Where are they now?

I’ve been blogging here for the better part of nine months, with some absences, of course. (The most recent one: my wife is having a medication reaction in the wake of what we thought was going to be a peaceful sub-surgical procedure. She’s been really ill for the better part of two weeks.) In those nine months, I have experimented with many a distro, and sometimes I got far enough to write about them. Here, I want to go back and look at them with the benefit of hindsight, which as we all know can bite you hard if you really believe it’s 20/20.

Foresight Linux 2.5, Xfce edition
The first distro I reviewed after I opened this blog, Foresight Linux offered me a veritable fantasia of computing enjoyment. It hits a near-spotless balance between “just works” and “urges you to get under the hood”. Sadly, though, I had problems with sudo conary updateall on both the Play Computer and the laptop. Simply put, there appears to be a high amount of resource usage—memory usage in particular—associated with Conary, and if I went for too long (more than a couple of weeks) without updating, or if a kernel update came along at the same time as a LibreOffice update, Conary froze in its tracks. Bug reports have been filed. The way around this would probably be to run sudo conary updateall in the terminal emulator, pipe the output to a file, render the text more or less readable by way of a whole lotta search-and-replace operations, and run conary update… one or two packages at a time. But whenever I thought about doing all that, I got really tired.

I will absolutely look at Foresight Linux 3.0 (or even 2.≥6 if there is such a thing), but for now, both of my existing installations have been rendered less than trustworthy. I can’t install it on the memory-richer Fun Computer because Foresight’s installer—an older version of Anaconda—gets overwhelmed by the number of partitions on its drive: ±18, which I agree is a lot. Foresight Linux is in many ways the most fun Linux I’ve ever used. But this time around, it just wasn’t meant to be. Next time around, I hope things’ll be different.

Kubuntu 11.10
I haven’t fired Kubuntu up very often, either. But that’s not Kubuntu’s fault. I liked it when I wrote about it, and I still do. If I want to work in the KDE environment, though, I tend to default to my more familiar Mageia. This may be an over-generalization, but I have found that one KDE distribution is much more like another KDE distribution than, say, one Xfce distribution is like another Xfce distribution. (I’ve found one exception: Netrunner, which is based on Kubuntu, has an inventive mix of pre-installed KDE and GNOME applications. But Netrunner is very cloud-centric, and since I don’t use any cloud apps and don’t really have any intention of starting, I disqualified myself from reviewing it.)

There was one project that I especially liked Kubuntu for: Uncle Jim’s Master’s thesis, which I’m turning into a LaTeX document. AucTeX, an Emacs add-on, wasn’t in Mageia’s repo (it’ll be in Mageia 2), and I had to compile it myself; it was in Kubuntu’s repo, though, and that version seems more able to tell TeX from LaTex. But I haven’t been working on Uncle Jim’s Master’s thesis lately. When I return to that project, though, I’ll have a good excuse to return to Kubuntu.

One thing I will note: one day when I was running an update, Muon—a package manager for KDE (and apparently for the whole Debian family, or those parts of the Debian family that deign to acknowledge it on the street)—whimpered and stopped. I had to do a hard shutdown. When I next went back, Kubuntu still worked well enough for me to grab Synaptic from the repo (a little postmodern irony for your entertainment), and I was able to complete the update through Synaptic. I haven’t looked back. Muon has given me trouble on two Kubuntu installs, so I have to conclude the problem isn’t with me. Anyway, three cheers and a variety of mad props to Kubuntu for keeping itself in a workable condition during an update failure.

You have probably heard, maybe even from Jonathan Riddell himself, that Kubuntu is getting semidisenfranchised from the Ubuntu roster after the upcoming 12.04 LTS release. I don’t know much about the inner workings of Canonical, and, quite honestly, I don’t know if knowing too much about Linux politics would do my tender soul any good. It seems to me that Kubuntu has attracted more than its fair share of disrespect through the years: some of it from Shuttlephobes, some of it, I’m sure, from people who had bad experiences with earlier versions, and some of it, no doubt, from people who think Kubuntu runs on Unity, which they heard they shouldn’t like.

Linux Mint Xfce Edition
As you probably know, Linux Mint made the decision to move their Xfce offering to a Debian-based rolling release. The first .iso of the new branch came out in March or April 2011; I got around to installing it in July. Actually, I think I downloaded it when it came out, or shortly after, and couldn’t install it at all; I assumed I’d gotten a bum burn and put it aside as a project for another day. When I finally did get it to run, I commented at the time about various flakinesses, attributing them to the changeover from Xfce 4.6 to Xfce 4.8, which had just made it into Debian Testing around that time. (I can only assume that by the time Xfce 4.8 makes it into Debian Stable, Xfce 4.10 will be here.) There were other things going on, though. The audio didn’t work well (I got sound, but it didn’t, uhh, sound good). Even though LMDEXfce looked into the Debian Testing repos, the version of Rhythmbox that was in this release’s repos was older than the ones I had in a few other installations, and the audio quality was a few steps down from what I was used to (and from what I choose to live with).

Linux Mint released a new .iso in September. I duly downloaded that one and installed it on the Fun Computer, and…well, in all honesty it didn’t seem to be that much of an improvement. I really didn’t go back to it that often, and once I waited too long and hundreds of updates mashed the whole installation. I like rolling releases as a concept, but to get the most out of a rolling release, it has to be your main distro, or else you have to be extremely organized and want to boot up each of your installations once a week or so for some housekeeping.

I had an LMDE on the Play Computer—the traditional GNOME version—and it was well-nigh flawless, almost indistinguishable in day-to-day operations from Linux Mint 10. The Xfce mix, not so much. I’ll try it again with the next .iso.

(You know, I just got an idea. I wonder what would happen if I installed Xfce onto LMDE? Would it work better for me than the tailored Xfce mix? Gee (drooling contentedly at the thought)…a science project!)

(Later: The answer to “Would it work better?” appears to be “Not a whole lot better”. But this particular science project is in its childhood, if not infancy.)

Linux Mint 12
A whole ‘nother story; this one is challenging to be my go-to distro. I’ll write about this in a whole ‘nother post, because it was starting to get long, and the next part of this post is already The Return of the Brothers Karamazov III: War ‘n Peace (feat. Diamond Dave Copperfield).

Mageia
I wrote about Mageia in July and then again in October, and here I am again, and I still think it’s just about perfect. Mageia, I mean, not my writing. I don’t necessarily think KDE is just about perfect, but—save for a few holes in the repo, of which more anon—I couldn’t ask for more from Mageia than what it’s given me.

Once there was an Xfce version of Mandriva. I had it on a computer that has since slid into senescence (kind of like me, except worse), and I enjoyed it while it was there, but I went back to GNOME, and I don’t think the group that put together the Xfce mix is still involved.

So I decided to try making one on my own. Things went good, and then things went bad, and then things went good, and then things went bad, but I had some fun and learned a few things. I tried it 3 times and got it working once. So I thought I’d write about it.

This project works best with the DVD version, which is downloadable from Mageia’s download page. The live CDs marry you to either KDE or GNOME. The DVD version will suggest KDE, too, and you’ve got to select Custom, as in this screenshot, which I took while installing Mageia in a VirtualBox in Mageia, which is kind of existential, huh, buddy?

As the name implies, for each field you select, Mageia picks out a number of packages that it thinks will fit your busy, active lifestyle. At this point, Mageia also assumes that you’ve come to your senses by now and really want KDE after all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; KDE, Mageia style, is a likeable, even lovable, desktop environment. But for our purposes today, deselect KDE and select Other Graphical Desktops.

You can go in and pick out packages individually, but it’s a chore. The packages are listed under the appropriate groups, and sometimes in more than one group, and there aren’t any descriptions. In one installation attempt, I got blinded by all the foam that was pouring out of my mouth and managed to partially deselect the login manager. Once I was done, or thought I was done, an astonishingly harsh B&W login screen confronted me. Not only was it angry, it didn’t work, and my only recourse was regret, reformat, reinstall.

You can’t really select a workable Xfce desktop from Other Graphical Desktops. Mageia offers a forlorn IceWM “light”, but I’d leave it to its misery and take my chances with WindowMaker. You won’t need to spend very much time here anyway. (On Mandriva, you were stuck with a hideous IceWM theme and you couldn’t even upgrade IceWM via the repos, even though the real thing was sitting right there. I’ll have to give it a try in Mageia.) (Later: Indeed, I was able to install the “real” IceWM. So at least some of this paragraph is obsolete.)

After that, you can proceed with the installation.

Now I’m going to show you Mageia’s configuration screen, mainly because I can. Here is where installation screenshots come to an end, because here is where my VirtualBox crapped out. VirtualBoxes are like that.

Some people might describe the Mageia installer as “dated”, and no, it hasn’t changed in years, but you can do just about anything here. You can click those buttons on the right that say Configure and, for instance, place your GRUB where you want it, and (on tabs not shown here) change the network name of your computer to something with a little more panache than localhost.localdomain, and customize your firewall, which is on by default (Mageia inherited, and chose to keep, Shorewall. I’m not sure if that firewall is the default in any other major distribution. Is it?), and adjust your security settings.

After the installation is done, you are asked to restart the computer. So do that. Log in, and you’ll discover WindowMaker, which is Mageia’s default if it can’t find anything else.

A tad sparse, eh? That large icon in the upper right corner is the equivalent of GNOME’s Preferences or KDE’s System Settings. It probably has a name, but I call it the Floating Head of Death.

Anyway, to get anything done in WindowMaker, right-click somewhere on the unoccupied part of the desktop. Most of the desktop is unoccupied, of course, so you’ve got lots of room to express yourself.

A menu opens up, and you’ll see Install and Remove Software, just like you would in a standard Mageia. Go to that, and when it opens go to Options, then select Media Manager, and click on Add. Media Manager, which is one of the very few Mageia utilities that refers to itself in the first person, will ask your permission to contact a server. Say OK. Then when Media Manager has refreshed the list (which will take a while even on a speedy connection), go back and deselect the CD-ROM.

(In a move that has taken the entire world by surprise, WindowMaker is under development again after a very long break.)

Back to Media Manager: you pretty much have to do that to get Xfce, because even Mageia’s capacious DVD only offers a severely stripped-down version called task-xfce-minimal. Once your list of available software is populated via Mageia’s fine repositories, you can install:

task-xfce
task-xfce-plugins

I honestly don’t know what would happen if you didn’t install task-xfce-plugins, but my guess is that your desktop would be pretty boring. The plugins give you quick access to useful things like a system load monitor and a battery level indicator. task-xfce and task-xfce-plugins each bring in about 15 or 20 items, if I remember right. I didn’t really count them. For similar reasons, by which I mean boredom avoidance, I also recommend the xfwm-themes package.

Anyway, so far so great. But one lacuna in Mandriva’s packages is a clipboard manager. Parcellite isn’t there, and neither is its excellent fork ClipIt. You can’t install Klipper on its own, or if you can I haven’t figured it out, and I didn’t want to bring in a lot of KDE dependencies for this project. The Xfce Clipman isn’t available, either; I recall that it became mysteriously hard to find in the early days of Xfce 4.8, which were also the early days of Mageia. I downloaded it from its Xfce goodies page and started to run the good old ./configure | make | make install routine, but I ran into such messages as X window system libraries and header files are required. A knowledgeable person on the Mageia forum told me that I needed some “devel” versions of certain packages and also how to find them. The method and the results are:

[root@mgaxfce eddie]# urpmq -a xfce4 | grep devel
libxfce4menu-devel
libxfce4panel-devel
libxfce4ui-devel
libxfce4util-devel
[root@mgaxfce eddie]#

I installed all four, which may have been more than I needed, but they aren’t that big and I don’t see how they could possibly do any harm; I tried to install Clipman then and discovered that I also needed a couple of others.

You can cut and paste the following string into a terminal as root:

urpmi libxfce4menu-devel libxfce4panel-devel libxfce4ui-devel libxfce4util-devel libexo-devel libxtst6-devel

If you are utilizing the 64-bit version, try this one:

urpmi lib64xfce4menu-devel lib64xfce4panel-devel lib64xfce4ui-devel lib64xfce4util-devel libexo-devel libxtst6-devel

(libexo and libxtst6-devel don’t have separate 64-bit versions in the repos.)

“Exo?” you might ask. “What, pray tell, is exo?” Well, you’ve come to the right place! I just saw an announcement about it on the Xfce listserv.

Exo is an Xfce library targeted at application development. It contains various custom widgets and APIs extending the functionality of GLib and GTK+. It also ships utilities for defining preferred applications, mounting storage devices and more.

BTW, Clipman is expected to be in Mageia 2, and you won’t have to worry about all this any more. Which is a good thing. I tried the above instructions three times, and only once did I get a clip-equipped Xfce desktop.

So…does it work? Does it work good? Here are some numbers. These are all taken from the Fun Computer. The two Mageias are separate installations on separate partitions. These are all the 64-bit versions.

Time from GRUB to a usable desktop
Mageia with KDE: 66 seconds
Mageia with Xfce: 38 seconds
Xubuntu 11.10: 33 seconds
(These numbers are just me counting off the seconds, so please don’t take them like they came from the atomic clock at Fort Collins or anything like that.)

Loading an 856 kB .pdf
Mageia with KDE: 1.5 seconds (Okular)
Mageia with Xfce: Whoa, I can’t count that fast! (ePDF)
Xubuntu 11.10: 1.5 seconds (Evince)

Loading a 2.8 MB .pdf
Mageia with KDE: 2 seconds
Mageia with Xfce: ½ a second
Xubuntu 11.10: 1.5 seconds

Loading a 511 kB .odt into LibreOffice Writer
Mageia with KDE: 17 seconds
Mageia with Xfce: 8 seconds
Xubuntu 11.10: 9 seconds

Loading a 2.3 MB .jpg
Mageia with KDE: 2 seconds (Gwenview)
Mageia with Xfce: 1 second (gThumb)
Xubuntu 11.10: 1 second (Ristretto)

Loading a 114 kB LaTeX document into Emacs
Mageia with KDE: 3.5 seconds
Mageia with Xfce: 1.5 seconds
Xubuntu 11.10: 3.5 seconds

CPU usage when the computer is just sitting there
Mageia with KDE: 2%
Mageia with Xfce: 1-2%
Xubuntu 11.10: 0-1%

Memory usage when the computer is just sitting there
Mageia with KDE: 620 MB
(The widget said “9% of 6960″, which seems like a hell of a lot, but the widget also ran top, and Plasma took up 27,756 and Krunner took 23,004, and Kdeinit4 was listed at 15,980. I would have liked to match these numbers against Kubuntu’s, but the Kubuntu partition fritzed out through no fault of its own just before I did this comparo, and I wanted to post this a month ago.)
Mageia with Xfce: 434 MB
Xubuntu 11.10: 336 MB

Just to finish off, I also tried installing Mageia with the default settings, KDE and all, and then installing Xfce over it. It wasn’t a great experience; Klipper was available, but it only worked quite erratically when it was separated from its KDE brethren and sistren. I didn’t do any measurements on resource or memory usage.

Pardus Xfce
In the last post before this one, I gave you a link on the Pardus World Forum to follow if you’re interested in the fate of this noble distribution. For now, I think it’s safe to say that the Pardus Xfce spin I wrote about last summer is pretty much bye the bye, which I think is sad; they were on to some excellent design concepts, and I hope someone picks up the pieces.

Xubuntu 11.10
Always the bridesmaid…. I like Xubuntu a lot. I think it is the most visually attractive out-of-the-box Xfce distro of all that I have tried, and it may be the most easy to use; it circumvents some of the vestigial problems Xfce (or its file manager, Thunar) has with local area networks (or it would have if they hadn’t left out a component; I wrote about that in the original post, and I’m sure the Xubuntu team will never make that oversight again). The overall impression is one of elegance and professionalism.

And I think Xubuntu may be catching on. I don’t keep detailed stats on page hits. My hosting company provides some logs; I look at them now & then, and I’m pleasantly shocked at how popular this blog has been. I can also say that my Xubuntu writeup appears to be the second most hit-upon of my various reviews, behind only Linux Mint 12 (I think even Steve Ballmer read that one! Hey, did you know that residents of Maryland’s largest city call it something very close to “Ballmer”?), and considerably ahead of Mageia (which is in the Distrowatch Top 10) and Kubuntu.

For all that, Xubuntu hasn’t ever quite established itself as my go-to distro. Part of that, I’m sure, is that I have my Mageias tuned to a T. Certainly, my fascination with Linux Mint 12 and its three—yeah, count ‘em!—new desktop environments has taken up a lot of my time the last few weeks. But I wonder if I really don’t like Xfce quite as much as I think I do, or if I like it more for exploring than for my day-to-day activities. Or if I still, on some level, think of it as the GNOME 3 that Wasn’t or the GNOME 3 that Shoulda Been, and don’t deal with it on its own substantial merits.

Anyway, I sometimes fire up Xubuntu when I’m on the road, and I keep both my installations up to date without letting them get old. I really wish that Xubuntu could break out of Canonical’s six-month release schedule, just for once; I can hardly wait to see what these guys do with Xfce 4.10.

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3 Responses to Where are they now?

  1. T. Lindsay says:

    Maybe you’re dating yourself but Xubuntu takes more that 336kB, maybe 336MB?

    • Eddie says:

      Uh, yeah: my first operating system was MS-DOS 3.3, and 336kB made a lot of sense back then! Thanks; it’s been corrected in the text.

  2. Very nice post Eddie!!!

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