While Ubuntu has become not only the most popular of Canonical’s Linux distributions or “distros” but arguably the most popular distro going around, there is a slowly but steadily growing opinion amongst more senior users that ubuntu itself is nothing flash.
Its popularity has grown by as much word-of-mouth as it has via its appearance on magazine cover discs and 1001 top-ten-Linux-distros-you-must-try-before-you-die type lists on the web.
In some ways, that growing opinion has merit – Ubuntu has some great features but it also has some narky bits to it. And I’m afraid I’m going to call OpenOffice.org one of those narky bits.
For some reason, OpenOffice.org has become the pinup-boy of the open-source revolution. Yes, it provides you with a complete clone of Microsoft Office for the price of a download but these days, like Microsoft Office, it has an ever-increasing footprint.
One of the reasons Linux gained heavily in popularity was the fact that it could be run on older PCs and didn’t need the latest hardware to deliver quite decent performance. But with OpenOffice now exceeding 300-odd MB in size, I think it’s becoming the elephant in the room. It’s now quite slow and bulky and is quite difficult to remove now if you don’t want it. Try carrying out “sudo apt-get remove –purge openoffice” and you end up having to cart away half the operating system.
It’s one of the reasons why I’ve become a big fan of Ubuntu’s less-well-known sibling called Xubuntu. This lightweight version of Ubuntu still gives you access to the massive Ubuntu online application archive but without all the fluff. The latest version comes in an a relatively lean 570-odd MB (Ubuntu is 700MB) and includes applications that are big on features but low on footprint.
You may not get OpenOffice.org in Xubuntu but you get the basics in Abiword for word processing and Gnumeric for spreadsheet work. Both of these apps are exceptional at handling their respective Microsoft equivalent work files yet are quite nimble on older hardware.
Then you have the desktop environment itself – Xfce for all intents and purposes looks and feels like Ubuntu’s GNOME but again, can do its job with remarkable speed on less than stellar systems. It includes compositing so having features such as a Mac OS X-like icon dock are easily implemented by installing Avant Window Navigator.
One of the disappointing things about the arrival of netbooks in Australia has been the decline of Linux in the face of an enslaught by Microsoft to push Windows XP Home Edition back into the market. It’s sad because Xubuntu is the ideal Linux distro for these devices. While the latest Xubuntu 8.10 distro lacks drivers for WiFi wireless networking and in many cases also the built-in webcams, those drivers do exist and incorporating them inside Xubuntu would neither be difficult or take up much space.
The thing I most enjoy with Xubuntu is the fact that it is far more modular than Ubuntu – that means it’s easier to customise and it’s no coincidence that it has been the base for two out of the three (soon to be three out of four) UserOS operating systems so far released in Australian PC User magazine.
So the next time a new Ubuntu distro appears online, why not have a look at Xubuntu instead. It won’t get the same publicity as Ubuntu but it likely won’t ever require the same horsepower or drive space either.