The Linux Moderate

One Man Standing Up for Computers That Get Work Done

Transforming Xubuntu into DBCOS

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Part 2: Making IceWM Work Right

We’ve got IceWM installed as the alternate window manager for our Xubuntu system. Now we have to make it work.

The problem with IceWM the way it comes from the Ubuntu repositories is that it’s minimally usable. The menu doesn’t have most of our programs in it, and the default theme is not only ugly but broken.

Take a look at the window buttons. They change into something unrecognizable if you hover over them. It took me a long time to figure out that the window buttons were actually somehow picking up a snapshot of the system-status graph in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. How? I have no idea. It’s just weird. But I’ve had the same problem on two different computers with two different installations of IceWM in Xubuntu, so it’s not just one odd computer.

Firefox running in IceWM with the default theme. Look at the buttons in the upper right corner of the window,
Firefox running in IceWM with the default theme. Look at the buttons in the upper right corner of the window.

Luckily, the default theme is the only one that has this problem, and we were smart enough to install a package of alternate themes when we installed IceWM. To set a new theme, all you have to do is bring up the menu (press the “debian” button or right-click anywhere on the desktop), then choose “Settings,” then “Themes.” The themes are listed alphabetically, grouped by letter if there’s more than one beginning with that letter.

A quick tour through the themes reveals that most of them are ugly and amateurish. I’m going to pick one called “iceCrack2,” because it’s straightforward and usable and not as ugly as most of the rest.

Choosing a new theme for IceWM. We have a large selection, so pick the one you like best. I promise not to question you taste.
Choosing a new theme for IceWM. We have a large selection, so pick the one you like best. I promise not to question your taste.

Now we’ve solved the problem of the window buttons. All we’ve changed, however, is the window decorations and the IceWM toolbar and menu. The rest of the theme–program icons, toolbars, and menus–is the same ugly mid-90s style.

It’s possible to make IceWM take on any GTK theme–that is, any of the settings you can choose in the “User Interface” setting in Xubuntu. In order to do that, though, we’re going to have to edit a text file.

But don’t be alarmed. It’s a really easy text file. Mine has two lines in it.

First, we’re going to bring up our file manager. Because we haven’t changed the menu yet, the only practical way to do that is to use a command line.

IceWM has a secret trick for getting an instant command line. Hold down the Windows key on your keyboard (the one that, for odd historical reasons, has a Microsoft Windows logo on it) and press the space bar. Now you can type a command right into the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Our command is only seven letters:

pcmanfm

To get a command line, hold down the Windows key and press the space bar.

To get a command line, hold down the Windows key and press the space bar.

When you press Enter, the PCmanFM file manager should start. It’s very quick, which is one of the reasons we’re using it instead of Thunar.

The first thing you’re likely to see is this warning:

Tons of useful information here if you know how to interpret it.
Tons of useful information here if you know how to interpret it.

This screen is actually stuffed with useful information. It tells us at least two ways we can get IceWM to recognize the User Interface setting we want it to use.

One way would be to make a text file specifying the theme. That works perfectly well, but you can’t change your mind without editing the text file again.

The other way is much more versatile. XFCE uses a program called xfce-mcs-manager to control the user interface. If we could have xfce-mcs-manager running when we started IceWM, it would set the User Interface theme for us. And it would not only pick the theme, but also pick up any alterations we wanted to make to it, such as fonts or colors.

But how do we make something happen when IceWM starts up? That’s easy. All we need is a startup file.

Push the OK button on the warning screen. You’ll notice that PCmanFM starts up perfectly fine, in spite of the warning.

In spite of the warning, PCmanFM starts just fine.
In spite of the warning, PCmanFM starts just fine.

From the View menu, choose “Show Hidden Files.”

"Show Hidden Files" reveals a bunch of folders whose names begin with periods.
“Show Hidden Files” reveals a bunch of folders whose names begin with periods.

You’ll see a whole bunch of folders whose names begin with dots, which is what makes them hidden. Look for one called .icewm. If it isn’t there, create it.

Now we need a text editor to create our startup file. I choose Mousepad, which comes with Xubuntu. Hold down the Windows key and press the spacebar to get a command line; then type mousepad and press Enter.

In the text editor, type

xfce-mcs-manager &

While we’re in the startup file, I’m going to add one more line. My only Internet connection is by wireless, so I need the Network Manager applet to start when I start the computer–otherwise, it won’t connect to the network. So my startup file has one more line:

nm-applet &

(I should mention, by the way, that the Network Manager applet doesn’t run perfectly under IceWM: after a while, it tends to disappear from the toolbar. But by then it’s done its job, and the wireless stays connected, so it’s not really a problem.)

Later, if we like, we can add more programs to run at startup, but that’s enough for now. Save this file under the name startup in your .icewm folder.

We’re almost done creating the startup file, but we have to make sure it’s executable first. Open the icewm folder in PCmanFM. While you’re here, you might as well bookmark it, because we’ll be coming back here again and again. From the “Bookmark” menu, choose “Add to Bookmarks.” Now the .icewm folder will appear in the left panel of the file manager, and you can choose it from there even when “Show Hidden Files” is turned off.

Right-click on the startup file and choose “Properties”; then choose the “Permissions” tab. Make sure that the “owner” (that’s you) has permission to “Execute” the file; otherwise, it won’t do anything when you start up.

Make sure the "Execute" box is checked at least for "Owner."
Make sure the “Execute” box is checked at least for “Owner.”

Now that we’ve created a startup file, we can log out (choose “Logout” from the main IceWM menu) and log back in, choosing XFCE from the Session menu. We’re back in the regular Xubuntu desktop for the time being. From the “Applications” menu, choose “Settings,” then “Settings Manager,” and then click on “User Interface Settings.” Now you can choose any theme you like and tweak it the way you want. When you log back into IceWM, that theme, with all your tweaks, will be the one your programs use.

We’ve begun the process of making IceWM really usable. But there’s still one more important step before it’s really useful. The next thing we have to do is attack the IceWM menu.

Written by cbaile19

August 3, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Transforming Xubuntu into DBCOS

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Part 1: Installing a New Window Manager

I promised to lead us through the transformation of Xubuntu into something completely different, so let’s get started. By the time we’re done, we’ll have Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Operating System, a Linux operating system with many of the advantages of Xubuntu, but one that runs much faster on old hardware.

You heard me right–we’re going to run circles around Xubuntu, which is supposed to be the fast and lightweight version of Ubuntu.

Our secret weapon is IceWM, a window manager that was conceived as a competitor to Windows 95 and hasn’t really changed much since its mid-Clintonian roots.

IceWM is fast and simple, but–unlike other minimalist window managers, such as PekWM or Fluxbox–it has the great advantage of working the way most Windows and Linux users expect a computer to work.

The great disadvantage of IceWM is that it’s ugly. You can get a package of alternate themes for it from the Ubuntu repositories, but almost all of them are in the ugly to hideous range, too.

But not to worry! We’re going to fix it by making up our own theme. That’s right! You and I, who are not computer programmers and have no idea how to write code, are going to create a new theme for IceWM.

Assuming we have Xubuntu installed, our first step will be to install IceWM, which isn’t hard. All we have to do is start up Synaptic Package Manager (Applications, System, Synaptic Package Manager) and search by name for “icewm”:

Mark the “icewm” package, which will also mark the package “icewm-common.” While you’re at it, mark the package “icewm-themes,” because we’ll need something besides the default theme. Push the “Apply” button to install everything.

Marking IceWM and some extra themes for installation.
Marking IceWM and some extra themes for installation.

That’s it–you’ve installed IceWM. But before you try it out, there’s one more thing we want to install. We’re going to use PCmanFM as our file manager instead of Thunar.

You could install PCmanFM from Synaptic, but the version that’s in the Ubuntu repositories as of this writing has a crippling bug: it can’t properly mount external disks. To get the latest version, we go to a useful site every Ubuntu user ought to know about: GetDeb.net.

Search for “pcmanfm” and download the latest version to your hard drive. When the file is downloaded, open it. It will start up an installation program, which will promptly warn you that you really ought to install the older version that’s available in the Ubuntu repositories.

Ignore this warning. Not that you should be in the habit of ignoring warnings, but ignore this one.
Ignore this warning. Not that you should be in the habit of ignoring warnings, but ignore this one.

Ignore the warning, because–as we know–we need the later version. Once you push the “Install Package” button, the program is installed automatically, just as it would be with Synaptic.

Now we’re ready to try IceWM. Push the exit button at the top right of your screen and log out. At the login screen, you can choose IceWM from the “Session” menu. Once you’ve logged back in, you’ll see something like this:

You can get the same menu by right-clicking anywhere on the desktop.
You can get the same menu by right-clicking anywhere on the desktop.

Ugly, isn’t it? And that menu is just about useless. It has hardly any of your applications in it. It’s just a sort of dummy menu, waiting to be replaced by the useful menu we’ll construct shortly.

Well, now what? You can try playing around with the interface to see how it works. But it’s not very useful yet. Don’t worry: it won’t be so sparse and difficult for long. We’ll have it working just the way we want it in a few more installments.

Next: Making IceWM Work Right.

Written by cbaile19

August 2, 2008 at 12:59 pm

The $50 Computer

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Can you really get a useful computer for less than $50?

The answer is that you can, if you’re willing to scrounge.

Let me tell you about my test machine, which is the result of a bit of scrounging. The entire cost to me was $27.

The computer was free. I took it from someone who didn’t want it anymore, because—after all—it’s terribly out of date. Also the hard drive was dying.

Still, in many respects it was a perfectly decent computer. Here are some of its specs:

  • Built in 1999
  • AMD Athlon processor at 598 MHz
  • Enormous fan on the side to cool the processor
  • 256 MB memory
  • DVD-ROM drive (one of the early ones—surely a collector’s item!)
  • CD-RW drive
  • “Live! Drive” sound card (with a real volume control on the front!)
  • Zip drive
  • Floppy drive
  • Cuneiform-tablet drive

The original hard drive was 20 GB. At the Goodwill Computer Store in Pittsburgh, where you can get just about anything, I found a used 20-GB drive for $12.

At a weekend flea market, I found a good Trinitron monitor in a scuffed-up case for $15.

Total cost, as I said, was $27, plus some hauling.

Now, there’s a sticker on the front of this thing that says “Built for Microsoft Windows 98,” and that’s probably the latest version of Windows that would run really well on it. If you had Windows on this machine, you’d be stuck with outdated software that you couldn’t upgrade, because all the recent versions of things like Firefox demand XP or Vista. And the hard drive would be too puny to run anything but a stripped-down version of Windows.

But if you install a Linux distribution—Xubuntu would be a good choice—then you’ll have an up-to-date system that can run the very latest software, and run it well. Firefox 3 is at your service. OpenOffice.org has mounds of features you’ll never even explore. It’s all yours for—let me repeat that cost again—$27.

You may not be lucky enough to have someone just hand you a computer. But ask around. You might be surprised by how many people have old computers sitting unused. If you go to a flea market, chances are pretty good you’ll see a computer sitting there with a single-digit price tag. Maybe the hard drive doesn’t work, but hard drives are cheap and easy to replace.

The point is that $50 is actually a realistic budget for a useful computer—one that’s easy to use and up to date. And though it may use a bit more energy than the most efficient of this year’s models, think of the favor you’re doing the environment by keeping all that plastic and silicon out of the landfill! It’s really a good deal for everyone.

Written by cbaile19

August 1, 2008 at 12:25 pm

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

Installing OpenOffice.org in Xubuntu

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Xubuntu comes with Abiword as its word processor and Gnumeric as its spreadsheet. I don’t like Abiword for long documents, because it always seems to slow to a crawl when the page count gets too high. Besides, I need a more complicated word processor.

OpenOffice.org, which is a lot like Microsoft Office, runs just fine in Xubuntu even on an anemic computer like my test machine. It does take a while to start up–I won’t hide that from you. But it works fine once it gets going, and it comes close to matching Microsoft Office in features, at least the ones you’re likely to use.

Standard Ubuntu, the Gnome-based version, comes with OpenOffice.org installed and configured. If you want to install it in Xubuntu, though, you need to make some selections by hand to get the same functions. If you just install the OpenOffice.org package, you’ll get a stripped-down installation with no help and no thesaurus, and it won’t even use the “User Interface” theme you choose in the Xubuntu Settings Manager.

So here’s how to get a completely working OpenOffice.org in Xubuntu.

First, we’re going to use Synaptic Package Manager instead of Add/Remove. It’s not really any harder, but it does give you more options.

We’ll find what we need by searching for “openoffice.” It will go a lot faster, especially on a slow computer, if you search by “Name” instead of “Description and Name.”

Searching by name in Synaptic Package Manager.
Searching by name in Synaptic Package Manager.

First we find the “openoffice.org” package. Click the check box next to it and choose “Mark for Installation.” Synaptic will ask whether you want to mark the additional packages required for installation. You do.

Marking the "openoffice.org" package.
Marking the “openoffice.org” package.

Now we’ve marked a bunch of packages, but they’re not enough yet.

Next we’ll find the package “openoffice.org-gtk,” which will teach OpenOffice.org to use the theme we choose in the “User Interface” setting.

This package adapts OpenOffice.org to use the "User Interface" theme you choose.
This package adapts OpenOffice.org to use the “User Interface” theme you choose.

I plan on using the “Industrial” theme later on, so I’m also going to install “openoffice.org-style-industrial.”

Installing the "Industrial" theme.
Installing the “Industrial” theme.

To install the help files, mark the help package for your language–in my case, “openoffice.org-help-en-us.”

There's no help for you without this package.
There’s no help for you without this package.

For the thesaurus, I install “openoffice.org-thesaurus-en-us.”

I feel baffled, bemused, bewildered, confounded, confused, mazed, mixed up, at sea, and perplexed without a thesaurus.
I feel baffled, bemused, bewildered, confounded, confused, mazed, mixed up, at sea, and perplexed without a thesaurus.

There’s one important item that we didn’t find by searching for “openoffice.” We still need a spelling dictionary so that we can use the spelling-checker. Search for “myspell,” and choose the file for your language–in my case, “myspell-en-us.”

Marking the spelling dictionary.
Marking the spelling dictionary.

Now that we’ve selected everything, it’s time to apply those changes by pressing the “Apply” button.

Push the "Apply" button to install everything you've marked.
Push the “Apply” button to install everything you’ve marked.

There’s a lot to download and install, so you have time to make a pot of tea. By the time it’s ready, OpenOffice.org should be ready to run. Note that all the OpenOffice.org applications end up in the “Office” submenu except for OpenOffice.org Draw, which ends up in “Graphics.”

Written by cbaile19

July 30, 2008 at 10:36 pm

Why Is My Windows Link “Broken”?

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If you have a dual-boot system with Ubuntu (or a similar Linux distribution) and Windows, you may have files on the Windows side that you often want to get at from the Ubuntu side. An easy way to do that is to make a link (which Windows users would call a shortcut): in Ubuntu, right-click on the Windows folder for which you want a link, choose “Make Link,” and drag the link you’ve made to some convenient place in your Ubuntu home folder.

But sometimes the link won’t work: Ubuntu says it’s “broken.” Why?

Assuming you haven’t moved the original Windows folder, there are two main reasons for a broken link.

1. You haven’t mounted the Windows partition. That’s easy to fix: choose it from the “Places” menu (it’s named by its size in gigabytes).

2. The Windows partition is mounted under a different name. That’s a little more complicated.

When it mounts a volume, Ubuntu calls it “disk.” If you make a link to a folder on that volume, Ubuntu remembers that the link points to a folder on “disk.”

If you mount a second volume, Ubuntu calls it “disk-1.” The next after that is “disk-2,” and so on.

Once you’ve unmounted the volumes–which happens if you shut down the computer, for example–Ubuntu forgets all about them. The next disk you mount will be “disk,” and the one after that “disk-1,” and so on.

Suppose your Windows partition was mounted as “disk” when you made the link. Now suppose the next time you start your computer, you plug in a flash drive. That flash drive is “disk” now. If you mount the Windows partition with the flash drive plugged in, the Windows partition becomes “disk-1.”

There’s your problem: your link points to a folder on “disk,” so Ubuntu is looking for it on your flash drive.

One of the legions of people smarter than I am may know a good way around this difficulty. Please tell me what it is. The only solution I know of is to mount the volumes in the same order each time. Practically speaking, if you use the Windows side often enough to make a link, you can just mount it by habit at the beginning of each session, and it will always be “disk.”

Written by cbaile19

July 28, 2008 at 5:32 pm

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.

Written by cbaile19

July 20, 2008 at 11:01 am

Posted in Linux Mint, Reviews, XFCE