LUbuntu: A desktop pared down for action

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 03, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Two years ago, when I last looked at LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment), no code had been committed for over a year, and many believed that the project was dead. Since then, LXDE has greatly revived, attracting a new team of developers, and being offered on a number of distributions. Recently, the project has released a test release of LUbuntu, an official mutation of Ubuntu that may one day become official. Running Openbox for a window manager and requiring less than half a gigabyte of RAM to run, LXDE is a desktop worth looking into if you appreciate speed and minimalist interface design. Use it long enough, and you just might reconsider what you actually need.

LUbuntu is available as a Live CD of less than 300 megabytes. It opens on a basic desktop and panel with simply-drawn icons and windows. Since it is on a Live CD, you see little speed in booting or in opening applications for the first time, although you can get hints of the potential speed when minimizing or maximizing windows, or dragging them across the desktop.

Mostly, however, what you are likely to notice about LUbuntu is the selection of software. Some, like XChat and Claws Mail, are standard GNU/Linux software. Others, like Cheese and Pidgin, are borrowed from GNOME, while XfBurn is borrowed from Xfce. Some, like Firefox, seem too large and crowded with features to be compatible with LXDE's goals, although they are included when applications like are not. Apparently, the exact selection of software is still being decided upon, and changing between builds -- an earlier image of the same test release was ninety megabytes larger.

Although a small memory footprint is not always used consistently as a selection criterion, it is used consistently enough that LUbuntu has some unusual software choices. It includes, for example, Mirage, an image viewer with some basic editing capacities rather than the GIMP, and pyNeighborhood to manage Samba tools, while the selection of music players includes Aqualung. Such choices seem idiosyncratic, but demonstrate the variety of software that exists beyond the standard selections in KDE and GNOME.

But by far the most interesting applications are the utilities written especially for LXDE, such as the PCManFM file manager; LXTerminal, the command line window; LXPanel, the desktop panel, and LXMusic, the music player. All these utilities are effectively a rethinking of the basic functionality required in a modern desktop.

For instance, PCManFM (named in honor of the nickname of LXDE's original maintainer) is a two panel file manager in which functionality is stripped as much as possible. Its left pane includes only a tree view and a summary of filesystems on the computer. You get no localized view of your home directory -- instead, it is simply highlighted on the tree.

As for functionality, PCManFM includes basic editing and selection commands, navigation aids and bookmarks, and three views of directory contents -- icons, and compact and detailed lists. It tools menu has items only for opening a terminal, opening a view that treats the current folder as root (which is an original touch), and a file finding utility. it includes no plug-ins, no burning capability, no bread crumbs for the current path or most of the things that we have learned to take for granted in Nautilus, Dolphin, and Konqueror. At first, PCManFM seems so sparse that it seems inadequate, but use it for a while and you may find -- as I did -- that you hardly miss all these extras.

LXTerminal is equally bare, with only the ability to open a new tab, copy and paste text strings, and to configure fonts and background and foreground colors, and the numbr of lines you can scroll back. Yet what is offered might very well be all that most users need. The same is true of LXMusic, which has the ability to create playlists, but no awareness of cover art or Wikipedia entries on the artist whose work is being played. You might miss some features (I, for one, would like LXMusic better if it were aware of albums), but using LXDE's utilities for a few hours does make you reconsider what is necessary in applications, and whether including every possible option is always the best design policy.

The only area where LUbuntu comes close to equalling the features of other desktops is in LXPanel. Unlike other LXDE utilities, LXPanel comes with a full range of configuration choices, ranging from the ability to add applets to the panel to creating multiple panels to specifying the panel's height and background graphic. Comparing LXPanel to other LXDE utilities, I conclude that the project believes that minimalism stops where the right to work in the way that you choose begins -- a setting of priorities that, from my experience, the project most likely shares with potential users.

LUbuntu's test release is still rough around the edges. Its makes seem undecided whether to keep to their design principles or provide popular apps, and so far it lacks an install button or an automount utility for external devices. However, as a desktop, it manages the considerable trick of making Xfce seem bloated. While complete newcomers to GNU/Linux might find it a little too stripped down for comfort, experienced users with an open mind might be tempted to try it out, especially on older hardware.


  • i like it but

    i really like the chrome browser; but if u can get the sound drivers,flash,and java to work; or help me get them to work on my machine that would really be great!
  • drivers

    i can't get my sound drivers to be detected; can't get flash player to work, or java. that is how i view all my tutorials to learn how to..............................happy
  • LXDE

    LXDE is available for download in the Fedora repository. I used LXDE instead of KDE during the 4.0 phase, as KDE wasn't stable or complete enough to get my work done. I found LXDE entirely suitable for the work I needed to do. And, as you pointed out, pretty lightweight.


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