Lubuntu: Finally, a Lightweight Ubuntu!

Ubuntu Linux has millions of fans. What’s not to like? A
free operating system with ten thousand free applications, websites covering everything you might
ever want to know, tutorials, active forums, and more. Yet for all these benefits, situations pop up when you want a
faster, lighter operating system. Perhaps
you have an older computer, or maybe a netbook or
a mobile device. Wouldn’t it be great
to have a lightweight Ubuntu?
That day has finally arrived. Lubuntu offers a way to stay in the Ubuntu family — with a product that performs better and uses
fewer resources.This article details how Lubuntu differs from Ubuntu. It also compares
Lubuntu to other lightweight Linuxes. It focuses on Lubuntu 10.04,
which is based on Ubuntu’s 10.04 Long Term Support release. 
(Lubuntu 10.10 is the latest release, with 11.04 due out
at the end of April.)  Sample screenshots
follow the article.

The Criteria

Before we start, here’s where I’m coming from. As per previous articles
in this series at OS News, my interest in lightweight operating systems
stems from my activity in refurbishing computers for charity. The best
software for this purpose is:

  • Resource light —  charitable donations are between five and ten years old
  • Easy to use —  recipients use donations with little or no training
  • Easy to install and configure —  volunteer labor doesn’t like complexity or wasting time
  • Free —  charities don’t have money to buy software
  • Open source —  commercial licensing agreements unduely restrict install and distribution procedures
  • Good support — this is why I favor the LTS (Long Term Support) releases in the Ubuntu family

In future OS News articles, I’ll review competing low-end distros like Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux. All my reviews judge by these criteria.

How Lubuntu Differs From Ubuntu

Lubuntu changes Ubuntu in three major respects to become a faster,
lighter
system:

            1. The LXDE graphical interface
            replaces
            GNOME

            2. Default daemons and services are paired down to the minimum

            3. Faster, lighter default applications replace Ubuntu’s default applications

              Let’s discuss each of these techniques.

              LXDE — The graphical user
              interface or GUI is the most resource-intense component of consumer
              operating systems. Lubuntu tackles this challenge head-on by using as
              its default the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment or LXDE. LXDE replaces
              Ubuntu’s easy to use but resource-hungry GNOME.

              LXDE uses less memory than GNOME for typical workloads. Its twenty or
              so components are loosely integrated, so they can run independent of
              one another, saving resources. The Openbox window manager
              is especially important from the resource standpoint. This
              comparison
              of popular window managers shows that Openbox yields a full range
              of features at a very modest resource cost.

              From the usability standpoint, LXDE is less sophisticated than
              Ubuntu’s GNOME desktop. But it’s nearly as easy to use. You can
              still add desktop icons, panels, panel applets, and the like.
              And you can quickly customize your desktop. The first time I used Lubuntu, it only took me a few
              minutes to alter its default interface to my preferred style.

              Minimal Daemons — You can
              configure either Lubuntu or Ubuntu to start up whatever daemons or
              services
              you prefer. By default, Lubuntu starts many fewer than Ubuntu. 
              You can view the Lubuntu startup applications by entering:

              Start -> Preferences -> Desktop
              Session Settings -> Automatically Started Applications (Tab)

              The equivalent under Ubuntu is:

              System -> Preferences -> Startup
              Applications -> Startup Programs (Tab)

              In older Ubuntu releases you can also look under the “Services” panel:

              System -> Administration -> Services

              By pairing down Ubuntu’s default startup programs, Lubuntu boots
              lean and mean. You can always add additional services if you need them
              by navigating to the panels referenced here.

              Lighter Applications — 
              While Lubuntu uses less memory than Ubuntu at idle, where you really
              see
              its utility is when you open many applications concurrently. Since the
              apps require less memory than their Ubuntu equivalents, the cumulative
              effect is a faster, more performant system.

              I especially like the file manager, PCMan, an LXDE
              component. I’ve found it
              visibly faster than Ubuntu’s Nautilus on older computers, with their
              limited memory and slow PATA/IDE hard drives.

              GNOME Office
              replaces Ubuntu’s OpenOffice, so Lubuntu comes with
              AbiWord and Gnumeric, instead of OpenOffice Writer and Calc. Lubuntu
              bundles no equivalent to Ubuntu’s presentation tool, OpenOffice
              Impress. Lubuntu also includes the handy Osmo
              personal organizer and calendar.

              The theme of lighter apps runs throughout Lubuntu — Leafpad replaces
              Ubuntu’s Gedit, LXTerminal is included instead of GNOME Terminal,
              Sylpheed handles
              email instead of Evolution, and the Xfce4 Taskmanager tracks
              performance instead of
              Ubuntu’s System
              Monitor.

              In a move that has inspired controversy in web forums, Lubuntu uses Chromium
              as its default browser instead of Firefox. To me Chromium seems a
              bit faster than Firefox on low-end computers. Its clean,
              simple, intuitive interface certainly fits the Lubuntu emphasis on ease of use.

              Of course, if you prefer Firefox or any other application that is not bundled with Lubuntu, you can easily
              install it. Lubuntu uses the same Synaptic Package Manager and accesses
              all the same software repositories as Ubuntu. So you could start out
              by installing Lubuntu as a small, efficient operating
              system, then cherry-pick critical Ubuntu apps you
              require from
              the shared repositories. You’ll get the quick system you want without the
              overhead of the applications and daemons you don’t need.

              Resource Use

              Lubuntu’s goal is efficient resource use. So let’s measure it.

              Lubuntu bundles the Xfce4 Taskmanager
              for measuring resource use, instead of Ubuntu’s System Monitor. Linux
              line commands like free, top, vmstat, and
              df
              can also be handy.

              Let’s look at some numbers:

              Download
              File Size:
              Disk Install:Memory Use:
              Ubuntu
              10.04
              686 m3 – 5 g110 – 250 m
              Lubuntu
              10.04
              521 m1 – 2 g60 – 130 m
              Puppy
              5.1
              130 m500 – 1000 m *30 – 120 m
              Damn
              Small Linux 4.4.10
              50 m200 – 300 m *25 – 100 m

              * For a “full install.”  A “frugal install”
              requires about the same space as the download.  All measurements are by the author.

              The size of the disk install will vary, depending on the apps you add
              to
              the base system. In rough terms
              it’s fair to say that an Lubuntu
              install consumes one-third to one-half of the disk space used by
              Ubuntu.
              Want an exact number?
              It varies by user, product release, and
              what you add to the base install.  The only way to get exact
              numbers is to measure disk footprints for your own systems.

              Lubuntu generally uses about half the
              memory of
              Ubuntu.
              But be careful again:
              memory measurements vary because we’re talking the size of the
              operating system plus loaded apps (we exclude the buffers or cache used
              by the OS). Obviously this number could be all over the map depending on
              the applications you start. And, how you use them. The numbers I list above reflect my
              own typical use of these systems. Your numbers will vary depending on
              your use of your computer.

              If you collect your own measurements, you’ll immediately find
              that certain apps eat up way more memory than others. For example,
              browsers are famously ram-hungry. The more tabs you open, the more ram they eat. So if you compare memory use between
              Linux distributions, open functionally-equivalent apps (and the same
              number of tabs in the
              browser) from a cold startup.

              In my experience the upper
              range of real memory used by Lubuntu corresponds to the lower end of
              what Ubuntu consumes. Almost anyone
              will find that Lubuntu uses
              dramatically
              less memory than
              Ubuntu.

              I added Puppy 5 to the chart as a directly competing product from
              outside of
              the Ubuntu family. I found Lubuntu’s memory use to be roughly similar to Puppy’s,
              though Puppy uses less at initial load and at idle. Puppy has a much
              smaller download file and installed disk
              footprint.

              I also added Damn Small Linux to the chart to bracket the numbers on
              the low end in the same way that Ubuntu brackets them on the high end.
              Comparing Lubuntu to DSL is really like comparing apples to oranges.
              DSL uses way fewer resources. But it bundles fewer apps and doesn’t
              offer anywhere near the same ease of use as Lubuntu. DSL is a great
              tool for hobbyists and IT professionals, but it isn’t suitable for untutored computer users like Lubuntu.

              My Experiences

              I’ve had Ubuntu 8.x and 9.x running on five P-III’s and four P-IV’s
              since those releases came out. Ubuntu
              10.04 disappointed me on this older equipment. Due
              to video issues it
              didn’t
              install, out of the box, on any
              of the five P-III’s. It installed
              successfully on all the P-IV’s but one, a Gateway Profile 4 All-In-One
              PC. I eventually got Ubuntu 10.04 to run on all these computers but
              it took some geeky tweaks. OS News readers could certainly implement these
              techniques. But they are probably beyond skill of the average
              computer consumer.

              Lubuntu 10.04 installed right out-of-the-box on the three P-III’s I
              still had access to. No tweaking required. It also ran immediately on
              all of the P-IV’s, including the Gateway Profile 4.

              I conclude that while Ubuntu runs great on P-IV’s, with
              version 10.04, it finally leaves
              P-III’s
              behind.  This makes sense because P-IV’s have been out since 2000
              and P-III’s stopped production in 2003.  Lubuntu appears to
              pick
              up the slack for P-III’s and may be a good alternative. Lubuntu will
              run on systems with down to 128M of memory, but to install
              it from Live CD you need at least 160M. (See the system requirements for details.)

              I’ve really been impressed by Lubuntu’s snappy responsiveness on older
              computers. The contrast to Ubuntu is noticeable. The personal rule of
              thumb I’ve developed about when to use
              Lubuntu versus Ubuntu is this:

              • For P-IV’s or better with 512 M or more of DDR-1 memory, go with
                Ubuntu
              • For P-IV’s with lesser memory, and all P-III’s, go with Lubuntu

              If you have an old machine in your attic or basement, Lubuntu is a
              great tool to revive it and make it useful again.
              In my tests Lubuntu provided a
              nice, responsive system on all the old computers listed below. Machines
              like these have little to no resale value and you can often pick up them up for free from friends, family, co-workers, Freecycle, or Craigslist. Pretty
              amazing that Lubuntu makes them all useful, when you think about it!

              Processor:CPU
              Speed:
              Memory:Disk:
              P-III550 mhz512 m (PC-100)20 g (PATA/IDE)
              P-III933 mhz256 m (PC-133)40 g (PATA/IDE)
              P-IV1.5 ghz512 m (PC-133)40 g (PATA/IDE)
              P-IV2.4 ghz768 m (DDR-1)160 g (PATA/IDE)
              Celeron2.6 ghz1 g (DDR-1)120 g (PATA/IDE)

              From the standpoint of charitable work, machines like these are valuable to
              those who have no computer otherwise. (One
              in four
              Americans do not own a computer.) They also make good secondary
              machines for large families that have more kids than computers. I
              know IT professionals who keep their old P-IV around as an
              emergency backup if their current computer fails.

              Lubuntu
              fulfills an important role in the PC ecosystem. While these computers have virtually no resale value they still
              provide value if placed and used appropriately.  If you have
              computer up to ten years old you don’t use, please donate it
              to a charity like FreeGeek that will reuse it. Recyclers will only destroy it, then recycle the raw materials.

              Comparison to other Lightweight Linuxes

              Some web sites promote Xubuntu as a light alternative to Ubuntu. Xubuntu uses the XFCE interface
              instead of GNOME and it bundles lighter apps than Ubuntu.

              During the
              8.x and 9.x releases I ran several benchmarks pitting Xubuntu against
              Ubuntu. While Xubuntu generally used less memory than Ubuntu I wouldn’t
              characterize the difference as significant. Xubuntu’s memory advantage
              was small enough
              — usually 0 to 20 m — that I wrote off Xubuntu as a tool to revive
              older systems with too little memory to run Ubuntu.

              This Linux Magazine article comparing Lubuntu,
              Xubuntu, and Ubuntu reached the same conclusion.  The Wikipedia article
              on Xubuntu summarizes the situation by stating that “Testing has
              concluded that Xubuntu 9.10 beta’s RAM usage actually is greater than
              Ubuntu’s 9.10 beta with GNOME.”  So
              while Xubuntu is an excellent system, it didn’t contribute towards my goal
              of making computers useful that are too resource-limited to run
              Ubuntu.

              U-lite is another possibility.
              Like Lubuntu, U-lite is based on Ubuntu. It employs LXDE and bundles lightweight applications
              into the base system. I didn’t test U-lite mainly because there
              appears little possibility that it will become an official member of
              the Ubuntu family. The project was originally called “Ubuntulite” but
              changed its name following a communication
              from Canonical Ltd. that the name violated Ubuntu trademarks. In
              contrast, Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical’s founder, personally invited the Lubuntu
              project to start up. The prospects appear
              excellent for Lubuntu to become an official member of the
              Ubuntu family soon.
              (For example, you can already mark your question as pertaining to
              Lubuntu in the official Ubuntu forum.) U-lite may be an excellent distro but it fell out of scope for this project.

              Puppy
              is an innovative light distro that consistently places among the top dozen
              distros according to the popularity rankings at Distrowatch.  Puppy
              automatically loads completely into memory, and runs solely from there,
              on any computer having 256 M or more. This eliminates slow disk and
              CD/DVD access and speeds system performance.

              Puppy’s resource consumption is less than or equal to Lubuntu’s, as shown in the chart. Puppy
              achieves all this with ease of use I’ve found sufficient
              for end users (as long as the system has been installed and configured
              for them). I’ll review Puppy next month.

              From the perspective of computer refurbishing, both Lubuntu and Puppy
              are great candidates. It’s nice to have choices!

              Older Computers?

              One question I have about Lubuntu is whether it will run on computers
              under 500 mhz that still meet its system requirements. This encompasses
              Pentium II’s, early Celerons, and even some Pentium I’s.

              Competing
              distros take specific measures to support these older machines that Lubuntu
              does not. For example, Puppy supports a “retro kernel” release in
              parallel for each new version. You can run Puppy with either the retro
              kernel or a current kernel. Damn Small Linux still uses the 2.4
              kernel and offers the SYSLINUX boot loader for systems that can not
              boot
              ISOLINUX. 

              In
              the worse case, if the current release of Puppy or
              DSL won’t boot
              on your old computer, you can go back and try older releases
              through
              five or six years of product evolution. I’ve sometimes
              had to resort to this to pick up support for older devices. You can’t
              do this
              with Lubuntu. It’s new and was first released in 2010. To my
              knowledge, it’s not specifically tested on old computers that it could,
              theoretically, run on from the standpoint of system requirements.

              What this means is that there are really two kinds of lightweight Linux
              distributions. Some specifically support older computers, while others
              offer current software for reasonably current machines that just happen
              to be resource-light. I suspect that Lubuntu fits into the latter category.


              If any readers have tried Lubuntu on sub-500 mhz computers please
              share your experiences with us by posting a comment.
                Did Lubuntu boot without tweaking? Did it recognize your old
              devices?  Please post experiences with Lubuntu on
              netbooks, too. I had only a single netbook to try it on and it worked fine.
              Thanks for your feedback.

              Ubuntu Means “Change” in Bantu

              Does “Ubuntu” mean “change” in Bantu? Well, actually no. Ubuntu is named for the south African concept of “humanity towards others.”

              But
              in terms of operating system compatibility, Ubuntu does mean Change.
              One of the Ubuntu family’s big advantages is that it quickly
              capitalizes on new
              technology. These are fast-moving distros. The downsides are occasional
              incompatibility or disruptive change across releases.

              In the last two years, the Ubuntu family has moved from the GRUB boot loader to
              GRUB 2, to continually changing networking management tools, to eliminating
              the xorg.conf configuration file and moving to RandR for video. Lately I’ve heard they may replace GDM with LightDM, move to more regular updates, replace X.org with Wayland, switch the user interface
              from GNOME to Unity, and replace OpenOffice with LibreOffice. 

              These are changes to Ubuntu, not
              Lubuntu. But Lubuntu follows Ubuntu and this philosophy of rapid change is fundamental to the Ubuntu family.

              So consider your needs carefully when evaluating Lubuntu.  Do you need rapid updates and improvements? The
              Ubuntu family does a superior job in providing them. Or do you crave
              stability and backward compatibility? In this case you may find
              Ubuntu’s constant push for new technology and features annoying or burdensome.

              Lubuntu Is a Winner

              Lubuntu successfully extends the Ubuntu family to limited-resource
              computers. I love its responsiveness on five to ten year old machines! The Lubuntu
              team has clearly done an excellent job in figuring out how to preconfigure a
              leaner, meaner Ubuntu.

              While
              Lubuntu is a faster, lighter alternative to Ubuntu, you still
              get all the important Ubuntu benefits — the thousands of downloadable
              applications,
              the forums, the helpful websites,
              the wikis, and more. You can get the best of both worlds by installing
              Lubuntu, then adding any extra applications you need from the
              Ubuntu software repositories.

              If you
              seek a resource-light, well-supported Linux, Lubuntu could be your solution.

              – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

              Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who
              specializes in
              databases and operating systems. His hobby is computer refurbishing as
              a form of social work and environmental contribution. You can reach him
              at contactfci at the domain
              name of sbcglobal (period) net.

              Lubuntu
              Links:
              Website
              Download
              Wikipedia article
              Another
              Review


              Previous Articles on
              Computer Refurbishing


              1.Smart
              Reuse
              with
              Open
              Source
              How refurbishing defeats planned
              obsolescence
              2.Scandal: Most
              “Recycled” Computers Are Not Recycled
              What really happens to many
              “recycled”
              computers?
              3.How
              to
              Revitalize
              Mature
              Computers
              Overview of how to refurbish
              mature computers
              4.How to
              Secure Windows
              A step-by-step procedure to
              secure Windows 
              5.How to
              Tune Up Windows
              How to tune Windows (any version)
              6.How Microsoft Missed The Next Big ThingHow Microsoft missed the boat when it comes to the exploding popularity of small portable devices
              7.How to Run Multiple Operating SystemsDescribes and contrasts techniques to running multiple operating systems on a single computer

              Lubuntu 10.04 Screenshots


              The Basic Screen

              The initial Lubuntu desktop has no icons. Like Windows, the system menu
              always
              starts from the lower left-hand corner of the screen. (With LXDE — unlike XFCE or JWM — you
              can’t right-click anywhere you like to bring up the menu.) This
              screenshot
              shows the Accessories bundled with Lubuntu:

              The Basic Desktop

              Memory Use is Low

              In this example I’ve opened mtPaint, AbiWord, Gnumeric, the Xfce4
              Taskmanager, and the Chromium browser with three active tabs. Total
              memory use:
              114m. Wow!

              Low Memory Use

              The File Manager

              The PCMan file manager replaces Ubuntu’s Nautilus. I’ve found it runs visibly
              faster on slow computers. PCMan is an LXDE component. By
              default Lubuntu dynamically mounts all partitions on all disks. This is consistent with Lubuntu’s excellent ease of use.

              PCManFM File Manager

              Monitoring System Resources

              The Xfce4 Taskmanager is a comprehensive but easy-to-use tool for
              managing system resources on a low-end box. It replaces Ubuntu’s System
              Monitor.

              Xfce4 Taskmanager

              Synaptic Package Manager

              Lubuntu uses the same Synaptic Package Manager as Ubuntu. Here I am
              searching Synaptic while trying to figure out how to take screenshots
              by looking for an
              appropriate package to install, since none is bundled with Lubuntu.
              Turns out I
              didn’t need to download anything. Lubuntu has the scrot line command. I used this
              command to take all the screenshots you see here, with a delay of 10
              seconds and the top
              quality of
              100%:  scrot -d 10 -q 100 -u

              Synaptic Package Manager

              49 Comments

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