Updated: November 24, 2017
Let's take a look at another member of the Ubuntu species. This autumn, we have a series reboot, with a fresh alphabetic start. With Ubuntu, the change was more than symbolic, including a shift from Unity to Gnome, with some rather disappointing results. Then, I tested Kubuntu 17.10, and again, the regressions and problems were aplenty, to my great chagrin, dismay and sadness.
It's time to see if the Xfce beastling can deliver - I am bracing myself for bugs that ought not to be there, even though technically, Xubuntu should not have experienced any major disruptions. It's also been relatively stable and true, with good pace of innovation without losing grip on its identity. Aardvark, show me the light please.
My test box is the old LG RD510 machine, with 4 GB or RAM and Nvidia graphics. It's shown to be somewhat more Linux friendly than my Lenovo G50 machine, but still, distros seem to struggle with it, just as they struggle with pretty much any hardware when you put enough effort into testing everything.
Boot sequence was fine - no funky splash and text mixtures, just a simple and pleasing animation. The desktop itself looks familiar, gray and blue and Xfce friendly, but I did notice a few details that I did not like. The Super button does not activate the menu, there was no notification on Wireless connection (second time around there was), and you have all the internal volumes listed on the desktop, with the icons not arranged in any sensible fashion. The touchpad was awfully jittery, much more so than either of its siblings.
I tested Wireless in both bands, no sweat, good. Printing was also spot on, with Samba and Wireless printing options correctly shown, presented and whatnot. Bluetooth will wait after the installation because both my test phones were running out of juice and needed a good thorough charge. But so far so decent.
The only thing that wasn't good is Samba connectivity - screwed up in Ubuntu and regressed across the entire family. Very slow to initiate, slow to browse through the directory structure, with three separate prompts for authentication, with the shares loading regardless, even though I was in the middle of actually providing my credentials for the third time. No option to do so anonymously, even if there are relevant radio buttons for this. The applet skips back to asking for username and password. Since whatever security vulnerability discovered in the enterprise world, Samba has been really messed up. Pointless nonsense carried over into the desktop space without any logic or consideration.
Worked just fine - MP3 plus media art as well as HD video. Smartphone connectivity will wait after the installation. You don't get any system area context, but the functionality is there, and that what matters. Spartan but good.
It was rather fast - refreshingly so compared to the Gnome and Plasma live experience, with good responsiveness, and applications opening quickly, most notably the Firefox browser. Even though this is a 2009 laptop, it didn't feel sluggish at all, the CPU was quiet, and the fans only kicked in during the installation.
Relatively decent in terms of clarity and contrast - even though the default theme does not use pure black fonts, but still it looks a bit sharper than most other distributions, and your eyes don't water up after a few minutes of use. That said, it would not hurt to use black fonts all the way and then subtly adjust the desktop accordingly.
The laptop currently runs a dual-boot config with the namesake Ubuntu and Kubuntu instances. I decided to dislodge the latter. The partition scan stage took ages, like its two siblings. After that, you get a correct keyboard detection even though I guess the language might be wrong after we commit the distro to the disk, and a rather brisk installation, taking only about 15 minutes. Very neat. The slides are pleasing but less glamorous or ambitious than they used to be in the past. Still, it's fine.
Why is Gnome Software being recommended when we're using Xfce?
The hive mind
The desktop installed fine, no issues. The Wireless connection data was not preserved, so I had to authenticate again. However, Xubuntu 17.10 did download updates while installing, as I've ticked the right box, and it prompted me to update right away, even before I actually had a network connection. But that's still better than what most other distributions do. The vertical position of the icons is odd (rubbish, system, home).
Package management & updates
Finally, we're seeing some tiny improvements. Gnome Software is no longer just a neutered touch-like app-store shell. 95% useless, but only 95% this time. It still looks odd, but at least you get screenshots and reviews, and you can actually tweak repos and drivers. This worked fine, there were no discrepancies between the GUI and the CLI tools.
Graphics drivers (and other proprietary blobs)
This one ended without any issues. I got my Nvidia 340 set up, and there was also a separate firmware for Intel's processors - this one was on by default in Ubuntu but not here, talking about silly inconsistencies, which I also applied. No sweat. The laptop was never too hot or noisy to begin with, but the official drivers made it ever cooler and quieter.
Hardware support, suspend & resume (not)
This was an odd one - and disappointing. So I did have Nvidia drivers, fine, and Bluetooth was also working, which is nice. However, webcam wasn't working, and I got some stupid error about something that shouldn't have happened. Regressions. We loves them! Seems like a fresh new bug based on the various bugzillas I've checked. So unnecessary.
cheese-WARNING **: Device '/dev/video0' cannot capture in the specified format: gstv4l2object.c(3640):
gst_v4l2_object_set_format_full (): /GstCameraBin:camerabin/GstWrapperCameraBinSrc:camera_source/
GstBin:bin18/GstV4l2Src:v4l2src1: Tried to capture in BGR3, but device returned format YUYV
Fn keys work - but then you cannot suspend - literally - similar to what happened in Ubuntu for a brief while but then worked afterwards, only not here. I tried, but what this did was just log me out and take me back to the login screen. After this, I couldn't even reboot or shutdown the machine. Even using the command line did not help. Very sad. But at least you don't end up with a completely borked session as with the other two - and pretty much every other distro - when trying to resume on this host.
It turns out the session greeter crashed, just like in Kubuntu, even though we're talking two completely different frameworks. But then, Blueman also crashed, even though the tool was supposedly working. Once again, we have regressions, and also a different set of issues compared to the Gnome and Plasma flavors, which is infuriating and annoying, because there's no reason for such a variety of nonsense. To say nothing of the fact that we have bugs and problems that did not affect the spring edition. I told you so. In a bitter twist of karma, it would seem that the best performers in the recent couple of months are actually Antergos 17.9 and Mageia 6, both of which I never expected to deliver anything special, and yet, they feel like rough gems compared to the Ubuntu family drama this dreary autumn.
Smartphone support & media playback
This one, at least, was good and true. Both Android and Windows Phone. I was also able to play music from these two devices, with VLC showing art for songs played from Android but not Windows Phone, and Parole playing the songs but not being able to even tell the names. Empty metadata. Parole has no system area context, but VLC does.
Resource utilization, performance
This is the one super-redeeming factor with Xubuntu Artful. On this old laptop, it purred like a tiger. Snappy, fast, elegant, with low utilization overall. Memory figures were a bit high on idle, about 800 MB but then, the CPU was ultra-quiet, tolling only about 1-2% on average, which is way lower than any other distribution on this laptop. If you want to use Linux on a 2009 machine like this, Xfce is the way to go.
The default set is reasonable if not too exciting. Xubuntu 17.10 comes with the Firefox and Thunderbird combo - and do note that apps respond and open really fast, especially the browser - plus LibreOffice, Parole, and some other interesting programs. I added Steam, VLC and GIMP from the repos. Cushty.
I invested a little bit of time trying to make things prettier, not that the defaults are bad, just a bit bland and boring. If you resize the panel above 32 px, the battery icon becomes ugly and low-res. I tried Numix icons, and they didn't fit well into the overall desktop theme. My next choice was Papirus, and the results were much better, plus Numix window decorations for the win! Wallpaper a-la nice, and you're all set. In this regard, Aardvark Xfce is quite tame and friendly.
The file manager comes with no home dir shortcuts, you need to drag 'n' drop these yourself, and you cannot reposition places and devices vertically, so this is a bit annoying that items that you may not always have mounted show first. You can also not move some of the default entries, only hide them.
There were also issues with the language - of course. Incomplete support, what, weird, why. Then, if you want to change your language (shouldn't it match the keyboard and not the timezone choice), you need to drag 'n' drop the language you want, but the entries are grayed out so it looks odd, even though it works.
I mentioned visual changes, so here they are! WIP and final looks:
I must say I'm a bit sad. Xubuntu 17.10 Artful Aardvark is nowhere near as good as its predecessor. It comes with a slew of bugs and regressions inherited from Ubuntu without any validations or checks. The experience is flawed, with middling hardware support, although the rest of the stack is quite reasonable. You get blazing performance, good looks, and decent overall out-of-the-box experience with media and gadgets.
However, that on its own means nothing - because when you compare to Zingy Zorba, this is a release that does everything slightly less well, and it comes with problems and issues we did not have before. Do we really need these hope-killing releases that undo all that's gone before? Xubuntu was really doing well, and then, wham, regressions. Seriously? Why? Anyway, 6/10. Worth testing - better than Ubuntu or Kubuntu of the autumn stock, but still not as good as what we've seen, known and love. Take care, fellow Tuxians.