Xubuntu 12.04 review - A most pleasant surprise


Updated: May 17, 2012

Xubuntu is a community-developed Xfce-flavored version of Ubuntu. It is supposed to be elegant, lightweight and easy to use. Reading my previous reviews of Xubuntu Karmic and Natty, you will find my experience to differ from the supposed mission statement. In the best case, Xubuntu was adequate but nothing more. Not quite the replacement for Gnome as some would claim.

Precise Pangolin might just change that. We won't know until we test it. But like its fellows Ubuntu and Kubuntu, version 12.04 is a Long-Term Support (LTS) release, so it'd better be good, otherwise, the reputation stain will haunt it for five long years. Or maybe it won't. Today, all shalt be known. Tested, 64-bit edition on my SSD-ed T61 boxie.

Teaser

Live session - An underwhelming start

Xubuntu launches into a live session that will instantly disappoint you. Slowly, the feeling of subtle meh will fade away, so brace yourselves and hang in there for the first five minutes. Admittedly, the splash screen is nice, with the wallpaper shown instead of a single-color background, allowing for a smooth transition into the session.

The desktop comes with a watercolor-like wallpaper with a dark-gray top panel. An immediate change you will notice is the more KDE-like logo featured, with the little Xfce mouse trapped in a blue circle. Seems like Kubuntu and Xubuntu swapped places.

But that's all right. What you will not like is the array of desktop icons with rather fat and chunky text labels, making the system look old and cheap. Even more annoying is the presence of internal volumes, which really have no place there.

Live desktop with mounted volumes

After one minute of hard work, you can vanish them, and then, the scenery becomes a little more presentable.

Desktop without volumes

More look & feel

Xubuntu also comes with a bottom hide-away panel, which hosts a bunch of shortcuts for your applications and tools. Not a bad idea, but the hide behavior is annoying and inconsistent and some people might never find out about the panel. Moreover, the icons vary in size and shape and give a non-uniform look that undermines the overall session feel. Through the review, I will make amendments, like making the panel's presence permanent and using a different icon set, but more about that later.

Bottom panel

The application menu is arranged with a decent degree or style and usability. You also get a sort of shadow effect, which adds class. The system menu on the right is also quite useful, but it's a bit busy. I also think the icons should be equidistant and more in line with the Ubuntu stock looks. On Windows 7, for example, the vertical battery meter makes sense, as Windows offers a rather chunky 60px taskbar. On Xubuntu, at a height on only about half that, the meter feels cramped. It's all in the small details - equal spacing, add an extra 3-4px padding, and it would be really dandy.

Menu

System menu

And some more more look & feel

Overall, Xubuntu theme is predominantly gray, maybe too much so. For instance, Thunar, the file manager looks clean, crisp and airy, and it comes with a very stylish About menu. On the other hand, the terminal is way too dreary. Some color would help differentiate the context from the container.

Thunar nice about

Thunar

Terminal window

Connectivity, with a bit more looks

One thing that has significantly improved in Xubuntu is the network connectivity. The basic stuff works just fine, but now Samba sharing is also rather splendid. I was able to easily connect to my Windows boxen, without even once referring to the quite-silly-named must-be-removed Gigolo program.

You can also drag-n-drop network locations to the sidebar and keep them as shortcuts for the duration of the session. However, the shortcuts are not preserved after you log out of the session, nor is Thunar multi-tabbed, but it's getting better and more presentable.

Another lovely thing was with screenshots; never before would Xubuntu acknowledge my Samba folders as legitimate locations for storing files. This time, not only did it offer network as a target, the saved shortcuts featured in Thunar were also immediately available, making my work so much easier and on par with the other Ubuntu children.

On top of that, Samba was really, really fast. And Bluetooth also worked quite well. A stellar job here, seriously. And finally, I dare say.

Installation

The installation went smoothly. Overall, it seems a tad improved compared to previous versions; slightly more polish, more attention to detail, more seamless. And faster.

Begin installation

I placed Xubuntu in a quadruple boot configuration, replacing the beta version of Ubuntu on the second internal disk shared with Mint Julia. The slideshow has also improved, showing a more lively spectacle of colors. All in all, a fairly good experience.

Bootloader setup

Slide 1

Slide 2

Xubuntu Pangolin in action - revving up to 9,000 RPM

Once again, let me reiterate, I do not like Xfce. Or rather, I did not like it until this review. But with Xubuntu 12.04, things are starting to look different. On first boot, the little red icon in the system area might alarm you, but it's just the update manager. A better choice of an icon is needed, to avoid confusion with system crashes, which so far were nil.

Installed desktop

Updates icon

Pimping up the looks, settings, usability

All right, before we do anything else, let me tell you about how easy it was for me to tame Xubuntu into looking modern and presentable and less drab than it is by default, a classic case of unsuccessful modesty that the latest Kubuntu also suffers from.

So far, it's all about clean gray, but too much of it. Some things have improved, but there's more than can be done. Still, I really liked system notifications, which stack nicely into the top right corner and there's no stupid gap like in Ubuntu.

Notifications 1

Notifications 2

Pretty much everything you want or need is stored in a single settings menu. You no longer need to wander about through endless recursive options, trying to figure out how to change the theme or icons or windows border. In a way, Xfce is now rather similar to KDE4 in terms of desktop customization.

Settings

Then, I added the Faenza icons, changed the wallpaper, removed the desktop icon text background, changed the font color to white, and replaced the stock windows border to something nicer. End result, a visual joy that parallels the higher-end products.

Theme change

With new icons, wallpaper

Look & feel improvements

New window borders

New effects

Perfect looks

Comparing this to Natty or all the way back to 9.10, there's a quantum leap of quality going on about, and so much more easily attainable. You no longer need to be too much of a nerd to get things sorted out and presented in a reasonable, beautiful manner.

Package management

Xubuntu offered some 110MB of updates right away. Worked fine and sharp. Then, you also have the Ubuntu Software Center, every bit as smart as in Ubuntu, but there's Synaptic for old timers and veterans, too.

Updates

Software center

Applications

Xubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin comes with a very colorful arsenal of programs, including some rather surprising additions or tweaks. You get Firefox and Thunderbird, and there's even GIMP included! No proper office suite though, but you will manage with Abiword and Gnumeric instead.

Other programs include Pidgin, Transmission, Xfburn, Parole, gmusicbrowser, and more. All in all, it's a fairly decent bunch. Not the best, but improving, becoming more usable all the time.

Apps 1

Apps 2

Additionally, most programs come with some cool extras you haven't seen previously. For example, the image viewer has a slide bar, allowing for easy navigation. Let's not forget the aforementioned Samba integration.

Imafe viewer

Another nifty tool is the Application Finder, which ought to let you find all the hidden gems and programs and utilities in your system, although the simple, linear Gnome 2 like menu is perfectly usable.

App finder

Multimedia playback

If you ticked the right box during the installation, you will have plugins and codecs for music and Flash and video and suchlike. Worked just fine. Another interesting surprise was the music player, gmusicbrowser, badly named but rather powerful. It managed to retrieve the cover art for my song, plus it has the ability to mimic the looks of several other players out there, giving you both the functionality and the aesthetics you might want or need. There's also the lyrics plugin, blimey!

Flash

MP3 playback

Player layout

Cover art

More friendly customization

So we talked about getting Xubuntu to look and behave the part quite a bit. I really liked the improved accessibility to system settings and options. One menu to rule them all. There's good Samba sharing, too. A very simple way of making the desktop look the blast with some GTK+ themes and icons, without any conflicts with the Xfce framework.

You can get even more. For instance, the mouse sub-menu lets you configure the trackpad, touchpad and the external USB mouse separately, allowing for taps and clicks and all that. Quite nice.

Mouse settings

Small problems

We did mention some of the tweaks needed to get things sorted out. But the one real problem was the Application Finder crash, even after system updates. For some reason, the program segfaulted. When this happens, you will get a crash alert, and the icon will look identical to your updates, as noted before, which could confuse users.

Crash detected

App closed

Other than that, there's the simple matter of Thunar not preserving shortcuts between logins. Gigolo remains an ugly name for a professional distribution release.

System stability, resources

Other than the one-time crash, there were no other issues. Suspend & resume worked fine. Xubuntu is lightning-fast and responsive. What about the boot speed, you may ask? Well, I will leave that for a separate article, where we will compare all Ubuntu family products together. So stay tuned, that should be interesting to see.

As to system resources, Xubuntu is a very quite, peaceful and lean user of memory and CPU. It exhibits a very quiet processor behavior, with only about 1-2% usage most of the time. Memory consumption is at 12-13%, which translates into about 250MB. Rather impressive, I must say.

System monitor

Conclusion

For the first time EVER, I am seriously, honestly considering using Xfce in my production environment. Never before did I think of an Xfce-flavored desktop as a viable alternative to my mostly Gnome and KDE environment. But now, Xubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin looks like a potential winner.

This says a huge deal about this distribution, about this specific release. It kicks off rather badly, I must say, but then it picks up speed and becomes an awesome train of goodies. Speed, usability, access, even looks, which has always been the underdog of the whole Xfce scheme. However, this time, rather than just focusing on how to please people with ancient machines, the developers have actually conceived a good system that can run and look well on a wide spectrum of machines. Finally. Why did they take so bloody long?

To sum it up, Xubuntu Pangolin is a surprise on all levels. It really works well. I am struggling to find bad words, and it's always so easy for me to blast Xfce and other less popular desktops. Not this time. Sure, some problems do exist. The little glitches, the crash and such. You might expect a proper office suite to be included, or a tabbed file manager, maybe better default looks, small quirks like that. But nothing major or sinister. Overall, Precise Pangolin with the Xfce environment is amazing. Grade wise, 9.5/10, job well done. You must try this one.

Cheers.

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