Saturday, October 28, 2006

Xubuntu's Edge First Impressions

So as soon as the Xubuntu page updated, which was sadly after both Ubuntu and Kubuntu, I ran in and grabbed the shiny new 6.10 iso. I have not played with any pre-releases or betas, or production spins for the simple reason that I don't currently have a computer that is working. I was lucky enough that my boyfriend is getting a new laptop and turning over his Dell desktop that he picked up for 10 bucks because of a financial aid program to me. I can have a samba and apache server again, and it makes me happy. We are still waiting for his laptop to arrive, so this is only going to be a review of the live CD experience. Now I should preface this by saying I never really used Dapper. I used 5.10 Kubuntu and at one point did the Synaptic "Update All" thing. The interface changed quite a bit, so I presume this was basically Dapper, but it had some personality problems. So if I mention some issues I had with previous versions of Kubuntu in my case that seem well obscure and weird, consider the source.

Bootup: Bootup was delightful. It was exceptionally quick for a live CD. I am looking forward to seeing how quickly it boots when actually installed. When the desktop showed up there was an icon for my iomega USB hard drive, which has been on the Dell since my computer toasted itself a couple weeks ago. There was also an icon for the DVD burning drive that had a random ATI driver disk in it that I hadn't taken out before I booted. There was no icon for the CD burner that I was running the live CD out of, but that makes a certain amount of sense.
First Action: The first thing I did was double click on the iomega drive and try to load a pdf and a .mpg. The reason I did this is my Kubuntu file manager always freaked out a little over actually launching files from the media:/ location. I hated the fact that if I wanted to run anything, I had to manually go to the location in the Unix file structure. I really wanted the drive icons on my desktop to go there for me since the media:/ thing obviously didn't work. In Xubuntu this worked perfectly, and again even though I was on a live cd the launch time was tolerable. Not what I'd call peppy, but tolerable, which is an excellent sign when launching from CD.

Icon Options and Arrangement: The Applications menu was well laid out. The options were in good places, and there was a decent selection. I had a couple problems. One there was no burning program that I could find. Now this may be because it's a live CD, but I would hope that since live CD function is generally used to evaluate an OS before you actually install everything would be here. There are companies now that you literally cannot purchase a computer from without at least a CD writer. As I have been shopping for a laptop to replace my now defunct desktop most configurations start with a DVD player/CD burner combo drive. I know Xubuntu is meant for older computers, but given how most software is distributed for linux not having the burning interface installed is kinda silly.

The Little Things I Noticed: Firefox is included with its honest to god, not free as in freedom icon. I say good for the Ubuntu people. I personally think that if Firefox wants to maintain a certain amount of quality control around the code that gets distributed under their trademark then they should. It is that kind of attention to quality that keeps so much proprietary software ahead of the game (go ahead flame me I can take it), and it's what has allowed Firefox to take so much of IE's market share. I personally hope they keep it up.

The next little thing I noticed was the "Add Remove" icon in the "Other" sub-menu of the Applications menu. Now when you open this thing you realize it's synaptic with the menus and options taken away. It even uses the same icon. I opened synaptic next to it to see if they were similar, and they do not have even remotely similar interfaces. In fact there is one interface change in synaptic from my old Kubuntu 5.10 install that I am rather annoyed about. The lack of a search field in the main window interface (something Add/Remove has I must say). When using synaptic you're probably going to be searching, because if you know the package that's what apt-get is for. The advantage of synaptic is you can browse package lists. I think it's good that they included Add/Remove. Personally I think they should have taken some time to make a different icon so they could both be in the system sub-menu. I mean "other" why would you go to all the trouble of including and possibly developing (I don't know if the ubuntu people did this interface or not) a whole interface for newbies, and then put the link to it in some weird place no newbie would ever look? This isn't the end of the world, but it's a sloppy little tidbit on the end of an otherwise nice move towards non linux usability while maintaining the options for power users.

Other Usability Complaints: Ok while I'm on the subject of usability. I would like to comment on the media:/ thing again. So while writing this review I open Abi-word to check out how it inputs .odt files. I click the open icon. It gives me a very attractive maclike interface. I click on the desktop to get to my USB drive, and am greeted with . . . nothing. There is no link on my desktop to my iomega USB hard drive. This is totally unacceptable. Ubuntu took the time to generate a whole false hierarchy that only works when you are in their file managers. They didn't even both to alter the code to the packages they distributed so that it would work with them. Way back in the day when I used Xandros 2.0 their weird "My Computeresq" file structure was at least recognized by the programs that Xandros supported. If you installed someone else's software you were out of luck, but it worked with what came with the OS. Now here is my question. If you are going to spend all that time developing a whole new data file structure, you might as well build it into the actual file structure. I mean really. I would rather the mount points actually be on the desktop. Would that be so bad, I mean really would it? Or here's another possibilty could you possible setup a program that could dynamically create actual file structure virtual links? Would this create a lot of messy referencing if you are in the terminal. Why yes yes it would, and let's see this is for the benefit of newbies. If a newbie is in terminal then he deserves to have to start actually learning what things are. This NEEDS to be fixed. I like the link on the desktop, I like that fact that I can actually launch from it. It absolutely must show up when I use the open file command inside of the programs that come with the flippin distro. My other problem is that the live CD did not detect my sound card properly. It is an on board Dell Sound Card. This is not a new dell, this is a rather old dell. It is running 256 megs of SDRAM, the 133 Mhz variety and a 1.6 Ghz P4. So it's not like there were any surprises waiting.

Ok now that my rant is done, I will resolve. This is a good distro. As I never really played with dapper I can't say how much of an improvement it is, but I can say it is closer to a usable desktop than any other I have used. My major complaints detailed above are shared by the vast majority of linux desktops. While Xandros has done a wonderful job of tackling some of these usability issues when you boot into Xandros even now it feels like you are running something that is almost a decade old. Is Xandros ready for prime time commercial desktop, sadly no. I have yet to play with a linux desktop that is. Is it a good choice for linux geeks wanting a complete distribution based off simple low system requirements packages that provide support for all the modern goodness that we have come to expect from distributions, definitely. As someone who doesn't care about bouncing icons and 3D animated squares for my desktop (it looks cool, but I'm sorry it's the stupidest UI idea I've ever seen), Xubuntu makes me very happy. Hopefully it will continue to improve over time, and in a few more versions some of the basic flaws that still plague it will be worked out. Till then it's the best I've seen on the market.

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