Linux Mint’s Debianized Xfce

I discovered Mandriva in the wake of a catastrophe…but that is a story for another day, one which I shall spin when I write up my review of Mageia. I bring up Mandriva because in my life, the most usable desktop I’ve ever found has been in the Gnome variant of Mandriva 2010. Mandriva 2010.2 is still a go-to installation on the laptop, but that one (and 2010.1) gave me a little trouble with sound on the “Fun Computer”. Otherwise, they were perfect, but a little less perfect, so to speak. But the combination of the Mandriva Control Center and the cool, crisp Gnome design is hard to beat.

Linux Mint 10 came close. Very close. Until that version, I wasn’t especially a fan. I had looked at versions from time to time, and installed a few, but I didn’t return to them, and they were usually the first to get plowed under when I needed the space to experiment. With 10, or Julia (you young people might not remember when the National Weather Service gave female names to all hurricanes; there’s an interesting page about it here), I became seriously interested. Gone was that annoying, if harmless, “unverified source” error message you got while installing new software. The performance seemed livelier; speed is one of my lower priorites and really isn’t a make-or-break issue (Mandriva isn’t maniacally fast, after all), but Mint could be out-and-out sluggish at times. I’m not sure why I liked the appearance better; I think it is slightly more gray and slightly less, ummmm, mmminty, hence more professional in my eyes (which, themselves, are more blue than gray). Anyway, Julia occupies a well-worn partition on the “Fun Computer”, and the Linux Mint Debian Edition, which is so close to the standard edition that I sometimes have trouble remembering which is which, has pride of place (that is, it owns the MBR) on the “Play Computer”. Linux Mint has moved away from its identity as Ubuntu with a different suit (I should say dress, maybe), and has staked out its own place.

Linux Mint has had KDE, LXDE, and Xfce versions for a while, but I never looked at any of them until I downloaded the Xfce one a few weeks ago. (Hey, I can’t try everything.) Traditionally, these varietals have been fixed-point releases that trailed the Gnome one by a few weeks, and I got the idea that they have occupied a relatively secondary niche in the Mintosphere. Linux Mint Xfce is now Debianized, and it’s a rolling release. (Clem explains why here; it’s good reading.) I was excited to learn about its existence, but when I tried it back in April, I can’t say I was thrilled. For one thing, it still had Xfce 4.6, and I was more interested in 4.8. For another, it didn’t seem to work that well. But I wanted to try it out again, so I did.

The installation isn’t Debian—it doesn’t grab the spoon out of your hand and run off with your lunch—but it’s not Mint, either. No slideshows, just a bar that gradually fills up. It moves pretty quickly, considering the .iso is about a gigabyte. I installed it first on the Fun Computer, using a 64-bit .iso. The first problem I had was that after installation, it wouldn’t reboot; it started to, and then it just froze, and I had to do a hard shutdown (which is the technical term for “lean on the computer’s on/off switch until the poor thing stops making noise”). The only thing I dislike about the Fun Computer is that there isn’t a place to stick a paperclip into the CD tray and release it. So I had to turn it on again, push the in/out button quickly, and grab the DVD really quickly before the tray closes on my fingers. (Well, the CD tray in general is an unlikeable problem on this computer.) The following day, I installed Linux Mint Xfce on my laptop, which is a 32-bit machine. The experience was fairly similar, but there was no post-installation vapor lock.

I told you above that this was a rolling release. Rolling releases tend to have more updates the farther away you get from the day the .iso was wrapped. Linux Mint Xfce has only been out since March, so I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of updates, but within a minute after I booted in to my brand-new installation, the little shield in the taskbar was telling me I had some, and I looked, and….

830.

I figured that was a typo, or Update Manager having a little jest at my expense, but I also figured I’d be there for a while, so I went out to find something to drink, and to see what that stain on my jeans was (Lily, the dog of average intelligence, has been a bit unwell lately, so we’re giving her oatmeal with dinner, and oatmeal has a way of getting all over the place; anyway, I decided it probably was oatmeal), and I even caught up on my reading a bit, and then it was time to answer some questions. The updates required that I either replace a script with the one the developers had written or keep the one I had. On the Fun Computer, I sort of went back and forth between keeping the installed script and adopting the new one, and on the laptop I adopted the new ones, every time. The visible difference is that the Xfce menu on the Fun Computer is a lot bigger and has top-level entries for things like “File Manager” and “Terminal Emulator”, and the laptop doesn’t. Also, somewhere along the way I lost the bottom panel on the Fun Computer, and I can’t get rid of it on the laptop even if I wanted to. One thing I should mention is that the Linux Mint Xfce .iso came with Xfce 4.6, and this update included a complete update to Xfce 4.8. It’s kind of a miracle that anything works at all after a huge desktop environment version update like that, so I shouldn’t, and hope I won’t, be too snotty about the things that don’t.

Central to the identity of Linux Mint has been the concept of Just Works. Linux Mint 10, in particular, brought that philosophy to a stunning apex; that is, when you click on something, or execute a command, the results are smooth and predictable. In Linux Mint Xfce, I have not found that this is the case.

Problem: plug-ins don’t plug in
I tried to add a couple of favorite plug-ins to the panel, for what is an Xfce desktop without the Xfce weather plug-in? An isolated pawn on life’s chessboard, that’s what! But they wouldn’t go on.

Solution: log in and log out
After I did that, I had three weather reports (connoisseurs can insert their own “Does that mean three Wayne Shorters?” joke here), one for each time I tried to add it to the panel. I can’t say that the plug-ins didn’t work, but they didn’t Just Work; on every other Xfce 4.8 distro I’ve tried, you simply add them.

Problem: inferior sound quality
I fired up Live365 to listen to a bit of music. The audio was weak, and it was punctuated by a kind of chuffing sound that sounded a bit like adjacent-channel interference on a car radio (if the adjacent-channel station was playing some very dreary trance music or half-speed disco). Live365 is usually pretty reliable—its Flash player is well-behaved, at least by the unruly, not to say deplorable, standards of Flash players—but to verify, I tried AccuJazz, which despite that quirky name doesn’t have, ahem, weather reports, just the finest music, and the same thing happened.

Solution: none yet
I think I’ll try reinstalling one of these days.

Problem: more inferior sound quality
Sound quality was a bit sub-par in Rhythmbox, too. At first, I tried one of the presets and Rhythmbox told me that the appropriate GStreamer plugin was missing. The sound didn’t have the chuffing I got on Live365, but it was a bit grainy and lacking in that certain je ne sais quoi. In a partially related development that has nothing to do with the virtues of Linux Mint Xfce, I copied my rhythmdb.xml from another partition, and Rhythmbox complained that the file was from a “newer version of Rhythmbox” and couldn’t be read. (Linux Mint Xfce’s version is 12.8; the current one is 13.3. 13.0 was released about a year ago, in July 2010. So this one really is relatively old.) I deleted rhythmdb.xml and prepared to rebuild it moreless from scratch (a tedious cut-and-paste process, but doable). Here, though, Rhythmbox went into its death throes.
In Rhythmbox’s brief life, I never saw the missing GStreamer message again, and I’m tempted to think that this was another misconfiguration. (During the update, I saw something called gstreamer0.10-plugins-really-bad, which I thought was pretty funny.)

Solution: try Guayadeque
I uninstalled Rhythmbox, and I planned to reinstall it, but I took a little detour and tried something called Guayadeque, and it’s really nice. And my stations sound good, too. I actually like Rhythmbox and have learned to live with its little quirks and its general boringness, but I think I like Guayadeque even more. It’s still in beta and I suspect that there are a couple of things that will work in the future, but it’s got a delightfully clean interface. Maybe Rhythmbox wanted me to find out about the new kid in town. Maybe that’s why it stopped working. Maybe I think too much.

Problem: MintMenu, slightly broken
A panel plugin called XfApplet allows you to run Gnome plugins in your Xfce environment, of which one is the world-famous MintMenu. There are two reasons to run MintMenu. One is that you like it and prefer it to the plain-Jane Xfce menu. The other is that you are a lot like me and you miss MintMenu’s “Recent Documents” plugin (or Places | Recent Documents in the standard Gnome desktop). Unfortunately, Xfce doesn’t have a great way of accessing recent documents natively, and I find that to be a bit of a hindrance. An Xfce plugin has been written; I haven’t been able to get it to work reliably, but I will keep trying. The MintMenu plugin doesn’t work that well, either; neither of them, for instance, seem to have noticed that this very document (which I am writing in Emacs) has been opened recently, several times, in fact. They both knew that I edited bash.bashrc, though. Strange.

Solution: it’s not just us, Betty, it’s the whole crazy world!
At least on the Fun Computer, where I’m doing the lion’s share of this evaluating, I thought maybe the problem had to do with the configuration. I keep my documents (including this one) on a storage partition that doesn’t have an operating system at all. In Linux Mint Xfce, I’ve been mounting the partition from within Thunar and accessing my files that way; but said files are invisible to Linux Mint Xfce, and hence, I presume (perhaps wrongly), to any plugins, until I do so. (My “Today” bookmark in Thunar doesn’t appear until I mount the storage partition.) Today, I edited fstab (that name always makes me think of the Residents’ EP Duck Stab) to mount the storage partition to /home/eddie/Central during the boot cycle, like I do on most of my other installations here. XfApplet and MintMenu are gone, but, sadly, the Places plugin still doesn’t recognize this file as a “recent document”. Nor does it recognize .emacs or macros.emacs, both of which I just edited….
Aha! It’s not MintMenu, and it’s not the Places plugin; it’s Emacs! I just opened macros.emacs in gedit, and there it is in Places. The fact that I do most of my text editing in Emacs sort of cuts into the utility of these plugins, but at least I’ve got a clue about what’s going on. (Just for the record, I’m not even a little bit religious about Emacs. I’ve heard that strange things happen to the hemispheric synchronization of the brains of people who try to master the keystrokes of both vi and Emacs, so I never really tried to learn vi. If you did, and you like it, that’s great.)

Problem: Samba
As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I keep my documents on a storage partition on the Fun Computer. I had no problem setting Linux Mint Xfce as a Samba server, but when I tried to access said partitions from the laptop (which was running the same Linux Mint Xfce, albeit the 32-bit version), error messages were hurled at me, to wit, Unable to mount Windows share. Since mounting Windows shares is what Samba is all about, you might say that this was a conceptual failure.

Solution: ask on the Linux Mint forum
A pleasant person named Altair advised me to put this line into /etc/samba/smb.conf:

name resolve order = bcast host lmhosts wins

Works a charm! I don’t know why it works (and even Altair said it was a long shot), but it does. And there was an unexpected benefit: Thunar, which had been uncharacteristically sluggish (taking 20 or 30 seconds to open; and say what you want about Thunar, it’s pretty fast), also started acting normal.

Problem: desktop icons that don’t work
I popped in a flash drive to copy in a couple of scripts, and tried to remove it when I was done. There was an icon on the desktop; usually, you can right-click on the icon and select “Eject Drive”. But not here. I opened Thunar and right-clicked on the TravelDrive entry and selected “Eject Drive”, and it worked just fine. Having a desktop icon with a right-click menu with an inoperative option is unMinty. (Hmm, I just tried it again and the TravelDrive didn’t put an icon on the desktop at all.) (In this version, the default is not to automount. My TravelDrive appeared in Thunar’s left panel, but I had to right-click and select “Mount Drive”. That’s not a criticism; it’s just different from what I’ve encountered in other recent Xfce distros. Settings Manager | Removable Drives and Media sounds like it could be your friend, and it is. It really is!)

Solution: live with it
To tell the truth I don’t usually pay much attention to desktop icons, and it was an accident, moreless, that even caused me to try it. So you might say “live with it” is a non-solution to a non-problem.

Wow, it sounds like I’m killing Linux Mint Xfce here! Let me back up and tell you what’s good about it, which is lots.

Oodles of software choices
This edition of Linux Mint taps into the Debian repositories, which I think contain applications that haven’t even been invented yet! The combination of the Xfce environment (which is famously unfussy about what you run under it) and the repos affords you choices that verge on the infinite.

A strong community
Linux Mint is easy to use and it is popular, which of course makes it an easy target for hepcats who have strong views about “n00bs”, “bloat”, and “bloat for n00bs”. Linux Mint as an organization gives every impression of being focused and professional, and the forums have more than their share of intelligent and helpful veterans. If you install a Mint, you can count on it being supported.

Performance plus
Linux Mint Xfce is a robust performer. Even on my modestly powered laptop, every task goes quickly and smoothly, including those massive updates.

That certain panache
I’m a strong believer in first impressions, and so, obviously, is the Linux Mint development squadron. Even without the characteristic MintMenu in place, Linux Mint Xfce has a polished look, perfect for bringing to work or impressing your dubious friends. Check your email, change your wallpaper, and write an Emacs Lisp routine while AVG is still loading! (I mean your friends who are dubious about the efficacy of Linux. I don’t mean to imply that your friends are dubious characters. I don’t even know them, probably.)

And finally, some random thoughts:

I’m not quite sure what’s going on with firewalls. The 64-bit installation on the Fun Computer has ufw, the Uncomplicated FireWall, and gufw, the Graphical interface for the Uncomplicated FireWall. The 32-bit installation on the laptop has Firewall Builder instead. On the Fun Computer, at least, ufw wasn’t enabled by default, but Linux Mint Xfce makes it very easy to find and work on your firewall.

As is typical for Linux Mint, this version packs Thunderbird as its email client. I fully intend to try Thunderbird 5 one of these days, but for the nonce I installed Claws Mail with no problem. I did note the presence of Brasero, which has burned .iso’s for me more reliably than Xfburn has. The selection of software offered is modern mainstream.

Other Xfce distributions I have used stash Samba shares in a ~/.gvfs directory. You can’t bookmark that directory in Thunar, because it only exists when you are using the Gnome Virtual File System. Linux Mint handles it a bit differently; Thunar allows you to access the share from the Network entry in the left panel, and, while there is a ~/.gvfs, it is empty. Oddly, the file you are reading now opened directly from the network in gedit, but when I right-clicked on it and chose Open with “Gnu Emacs 23”, Emacs opened, but to a blank screen (or the not-quite-blank screen that Emacs typically opens with), not to this file. If I want to work on it in Emacs, I have to copy it to the local drive first. This sounds like a kissing cousin to the “recent files, just not all of them” dilemma outlined earlier.

At this point, I cannot say that Linux Mint Xfce will be my “keeper” Xfce distro; that would be Foresight and/or Xubuntu (which I haven’t written up for this blog yet). More philosophically, I’m not sure that Linux Mint Xfce has decided what it wants to be. It looks like Linux Mint, but it really doesn’t have the predictability (I use that word as a compliment here) of the fixed-release Mints past and present. The original Linux Mint Debian Edition, with the Mintified Gnome desktop, is fairly predictable; as I mentioned before, I’ve had that on the Play Computer for several uneventful months. The Mint development team released the current .iso after Xfce 4.8 had been released, but before it was incorporated into Debian Stable, and I suspect that some of the bumps I’ve run into have to do with imposing a major environmental update on a fairly new base system.

If you are Xfce shopping, or want to see what a Gnomeless Mint looks like, I can recommend that you give it a try and see for yourself.

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5 Responses to Linux Mint’s Debianized Xfce

  1. ForensicPenguin2 says:

    Interesting article. I may try Mint LXDE. I’ve heard that Xfce has some problems like you’ve mentioned. Any input from someone on LXDE??

    • bigbadbilly says:

      To ForensicPenguin2,

      I have been running Linux mint LXDE, most recent ve
      rsion on an older Asus eeepc (1000H), I am more than
      happy with it, much faster/responsive than the original
      windows xp and screams ahead of windows7.
      I tried Linux Mint XFCE; a disaster on the eeepc’s, too
      many updates and with such a slow processor and slow
      internet speeds, I ended up with a corrupted O/S. It might
      be better on a fast CPU and fast internet.
      cheers.

  2. Pingback: Links 20/7/2011: Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Release Schedule, Linux-powered HP TouchPad Competitive With iPad, New OLPC Surfaces | Techrights

  3. TBABill says:

    I would hold off installing and testing LMDE until the new iso’s release. The devs are currently making their own repo for the LMDE updates to flow through so they can be tested before users update their systems, in effect creating a ‘stable’ testing-based Mint Debian system. It’s an ingenious idea and protects users from breakages that occur occasionally with Debian Testing. With so many updates to the iso needed after install, which is over 800 as mentioned in the article, it makes sense for a new user to wait a few days or weeks for the newly updated isos.

    LMDE is evolving and it looks like KDE will be LMDE based, not Kubuntu based. I haven’t used LXDE so I can’t attest to it, but I am sure it’s excellent as well.

    Mint Update is now new for LMDE. The old MU from Ubuntu based Mint has been updated to handle LMDE appropriately. There are threads on the Mint forum to walk someone through changing their repositories and update to the new Mint Update. Following the devs step by step instructions will prevent breakages, which may be why the author’s system did not perform as expected. Bad timing, really. Until the Mint team releases new iso’s to download and install, a user will have to manually configure some things just to get to a normal desktop with correct repos and Mint Update. Not a novice exercise at this point, but it soon will be.

  4. I have tried, over the years, to use various flavors of Mint, and it always seems bulky and difficult to administer. It’s not unappealing, but I think it tries to be all things to all people, and that’s never a good idea. And, as you noted, updating the packages is hell. Always has been.

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