Thursday 20th July 2006
Before I begin, I should recommend that you read the article on Ubuntu 6.06 first. Why? Because Xubuntu and Ubuntu, as you might expect, are extremely closely related - they share a common base, which is no bad thing - this allows Xubuntu to build on Ubuntu's strengths, without duplicating work.
So, what exactly is Xubuntu? Essentially, if you start with Ubuntu, get rid of GNOME and replace it with XFCE, similarly replacing some heavier applications with lighter alternatives, you end up Xubuntu. As such, Ubuntu and Xubuntu share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. To prevent rewriting the majority of the article on Ubuntu, I'll just point out the differences along the way.
Having learnt my lesson, I went straight for the alternate CD for Xubuntu, using the text installation. So far as I could tell, Xubuntu's installation is identical to Ubuntu's. So much so, in fact, that it even calls itself Ubuntu in the GRUB menu, which can be somewhat confusing if you also have Ubuntu installed.
Once that's finished, the most obvious difference is, of course, the fact that Xubuntu uses XFCE 4.4 Beta. This entails a few differences. The system section of the menu contains the same applications as the Administration menu of GNOME i.e. those for changing the system itself - that includes Shared Folders, Networking, Synaptic, Disk, Update Manager, and User and Groups. Once again, GParted is absent but easily installed. There are two utilities that may be missed. The first is the more user friendly alternative to Synaptic, Add/Remove Applications. This does make Xubuntu slightly less appealing to the newcomer. Added to this is the lack of a GUI in the menus for adding printers, since the CUPS manager in Ubuntu requires the numerous GNOME libraries. There is a relatively simple alternative in the form of the CUPS web interface, accessed via the address localhost:631. The least Xubuntu could have done would be to add a link in the menus or a bookmark in Firefox. Otherwise, a newcomer could be left completely unaware of how to add a printer.
Although icons are put on the desktop for CDs and USB sticks, you use the right click menu to mount or unmount them. Note that, unlike Ubuntu, you must set privileges for new users in the Users and Groups dialog. Otherwise, users besides the very first will be unable to mount anything, including CDs and USB drives.
Xubuntu seems to have set XFCE up to look as similar to Ubuntu as possible, making it slightly different to the default XFCE (version 4.4 Beta) setup in both Debian and Zenwalk. This makes it more accessible for the new user, while the interface is quickly changed back to normal if you'd prefer it that way.
The settings menu, which roughly equates to Preferences in GNOME, is specific to XFCE, so there is a different set of entries in the menu. However, the entries are still simple and easy to use, seeing as the settings don't tend to affect anything major in the system - just the theme, the menu, the keyboard, and so forth.
The changes in applications include dropping the rather heavyweight OpenOffice.org for Abiword and Gnumeric. Although Abiword is not as fully featured, I've found Gnumeric to have all of the options I've needed, and both don't gobble as much RAM or as many CPU cycles. The only entry in Multimedia is Xfmedia, while graphics is left to the GIMP, Evince and GQview. The Internet applications still include GAIM and Firefox, but Evolution is dropped in favour of Thunderbird - this might be a popular move among some seeing as Thunderbird does appear to be far more widespread than Evolution. Mousepad, the text editor, replaces gedit. Mousepad is lighter, but gets rid of a lot of features - that means no tabs, no spellchecking and no syntax highlighting.
Thunar is the file manager for XFCE, but there is a slight problem that I've found with Thunar - so far as I can tell, it won't let you browse the network. Remarkably, in conjunction with the Shared Folders dialog, this means that it is easier to share your own files than to access other people's shares. Zenwalk overcame this problem with the inclusion of LinNeighborhood. I do not see how Xubuntu is supposed to overcome the problem, meaning I had to resort to the command line - not something everybody would be enthusiastic about. Of course, you could grab something from Synaptic to rectify this, but there really should be something already installed for this.
Besides the loss of Add/Remove Applications, package management takes another hit by the absence of the update notifier, once again caused by the requirement of numerous GNOME libraries. This means that you'll have to check for updates yourself, or set up Software Preferences to do it for you.
The theme of XFCE is the familiar blue of Clearlooks rather than the orange Human theme used in Ubuntu. Xubuntu is stable and seemingly bug-free, apart from one incident where the Applications menu managed to delete itself after I added a panel applet, meaning I had to create a new user and copy over the menu settings. Many other things are much the same as with Ubuntu, such as the situation with SSH and VNC. Trying to use the menu editor was interesting the first time around, since it resulted in another blank menu with no menu editor opening. Oddly, after restoring the menu again, XFCE's menu editor was working fine.
However, I couldn't detect any real speed changes - Xubuntu claims to be a lightweight distribution, yet often feels much the same as Ubuntu. Obviously, the different selection of packages means that many tasks work more smoothly on slower machines, but there isn't much that couldn't be achieved with Ubuntu and some time with Synaptic.
Xubuntu really is just Ubuntu with a different selection of applications. Due to the lack of some utilities, it is slightly less user friendly in package selection, network browsing and printing. Also, it could probably do with some slightly better packages in some areas - for example, to address the loss of those utilities, or a more advanced text editor. However, Xubuntu remains quite user friendly, and accessible to the newcomer. If you're looking for Ubuntu with XFCE and some different, lighter-weight packages, then Xubuntu fits the bill perfectly. If you want a distribution that's been refined and sped up, to make a more lightweight distribution, then perhaps something else would be better suited to you. If you feel confident enough in using Linux, Zenwalk could be a wise alternative. While Ubuntu is clearly a leader of the mainstream distributions, Xubuntu is not as strong in the realm of lightweight distributions. It is a decent first release, but there is still plenty of work to be done.