Wow. This looks really great. I need to find some people to collaborate with!
I’ve been following the conversations around Unity, the new front-end for Ubuntu 11.04.
Ubuntu is really trying to rethink the desktop concept, with an eye toward keyboard-free computing. It’s a bold step, so it’s bound to alienate some people.
I haven’t played with Unity yet, but I have to admit that I am curious. I love Xfce but it’s very much rooted in the “traditional” desktop paradigm. What I like about it, is that it’s very much menu driven, so I can do a lot of selecting, without a lot of clicking and mouse work. It’s almost more of a very powerful file manager than a desktop.
From what I can tell, Unity takes that model a step further. In a lot of ways, it seems like Canonical has crafted an iOS experience for the desktop.
But it’s made me appreciative of the thought Canonical puts into their products. Obviously, not everyone likes the direction they’re going in with GNOME and Unity, but in general, Canonical makes decisions based on what they think is best for the user.
Less and less users grew up with traditional desktops as their only means of computing. There are people who only use desktops for very specific purposes, like typing a paper. Or even just printing one. I actually once witnessed a student come into a computer lab, open up a word processor, and transcribe a paper off of her phone. I’m not sure why she didn’t email it to herself, but I was fascinated that she would compose a paper on a phone before moving to a desktop/laptop.
Canonical seems to be making an effort to make an OS that makes sense to those types of users.
But at the same time, Canonical seems very respectful of the users using the Canonical variants. I’ve been playing with Debian Testing and Mint Xfce and while both are good, neither feels as composed as Xubuntu. Xubuntu does more than just work. It creates a curated Xfce experience, with a lot of thought put into software selection. Debian is a little too hands-off in its software selection for Xfce, allowing the user to choose everthing himself. Mint is basically trying to cram GNOME into Xfce. Both OSs can be fixed by the user, but I like that Xubuntu doesn’t really need to be.
When we talk about Linux distros, we talk about stability and reliability and hardware integration. And those are all important things. But as those factors improve across distributions, user experience becomes more important. I can run any number of Xfce-based distributions and have similar reliability, but I’ll probably stick with Xubuntu because of their software selection. The maintainers think about how Xubuntu users might use the desktop manager and select programs to create a cohesive experience. Obviously, I could choose another distro and simply mimic the Xubuntu defaults, but why add in an extra step if it’s not necessary?
It’s safe to say that Linux now works easily in most (your mileage may vary) situations. So now, the next battle is creating distributions that create a certain kind of user experience. Unity is an attempt to do that. It’ll be interesting to see how non-Linux-inclined people respond to it.
Cool post on the challenges of finding the right MP3 player. I’m partial to the Sansa Fuze.
Also, in terms of the price issue, I like to get minor electronics from Overstock, where you get a slight discount for refurbished and/or older devices.
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.
I’m very psyched to take this for a spin. It’s Debian Testing Xfce with bling. And Debian Xfce really needs bling.
I live in a two OS world.
At work, I live mostly in Windows 7, with some brief excursions into XP.
At home, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I live in Xubuntu.
Keeping the two worlds in sync isn’t that big an issue, though. In fact, I’d say it’s hardly an issue at all.
The glue that holds my worlds together is actually Google Calendar. I’m not a huge Google Calendar fan because of some of its reliability issues. Calendars will sometimes go down for minutes at a time. It’s not a horrible, but since I use Google Calendar as my to do list, it does occasionally compromise productivity.
Digression 1: I have so many concerns about the reliability and uptime of Google Calendar, I set it to send a daily summary email of my calendar, so if the live calendar isn’t available, at least I have an earlier version from which to work.
Digression 2: I’ve been looking for a replacement web calendar on and off for about a year or so. I’ve yet to find something as good that will also let me seamlessly import all of my Google calendars (the .ics file is quite large, which I think causes some import issues).
I find that just by putting stuff I need to do on my calendar and then checking my calendar, I can move pretty easily between Xubuntu and Windows without missing a beat. And anything I can’t do on a particular OS gets accomplished the next time I’m on the one I need, since it’s on my calendar and since I check my calendar religiously.
I’ve discussed this before, but the AbiWord/Gnumeric to Microsoft Office conversion/translation hookup is imperfect, but workable. One OS concession I usually make is to send out files from Xubuntu as PDFs wherever possible, just so I know files look like I want them to across OSs. Also, PDF is now an open standard, which is pretty cool.
Obviously, with the cloud and whatnot, a lot of work gets done in the browser. I pretty much set up every browser the same way, so I never have to shift mental gears, no matter where I’m working. For me, that means Chrome for Windows and Chromium for Xubuntu. I always install AdBlock, Chromed Bird (for Twitter), and the Web Developer Toolbar, which to be frank, just isn’t as good as the Firefox version.
I put in browser bookmarks for pinboard and CiteULike and change the default search to DuckDuckGo. This pretty much gives me a flawless illusion of always working on the same computer, no matter what the OS is.
It seems pretty much every article about working across computers mentions Dropbox. I too am a Dropbox user and I use it to work across multiple computers but in a fairly limited way. I don’t have the Dropbox client on my home computer as a way to maintain a psychological boundary between work and home. I work with files using the web interface, which is pretty nice, but not so nice that I feel compelled to work more than I need to at home.
And that’s really all that it takes for me to work across computers and operating systems. It’s really just a matter of finding a workflow that works and replicating it across computers. The less I need to think about where I’m working, the less likely it is that something will go wrong.
This is what my netbook looks like right now. I’m running Xubuntu, along with Chromium, Wakoopa, Dropbox, and Gwibber. I decided to go with Xubuntu because I wasn’t having a lot of luck with Ubuntu and it’s Unity interface on here.
Another satisfied Xubuntu customer!
(More) Amy’s Ramblings: Short Xubuntu Review
I was going to download this and give it a spin, but by the time I figured out SUSE Studio (and I’m not entirely sure I did), I had sort of lost my momentum.
I’m very curious to see Xfce 4.8, though.
This has nothing to do with Xfce, but it’s an interesting plea to GNOME developers.
I’m hoping the Unity people are working to create a flexible interface that lets interested users create a custom desktop experience.
But to be honest, back when I had Ubuntu Netbook Remix (now Ubuntu Netbook Edition), with the proto-Unity desktop, I used GNOME Do to do everything, taking the desktop display out of the equation.
A good application launcher can solve a sick amount of usability issues.
I know the trend in operating systems seems to be getting us away from folders, but I’m very much a folder kind of user.
My whole life with computers has been about putting material in the proper folder or directory, and it’s a habit I cling to. I know things like Spotlight for Mac or Synapse or GNOME Do for Linux, or even the shockingly effective and quick built-in global search Windows 7 has under its start menu are all designed to connect users to their files, regardless of where the actual file lives in the folder hierarchy, but for the times you can’t find what you need, usually because of a poor naming convention, folders still come in handy.
They’re also handy for projects, letting you mess with all of the files you need at once, without having to summon them one by one.
Despite the above emphasis on the importance of folders and directories, I’ve never given much thought to my file manager. As long as it showed me directories and hierarchies, I was pretty happy. Nautilus was always fine for me in GNOME and Thunar has been fine for me in Xubuntu.
But file managers can be used for more than navigation. One thing I’m finding very useful is that items you drag to Thunar’s sidebar (the conceptual equivalent of favoriting or bookmarking a directory) show up in the Xfce Places menu, giving you quick and direct access to a non-standard directory. Behold:
I realize this isn’t new functionality and it’s not unique to Xfce, but it’s a huge timesaver for me. Rather than navigating to frequently used files that aren’t held toward the top of directories, I can just pop into them via Places or Thunar.
Given how more and more software interfaces are handling the placement of users’ files for them, I’m especially grateful to anything that lets me easily get to the directories I need (another great example of this can be found in the cross-platform Filezilla client. You can bookmark frequently used directory paths, which is a timesaver in the maze-like Joomla CMS file system).
If you find yourself regularly navigating deep into directories, you should consider letting your OS do some of the work for you. It gives you the convenience of a file finder without your needing to surrender control of your directories.