I 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.”)
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
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
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:
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: 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
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
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
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
$ 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:
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
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.
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
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.