Gnome 3 looks to the future without fear. It even looks like the future, when everybody will have hooks implanted in their foreheads so they can look at their smartphones while they’re walking down the street. I’m getting old, and I’ve been kind of cranky for a while now. I don’t especially want to learn a new human interface. My phone is dull—borderline retarded, even—but I can usually make and receive calls on it, most of which are on the order of “this is Dr. Proctologist’s office confirming Edward’s appointment”. I don’t hate Gnome 3, but that’s because I don’t hate anything about Linux, and I don’t let myself hate anything in (or out of) Linuxland until I’ve used it for a couple of weeks, and I’m not a hateful sort of person anyway, and I haven’t managed to find the time to use Gnome 3 very much yet.
But for the time being, I had heard some good things about the new Xfce 4.8, and I wondered if it might be more Gnomey than Gnome 3. I installed three Xfce-based distros: The Xfce version of Foresight Linux 2.5, a “testing” Xfce mix of Pardus 2011, and Beta 1 of Xubuntu 11.04. One of Foresight’s developers posted an announcement on Bruno’s All Things Linux saying the alpha was out. I didn’t have much else going on that weekend, so I installed it on the “play” computer. I liked it, so I installed the real deal a day or two after it came out.
Many Penguinistas have probably never heard of Foresight Linux, but to me it’s an old friend. The “play” computer actually came with a very early version (1.2, I think) preinstalled. I had some trouble with it—some of which, in retrospect, was because it had a newer version of Gnome, but some of which was a certain instability. I eventually plowed it under and installed something else, which kinda brings new meaning to the term “old friend”, if you think about it. I kept meaning to give it another try, but new releases were few and far between, and it fell out of my mind.
Installation was Spartan but speedy. The interface is kind of gloomy, or maybe “aged” is more apt. It isn’t a curses-based interface (though there is one of those available, as will be demonstrated shortly), but it is rather colorless. It worked, though. The only substantive criticism I would make is in the bootloader installation. In one screen, you are able to choose between Grub and Syslinux, but if you want to avoid the defaults—and I wanted to install Grub on the Foresight partition—you have to choose to go to another screen, and I wasn’t sure that the two screens synchronized. They do, and everything is cool, but people who worry about wiping out existing Grubs, and/or don’t know how to restore a Grub, and/or never heard of Syslinux, might not like it.
(Later on, I installed the 32-bit version on the laptop, and was dropped to the text installation module with a message that Anaconda, the installer, couldn’t load VESA. The text installer was as usable as the graphical one, and not really that different. I don’t know if being dropped into text mode was because of some subtle difference between the 32- and 64-bit versions, or if Foresight had a perceptual problem between the two video cards, both of which are undistinguished Intels.)
One thing about the installation: it is fast. Ungodly fast. I didn’t time it, but it’s easily the fastest installation from DVD I’ve ever done, and beat most CD-ROM installations, too.
Booting into Foresight Linux is a trip down memory lane. During bootup, a tricolored bar appears on the screen, and the different colors try to catch up with each other and try to meet at the right edge. I remember that from somewhere long ago. The login screen background is a wallpaper that I’ve been seeing around for a hundred years, and can be best described as “some kind of ornamental grass as seen under a low-powered microscope”. The login is the same GDM as the one in Ubuntu 10.04, but in Foresight the “busy cursor” (the thing that looks like the business end of a PS/2 connector) is whirling, and I can’t hit [Enter] to accept my name and move on to the password screen; I have to click.
Also, on the “play” computer—but not on the laptop—I get a bizarre screen that I think is the boot system talking to the video card, and looks like the type of thing that anti-intellectuals used to whip up to parody Jackson Pollock and score points against the eggheads. That screen lasts less than a second, but it’s the type of thing that when I entered the world of Linux always made me think I’d broken something. (It didn’t appear after the first half dozen times.)
On the “play” computer, the tricolor bar changes resolution to 1280 x 1024 halfway through, and because of that the right end of the screen is suddenly much farther away than the bar thought it was, and it never gets there: a Sisyphean vibe if there ever was one. The laptop doesn’t have that effect, maybe because the default resolution is also the lowest: 1280 x 800.
But once in, those disconcerting first impressions are soon dispelled. The default background in Foresight is green, but it’s a soft olive green with an Xfce logo on it. There’s a Gnomelike menu bar on the top, and a Dockylike toolbar on the bottom. (At least the icons don’t become, uh, virile when you run the mouse pointer over them.) I know that appearances aren’t everything, but Foresight’s Xfce has a very favorable aspect: smooth, graceful, appropriate for work. Serious without being somber. Or as serious an aspect as a desktop with a fairly large mouse on it can be.
I was a bit dissatisfied with one thing, and that was the emaciated appearance of the default font used on the menus, tabs, &c. I went to Settings | Settings Manager | Appearance | Fonts, and changed the default font from Sans to Deja Vu Sans. That didn’t do much. Nor did changing it to Liberation Sans or any of the Bitstream fonts I’ve been carrying around ever since I found a CD-ROM entitled “Bitstream 500” at an Egghead Software store in Eatontown, New Jersey back in 1992 or 93. But finally I selected Bitstream Vera Sans and increased the DPI setting from 96 to 100, and it’s a lot nicer.
Setup and Basic Usage
There are a few things I have to install before I can do anything else. Package management is done via Conary. You run it from a terminal or a terminal emulator. To install Emacs, the command is sudo conary update emacs. (Yeah, “update”, whether it’s really an update or a new addition.) To update everything: sudo conary updateall. (After one system upgrade, the three bars—white, light blue, and somewhat darker blue–which chase each other around during loading became white, light green, and somewhat darker green.)
If there is a way to search the repos via Conary, I haven’t found it; wildcards don’t work, or they don’t work the way I use them, which may of course be a different matter altogether. rPath Linux has a Web page that lists the stuff in their repos, so what I do is open that, see what I need, and type it into the terminal emulator: f’rinstance sudo conary update openoffice.org openoffice.org-calc openoffice.org-writer.
It works, usually. Some of the stuff listed on the Web page hasn’t been officially ported to version 2.5 yet; Jesse, an administrator on the Foresight Forum, told me how to get one of them, Midnight Commander. He warned me that it might not work once I installed it. But, thankfully, it did. I’ve heard Conary compared to pacman, but to me the two don’t feel that much alike, except for being command-line. I noticed a couple of people on the forum complaining that Conary took a long time to resolve dependencies, but that hasn’t been my experience.
File management is done via Thunar, one of only a very few applications that is part of the Xfce core, and which has been overhauled—much for the better—since Xfce 4.6. Thunar now remembers such important-to-me settings as “detailed list view” and “open maximized”.
I keep most of my data on one computer and access it from the others in the house, using SMB (“Samba”). Before 4.8, Xfce had some infamous trouble with Samba, the cure being a utility called gigolo (which mounts when it is told to, and you can look it up), which I always more or less had trouble getting to work. This has essentially been solved; I’ll write more in a subsequent post that is less about any particular distro and more about Xfce itself. SMB in Xfce doesn’t work the same way as it does in Gnome, or in KDE. That is, once you mount a share in Nautilus or Dolphin, that share appears in the left panel, along with Documents and Downloads and all those happy places. In Thunar, when you mount a Windows share, a directory called .gvfs (for Gnome Virtual File System) appears in your /home/Eddie folder (if your name happens to be Eddie, which it probably should be unless you’re a girl) like a moth on your window in the pale moonlight. Since the directory is evanescent, you can’t exactly bookmark it. I don’t think.
The selection of installed software tends toward familiar lightweight items; it’s quite reasonable overall. The default installation includes AbiWord and Gnumeric, not OpenOffice.org. You do get Firefox, bucking the trend toward Midori I’ve been seeing amongst light- and middleweight desktops. Claws Mail is the supplied mail reader. I’ve been experimenting with Claws Mail here and there, and it seems quite robust and very agile (though it is eminently possible to load it down with plug-ins), and it is much easier to configure for multiple accounts than Thunderbird. If I have to leave Evolution behind along with the rest of Gnome, Claws—or maybe even its less extensible but even lighter uncle Sylpheed—will become my default email client. Skype is here, as is Gimp. There are also a couple of programming tools, like something called Glade Interface Designer.
Foresight is media-ready. I was able to listen to some online radio both through a Flash-based Web player and a .pls stream (a narodna (folk music) station from Belgrade, Serbia; narodna is great, and you can check out Radio Suton here) without having to do anything special. In multimedia, and nowhere else, Foresight offers duplication of services; media players include Exaile, Parole, and two different things called MPlayer.
An interesting mix of software is in the repos. OpenOffice.org is still at version 3.2.1 (LibreOffice isn’t there at all), and Emacs is a decimal point behind the times at 23.2, but the version of Opera I pulled in was the 11.10 alpha, which I hadn’t even heard of yet, never mind seen. I recall that Foresight 1.2 was among the first kids on the block to get the latest versions: cutting-edge, we used to call it. Now we say bleeding-edge, and I don’t really know why. That is no longer the case, it appears. I have the idea that Foresight is kept together by a highly talented but somewhat overworked team of developers. (Later: since I started writing this, Linux Mint and Ubuntu have each offered me a production-ready Opera 11.10.)
Hardware and Peripherals
I installed my printer through a venerable CUPS GUI utility from Red Hat. It’s similar to what you might find in most mainstream distros, but it is fast. Hot diggety dog, it’s fast! Add Printer Roto-rooted its way through the Ethernet cables and the router and found our LaserJet 1320 in about fifteen seconds. Even Mandriva, whose hardware detection borders on the flawless, has always taken a couple of minutes.
Foresight comes without Broadcom firmware. I found installation instructions on the Foresight Wiki. And excellent instructions they are; I went to two libraries the next day, and Foresight found and connected to their WiFi networks within seconds. There’s a Network Manager Applet on the taskbar, branded Red Hat and Novell.
No firewall software is installed. Tomas, another administrator on the forum, made a couple of helpful suggestions when I asked.
Benchmarks: young, fast, and scientific
The following benchmarks were done with current techniques in scientific precision, which is to say, I watched what was happening on the screen and counted “one, two, three…”.
At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned that I’d downloaded three distributions that featured Xfce 4.8. Xubuntu was in beta, but it performed almost flawlessly. The Pardus installation was considerably more problematic; it wasn’t officially labeled “testing”, but I saw a reference to it that way on the forum, or somewhere, and since it wasn’t up to the usual excellent Pardus standards, I’ll assume it wasn’t made for prime time.
Foresight Linux: 60 seconds (includes login)
Pardus Xfce “testing”: 20 seconds (login bypassed)
Xubuntu beta 1: 20 seconds (login bypassed)
Loading a 769.4 kB .odt:
Foresight Linux: 5 seconds (AbiWord 2.8.6); 16 seconds (OpenOffice 3.2.1)
Pardus Xfce “testing”: 13 seconds (LibreOffice 3.3.2)
Xubuntu beta 1: 4 seconds (AbiWord 2.8.6); 8 seconds (LibreOffice 3.3.2)
Loading a 1.4 MB .pdf:
Foresight: 1½ seconds (Evince)
Pardus Xfce “testing”: wouldn’t come up (ePDF, which I know is good, so there must be a configuration problem)
Xubuntu beta 1: 1½ seconds (Evince)
Now, let’s get subjective.
Xubuntu, but they’re all excellent—at least after I changed the DPI in Foresight. I will say here that Xubuntu 11.04 has the nicest out-of-the-box look of any *buntu I’ve ever seen.
Xubuntu has the widest selection by a fairly substantial margin. Foresight’s repositories are difficult to search. Pardus did not have a clipboard utility available at all—neither Parcellite, which has been abandoned but is still almost everywhere, nor its fork Clipit, and I had some trouble installing them from source. (I assume I could have gotten Klipper had I installed the entire KDE desktop, but installing the entire KDE desktop is a bit beside the point.) Xfce used to have its own clipboard utility, Clipman, but Clipman didn’t make it into 4.8.
Smoothness and stability:
Xubuntu, even though it’s a beta. Foresight is very close, but as I’ve noted, there are a couple of burpsies in the boot cycle; once you’re in the desktop, it’s just great. I’m not sure I can blame Foresight for whatever problems I have had with the Xfce desktop. I had a debacle installing Pardus on my laptop.
Xubuntu. Foresight takes a comparatively long time to get going, but after that it’s pretty fast, and so is Pardus, so there really isn’t much practical difference. Also, I had to use Windows XP several times lately (a long story, and full of woe): virus scans and updates and reboots, oh my! One day it took me 15 minutes before I could get any work done! That’s just crazy! So even though waiting for Open/LibreOffice to load can be an annoyance, and I appreciate the extra few seconds Xubuntu gives me, I’m gonna shut up and smile.
Out of the box readiness:
In all three distributions, everything pretty much worked out of the box, except for ePDF in Pardus. I could listen to streaming audio without doing anything in particular. As a matter of personal preference, I liked Foresight Linux’s selection of pre-installed applications.
They’re all very different. Xubuntu has the widest following, and the Ubuntu forums are huge. Xubuntu does have a couple of Listservs (I guess we don’t call them that any more). Foresight Linux has a small but hardworking forum, which seems to overlap with their small but hardworking development team. I have asked questions from time to time and always gotten a realistic answer. The Pardus Worldforum seems to have gone downhill, and I found it less friendly than when I was visiting more regularly a couple of years ago.
I should like Xubuntu the best; as a beta, it is excellent, and the release version should be breathtaking. (Later: the final actually seems slower to load.) I fully expect to have it installed somewhere around here. When I write more about the general Xfce experience, it will be after more Xubuntu experiences.
But Foresight’s my favorite. Since I installed it, I’ve been gravitating to it: given a choice (all three of my computers are multi-boot, and two have Foresight), I’m going into Foresight more than any other distro. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Foresight to someone who is a newcomer to Linux, but if you’ve been under the hood a couple of times and know how to launch a terminal emulator, it just might give you hours of enjoyment. If I were to sum up why I like Foresight so much: it hits a nice balance between out-of-the-box usability and DIY improvisatory fun.