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From Ubuntu to Xubuntu

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Less than a year after I ditched Windows XP in favour of Ubuntu, I'm making another switch. This time to Xubuntu.

Ubuntu success

I consider my migration to Ubuntu a complete success. I never missed Windows XP, I never felt I was languishing. The range of software with Ubuntu is superb, and always on tap through the Synaptic Package Manager.

I never did find a happy solution to my chess engines problem, but it doesn't strictly matter any more. I have a few Windows machines lying around that when I am compelled to spend days staring at pixelated chess pieces and cryptic messages I can do that. I just don't need it on my main laptop any more.

The tipping point for me was the ease of getting up to speed with writing code. My laptop is a productive source of turning ideas into real projects. Everything I need just seems to work.

Why switch?

So why switch? Well, I'm not really switching. Xubuntu is essentially Ubuntu, just with a different primary window manager. I'm really just moving from GNOME to Xfce, moving towards a lighter window manager.

What first turned me on to Xfce is the elegance of it on the Acer Aspire One. The Lupus Linux distribution on the Aspire One is basically Fedora running Xfce. And I've been coding away with the same development tools that I'm used to. That offered me some encouragement to try Xubuntu for real.


GNOME is feature rich and runs on top of the GTK graphics library. Xfce also runs on the GTK library, but the interface is far lighter.

Over the last 6 months leaving Firefox open 24 hours a day is keeping the laptop fan working furiously. I'm not sure whether that's because of the steady stream of system updates has taken it's toll, or whether the window manager is making too many demand of the humble Gigahertz and a bit CPU.

But after a couple of days of Xubuntu use the fan is noticeably quieter; it does kick in, just not as frequently or as loud as before.

Software choice

It turns out that the software I'm using heavily are all GTK based and not dependent on GNOME. Firefox, Bluefish, Pidgin, Twitux, Transmission, Filezilla, and any decent terminal. Everything else is either a command line program, or not essential to daily use. (And mono, the open source implementation of C#, is also GTK based; so that still tweaks my curiosity)

Since Xubuntu is built on the same foundations as Ubuntu, I still benefit from the remarkable package management system as well as the steady stream of updates and bugfixes. I haven't lost any functionality that I need or want.

Installation issues

I had just two issues installing Xubuntu from scratch, and both were resolved fairly quickly thanks to the ever brilliant Ubuntu forums.

The first problem was setting a static IP address on my laptop. Changes to the Network Connections dialogue were just being forgotten after a reboot. It turns out this is a known bug when updating these settings, and the workaround is just to remove the current connection details and create a new one from scratch. For a once-off task that's acceptable.

The second problem was that after a few minutes of running the display started showing odd artifacts and certain text characters started to disappear. A short investigation concluded that the default acceleration settings of the Intel graphics card were causing the issue, and setting the acceleration configuration in xorg.conf to the right value was sufficient to cure the problem.

Then it was just a case of getting my normal development stuff installed: bluefish, apache2, php5, mysql, git, curl, ssh, lynx, and a handful of php5 modules. My development environment is largely identical (although the text size is bigger, and I'm most certainly not complaining about that).


Ubuntu is a fantastic intermediate step away from Windows, and I would still heartily recommend it as the first step. Xubuntu is my next step towards a desktop environment that focuses more on what I need. That involves trimming out the unnecessary windowing features, getting more for my limited CPU resources, and generally being more Unixy. Xfce looks fabulous, and it succeeds on platforms just not beefy enough for Ubuntu, and be competitive on platforms that are adequate for Ubuntu's main GNOME system.

I made no real compromises moving to Xubuntu. I wasn't reliant on any GNOME dependencies. If there is something GNOMEish I need to run for a short period of time, it's just a few clicks away in the package manager.

Xubuntu is quickly becoming my distribution of preference. A modern linux distribution that still fits on a CD, that's a good sign. I'll try installing it in my kitchen sink next.

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