Linux Mint Xfce Versus Xfce Debian Testing

I don’t quite know why, but I really like the idea of a rolling distribution.

Rolling distributions are constantly being updated, so you never have to go from a version X to version X.1. Instead, everything is being updated constantly.

A while back, I used Arch Linux, which is a bleeding-edge rolling distribution, and I really loved it, but eventually an update broke my system and I didn’t have the time or the skills to repair it.

But despite that experience, I like knowing I can hold onto an OS for as long as I want. Because right now I’m running Xubuntu 10.04, which is a long term support release. But that just means I get three years of updates instead of 18 months. We’re about a year into that LTS release. If I get a new computer in the next year, I’ll have to upgrade to a new LTS about a year or so later. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a little bit of a hassle I think about from time to time.

To start thinking ahead, I looked into Debian Testing. Testing is the pre-release form of whatever the next Debian stable release will be and as such, it’s a rolling release that’s constantly being updated. I spoke to some people who use it and even though it’s technically not considered stable, just about everyone said they see very little breakage (with the caveat that Testing is much more stable toward the end of a development cycle than at the beginning of one).

I’ve been playing with Debian Testing (of course, with Xfce) in a virtual box for a few weeks and so far it’s pretty good (details are here). There have been no real issues. The look and feel isn’t as polished as Xubuntu, but some of that could be because it’s running in a virtual environment. Finding software in testing is sometimes a challenge. I had to wait a few days for Chromium because of a package holdup. But that was resolved.

One thing that surprised me about Xfce Debian Testing is how little software bloat there is. There’s no graphical package manager. There’s no update manager. It’s pretty bare-bones. Obviously, one can easily install these things if one wants them, but I opted to just run update and upgrade from the command line, whenever I happened to remember. Testing doesn’t get a lot of updates, or at least it hasn’t up until now.

Right around the time I was playing with testing, Mint announced the release of Linux Mint Xfce, which is the Mint take on Debian Testing with an Xfce desktop.

I decided to try that in a virtual machine, too. In terms of software, it seems like Mint just moved over a lot of GNOME-y stuff. There’s pure GNOME stuff, like the GNOME system monitor instead of the Xfce task manager. Mint opts for LibreOffice instead of lighter office programs, like AbiWord. Mint also chose Rhythmbox over Exaile. I wish the software selection was a little more Xfce curated, like Xubuntu’s software selection increasingly is, but I think Mint is positioning its Xfce Testing as an alternative for people who don’t want to move to GNOME 3, so they want to include as much GNOME software as possible.

I was shocked at how ugly the default Mint icons are. I usually can’t be bothered to change icons in a virtual machine, but it was one of the first things I did. Mint ships with an impressive array of icon options, though.

But in terms of performing very simple tasks, I didn’t feel much difference between Mint and Debian Testing. Neither rendered fonts very well. Both seem to lose application focus on open (but that could just be a Chromium bug), and neither could run Grooveshark in Chromium.

Flash worked right out of the box for Mint but needed to be massaged with Debian, which one would probably expect, given Debian’s stance on free software.

Other than that, it’s hard to say which was better. Because I was in a virtual machine, I can’t speak to how they handle wifi and printing, which are kind of huge things in an OS.

Debian Testing is lean and mean, but it requires more work to get everything configured. It starts you with a very basic system and it’s up to the user to enhance it. I’m a bit concerned about software availability, since Debian is sometimes a bit sluggish with updates. But from what I’ve read, you can often access more cutting edge software in some of the other Debian repositories (although with Volatile gone, I’m not sure what those might be).

Mint makes more assumptions and choices for its users. The GNOME focus isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t take much to remove the GNOME stuff you don’t like and add in the Xfce stuff you do. Plus, I imagine there are less media issues with Mint, since they’re less concerned about free and open software.

If I had to reinstall an OS today, I’m still not sure if I would go Mint, Debian, or Xubuntu. Xubuntu is probably the nicest product, but the update cycle can be a pain. I want to keep an eye on Mint and Debian and see if either breaks or if one emerges with better software selection.

But for now, it’s nice to see some interesting rolling release options for Xfce lovers.