The Linux Moderate

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A Quick Look at Xubuntu Xtreme

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I seldom receive comments from the nobility, but Darth Chaos left me a kind message here to point out that he had put together an improved version of Xubuntu, which he calls Xubuntu Xtreme. It has some of the same goals as PC/OS and Linux Mint XFCE: namely, to start with all the advantages of the Ubuntu base (like those huge software repositories) and add preconfigured support for multimedia and other useful things that almost every user ends up installing anyway.

Unlike PC/OS and Linux Mint, Xubuntu Xtreme doesn’t make any attempt to call itself a new distribution. It’s just Xubuntu with stuff added. You can read more about what’s added here, but to summarize, you get multimedia codecs, Java, Flash, DVD playback, some extra themes, and a few extra programs already installed.

Since I’m a Xubuntu fan, I tried it out in the 8.04 version (he’s also released a 7.10-based version at the same time). For some reason, when I ran it from live CD, the XFCE panels never started, which left me a bit crippled. The usual seven-step Ubuntu installation went fine, however, and the installed system booted into a desktop that looks identical to stock Xubuntu–unadventurously tasteful and quite usable.

Standard-looking Xubuntu desktop. Just after the first boot, Xubuntu Xtreme has two updates it wants to make.
Standard-looking Xubuntu desktop. Just after the first boot, Xubuntu Xtreme has two updates it wants to make.

Multimedia files played as advertised. Flash and Java worked. DVD playback worked, but not quite perfectly. Inserting a commercial DVD brought up Totem Movie Player, which couldn’t play it. VLC, however, which is one of the extras you get with Xubuntu Xtreme, played the DVD just fine; it should be your default DVD player.

Xubuntu Xtreme also includes the NTFS Configuration Tool, which is supposed to fix a problem in Xubuntu 8.04: apparently it can’t access the Windows partition correctly if you’ve installed it as a dual-boot. Since I don’t have Windows on my test machine, I haven’t run into the problem and couldn’t test the solution.

All in all, I can’t find much not to like about Xubuntu Xtreme. It’s pretty much the way my Xubuntu installation would look after an hour’s worth of fiddling in Synaptic Package Manager to get the extras most people want. If I hadn’t already installed Xubuntu half a dozen times on different computers, it might take me a day or more to get it to the point of being as well configured as Xubuntu Xtreme.

In fact, the only disadvantage to Xubuntu Xtreme is that it’s not as easy to get as I’d like it to be. This is not the author’s fault: after all, when you have a 700-MB file to share, where do you put it? But if you’re thinking about installing Xubuntu, it may be worth putting up with a bit of inconvenience from Megaupload to get Xubuntu Xtreme. It’ll probably save you a lot of work in the long run.

Anyway, now that I have Xubuntu on this machine again, I’m going to play with it. In the next few days, I’ll show you how to twist and mangle Xubuntu so thoroughly that you won’t even recognize it. We’ll have

  • a different window manager
  • a homemade theme for the window manager
  • a different file manager
  • a different login screen
  • a different mix of applications

and a lot of other stuff that will make it fun to play with. And it will all run on computer hardware you could probably put together for $50 if you scrounged about in flea markets and thrift stores. Who knows? Maybe we’ll manage to bridge the technology gap between first world and third world.

Written by cbaile19

August 1, 2008 at 10:31 am

Posted in Reviews, Xubuntu

Review: Linux Mint Elyssa XFCE Beta

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Officially, “Linux Mint Elyssa XFCE Community Edition RC1 (BETA 025),” which is far too much of a mouthful to stick in a title.

When I heard that the beta release of the new XFCE version of Linux Mint was out, I had to try it. I like XFCE, and Mint is based on Ubuntu, which I still think sets the standard for usable Linux. So here I am, trying out Mint XFCE, and here you are, reading about it. What a pair we make.

Everyone seems to rave about Linux Mint’s aesthetics, so can we just get this out of the way first? I hate the way Mint looks. I think it’s ugly. I hate the mint-leaf logotype. I hate the type font that spells out “Linux Mint.” I hate the stupid, stupid slogan “from freedom came elegance” (no caps because that’s, you know, elegant). I hate the default background that looks exactly like the floor of a streetcar. (I love the streetcars in my neighborhood, but not for their black rubber floors.)

Approaching South Hills Junction. Please pay fare at the fare booth off car.
Approaching South Hills Junction. Please pay fare at the fare booth off car.

I had to say all that because this is going to be a positive review, you see, and I can’t let you think that I was swayed by how cool Mint looks. The very first thing I would do if I were to use this as my working environment would be to change everything about the way it looks.

I’ve never installed the main branch of Linux Mint, which is a Gnome distribution. I’ve used the live CDs of both “Daryna” and “Elyssa” versions, which is how I came to my strong aesthetic opinions.

Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, and has access to all of Ubuntu’s repositories, which instantly gives it a huge software selection. It also has its own “Software Portal” of “mintinstall” applications, which you can install by a different method.

Like PC/OS, Mint is meant to have everything–including multimedia–working as soon as it’s installed. Unlike PC/OS, Linux Mint is more than a superficial tweaking of Ubuntu. You could call it, perhaps, a substantial tweaking of Ubuntu. The user interface is very different from stock Gnome; there are many added utilities and small but significant changes to the way things work. Many of these changes seem to be designed to make the system more comfortable for Windows users abandoning ship.

I was interested in seeing how all this translated to an XFCE version. I like XFCE as a desktop for older computers: it’s a good compromise between the Gnome and KDE end of the spectrum, where buckets of features tend to slow the system down, and the Fluxbox or even TWM end of the spectrum, where things get awfully sparse and minimalistic. Ordinary Mint would be slow and clumsy on my crusty old test computer, but an XFCE version should be right up its alley.

To install Mint, you have to boot into the live CD. That’s different from the latest version of Ubuntu and derivatives, where you can install direct from the boot screen if you like. It’s not a big deal.

The installation uses the dead-simple seven-step Ubuntu installer. I picked the defaults all the way through, except my name and password. I even let it set up a dual boot with PC/OS, so I could switch back and forth and compare two Ubuntu-based XFCE distributions. How geeky is that?

When you reboot after the installation, Mint pops up a little “mintAssistant” wizard that tells you it’s going to help you configure your computer. It’s really interested in only two bits of configuration. First, do you want to enable the root account? Ubuntu doesn’t use a traditional root account; instead, you administer the system in “superuser” mode. If you’re used to other Linux distributions that use a root account to administer the machine, you might like that setup better. The second question is whether you want supposedly humorous fortunes to pop up every time you use the terminal. The correct answer is “no”; for some reason the wrong answer is “recommended” here, but I’m sure that minor error will be fixed in the final release.

Just say no to "fortunes."
Just say no to “fortunes.”

Actually, the real correct answer is “I don’t intend to open the terminal at all if you programmers have done your job right.”

Not long after that, a notice popped up saying that I could have “restricted” drivers for my NVIDIA video card. (NVIDIA has for years made no-cost Linux drivers for NVIDIA cards but refused to release the source code. Do you love them for supporting Linux or hate them as enemies of open source? I don’t know; it just gives me a headache to think about it.) Without the proprietary driver, I couldn’t make 3D Compiz effects work. I took the driver, but for the record, I never did get the 3D effects to work. Perhaps I didn’t find the switch to enable them, which is partly my fault but partly the fault of the design. Everything I did looked as though it ought to enable those effects; if I was supposed to do something else, someone should have told me.

[An update: Note the kind comment from Darth Chaos about enabling Compiz Fusion. I should note that I did what he said when I was testing Mint, but it didn’t work for me. Perhaps my ancient hardware was just too puny. I also strongly object to the design of an “Enable/Disable” button that gives you no indication of whether you’re enabling or disabling.]

While that was going on, “mintUpdate” told me there were 8 updates to install. I allowed it to install them, and then it told me there were 9 more. I don’t know why it couldn’t have told me at the beginning that there were 17 updates, but maybe it just didn’t want to scare me.

mintUpdate ranks updates by priority.
mintUpdate ranks updates by priority.

This mintUpdate thing is a good example of how Mint differs from PC/OS, the other Ubuntu-based distribution I just looked at. PC/OS simply removed the Update Manager, so you didn’t get any updates at all. Mint programmers have worked hard to create an improved update program. Among other things, it ranks updates by priority, to give you a better idea which ones you can safely ignore and which ones you’d better install right now if you know what’s good for you.

Now let’s take a look at the desktop. It’s been made to look as much as possible like the mainstream version of Mint. As I said, I don’t like that look, but big points for consistency.

The basic Mint desktop (or I should probably say mintDesktop).
The basic Mint desktop (or I should probably say mintDesktop).

Only one panel is enabled, just as in mainstream Mint, and very much like Windows as well. A Windows user will find the desktop familiar-looking. I like two panels better, because I think one gets too crowded very quickly. But it’s a reasonable decision.

I do notice that, in this one-panel setup, there’s no obvious way to change desktops, even though two desktops are enabled by default. I consider this a poor choice in a distribution that works so hard to make Windows users comfortable. Imagine what happens the first time the newly converted Windows user accidentally turns the mouse wheel one notch and all his applications suddenly disappear. From using XFCE before, I’d know what happened: I just changed desktops. But the Windows user will assume that everything has suddenly crashed (which is, after all, an experience with which he’ll be quite familiar).

If you want the familiar (to Linux users) desktop switcher in the panel, that’s simple enough: right-click on the panel, choose “Add New Item,” and choose “Pager” from the list. Alternatively, if you’re setting up a system for a Windows convert who’ll only be confused by changing desktops, you can go to Settings, Workspaces Settings, and reduce the number of desktops to 1.

The menu (called “mintMenu,” of course, because silly tricks with internal capitalization are also elegant) is well organized, with a good selection of applications. is installed by default, which is good. Xubuntu and PC/OS install Abiword (a word processor) and Gnumeric (a spreadsheet) instead, which are supposed to be better for lightweight hardware. My experience has been that Abiword is fine for one-page memos, but chokes on anything more than a few pages, slowing down to near uselessness; whereas may be a bit slow starting up, but it chugs along pretty well once it gets going, no matter how large the file.

The mintMenu is organized logically to keep everything a click or two away.
The mintMenu is organized logically to keep everything a click or two away.

Streaming video of Flash Gordon played the way it should. Mint recognized a commercial DVD and automatically started it in VLC Media Player. As far as I can tell, multimedia support works as advertised.

In fact, pretty much everything works as advertised. Although this is described as a beta release, I wasn’t able to break it or crash it or even inconvenience it a little. It’s more solid than many final releases of other distributions. I think you could put this on your computer right now, without waiting for the final release, and confidently use it for real work.

So what can I say? I’m impressed with the solidity of this release; I’m impressed with the amount of work that went into making it consistent with mainstream Mint; I’m impressed with the sofware selection.

I’m not impressed with the look of it, and I don’t like some of the design choices. But this is Linux, and I can have it my way:

Added a top panel and some launchers and things; added the pager; changed from two to four desktops; changed the background; changed the User Interface theme; changed the Window Manager theme; moved the trash can. It's mine now.
Added a top panel and some launchers and things; added the pager; changed from two to four desktops; changed the background; changed the User Interface theme; changed the Window Manager theme; moved the trash can. It’s mine now.

I don’t like Mint better than Xubuntu. Precisely because of the things it does to add extra ease of use, I think Mint is more likely to confuse new users than stock Ubuntu or Xubuntu is. Where Ubuntu is lucid, Mint sometimes seems befuddled, with too many different ways of doing simple tasks. I think the real audience–and a look at forums here and there tends to back me up–is not new Linux converts, but seasoned Linux geeks who think Mint looks cool and admire the little conveniences that have been added to it.

If you’re a Mint fan with an old computer you want to convert, you will absolutely love this version of Mint. As much as possible, it duplicates the look and feel of Gnome-based Mint, but it runs with verve and zip on ancient hardware like mine.

So I’d have no hesitation about using Mint XFCE for real work. I hereby put Mint XFCE on the SHORT LIST, a coveted position occupied by those few distributions that can be used for real work by real people, not computer programmers.

By the way, I never did open the terminal.

Written by cbaile19

July 20, 2008 at 11:01 am

Posted in Linux Mint, Reviews, XFCE

Review: PC/OS

with 4 comments

I think my impression of PC/OS can be summarized in an equation:

Xubuntu + (1 hour’s fiddling) = PC/OS

That’s dreadfully unfair to the creator, who I know has put months of work into this distribution. But the differences from stock Xubuntu seem superficial. There’s not much changed here that I couldn’t have changed easily myself, and remember that I’m relatively new to Linux.

Since I’m going to say some uncharitable things, I should come right out at the beginning and say that PC/OS worked well, and that, if it were installed on my only computer, I wouldn’t hesitate to leave it there. In the most important respect—helping me get real work done—PC/OS does its job, and does it well.

So that’s out of the way.

I was a little leery of PC/OS to begin with. The Web site is on the border of illiteracy, which is never a good sign. Here’s what the site has to say right at the top:

About PC/OS

So whats unique regarding PC/OS.  Its the first Linux based distribution that provides ease of use out of the box. It provides all multimedia codecs out of the box, an easy to use and simplified interface. Great compatibility with older hardware to help you extend your hardware and software investments. Being based on Ubuntu Linux all software and hardware that is compatible with Ubuntu is compatible with PC/OS. Our mission statement is summed up in two words “Simplified Computing”

Not a sentence in that paragraph makes it all the way to the end without a serious grammatical stumble along the way. On the rest of the site, and in his blog, the developer continues his victorious war against apostrophes.

But PC/OS is based on Xubuntu, which so far is my favorite Linux distribution for older computers like my testing machine. And, after all, I do have this testing machine sitting around for the sole purpose of, you know, testing. I was curious, so I tried it.

Installation was stock Ubuntu, right down to the Hardy Heron in the background. Aside from my name and password, the only place I didn’t accept the defaults was when the installer offered to set up a dual boot with openSUSE. I had no more use for openSUSE, so I told it to use the whole disk.

The installed system boots up into an XFCE desktop with a tastefully abstract greenish-bluish background and a peculiar placement of the upper panel. I always knew XFCE would allow you to put the panel in the upper right, but I had no idea anyone would actually try it. Superficially, of course, this setup looks very different from stock Xubuntu; but it doesn’t take more than forty-five seconds of tweaking to get from Xubuntu to here.

As soon as you open a window, you’re in for your second surprise. The developer has chosen the NewBe theme for the window manager, which looks like the late and apparently lamented BeOS operating system. The buttons are in Mac order, on the left side of the title bar, which is a tab rather than a full bar. It seems like an odd choice of theme, but if looking as different from Xubuntu as possible is the goal, then it accomplishes the goal. Again, forty-five seconds in the Settings Manager accomplishes this tweak. If you don’t like it, XFCE comes with a broad selection of other themes, and you can rearrange the buttons in whatever order you like.

Some of the illiteracy even creeps into the menus.
Some of the illiteracy even creeps into the menus.

One of the main differences between PC/OS and Xubuntu is that PC/OS has all the multimedia codecs installed by default. “It is your computer, do with it what you want,” says the Web site, continuing its war on apostrophes and opening a second front against capitalization. “if you want to watch that Windows Media file, go right ahead. Your music files not in .ogg, thats fine by us. Do you want to watch that flash video on YouTube? go ahead.”

My test files—old cartoons that have passed into the public domain, just so you know—played perfectly. Video on the BBC site played fine, though my hardware isn’t always up to playing it at full speed. A commercial DVD did not play at all, so DVD playback either isn’t installed or didn’t work.

The applications are mostly the same as in Xubuntu, but with a few extras added. There’s a whole “Mobile” category with Web-based applications like Google Maps. The Network category is beefed up a bit; it includes the non-free Skype and Java. It also includes “gufw,” which is a graphical front-end to “ufw,” which is a text front-end to the firewall settings. I think “gufw” is nearly useless for beginners and people with skill levels up to and including mine; Firestarter would have been a better choice for me.

One of the fiddlings removed the Update Manager, so PC/OS doesn’t get the updates that come down the line for Xubuntu. Some of those have been important security updates, and some of the rest have been bug fixes. I think the frequent updates are one of the big advantages that Ubuntu and its derivatives have over many other distributions, so cutting them off seemed like an odd choice.

But since PC/OS uses the Ubuntu repositories, there’s no reason I can’t install the Update Manager myself. It’s right there for the taking in Synaptic Package Manager.

Finding the Update Manager and Notifier in Synaptic.
Finding the Update Manager and Notifier in Synaptic.

So that’s what I did. It could break the system, depending on how far PC/OS departs from plain Ubuntu. But what’s the use of having a dedicated testing computer if you can’t live dangerously? While I was at it, I installed the Update Notifier, which should put a little icon in the panel when new updates arrive.

As soon as I started the newly installed Update Manager, it told me I could install 167 updates. (The version of Xubuntu on which PC/OS is based came out at the end of April 2008, so you can see how frequently it’s updated.)

One hundred sixty-seven. That's a lot.
One hundred sixty-seven. That’s a lot.

I told the thing to go ahead and update. Every once in a while it found a file that had been modified from its original Xubuntu state and asked me whether I wanted to overwrite it. I told it to leave those files alone, figuring those were some of the things that had been tweaked to change Xubuntu into PC/OS. Otherwise, I just let it go about its business and made a pot of tea while I waited.

And now, the moment of truth: after half an hour or so, I was ready to reboot and see what I’d broken.

Now I discovered why the Update Manager wasn’t included. In place of the PC/OS login screen, the standard Xubuntu screen appeared.

Otherwise, though, nothing important had changed. I logged in; everything looked the same, everything worked, and I had an updated Xubuntu system with the same sprinkling of PC/OS flavoring as before. Firefox was updated from the beta to the released version, and all the under-the-hood updates were made, but the desktop didn’t look any different.

looks the same, but updated.
After the update: looks the same, but updated.
And the Update Notifier works now, too.
And the Update Notifier works now, too.

So if you decided to install PC/OS, I’d recommend installing the Update Manager along with it. It didn’t break the system or even change the look of it, except for the login screen. And it fixed some security holes and some bugs that were worth fixing. If someone knows a good reason (other than the login screen) why I shouldn’t have installed Update Manager, please let me know.

Which brings me to the final question: Do I recommend PC/OS?

Well, as I said, it’s basically Xubuntu with some fiddling. So the question is whether you like the fiddling or not. It’s convenient to have all the multimedia codecs and Flash installed from the start. On the other hand, installing those in Xubuntu isn’t a big deal, and I had to do some fiddling in the opposite direction to make PC/OS do what I wanted.

A default installation of PC/OS probably won’t disappoint you. In every important respect it works as well as Xubuntu does, and that’s very well. But given the choice, I’ll take plain Xubuntu: I won’t have to alter it as much as I did PC/OS to make it work the way I want. Nevertheless, PC/OS makes the short list of distributions you could actually get real work done with, and in spite of my reservations, that’s high praise.

Written by cbaile19

July 17, 2008 at 11:25 am

Posted in PC/OS, Reviews, Xubuntu

Review: openSUSE

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I could start by telling you a long story about trying to get a working XFCE desktop in openSUSE. In fact, I think I will. Sometimes I’m cruel that way.

I installed openSUSE from the KDE4 live CD, figuring that it should be easy to add XFCE from the package repository once I had the basic system installed. After all, starting with Xubuntu, I’d managed to install KDE, Gnome, IceWM, Fluxbox, and more. In each case, it was just a matter of picking one item from a list and letting the package manager take care of the rest.

Not here. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I never could get XFCE completely working. Installing XFCE itself didn’t install the XFWM window manager automatically. When I installed it separately, it didn’t work. I fiddled with this and that, but I never got a proper window manager. Running a windowed desktop without a window manager is a bit surreal. The window manager is what gives you the controls for the windows–simple little things like close and minimize buttons. Without it, there’s no way to move the windows, change their size, or close them.

This is what I mean by "a bit surreal."

This is what I mean by "a bit surreal."

Probably I did things in the wrong order, or made the wrong choice when I guessed which was the XFCE metapackage, or something. But that’s not the issue. If I’m an idiot, then Ubuntu made the process idiotproof. This openSUSE thing doesn’t. There’s a lot of software to choose from, but I’m not impressed with the package management.

There—I got that out of the way. Otherwise, there’s a lot to like about openSUSE.

First of all, it’s really green by default, and it’s a pretty shade of green. We need more pretty green operating systems in the world. It does seem odd that the window decorations are KDE blue, which doesn’t go very well with the green background. But I don’t fault a distribution for aesthetic decisions that can easily be changed, as long as they don’t interfere with usability.

The installation is very good. As with Ubuntu, you can pretty much accept the defaults all the way through and end up with a working system. My impression is that the openSUSE installer gives picky users more options to fiddle with if they know what they’re doing. Another thing I noticed: openSUSE installs separate root and home partitions by default, which will earn it the applause of many Linux gurus. This way, you should be able to change your whole operating system by writing over the root partition, leaving the data in the home partition intact.

The installation doesn’t take all that long—less than half an hour on my excruciatingly slow machine. After it’s done and you reboot, the system spends a few more minutes configuring itself, then lands you on the desktop with a somewhat helpful welcome screen that gives links to where the real help lives.

Welcome to openSUSE.

Welcome to openSUSE.

Hardware detection seemed pretty good to me, which is to say that I was able to get everything working with no fuss. I never once opened a terminal in openSUSE, and to me that’s a very good thing.

Non-free extras like Flash and multimedia codecs are not installed by default, but you can get them easily enough. I wasn’t successful in installing Flash in Firefox by the normal method (“Click here to install missing plugins,”) and I didn’t have the patience to figure out what went wrong.

KDE4 is the default desktop; you can also get a Gnome edition of the live CD, and you can get a DVD that has the kitchen sink, too. There have been a lot of complaints about KDE4, and I can’t say it’s my favorite desktop. It crashed a few times, but it handled the crashes gracefully. It also ran with acceptable speed on my nine-year-old test system with 256 MB of memory, which is a considerable accomplishment when you think of what Windows Vista needs to accomplish roughly the same level of functionality.

I don’t like the “Kickoff” menu style, which is the default style in KDE4: I think it takes far too much clicking around to get anywhere. But it’s easy to change back to the old KDE menu: just right-click on the menu button (it’s a lizard head in openSUSE) and choose “Switch to Classic Menu Style.”

Changing from "Kickoff" to "Classic" menu style in KDE 4.

Changing from "Kickoff" to "Classic" menu style in KDE 4.

The software selection is good. Most of the standard stuff is there:, Firefox and Konqueror, and so on. No GIMP, which is a bit surprising at first, but space is at a premium on a single CD, and the GIMP is a logical omission for a distribution obviously aimed at office tasks.

One little surprise: the KDE edition came with IceWM installed as an alternate window manager. You can choose it from the “Sessions” menu when you log in. For old machines, I like IceWM: it works the way most people expect a computer interface to work, but it’s zippy enough for the most anemic hardware. The openSUSE installation of IceWM is sparse, and the menu design is simply awful, requiring five or more clicks to get to most programs. You can tell what kind of person put together this implementation of IceWM by the fact that the only button on the toolbar is one for the terminal. But IceWM is there, and it’s at least customized to work with openSUSE, which is better than you get from Ubuntu, where installing IceWM from the repositories gives you a generic version that doesn’t have menu items for many of the programs that come with Ubuntu by default. If you’re comfortable with the configuration files, you can make IceWM work the way you want it to work, and you can replace the hideous themes that come with it.

Very, very bad menu design.

Very, very bad menu design.

So what do I think of openSUSE? I think it’s aimed at techs and networking people who want a good desktop system they can install for their users and manage with the powerful tools that openSUSE provides. In other words, for real people who get real work done with computers, it’s best to have a geek set it up for you. If your tech sets up an openSUSE system for you, you’ll have a good, stable desktop that’s easy to use. If you have to fiddle with it yourself, however, you might find yourself wishing you had a tech to manage it for you.

Ubuntu is still my benchmark, because it’s what I know best and because it sets a high standard for ease of use and popular appeal. How does openSUSE compare? From the individual user’s point of view, it’s not as good. Things that are easy and obvious in Ubuntu are not as easy and obvious in openSUSE.

But if I were a network pro, I might have a different opinion. The strong selection of networking and administrative tools might sway me toward openSUSE.

I haven’t mentioned yet that openSUSE is sponsored by Novell, a company that many open-source types despise for its treasonous agreement with Microsoft. I have a lot of sympathy for that spite, but I’m not going to get into that argument right now. I’ve just looked at what I can do with the software. From a single-user desktop point of view, it’s pretty good, but it’s not as good as Ubuntu. That’s my opinion, anyway. Now it’s your turn to tell me I’m wrong.

Written by cbaile19

July 15, 2008 at 10:54 am

Posted in KDE, openSUSE, Reviews, XFCE