Slimbook & Kubuntu - Combat Report 1

Updated: October 24, 2018

It has been a few weeks since I purchased my lovely Slimbook Pro2 and installed Kubuntu 18.04 on it. A few weeks during which I put the laptop and its operating system through a series of real-life usage tests, just as I've promised. I do use Linux in my production setup, but only sparingly, mostly because the domains of gaming and writing are not as good as on the Windows side of things.

This attempt is a no-nonsense approach to using Linux fully and completely for serious tasks, without any glamor and fanboyism. While Linux has always served me superbly in the data center space, on the desktop and in the office, it's always taken a second place to Windows. Well, Slimbook + Kubuntu might shatter my preconceptions and exceed my expectations. Might. Also, henceforth, I shall call my machine Slimbuntu. Or not. Anyway, after me.

Teaser

A posh image like you see in them posh magazines, all soft earthy colors 'n' stuff.

Ergonomics

I have no complaints on this front. The Pro2 is really fun to use, even over extended periods of time, thanks to its dope, sturdy, wide-spaced keyboard and low-glare screen, which definitely help, especially outdoors, even under direct sunlight. The laptop is light enough, and everything works just fine.

Networking

This was an interesting experiment. Once or twice, Kubuntu stopped scanning for Wireless access points. It just gave me an old list, and would not see any new routers. I had to restart the Network Manager, and after that, things were back to normal. The Wireless antenna works well, and it can capture router signals even from a distance of about 15 meters, outdoors to indoors, through a solid concrete/brick wall.

I also configured a VPN. In addition to using existing, pre-packaged services, all of which seem to work quite well, I did my own OpenVPN setup, and hit a whole bunch of hurdles here. Things that really look and feel unnecessary.

VPN setup

Most notably, Kubuntu lacks a necessary package that allows the Network Manager to detect the available encryption ciphers. Without those, the VPN service cannot negotiate with the remote side and established a secure tunnel. In the Advanced settings, under Security, you will see a naughty and unnecessary error that reads OpenVPN cipher lookup failed. Not nice.

I had to install the deceptively named network-manager-openvpn-gnome package and restart the network service before I could complete the VPN configuration. I wonder why Kubuntu would not have this package installed in the first place. I also had to setup LZO compression to get things moving.

VPN ciphers

Office & collaboration

So what gives here? First, I tried using non-Microsoft tools for creating a few files, including documents and presentations with LibreOffice Writer and Impress, respectively, plus some extra work with Google Docs, as I'm also working on my System Administration Ethics book with a co-author. Then, I also tried chatting with people, setting up meetings, and also doing video conferencing plus presenting live. Some of this was deliberate, just to get the hang of things, and some of this was actual necessity, which makes the problems and issues discovered even more interesting.

For all the lovely and neat improvements that LibreOffice 6.x brings to the table, I still encountered various issues with styling after opening a fairly simple and straightforward PPTX file - one of my own files created back in 2014 actually. The embedded images were not aligned quite like in the original, the font text wasn't quite like the original. Another annoyance is that images have no rotate handle like in PowerPoint. You waste time using the large and complex sidebar in Impress. But more critically, you CANNOT send Microsoft Office users files created in LibreOffice, as they will not look quite the same.

I then tried using Google Hangouts in Firefox - I know it says experimental, but I don't care. Either something works or it doesn't. Well, in Firefox, video sessions with more than two or three participants would go badly every seven to ten minutes. First, you get audio delay, then the picture freezes, and then the tab crashes. You can reload the tab, but even this isn't a straightforward remedy. I even had the WHOLE desktop freeze, and trying to restart KDE from the command line did not work. I actually had to reboot to restore my desktop, and this following a simple video conference. I've never encountered such issues using Outlook + Lync, or Skype for Business or whatever it's called today. The experience in Chrome was smooth and hassle-free, but I expect technologies to work well everywhere.

Next, setting up meetings using something like Google Calendar is also not as good or fast as Microsoft Outlook, especially if you need to check the availability of other people or do any sort of cross-referencing. There's a reason why most offices use Microsoft technologies, and it's not because they are hostages to vendor lock in. I'm thinking of what other programs or office suites could offer similar features or behavior to the standard Microsoft suite, but I don't have any immediate, obvious candidates. If you have suggestions, please send them my way.

On the plus side, if you do document editing in Google Docs with multiple collaborators, live preview and full version control, as well as reasonably granular and practical suggest/edit/view modes, work rather well. This is purely inside the browser. I have yet to try using Online Accounts integration in Kubuntu on a serious level, but this will be the next stage of the road test. We will talk about non-MS office work at length sometime in the near future.

Various issues

I encountered a bunch of new as well as supposedly resolved problems on the desktop. GwenView, for instance. If you hit Escape, it switches from single-image view mode to browse mode, which I absolutely hate. You can set the Esc button as a shortcut for quitting the program, except this won't work. Bugzilla says solved, but this is not correct. You still get the ambiguous shortcut detected thingie. I expect the program to respect my choices and not override them with built-in stuff.

Gwenview, ambiguous shortcut

Another annoyance is that cropping images feels clunky. You first need to select the crop function, crop using multiple handles, and then apply the crop. In IrfanView, for instance, my favorite image viewer, you just do this with the mouse cursor, snap, grab (both dimensions), done. Faster and more elegant. Tiny things, but they are noticeable. I decided not to install any software using WINE just yet, because I want to see how effective the purely Linux side of things is.

Okular also behaved oddly. While presenting during video conferencing, the program would occasionally quit. Either it would die as a result of the browser tab crash or meeting reload, or it has some built-in idle timeout functions whereby it chooses to close. I don't like this. It should never close unless prompted, and then, it should reopen with the previous document and remember the actual position, which it did not.

Good things

Kubuntu is also smart enough to give you system area notifications. I tried a whole bunch of programs and services, and KDE seems to cooperate reasonably well with most of them, including smart prompts and audio cues. And when I say smart, I don't mean anything gimmicky, but helpful hints that do not disrupt the workflow.

Notifications

Notifications, Cortana

You can set the system to notify on updates and not auto-install, which is helpful.

I also used USB and 3.5mm headphones, and in both cases, Kubuntu seamlessly switched audio from external speakers + mic to the peripheral devices without any delay or hesitation. I did this multiple times, with multiple applications, including both browsers, VLC and even Skype, and there were no problems.

Vault worked fine. All sorts of smartphones, external disks and such functioned just fine.

I was able to unzip password-protected archives easily. The functionality is there out of the box.

Performance & battery life

Zero issues. Kubuntu is fast and slick, and there were no problems or delays even when multitasking. Battery life remains consistent at about 4-5 hours with solid moderate-load use and 100% brightness, including multiple browsers with multiple tabs open, image processing, word processing, and alike. Power management is dope and smart. The best I've seen yet, and more than comparable to how Windows does things.

Suspend & resume remains blistering quick, and there does not seem to be any memory leaks or performance degradation with software left up and running over multiple days, including the file manager, browsers, word processor, and such.

Conclusion

A lot of findings from just a few short weeks of usage, wouldn't you say. Well, I didn't expect most of it, either. For me, the perfect setup is a silent one. Boring and quiet. This isn't the case here. There were all sorts of niggles, some pure KDE, some application related, some workflow related. On one hand, the experience was better than I expected, and paradoxically, it was also worse. Because things that I took for granted hiccuped, and then I got a bunch of nice surprises elsewhere.

I think Kubuntu 18.04 is a solid foundation, and the hardware-software match is more than good. But higher up, Linux (desktop) struggles, and this is what most people will experience and notice, unfortunately. It's the whole overarching story plot. Things need to connect and work flawlessly across multiple dimensions of usage. Well, I think my next step would be to explore the office side more, add gaming into the equation, and test online accounts and various app plugins. But with a real-life mission. Not just a distro test.

Looking at my older Asus Vivobook and its Ubuntu 14.04 installation, Unity and KDE seem to offer comparable experiences. This does not mean Kubuntu Beaver is bad, it shows actually how advanced and smart Trusty was back in its day, and still is. That said, KDE seems to be maturing nicely, and there's a pro angle to the operating system. Overall, I am quite pleased. Me likey me Slimbuntu. To be continued.

Cheers.

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