Xubuntu 14.04 LTS First Impressions

Two days ago, I installed Xubuntu 14.04 LTS on our Zotac Zbox. I don’t “do-release-upgrade”, I always wipe the SSD and install everything from scratch. No matter what the marketing departments are trying to sell you, in my experience there still is no operating system in existence on this planet where upgrades work properly.
I had a ton of PPAs on my Xubuntu 12.04 setup, so in all honesty, the look and feel of the “new” Xubuntu 14.04 isn’t that different to what I had been using over the last two years. The Whiskersmenu is new, ok, the rest is more or less what I was already used to.
The difference is that 14.04 feels a little bit faster, and it certainly feels more polished and whole lot softer around the edges. I didn’t run any benchmarks and I don’t care much for that kind of thing – it’s more important how something feels than what a stop watch says. And Xubuntu 14.04 feels mature, stable and well done. That alone is worth the update.
One thing is broken, however, but that has nothing to do with Xubuntu 14.04: Caffeine 2.6.2 no longer shows a “preferences” menu and it cannot be configured anymore. Since the Zbox is primarily a movie player, this actually IS a problem. I found a couple of bug reports about this topic on the net, so I assume this is going to be addressed in the next Caffeine release. But like I’ve said, it’s not a direct Xubuntu problem – Caffeine is not even in the official Xubuntu repositories. It’s just a bug that appeared because I re-installed everything from scratch. And thus far, this is the only issue that I’ve encountered.
Of course, I’ve also taken a peek a Ubuntu 14.04 (Desktop) and I also have two production servers with 14.04 LTS (Server) at work. No matter what flavor you choose, 14.04 deserves the attribute “trusty”. It is a VERY solid release and if my month with the final beta version of the server is any indication, then it is also a very stable and problem-free release that is well worth the pain of upgrading/migrating from 12.04.
Kudos to the development teams for their excellent work, and also a huge thank you for giving away such great software under Open Source licenses!

Xubuntu 12.04.2 LTS: A subtotal

We’ve been using Xubuntu 12.04 at home for several months now. My wife uses it mostly as a “surf board” and video and music player. Her killer apps are Firefox, smplayer2, Guayadeque and the occasional Shotwell for picture viewing. Naturally, that’s a job that Xubuntu and the Zotac Zbox can handle quite well. While my wife still thinks that no Linux distribution that she’s used so far feels as “whole” as OS X or even Windows (because there are always tiny little things missing everywhere and nothing is ever as polished as it is in the commercial world), she likes Xubuntu and certainly would never trade it for a Windows system. She’s annoyed by anti-virus software, acoustic pop-ups, event sounds and bubble boxes in the system tray. She’d probably describe using Windows as something very similar to reading a boulevard newspaper like the German BILD or the British SUN or like watching what’s called “lower class” TV. These are phrases that I would most certainly use. You could also say that Windows feels “cheap” and mediocre. On the other hand, OS X might be fancy and chic, but as soon as you leave the way Cupertino laid out for you to do things, the system gets in your way all the time. It’s a demanding bitch that eats your money like a slot machine. Even simple programs usually cost a few Euros in the App Store, and the only difference to Windows Freeware or Linux Open Source software is a fancy looking, but usually functionally primitive user interface. The OS X ecosystem is all about looks and design, it’s not about useful features or empowering the user.

Empowering the user is where Linux shines. That is when you are a power user, administrator or software developer. No system lets you do as many geeky things as Linux. No other system gives you so much control, especially on the very low level of things. You want to use VLANs on your Ethernet interface? No problem. You want to scan some host’s ports or capture IP traffic? Be my guest. You want to turn your little desktop system into a full blown LAMP server? Dude, don’t you have any real challenges for your system?

Well, actually you do. You’d like to use ONE piece of software that does as much for you as one of my favorite commercial programs: Apple Aperture. Dang! No go! You want to do edit the videos that you shot yesterday with your smartphone, and you want to use something that is as easy and powerful as Apple’s iMovie. OpenShot might look like your best bet for this, but it can’t hold a candle to iMovie. Heck, even copying multiple large video rips from one USB hard disk to another can become a challenge for Thunar, Xubuntu’s file manager, because it just loves to abort copy jobs with weird error messages when it has to process either too many files or files that exceed a certain size. (That is something that I could observe on several Xubuntu machines, from Thunar 1.2.3. to Thunar 1.6.2). Thunar also lacks many of the simple comforts of Windows Explorer and its context menus are not as functional as those of Windows Explorer. Dragging and dropping files from one Thunar window to another also does not always work as expected, depending on the destination.

Also, you can configure a lot through the GUI in Xubuntu, but not even remotely everything that’s important. It’s also somehow ridiculous that you have to go down to the command line to launch “alacarte” if you want to edit the “start” menu of the Xfce desktop. The default launcher panel in Xfce is of sub quality and the first thing that I remove after a fresh system installation. I use Cairo Dock instead, at least it has that nice little penguin plug-in that lets the cute little Linux penguin do some fun stuff. But Cairo Dock isn’t really stable either. It crashes occasionally and it does not feel 100% integrated into Xfce. It’s okay, but does not feel like it really belongs there.

The real horror begins when you want to keep your base operating system and your applications up to date. That is where Xubuntu/Ubuntu REALLY sucks to the point where you should admit that the whole concept is broken and FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond Any Recognition/Repair).

Ubuntu LTS claims to come with five years of long term support and Xubuntu comes with three years. That’s nice and dandy. The problem is that this does NOT cover the applications that you find in the Software Center; at least not really. For example, there is no chance in hell that 12.04 LTS would ever get LibreOffice 4, you will have to stick with LibreOffice 3 until you upgrade to another release of the operating system. In this case, you would have to upgrade to 13.04, because that is going to be the first release where LibreOffice 4 appears in official Software Center. 12.10 still has LibreOffice 3, but in order to upgrade from 12.04 to 13.04, you actually have to upgrade to 12.10 first.

A few core applications like Firefox and Thunderbird are being constantly updated to the latest versions even in the LTS release, but those are exceptions, not the norm. As a general rule of thumb, if you want to use the latest versions of your favorite applications, forget about the LTS releases and join the six-months upgrade cycle of the interim releases. And pray that the upgrade to the next interim release works and does not break your entire system.

“But there are PPAs for the applications”, you say. Yes, of course you can use PPAs and manually install your favorite apps on the LTS version. But as you might know, PPAs are being purged whenever you upgrade to a new OS release and PPAs are definitely not a user friendly solution to the problem. They are a mess and not supported on a level that would be acceptable for most business or corporate users, for example. PPAs are workarounds for the quickly abandoned software center of each Ubuntu release, nothing more, nothing less. That’s okay for advanced users, it’s a horrible situation for non-technical users who trust an LTS to be worth its name: Long Term SUPPORT. At this point, I consider Ubuntu LTS releases to be a cynical joke because of the application situation. If you think that “stable” is synonymous with “static” or “stagnant”, then the LTS really is the stable release you are looking for.

That leads me to another thing that I encountered only yesterday: The broken “LTS Enablement Stack” that was recently introduced. This thing was meant to back port the latest Linux kernels and X Server stack to the LTS releases. But what I experienced yesterday on two systems made one thing clear: Nobody gives this feature enough care and very obviously nobody tests it thoroughly enough. After having installed the X Server backports, two Xubuntu desktops no longer had visible window titles. From what I’ve found on the Internet, I was lucky: Other people all of a sudden had systems that could no longer boot after a kernel upgrade. I could relatively easily fix my systems by uninstalling the LTS Enablement stuff and re-install some older components. No real harm done. I only lost a couple of hours of my life time on this hack.

But this reminded me of another system update horror scenario that I experienced sometime last year when Canonical decided to push new nVidia graphics drives to the LTS releases. Those drivers were somehow broken and after the installation, the system no longer booted into the graphical user interface and just stayed on the command line. Another example of lousy QA on Canonical’s end, and unfortunately nother example why Ubuntu still is not a good option for end users. These things are not supposed to happen. At all. The system should at least launch in some low resolution VESA mode so that John and Jane Doe still have some graphical user interface. Throwing a command prompt in their face will quickly make them run to a shop and buy a Windows DVD.

Now don’t get me wrong: I like Xubuntu/Ubuntu. I really do. Most of our servers at work run on it and Ubuntu allows us to do a lot of things that we otherwise could not do that easily if at all. Unlike the average user, I make my living in the IT industry and can help myself. Stuff like the problems that I mentioned above doesn’t scare me, it only annoys me and sometimes frustrates me because of the wasted time. However, things like that just shouldn’t be normal anymore for Linux in the year 2013. But still, they are. Which is why even Miguel de Icaza, one of the founders of the Gnome and the Mono projects, moved on to using OS X instead of Linux. When a guy who created one of the desktop environments for Linux gives up and rather uses a commercial product instead, what can we expect from John and Jane Doe?

I know that Canonical are putting a lot of effort into making their platform end user friendly (well, at least on the forthcoming phone and tablet editions that currently get all the attention). I also know that the upgrade problem is currently being addressed and that several proposals are on the table to change the situation. What comes out of it remains to be seen. Even if Canonical manages to fix most of the base problems of the platform, there will still be a shortage of what is commonly called commercial grade software. It will still be hard to find gadgets and computers in your local electronic store that have Ubuntu pre-installed. And then it might still be questionable if the switch to that platform will be worthwhile for most normal users – users who don’t care whether something is Free and Open Source, because they will never ever want to see or modify the source code of something and they just don’t care about such things. They just want a reliable computer or gadget to play Angry Birds, surf the web, do Internet banking, edit their pictures and videos and do all those other casual home user things. Some of them might also want to use the same gadget or computer to work from home. But I’m pretty sure that nobody of them wants to do systems and network administration. They want to USE software, not work on that software.

To be honest, when I’m at home, I more and more belong to that simple user group, too. At work I get paid too fiddle with things, setup new stuff or fix and maintain existing things. At home, I don’t want a software upgrade to break my machine, because I actually only want to watch a movie on that machine or do some writing. I still use computers in my private time, but that time should not be about the computer itself anymore. Unfortunately, in the current state of things, Xubuntu/Ubuntu demands more of time for self-purposes than Windows or OS X would. And that is not good.