2011-04-08

Review: Linux Mint Xfce 201104

Main Screen
Just over 2 weeks ago, I wrote about how Linux Mint is moving the Xfce edition to a Debian base. Well, a few days ago, they released the official Linux Mint Xfce 201104.
For those of you who didn't read that post, in short, Linux Mint Xfce is now Debian-based instead of Ubuntu-based. The developers had a few things to say about this: (1) the desktop will be faster and lighter on resources (114 MB of RAM at idle, 177 MB of RAM with Mozilla Firefox, LibreOffice Writer, and LibreOffice Calc open all at the same time), (2) the Xfce edition will now include more mainstream applications like Rhythmbox instead of Exaile, and (3) the Xfce edition, being based on Debian Testing, will be a rolling-release branch. All these things sounded very exciting to me, so I decided to try it out.

Please do note that I have been using Linux Mint for almost 2 years now. I've become quite fond of it, so while I will try to be as critical as possible, don't be surprised if some elements of bias creep into this review.

I tried out the live session on a live USB made with UnetBootin, which is surprising to me because past versions of Linux Mint "Debian" as well as #! (since its switch to a Debian base) haven't worked with UnetBootin. I tried out the installation, just to see if anything has changed since the last version of Linux Mint "Debian" that I've tried, in VirtualBox inside the live USB session with 384 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After changing the BIOS to boot from USB and getting past the boot menu, there were about 10 seconds of scrolling text, followed by the desktop; there was no boot splash because the Linux Mint developers have not been able to port the Plymouth boot splash program to the Debian base (though the #! developers have).

The desktop looks virtually indistinguishable from Linux Mint 10 "Julia" GNOME, save for two key differences. The first is that the desktop icons are a bit smaller and have shaded labels, in classic Xfce style; to me, that feels a bit dated, so I would prefer that the labels had no shading in order to make it look even more like the standard edition. The second is with the volume panel applet: for one, it uses the regular Xfce icon instead of the Mint-X themed icon, and for another, clicking on it doesn't bring up a handy applet box but brings up the whole PulseAudio configuration window, which I feel is less polished and more unwieldy when doing simple things like changing the volume. This also ties into the fact that the panel notifications, while perfectly functional, don't look quite as slick as in the standard edition. One nice thing about the panel is that the inactive task buttons in the task manager blend seamlessly with the rest of the panel; that doesn't happen in GNOME, so this is a nice touch. Finally, on a side note, Xfce is still at version 4.6; although version 4.8 was released with many improvements to the panel and other components in January, it still isn't present in the Debian Testing repositories which Linux Mint Xfce uses.

Mozilla Firefox + Gedit
Mozilla Firefox 3.6 is the default browser, which is surprising because I would have thought that version 4 would have made it into the Debian Testing repositories by now. Hopefully the update will come relatively soon. Proprietary codecs are of course included out-of-the-box, as that is a hallmark of Linux Mint. One other small snag I hit was that my laptop's keyboard shortcuts to change the volume with the FN key didn't work; they work in Ubuntu-based Linux Mint and as far as I remember they worked in the last version of Linux Mint "Debian" GNOME that I tried (though I could be wrong about that), so that's another small bummer.

LibreOffice is included as well, which is very good. F-Spot is the default photo manager, but although I know Linux Mint Xfce "isn’t 'trying' to be lightweight anymore," in the words of the developers, I feel like F-Spot is just too slow and bloated for its own good. It should really be replaced by Shotwell, which has almost identical features yet is much faster. The rest of the software selection is fairly standard, as it was meant to be, according to the developers.

Going back to the panel, the menu present is the standard Xfce menu, but the Mint Menu can be added to the panel. It does, however, consume a little bit more RAM, and it's clear that that it was designed for GNOME. For one, there are some gaps in the "Places" and "System" section that could have been better filled in. For another, there are some menu entries in subsections of the "Applications" section that correspond to programs that don't exist; for example, there's a menu entry for "Keyboard Shortcuts", but that tool isn't included at all in Linux Mint Xfce. Otherwise, the Mint Menu works as it does in the standard edition, but I hope the developers polish (and maybe even optimize) it a bit more for the Xfce edition; I know it isn't the default menu, but it is included and advertised in the release announcement, so I think it deserves more attention.

At this point, I went on to install Skype. I had a feeling that I would eventually need to go to the Skype website to get the Skype DEB for Debian 5 "Lenny" (as they don't have one out for Debian 6 "Squeeze" yet), but just to be sure, I went to the Mint Software Manager to find it there. To my surprise, it was there! To my slightly further surprise, it was the Ubuntu package, and it's not the only Ubuntu package included in the repositories for Debian-based Linux Mint. I was a little apprehensive that using a package built for Ubuntu might not work correctly on Debian. However, considering that the last time I tried Linux Mint "Debian" GNOME on my computer and on someone else's computer Skype failed to recognize the integrated laptop mic and vertically flipped the integrated laptop webcam's image, I figured I should try again now to see if anything has changed. To my even greater surprise, everything worked flawlessly! Yay!

In terms of desktop effects, Compiz is of course not available out-of-the-box, but Xfwm has some nice tricks up its sleeve in terms of compositing. In keeping with the focus on light weight, there's of course no desktop cube or anything like that, but there are very nice transparency effects of all kinds.

One of the things the Linux Mint developers have touted in this new Xfce edition is its low memory consumption. You can read the figures they quote with this link. I tried similar sets of tasks to test RAM consumption, and unfortunately, the results weren't quite as awesome. It used 140 MB of RAM at idle, 212 MB of RAM with Gedit and Mozilla Firefox open to YouTube running, an additional 35 MB of RAM (247 MB total) with LibreOffice Writer running on top of those, an additional 53 MB of RAM (300 MB total) with Skype and Xfwm compositing running on top of all that, and an additional 14 MB of RAM (314 MB total) with the Linux Mint Menu running instead of the Xfce menu. The only bright spot is that the Linux Mint Menu used even less memory than advertised, even with transparency turned on. Unfortunately, while that is certainly lighter on RAM than Linux Mint 10 "Julia" GNOME, it isn't lighter than the last snapshot of Linux Mint "Debian" GNOME that I tried out.

Installer
I checked out the installation in a virtual machine with VirtualBox, just to see if anything has changed since the last time I tried Linux Mint "Debian" GNOME. As far as I can tell, nothing has changed, which isn't a bad thing by any means. The installation procedure itself took about 10 minutes, which is fairly normal. After I finished that and restarted, I was eventually greeted by GDM, which is surprising for me to see combined with Xfce, but shouldn't be surprising because Linux Mint Xfce is no longer trying to be lightweight, after all. Otherwise, the installed desktop was identical to the live session.

To conclude, I was honestly expecting to write a more positive review. Yes, Linux Mint Xfce is amazing and still has that same great Linux Mint feel to it. Yes, I would highly recommend it for anyone to use. But there were several small issues that combined into two moderately big (though definitely not show-stopping) issues for me. The first is the question of RAM usage; I couldn't get quite as low RAM usage as the developers, and although the RAM usage is pretty good in any case and better than the Ubuntu-based main edition, it isn't better than Debian-based Linux Mint GNOME. The second is the issue of general polish; things like the Mint Menu issues, desktop icon label shading, volume control behavior and keyboard shortcuts, and panel applet notifications could be easily made to better emulate the GNOME edition. Yes, I know this is Xfce, and if the developers hadn't said much else, I would have gone into this with a more open mind, ready to take whatever Xfce had to throw at me. The problem is that in their statements in the release announcement, the developers, intentionally or not, gave me the impression that as the Xfce edition is trying to be more mainstream yet a little better-performing at the same time than the Ubuntu- and Debian-based GNOME editions, the Xfce edition should act almost identically to the GNOME editions, even down to the smallest details. For the most part, the Xfce edition did do that, but this sort of reminds me of the supposed "uncanny valley" in robotics: people are supposedly fine with robots that are almost identical in appearance and behavior to humans and are excited by the opposite, but when robots look and act a lot like humans but have numerous small details that give them away, people's excitement turns to revulsion. In a sense, a similar thing has happened with me here: if the Xfce edition was either clearly Xfce or identical to GNOME, I would have been fine with it, but its numerous small annoyances that aren't present in the GNOME edition sort of put me off. In the end, it's a great distribution in its own right, but its biggest competition comes from the Debian-based Linux Mint GNOME, and I can't justify using this over that.

You can check it out for yourself by following the link from a few paragraphs above that links to the release announcement on the official Linux Mint blog; that post contains links to download mirrors, direct downloads, and torrent downloads.

24 comments:

  1. Firefox is set to be updated from Mozilla.
    Open it as root (gksudo firefox), update it and close it again.

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  2. @Anonymous: Thanks for the tip!

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  3. multimedia keys: sudo apt install xfce4-volumed

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  4. Would You prefer LMDE GNOME over the regular LM GNOME?

    I must say the GNOME implementation in LM is already pretty and frugal.

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  5. Thanks for trying this out. I was initially quite excited as well. I now think the most important thing to take away from their announcement is that they are progressively switching over to a Debian base for all but the main edition. The remaining polish will come as time goes on.

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  6. @Anonymous 1: Thanks for the tip. That said, I'm still a little disappointed that they didn't include it out-of-the-box, because the Linux Mint developers have a reputation for including even these small packages that make the experience better.
    @Anonymous 2: That's actually an interesting question. I could probably see myself switch over to Debian-based Linux Mint GNOME if it had, in addition to what it already has that is comparable to the main edition, Skype, some game console emulators, and working Compiz effects. The only other things that might keep me back with the standard edition are Gloobus Preview (because that's only available for Debian in Hadret's very experimental repository, as far as I know) and the rolling-release schedule that might cause frequent breakages; I guess the way to get around the second one would be to install an older snapshot of Debian-based Linux Mint GNOME, change the repositories from "testing" to "squeeze" to get a more stable system, and update. Otherwise, Debian-based Linux Mint GNOME is way more frugal with system resources than the main edition. I'm going to stick with Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora" until either the next Ubuntu-based LTS release (13) comes out or, if that doesn't happen, version 9's support expires, at which point I will certainly switch to the Debian-based GNOME edition.
    @Barnaby: Yes, I too am very excited to see what the future holds for this amazing distribution.
    Thanks for the comments!

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  7. @PV
    Anonymous 2 here. Thank You for Your elaborate answer. I´ll stay with the main edition for now. I switched from Mint LXDE because I couldn´t find a GUI for switching to my laptops keyboard and thus I had no functioning Fn-Keys. I know there is always the command line but if I were that type of user I would not consider a "user-friendly" distro like Mint.

    My other turn-off was that .jar files did not open with installed java. Yes, I marked them as executable. At this point I was sick of having to google for an answer. These things should work out of a box on Mint.

    Have a nice day!

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  8. @Anonymous: No problem, and I hope it helped! Yeah, I'm a little surprised that the Linux Mint LXDE edition doesn't do that, but then again, JAVA is a bit heavy for a lightweight system, but that's just me. Also, hopefully there's a similar fix for the FN keys in the LXDE edition. Finally, unless you are already using a particular version of Linux Mint, I would recommend using Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora" GNOME because it has already been supported for one year and will continue to be supported for an additional two years from now. Thanks for the comment!

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  9. I love and generally use Debian (over Ubuntu, my second choice), but I'm not sure I would have chosen this particular moment for rebasing a XFCE distro on Debian testing. Debian just released Squeeze as stable a couple of months ago and the big changes that always follow a release of stable have yet to really hit the testing repos. Those changes can cause snafus. It does seem like the big changes that normally hit the Debian testing repos after a stable release are taking substantially longer than normal.

    When the changes do hit XFCE will be much more interesting to me since 4.8 supports a lot of nifty features (http://www.xfce.org/about/tour).

    Although Thunar is a lot faster than Nautilus (though less full-featured), I've never been convinced that XFCE was that much less memory intensive than Gnome (Xubuntu often uses more than the more full featured Gnome version of Ubuntu). And Mint generally seems less responsive than standard Ubuntu to me. But I was impressed by LMDE, I like it much better than the latest Mint Ubuntu spin, it seems faster.

    As to the Firefox version, Debian uses a re-badged version caused iceweasel, and it is still 3.5.18 in the sid & testing repos, I believe. Mint is probably using an Ubuntu firefox package, & I don't believe 4.0 has hit the Ubuntu repos yet.

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  10. @Ed the Red: Well, the Linux Mint developers have promised to try to mitigate at least some of the breakages that might occur when new packages arrive in the Testing repositories, but (a) that's not a guarantee and (b) even otherwise I'm not sure how meaningful that is. Also, I've personally found the Linux Mint main edition to be a good bit snappier than Ubuntu under otherwise-similar settings. Thanks for the comment!

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  11. I think that this is a fair review. I'll also say that using the original LMDE is what pushed me to learn and use straight-up Debian XFCE. It's now my primary OS and it's what I compare everything else to. I, like you, liked LM XFCE, but it's not going to make me move away from Debian XFCE.

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  12. @Anonymous: I think it's interesting that the original Linux Mint "Debian" which was GNOME-based pushed you to use Xfce on straight-up Debian. Thanks for the support!

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  13. something worth remembering is that when LMDE first released, it too was filled with little annoying bugs, and now it is almost as polished as the main edition. I suspect that if development works continues, LMDX will soon be as well finished and polished as the main edition. I too tested it and liked it but didn't love it when compared to LMDE or the Main edition. once Xfce 4.8 and FF4 are installed, I suspect that will change.

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  14. Good review. I've tried Linux Mint Debian (Gnome) and for some reason I didn't like it, but I can't remember why. I tried it out then swiftly returned to Ubuntu. Perhaps I should try again. From all I've read, I SHOULD like it.

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  15. Actualy yes, XFCE may be a little ligther in ram than gnome but on every XFCE distro i have tested it feels as heavy as gnome.

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  16. @Anonymous 1: That's certainly true, though I do remember the first version of Linux Mint "Debian" (GNOME) that I tried still being slightly more polished than this, though it has continued to mature over time, as this will as well.
    @Adam Gonnerman: Thanks for the support!
    @Anonymous 2: That's not necessarily true — if you look at #!, its Xfce implementation is almost as light as its Openbox implementation, which is pretty darn light to begin with. It's all about how a particular distribution chooses to implement Xfce.
    Thanks for the comments!

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  17. Nice OS, just if it wouldn't be so buggy to damage NTFS and FAT partitions. It still isn't a myth! Stay away from Linux Mint if you have any partition that isn't ext* in use!

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  18. @jake: It's unfortunate that you've been having troubles with it in that regard, but I have always been able to successfully dual-boot Linux Mint and Microsoft Windows (usually on an NTFS partition) without any harm done to either OS's partition. Relatedly, which other Linux distributions have you used that don't damage NTFS/FAT partitions? Thanks for the comment!

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  19. I have been using LMDE Xfce amd64 on my Sony Vaio laptop for a few weeks now, and I am very impressed with it. Particularly the fact that both Java and Flash worked out of the box, which was not the case with my previous openSUSE 14 and Ubuntu 10.10 (both were amd64 versions).

    I have only had one problem: After an update, I was suddenly unable to mount my two external usb hard drives through GUI. I can do it in the terminal and have added them both to the fstab file, but that will get annoying over time.

    I am contemplating shifting over to the 'real' Debian testing. Aside from the fact that the Mint installer doesn't support encryption (which is my main reason for changing), what are the pros and cons if I choose to do so?

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  20. @Chris: Well, as far as I know, Debian-based Linux Mint does have some packages from Ubuntu in its repository which may not work as well with standard Debian Testing. Otherwise, I think the reasons you stated are enough that moving to Debian Testing is a good idea. Thanks for the comment!

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  21. Compiz is there you just gotta enable it manually.

    Type this in terminal:
    gconftool-2 --set -t string /desktop/gnome/session/required_components/windowmanager compiz

    That will set compiz as the default window manager, it will be enabled when you reboot. Also before you do this make sure you go into CCSM and enable the plugins (they are all disabled by default, enable the necessary stuff like gnome compatibility, window resize ect...)

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  22. @Brandon: Are you sure Compiz is present in the Xfce edition? I don't remember seeing CompizConfig Settings Manager at all there. Anyway, thanks for the tip!

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  23. hi there, nice review.
    for panel applet notifications, go to terminal and paste:
    gconftool-2 --direct --config-source xml:readwrite:/etc/gconf/gconf.xml.defaults --type string --set /apps/notification-daemon/theme slider

    for more fixes, check: http://forums.linuxmint.com/viewtopic.php?p=406365#p406365

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  24. @jee: Thanks for the tip!

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