Canonical's decision to go with Unity for the default Ubuntu Linux desktop interface was hardly met with universal acclaim. Likewise, GNOME 3 has been the target of criticism by some due to its interface changes. So where is one to go for an operating system with a classic desktop UI that just works out of the box?
Luckily the key strength of free software is, as you would expect, the freedom to innovate and tweak until you come up with something that suits your needs. Of course sometimes this can tend to be a illusory — it can be hard to gather a strong community to support Feline Fanciers Linux (sadly) — but it's not as though upsets are impossible when someone takes on the big guns of the Linux world.
However, there is a strong, vibrant community surrounding the Ubuntu derivatives, and it's a lot less intimidating to alter an existing distribution rather than rolling your own from scratch. The new(ish) kid on the block is Lubuntu: A distro that employs LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) for its desktop environment.
It's designed to be a lightweight alternative to 'vanilla' Ubuntu, with, for those who care, a far more conventional desktop metaphor. The system made its official premiere as part of the Ubuntu family in 11.10 ("Oneiric Ocelot").
I’ve been wanting to spend some quality time with the distribution; lightweight distros hold a lot of appeal for me, plus I get to spend time at my test machine in a delightfully journalist-free corner of the office.
Lubuntu installation is what you'd expect: The usual straightforward graphical installer that requires very little mental energy to be expended. Instead of wasting a full paragraph banging on about it, here's a video of a dog cleaning a rabbit.
Once the rabbit is thoroughly clean, you're left with a rather unexceptional desktop environment. However, that's what you signed on for, and naturally you can tweak it to your liking (and I advise it, since by default it looks rather horrible; Xubuntu's Xfce-based setup is far more aesthetically pleasing).
By default, you have a range of apps that will suffice for most everyday needs. Naturally, they are often lightweight alternatives to what you find in standard Ubuntu — Abiword and Gnumeric rather than LibreOffice, Google's Chrome browser instead of Firefox, LXTerminal (LXDE's default terminal emulator), mtPaint for graphics editing, the Leafpad text editor, Sylpheed for email, and the PCManFM file manager. After my compulsive post install apt-get dist-upgrade, uname reported the kernel as “Linux 3.0.0-13-generic”.
The Lubuntu wiki page cites minimum recommended specs as a "Pentium II or Celeron system with 128 MB of RAM is probably a bottom-line configuration that may yield slow yet usable system with Lubuntu". We tested it on an aging Dell Optiplex GX620 desktop PC, equipped with a 3GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 512MB of RAM and a thick layer of dust.
I didn’t encounter any stability problems while using the system, and Web browsing, MP3 playing (through the included Audacious media player, word processing (Abiword’s inclusion as the default word processor instead of LibreOffice/OpenOffice is something I’m a fan of) were all conducted without a hitch.
The look and feel of the OS is easy to tweak (though we wish there were different mouse cursor themes included, because the defaults are awful), and all the usual tools you’d expect from an Ubuntu derivative, such as Synaptic for package management, are included and accessible from the menu on the task bar ⁚ provided by LXPanel. Naturally you can use LXPanel to create further launcher/menu/task bars to your heart’s content.
Lubuntu was fairly snappy, but quite frankly given the hardware this is no surprise. In fact in some respects I was a little disappointed given that a fully fledged Ubuntu derivative like Ubuntu Linux Satanic Edition can run so breezily on the same machine. And it in no way competes with a super-light distro like CrunchBang.
All in all, I think Lubuntu is a great candidate for “mum and dad” Linux if you want to resurrect some older hardware for simple tasks like internet banking or sending emails. It combines the out-of-the-box ease of Ubuntu with a stripped down interface the makes it great for a desktop system. It’s not pretty and it’s really, really unexciting (Satanic Edition may have spoiled me a little on that front) but it’s workmanlike* and usable. In terms of lightweight, general purpose desktop distros, I would still probably go for CrunchBang personally — it’s even lighter and snappier, though it lacks the user friendliness of Lubuntu and is really designed for those who want to tweak their system until everything is Just Right.
Lubuntu gets a lot of things right, especially given it’s a relatively new addition to the Ubuntu family. It’s just really hard to get excited about it and it’s a distro I’d be unlikely to use personally.
* Feel free to suggest a gender neutral version of this. “Workpersonlike” really doesn’t work. Follow Rohan Pearce on Twitter: @rohan_p
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