Xubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal review - Struggling


Updated: July 6, 2011

A great fan of Xfce-flavored desktops, I am not. Xubuntu, specifically? Well, it has never really struck me as good as its brethren, the Gnome- and KDE-based desktops. However, once in a while, a refresh of bias and opinion is necessary. My last encounter with Xubuntu was back in 2009, almost two years back, a century-worth of time in the Linux frame of reference. So let's perform another Dedoimedo transformation.

In this review in particular, I'll see how good Xubuntu is in relation to itself, how well it scales against the latest Unity-flavored release, the rather spectacular Kubuntu edition, as well as many Ubuntu-based rivals, which use Gnome 2 or 3. It should be interesting.

Live session

Standard GRUB menu, a splash decorated with the Xfce mouse logo. Next, you reach a simple desktop that has a fairly dark theme. It looks much like older Gnome 2, but there are some big differences. The biggest and most apparent one is the icon text solid background, which sort of ruins the overall impression. There's also a second panel at the bottom, arranged like a sort of a fat, autohide dock, but we'll mention it later on.

Live desktop

Wireless

Works fine and you even get notifications aligned properly in the top right corner without extra spacing like Ubuntu normally does. However, once you're connected, there's a double Don't show this message again message, neither clickable.

Wireless available

Double message

Samba sharing

Worked, too. You can Open location (Ctrl + L) and input smb:// or use Network to browse the neighborhood. No way to save bookmarks. No indication the volume is mounted in the file manager. More about that later.

There's a dedicated application for that, called Gigolo. This is an absurd and unprofessional choice of a name. Imagine your teenage daughter asks you how she can grab files from her Windows machine, and you say: use Gigolo. Right. Not very smart, is it. Perhaps, while we're copying files, there could be a little animated GIF showing a repairman avatar dancing to the tunes of Macho Macho Man. Or maybe we can call Samba shares prostitutes. To say nothing of the fact the tool name has NOTHING to do with its functionality.

Gigolo

And then, there's little else you can or want to do, because Ubuntu ships free of proprietary software that you might find useful. Later on, you can grab all these and make your usage meaningful and interesting. For now though, you get your basic connectivity and you can fiddle with some of the applications, so you get used to the desktop.

Installation - I've seen this thing before

Grace Jones has a song with a similar title, so Kudos to her. On a serious note, I've written about this over 9,000 times. You get the pretty much standard Ubuntu wizard, the ability to install codecs and updates before the first boot, a fancy slideshow, and a few other goodies. The overall procedure was quick and painless, with the dual-boot system working properly.

Installation begin

What do you want to do

Slide 1

Slide 2

Xubuntu runs, me heart is not singing

And the system is up. It's not noticeably faster or more responsive than either Unity, Gnome or KDE. In fact, the lack of subtle windows animations and transition effects makes it feel less agile.

Bottom dock (panel)

This thing is a bit confusing and you may wonder why you need it. Since it's set to autohide, if you're not adventurous with your mouse, you may miss it. And then, it's just another panel, so it's not really a dock.

Bottom dock

System configuration

Xfce is not the simplest desktop environment, however it's getting better. Xubuntu hides many of the secondary and tertiary Xfce-only menus and combines them in a single utility, so this is a blessing and a big improvement over previous versions and many other distributions using Xfce.

System settings

However, there are some bugs here and there. For example, I was not able to change the desktop background by right-clicking an image in a Web page and setting is as the wallpaper. I had to manually download the file, then change the wallpaper by right-clicking on the desktop and all that. This is a bit disappointing. End result, a decent desktop, with a transparent bottom dock, jarring white background for icon text and an overall simple and pleasing theme.

Final desktop

Applications

The default selection is average. You get some good programs, some average ones, nothing too special and not that different from stock Gnome. Firefox, Thunderbird, GIMP, Abiword, Gnumeric, and a handful more. Most people will not appreciate the collection, as it's a bit restrictive and contains several less known programs.

Apps

Multimedia

Played well and true, Flash, MP3 and whatever you like.

Music

Flash playback

There's also the top panel integration for the default music player, gmusicbrowser, but not for Parole. However, it's Parole that launched for music files, so it's a bit baffling. We'll complain more later on.

gmusicbrowser playing

Music integration

System resources

Xubuntu comes with a system monitor labeled Task Manager, although it uses the same icon like the Gnome counterpart. The program showed memory usage of about 11-15%, which translates into 220-300MB or approx. 250MB on average. This is nothing remarkable, as most common Gnome 2 distros take as much. Even Unity is not a big guzzler, so I'm wondering if the low-resources mantra is not overplayed here.

Task manager

System stability

There were no crashes. Suspend & resume worked fine. Two cycles of updates also went smoothly. Overall, Xubuntu works well, within the limits imposed by its design.

Annoyances

I've created a whole section dedicated to Xubuntu desktop issues, in addition to problems I've mentioned earlier. The reason being, there are quite a few small glitches that spoil the overall professional feel.

External & removable devices icons

Until a few versions back, Ubuntu used to display all of the disk volumes, which was quite ugly. You could hide these with relative ease using gconf-editor. Emphasis on the word relative. Later, they decided to hide internal partitions and devices, but leave only external ones. Xubuntu is still one step behind, so it also shows internal devices. Combined with the solid background for icon text, it really clutters the desktop.

You can reconfigure your system, but it's a bit more complicated. Finding the right option is as tricky as gconf-editor, changing the value even more so. So you do find the show-removable property. Double-click to change, this pops a new window, and you don't really have the option to toggle the status from true to false, you can mark or unmark a checkbox that reads Enabled, while other items are grayed out. Quite confusing.

Desktop volumes

No ability to disable/enabled Touchpad via GUI

You can do this from the command line, but not using the desktop interface.

Disable touchpad

File manager is not friendly

Browsing locations (with Ctrl + L) opens a new window, where you can input the address. No way to bookmark the address, so if you navigate away, you might be hard-pressed to find it again. No tabs either. Ctrl + T toggles view modes. Filenames are aligned to the left, and this looks quite ugly.

File manager

Open location

Filename alignment, left

Default browser

Firefox is the only browser installed, it seems. So I wonder why you get the popup warning that Firefox is not the default browser? In fact, even if you select No, you can run a little experiment that proves this is a bogus message. Save any HTML file offline and then open it through the file browser. Guess what? It opens in Firefox.

Default browser

Local HTML file

Default music player

The default music player is a thing called gmusicbrowser, with letter g being misleading, as we're not in Gnome. However, when I tried playing the MP3 file, it was Parole that started, so we have a similar problem to Firefox thingie. Moreover, when you first open the program, it says Library empty. Use the settings dialog to add music. But what is this thing? Where do I find it? How does Average Joe master this problem?

gmusicbrowser

Terminal fonts are too big

They are good actually, but they are bigger than the container window fonts, which makes it bad. There's reason to visual hierarchy and in this case, the rules are broken.

Terminal fonts

System area icons misaligned

Nothing major, but some icons stood higher, others lower. Just a punch to the soft underbelly of OCD. Most people probably would not care.

System tray icons

Globaltime

This is a completely baffling item, as you have the full time and date displayed in your top panel. And yet, you get this program in the system menu and it's ugly, to say the least. The application window is tiny, there are no margins between the text and the borders, oozing a very unprofessional impression. The Preferences are not any better, either.

Global time

Global time preferences

Input methods

This is the creme de la creme of weird. I know what this thing is supposed to be, but I'm absolutely baffled by the choice of menu words, the layout, everything. How is anyone supposed to make any sense of this thing?

All kinds of weird things, including Apple bus (IBus), lo-gtk is an ancient Elven form of gtk, instead of saying lo and behold, you shout lo gtk! No input method, I complained about this in the past. th-gtk, th-xim, the list is lovely and totally understandable.

Input methods

And then, when you exit, even if you make no change, more weird errors. What user configuration? Why should I restart X? What is X - for normal people? Should they restart Z, too? Besides, to the best of my knowledge, Xubuntu is like Ubuntu, a degenerate runlevel 2 and no real Xorg configuration, so /etc/init.d/gdm stop or whatever is not an option really. That's why you get reboots for graphics drivers installations, for instance. Moreover, Ctrl + Alt + Backspace is disabled, so this is self-defeating in purpose.

Input methods errors

Conclusion

Xubuntu is an okay system. It works. But it is not the old hardware savior as some people may claim. And despite best efforts, it's not as pretty or complete as Gnome or KDE. On top of that, Xfce suffers from quite a few papercuts so that the overall impression is ruined.

The word struggling is definitely apt here. To justify Xubuntu, you need to find a niche where it fits. With Gnome 2 almost gone as the default desktop, yes, Xubuntu could prove to be a decent alternative for many people. But Linux Mint does it better with Gnome. And then, there's the whole performance thing, quite overplayed, as lightweight implementations of Gnome are just as good, to say nothing of other desktops.

Bottom line, Xubuntu is stretched thin like Jean Claude van Damme doing one of his famous leg thingies over the two far banks of performance and beauty, with none of his grace and slipping away. The sum of all parts does bear use, but the choice is plentiful. You would really have to think long and hard to come out with the ideal Xubuntu market segment.

Xubuntu 11.04 is average plus, about 7.5/10, perhaps 8/10. Good stability, passable looks, no WOW factor when it comes to performance, and lots of small problems. Better than it used to be, but its fight for the desktop championship is nowhere near won.

Cheers.

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