Updated: December 14, 2019
The end of the year is approaching. That means best-of compilations. But before we get there, we must test Xubuntu 19.10 Eoan Ermine. We've seen the autumn-crop MATE edition and Kubuntu in action, with reasonable results plus some annoyances and inconsistencies. Not bad, but then not exactly the emotional revolution that I've been hoping for. Which makes the Xfce case extra interesting.
Speaking of interesting, MX Linux MX-19 patito feo. I tested the distro only a few days ago, and it aims to be friendly and usable Xfce desktop out of the box. Now, now, to make the results relevant, I'll be doing the Xubuntu experiment on the same machine as the others - my much used-and-misused Lenovo G50 box, with its plethora of installed systems, Windows and Linux, take your pick. So we'll do the usual, live session games, installation, some post-install fun and games. Hopefully. Begin.
Booted fine, no spurious text messages or anything. The Ermine desktop is a bit plain. I found the fact internal disk volumes are shown by default rather annoying, as always. Especially since they are shown first, so if you hide them, the remaining four items are positioned somewhere toward the middle of the screen or so. The touchpad was also ultra-jittery, and I had to disable taps. Once again, let me draw your attention to the wild inconsistency in the behavior among different desktops and whatnot.
The fonts are essentially the same ones as you get in say Kubuntu. But for a reason that eludes my intellect, their presentation isn't as good. Pale, thin. Could be the forced 96 DPI setting? Or the actual system theme? No idea, but I don't like it. Then, if you search for fonts in the Settings Manager, you will get zero results.
I also noticed, once I connected to the network, the Wireless prompt hovered partially above the top panel and obscured it. On the other hand, the balloons that you get when you place the mouse cursor over the system area all show correctly. It's these little things that sap the life force out of me. Last but not the least, the menu isn't activated with the Super key but some weird combo that you must first delete if you want a new one. Why?
In Thunar, you still get the clunky drag & drop for shortcuts, the Devices are hard-wired to the top of the sidebar, but oddly, compared to MX Linux, it's much easier to grab the window borders and resize them. Again, the little things. If only everything worked or didn't work, but the constant emotional swing is a torture.
Very good. Everything worked. Wireless, Bluetooth sync, Samba sharing - no tweaks needed, printing.
I tried both MP3 and HD video. Oddly, webm files are opened in Firefox by default. Now Parole did the job. However, while playback works, skipping to a different time marker doesn't really. The video would freeze, and it would take a good second or two for the interface to respond. Never seen anything like this before.
Solid. Again, everything was jolly. I even tested the Windows Phone, just for fun. The only problem is that Thunar displays the device serial number in the address bar. This is meaningless information for humans, and it just makes things ugly.
This was a somewhat frustrating ordeal. The partition discovery took about 15 minutes. After I've marked the root partition, it took almost 10 minutes for the UI to unfreeze itself and allow me to progress to the next step in the wizard. This is a new one. It does occasionally take time for for the second disk scan to finish, but never more than a few seconds. Certainly not minutes. But hey, you do get partition labels!
The slideshow isn't really a slideshow. It's just a very spartan message about Xubuntu, community and using IRC to contact the project team. Along those lines. Now, this is not how you win new users. The lack of enthusiasm radiates off screen like a fresh nugget of cobalt.
So, what gives?
The installed desktop had the Wireless connection preserved from the live session, yay. In general, Xubuntu behaved much like before, functional yet austere, modern but insufficiently convenient if you need a bit more than basic stuff. One detail that I didn't like - the Thunar window button (when shown without text) changes to match the content, like Documents, Downloads, Pictures, etc, and I found this somewhat confusing, especially on the default-size panel.
Package management and updates
I got an update prompt right away, and I let the system chomp some bytes. You will notice that there's a visual glitch, and that the Security updates checkbox is partially hidden slash obscured. Apart from that, the update process was fast and true.
Software is basically stock Gnome thing - including its own window decorations; it ignores the system theme. Not inspiring or fun to use in any way, but at least you get detailed information about third-party repo setup, as might be the case with the likes of Google Chrome and Skype.
The distro is middleweight when it comes to ISO size, roughly 1.5 GB, and this gives you Firefox, Thunderbird, Parole, Transmission, GIMP, LibreOffice. A fair deal, quite balanced. This is a solid collection, and you can easily replenish it. Steam and VLC were available in the repos, Chrome and Skype were not.
Customization & perils thereof
Now, in the MX-19 review, I showed you, quite unsuccessfully, how to tweak the desktop. I tried to use a pretty dock, but this was somewhat clunky. There were also oddities left and right. Not exactly what I expected. Feels archaic, but worse than that, the actual functionality is impaired. Now, this doesn't mean Xfce should be modern for the sake of it, i.e. flat themes and such nonsense, but good, solid ergonomics don't have to come at the expense of the visual layer. Besides, the visual flatness is already there, in the existing theme, and combined with the low font contrast, you get a suboptimal experience.
So I tried something a bit different (not completely different, Monty Python style). I added another panel at the bottom, and retained the window buttons in the top panel. Not ideals, but workable and more consistent than the use of the dock. However, icons are all fuzzy on non-16px sizes.
I also didn't like the default theme, and I wanted to try the Suru or Papirus icon sets. Now, as I switched to the later, the desktop suddenly went kaput on me! The panels disappeared, and I had a whole avalanche of error messages on the screen. This crashed, that crashed, Dbus errors. I tried to restart the desktop, to no avail.
Now, I was able to launch the terminal (Alt + F2), without having to rely on a virtual console, and slowly began troubleshooting. Turns out, it seems like Xfce doesn't support SVG icons, and this causes the panel to go bust. But then, I wonder how come this exact same icon theme worked fine in MX Linux?
Bail out! Gtk:ERROR:../../../../gtk/gtkiconhelper.c:494:ensure_surface_for_gicon: assertion failed (error == NULL): Failed to load /home/roger/.icons/Papirus-Dark/24x24/actions/image-missing.svg: Unrecognised image file format (gdk-pixbuf-error-quark, 3)
Once I removed the "offending" icon themes, I was able to restore the old look, restart the desktop by killing all my user processes, and then, I had the panels back. Here, compared to MX Linux, I had a brand new set of problems, which again preventing me from having a slick, elegant desktop.
The one redeeming factor in this exercise was the selection of default wallpapers available with the distro. Quite nice, and I used some, without feeling a need to wander about the net, searching for photos and such. In the end, I had a reasonable desktop, but it didn't give me everything I needed or wanted. That wilted flower thingie feels appropriate in a sad, over-dramatic kind of way.
Hardware compatibility, stability, suspend & resume
I didn't encounter any cardinal issues. I was able to put the laptop to sleep and wake, no problem. The screensaver behaved and all that. Groovy, babe.
Now, Xubuntu 19.10 is a rather fast distro. Everything responds instantly, the windows draw on the screen in less time it takes you to blink, so it feels instantaneous. The responsiveness is good, and it doesn't taper off even when you use the system quite some. Curiously, it feels faster than MX Linux, but we know that one has a distinct advantage on low-end hardware, like my eeePC netbook, which was successfully revitalized using the MX-18 distro. When it comes to numbers, memory usage is about 550 MB, just like Disco or MX Linux. The CPU barely ticks on idle.
If you unplug the cord, it takes a while for the power management to kick in and dim the monitor, but overall, it worked okay. The laptop said it could do 150 minutes at 50% brightness and low usage, on a battery that's seen its total capacity reduced to about 60%. In other words, a brand new cell would give me just under four hours or so. Better than Disco, roughly equivalent to MX Linux. Not bad.
Sadly, Xubuntu 19.10 Eoan Ermine is an average distro. And it aligns with how the cycle of enthusiasm typically works in the Linux world, matching the whims of its decentralized developer community. A couple of years back, I was talking about the freshness in the Xfce world, just before Plasma kicked into high gear, and seemingly, Xfce took its place. Which explains why you get nominal, by-the-book, zero-excitement Xubuntu releases more recently. Alas, Ermine takes it one step further with functional issues.
Most of the stuff actually works - solid networking, media, phones support, good app collection, excellent performance. But then, the packaging of it all is quite lackluster, and even a seemingly innocent thing like an icon theme seems to bring the distro to its proverbial knees. Thunar is quite rigid, and there's no sense of passion. I mean yes, desktops should be boring - but they should also allow their users to be able to explore and try new things, and in this regard, Xfce seems to have fallen behind. I's say 6/10. Okay, but going through motions ain't fun. Curtain.