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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. OpenOffice.org 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 OpenOffice.org 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.

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Written by cbaile19

July 20, 2008 at 11:01 am

Posted in Linux Mint, Reviews, XFCE

Transparency in XFCE

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You know all those impressive transparent effects that Windows Vista can’t do unless you buy it a new computer? You can have some of the same neato stuff running on a computer with a sticker that says “Built for Windows 98.” Xubuntu, or PC/OS, or any other distribution that uses the XFCE desktop will do it for you.

Here’s how you set up transparent effects in Xubuntu (actually, I’m using PC/OS at the moment, but the instructions are exactly the same):

  1. From the main menu, choose Settings, then Settings Manager.
  2. Click on Window Manager Tweaks.
  3. Click on the Compositor tab.
  4. Check the box for Enable display compositing.
  5. Move the bars to choose what you want to be transparent and how transparent you want it. I’ve just set inactive windows to be about halfway transparent.
Setting transparency in Xubuntu or PC/OS.
Setting transparency in Xubuntu or PC/OS.

(You’ll notice, by the way, that I’ve tweaked PC/OS considerably since I reviewed it. I even fixed the incorrect indefinite article in the main menu.)

And now here’s an example of why transparency might not be such a good idea after all:

The GIMP; or, Why I Turned Off Transparency.
The GIMP; or, Why I Turned Off Transparency.

In the GIMP, everything you work with is a separate window. Here I am trying to adjust the contrast of a picture that turns transparent every time I touch the Brightness-Contrast window.

Still, it’s fun to show off transparency on a nine-year-old computer and blow a big fat raspberry in the general direction of Redmond.

Written by cbaile19

July 18, 2008 at 5:26 pm

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: OpenOffice.org, 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