menus: Simple, old-fashioned ...
  and exactly what many end users still prefer.


Xfce is easy to customize. I moved the top panel down to the bottom of the screen with just a mouse click and a drag-and-drop. You can quickly add, remove, and alter panels. And you can easily add quick launch icons and applets to either panel(s) or the desktop. Xfce runs light. Current computers handle any OS + UI combination with ease, but we still have some old machines. Mint 13 with Xfce runs runs fine on a Pentium 4 and rarely swaps to disk even with only 512M memory. It really flies on a dual-core machine with a gig or two.

Panel With Quick Launch Icons
You can add quick launch icons to the panel as easily as in Windows.


Xfce doesn't try to jam an interface designed for touchscreens onto your desktop. This Register review summarizes why our users like it: "... Xfce isn't planning to try "revolutionising" the desktop experience... The focus is generally on improving existing features...rather than trying to out whiz-bang the competitors... If you've felt left behind by GNOME's attempt to redefine the desktop experience and just want a desktop that works the way it always has, Xfce fits the bill." 

Xfce is missing a few things. It comes with an "App Search" function, but I couldn't find a "File Search" or "File Content Search" tool. No problem, just download one with the Synaptic Package Manager. Gnome-search is spare and simple, or try SearchMonkey or Catfish for more features. I also downloaded the gnome-system-tools package to manage user id's. You might need to update the Xfce menu, as I found it placed one or two applications in odd menu positions after I installed them. Alacarte does the job. Finally, Xfce bundles lightweight apps. You may favor some alternatives, which you can get through the repository.

Of course, Xfce's biggest "shortcoming" is that it doesn't have the cool new interface of a Cinnamon or MATE. My users like it that way. But others will prefer Mint's more featureful, state-of-the-art GUIs.

Mint's Quirks

Mint also has its quirks. You must define a swap partition during the install, even if your system has a ton of memory and might never need it, or you could have install difficulties. If you really don't need disk swap space, use the kernel's zRam feature to define memory as swap. Or reset the swappiness control variable from its default of 60 to a low value like 10. The lower the value the less the system swaps. (You can eliminate swapping altogether by setting swappiness to 0 but then the system will crash if it needs to swap and can't... a problem when it Suspends or Hibernates, unless you've made advance plans.) To view your swappiness value, enter:

    $  cat  /proc/sys/vm/swappiness

To permanently change swappiness, edit the file /etc/sysctl.conf as root. Add or change the line with variable vm.swappiness to your desired value:

    vm.swappiness=10

Then reboot for the change to take effect. (A simple logoff/login will not effect the change as this is a system-level parameter.)

Other issues? The Mint Update Manager has no version Upgrade button. We only upgrade from one LTS release to another, so this is no problem for us. For those who prefer frequent upgrades and install intermediary releases, this is a feature that Ubuntu has and Mint lacks.

The biggest issue with any Linux distro is whether it will work with your hardware. Certain laptops and odd video cards are the usual culprits. Our computers are all desktops, and out of twenty-odd machines, the sole problem we encountered was with the Suspend function on a couple early dual-core AMD boxes. We just turn them off when not in use. I was especially pleased that Mint recognized every one of our diverse WiFi cards -- not always common components in desktop computers.

Conclusion

By now I'm sure some readers are ready to flame me for promoting a "boring interface" or for "resisting learning something new." But this isn't about what you or I would run on our computers. We're excited about the new directions of Windows 8, Unity, and GNOME 3. End users with desktops and laptops are not. They don't want to spend time learning new software unless it clearly benefits them. If you're not using a handheld, it's not clear that these new interfaces do.

Perhaps there will come a day when users expect their desktops to mimic their handhelds. If so, that day has not yet come. Today, desktop and laptop users find Xfce easier to use than either Unity or Windows 8. Mint with Xfce makes a great platform for those who just want to use computers without hassles.

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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems.
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