Lubuntu: Floats Like a Butterfly, Stings Like a Bee

Some complain that there is simply too much choice in the free software world and far too many Linux distributions. Well, now there's another called Lubuntu. A derivative of Ubuntu with the LXDE desktop, it's super light and very fast. Finally, there's an Ubuntu perfectly suited to those older, low end machines!

It seems there’s a new Linux distribution every other second these days. Someone takes openSUSE, changes the wallpaper and we get a new distro. It’s ridiculous.

We have the official and non-official *buntus – Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu (sort of), Gobuntu (R.I.P), Mythbuntu, Eeebuntu, Fluxbuntu and Xubuntu.

Not to mention Ubuntu Server Edition, Ubuntu MID Edition, Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Ubuntu JeOS, Ubuntu Studio, Ubuntu this and Ubuntu that.

It’s enough “buntu” to drive you mad and now we have Lubuntu. It’s Ubuntu with yet another desktop environment, LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment), which is in-turn based on Openbox.

Desktops and more desktops

How did all these different distros come about? Well, primarily it’s because of the way Ubuntu works – when you install Ubuntu you get the GNOME desktop by default – there’s no choice, unlike with most other distros. Now if a user wants KDE they are directed to download Kubuntu, which gives them an Ubuntu base system with the KDE desktop. Although not actually an official derivative, Xubuntu takes the base Ubuntu system and adds the Xfce desktop.

Most of these projects have been initially developed by the community and some later adopted as official derivatives. Do we really need so many different distros? Isn’t it confusing for the end users and a waste of effort duplicating all those install images? I mean, KDE and all those other desktops are (of course) already in the Ubuntu repositories, so couldn’t the Ubuntu installer just ask the user which desktop to install? It could even be a boot time option like Gobuntu has become.

This is the way most other distributions work. We don’t have KopenSUSE or Kandriva (although that does sounds pretty good). Most other distributions give the user the choice during the install process, where they can pick from any number of desktops. Even Debian does it. Ubuntu could do the same thing too, but it doesn’t.

If a user is running Xubuntu, are they still running Ubuntu or an entirely different operating system? Compare this to someone who uses Fedora. Whether they are using GNOME, KDE, Xfce or any other desktop they are still using Fedora. Perhaps it’s because Canonical doesn’t want to support multiple desktops and therefore have to spread their resources thin and would rather concentrate on only one, making it the best it can be? That’s probably fair enough, but it makes other desktops second rate citizens and that’s a shame. Then again, perhaps it’s what has contributed to Ubuntu’s success? Less choice.

Most of these custom projects grew up out of the community who wanted to see their favorite desktop supported well on their favorite distribution. In the case of Lubuntu, however it’s a little different. The developers of LXDE received an invitation from Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth earlier this year to create an official desktop alongside Ubuntu. This in turn would become an official derivative, à la Lubuntu.

Is there a need?

What’s the point of yet another desktop? Choice of course. Ubuntu is simply not designed for older, lower end computers. Its GNOME desktop and default applications use far too much memory for most old systems, but it would be a shame to waste those older machines. Linux is famous for being able to run on anything – but Ubuntu certainly doesn’t. Of course, by “Linux” we’re talking about specific custom distributions designed with small footprints, but there’s no reason Ubuntu couldn’t also fit the bill. Well, technically “Ubuntu” cannot because it means GNOME, but through an official derivative, *buntu could also support these older machines.

Before we get too ahead of ourselves however, doesn’t Xubuntu already achieve this? Well, sadly no. The Xfce desktop is very lightweight and well suited to machines with small amounts of memory and processing power, but Xubuntu’s implementation has essentially massacred it. They’ve taken the beautifully lightweight desktop and strangled it with various heavyweight components from GNOME. In all fairness to the project however, they do not claim that Xubuntu is designed for older machines – that’s just something the community has assumed on their own. It might be more lightweight than Ubuntu itself, but if so it’s not by much.

Older machines tend to be slower in more ways than one. Sure their processors can’t crunch numbers as fast, but they also have less memory and slower hard drives. A system with a small amount of memory often runs out of RAM and has to swap out to disk. Swap usage is bad. A Linux box should never have to use its swap space. It’s there to save your system if you run out of memory, it’s not designed for every day use.

Swap out to a slow old disk and your system is now even slower then you can imagine. It’s all good to use an operating system which can boot within the limits of available RAM, but users have to also ensure that the applications they use will also fit within the smaller memory pool. If not, it doesn’t matter how lightweight your system is, once you start swapping to disk the system will come to a crawl.

Simple comparisons

So then, how does Lubuntu stack up to the current lightweight king of the Ubuntu world, Xubuntu? Due out next month, development versions have been hitting the mirrors so it’s not too hard to see where these systems are currently at, via a few simple tests. It’s important to remember that these are not the final images, but they should provide some insight all the same.

The first test is simply to check how much memory is used after a fresh boot of the respective live CDs, all the way into the default desktop.
Lubuntu: 57,908 KB
Xubuntu: 156,852 KB
Ubuntu: 153,840 KB

It’s clear here that Lubuntu is the outright winner using almost two thirds less memory than the others. Interestingly, Xubuntu is using slightly more memory than its big brother.

The second test compares the amount of memory used when opening every day applications on the live system. While not completely realistic, it shows how application choice can greatly affect the performance of a system.

Lubuntu with every day applications loaded, including a terminal (LXTerminal), file manager (PCMan), calculator (Galculator), image viewer (GPicView), text editor (Leafpad), archive manager (Xarchiver), web browser (Firefox), mail client (Claws), chat program (Pidgin), bittorrent client (Transmission), audio player (Aqualung), video player (MPlayer):
Usage: 162,272 KB

Xubuntu with every day applications loaded, including a terminal (Terminal), file manager (Thunar), calculator (Gcalctool), image viewer (Ristretto), text editor (Mousepad), archive manager (File-roller), web browser (Firefox), mail client (Thunderbird), chat program (Pidgin), bittorrent client (Transmission), audio player (Exaile), video player (Totem):
Usage: 311,560 KB

Ubuntu itself with every day applications loaded, including a terminal (GNOME Terminal), file manager (Nautilus), calculator (Gcalctool), image viewer (F-Spot), text editor (Gedit), archive manager (File-roller), web browser (Firefox), mail client (Evolution), chat program (Empathy), bittorrent client (Transmission), audio player (Rhythmbox), video player (Totem):
Usage: 289,744 KB

Once again this shows that Lubuntu, with its lightweight desktop and carefully chosen applications, is certainly the lightest of all by a reasonable margin. Xubuntu manages to use slightly more memory than Ubuntu and almost twice as much as Lubuntu. If you’ve got a system with 256MB of RAM or less, Lubuntu is the only way to go.

What is also interesting is that Ubuntu itself, even with is GNOME desktop and heavier applications such as Evolution and F-Spot, is actually using less memory than Xubuntu – the perceived lightweight option for the community. While a testament to the continued refinement of the desktop, it just doesn’t stack up for Xubuntu!

Finally, something for older machines

Although none of these version tested are the final releases, there is no doubt that Lubuntu is the new lightweight king of the Ubuntu world. It simply blows the others away.

Installing Lubuntu also doesn’t restrict the system as users still have the full range of Ubuntu packages at their disposal and can configure the system however they’d like. The default applications are just recommendations, selected for their small memory footprint, however any program can be installed.

Certainly Xfce is a nice lightweight desktop, but with the implementation in Xubuntu one has to wonder what future the project will have. One thing is certain, if they don’t want to be pushed aside then they are going to have to pick up their game. Even Ubuntu is beating it on memory usage.

If you use Ubuntu on old computers, the yet-to-be-released Lubuntu is the only sensible choice. In the meanwhile, you can get the same experience today by performing a “command-line system” install using the Ubuntu Alternate CD (press F4 at the boot menu) and then installing the “lxde” desktop package afterwards. Go ahead, your old machines will thank you for it.

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