Review: Linux Mint 13 XFCE

It’s really rather good!

From the Linux Mint Website

Updated: 1st September 2012 

If you are experiencing sound problems with Mint 13 then click on this article for more information.

Being a long-time Mint user I to be honest did not really consider any other distribution for this netbook; even the ubiquitous Ubuntu on which it is based. The main reasons were:

  • Ease of installation
  • Reliability
  • Relative speed on modest hardware.

I am told there may be other even lighter weight version of Linux but to he honest I wanted something that was not too primitive. So how doesMint 13 XFCE fair on my new netbook?

Installation

From an ease of installation perspective it really is rather simple, although if you are using an HP DM1 there are some important issues regarding disk partitions that you must follow (see this excellent article by J.A. Watson which is also relevant for Mint 13). As with many netbooks when Linux comes along Wifi and decent fast screen redraws can be a problem. For example without installing new graphics drivers the screen redraws do seem pretty poor although Mint kindly suggests new drivers that you can install and this results in significant improvements and so it’s well worth doing. That said the  driver labelled post release update does not install correctly, so do not attempt to do so or you may experience problems.  The suggested wifi driver also results in significant improvements, with the poor signals and previous disconnections almost removed. However, problems remain sometimes when the machine is restarted and the wifi device is not found. This has happened twice so far and is usually resolved by booting directly into Windows for a moment to restart Wifi then restarting under Linux.

Basic Performance

From a performance respective a quick test under Geekbench seems to result in Linux being significantly faster than Windows. It is worth noting though that this is perhaps a sub-optimal test in that I was running the 32-bit version of Geekbench in both tests under a 64 bit OS. Hence, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Also there are many ways to correctly benchmark computers based on usage patterns and for tasks that explore the graphical power of your machine – these are two aspects which Geekbench does not cover. However, in pure Geekbench performance terms the move from Windows 64 to Linux Mint 64 was quite impressive. For example, with Geekbench Windows 64 achieves a score of around 1600  where as Linux 64 scores approximately 2000. As an indication my old netbook obtained around 900-1000. You can check out Geekbench for more information – although right now all tests say Windows 32 or Linux 32 when in fact many are also 64 bit versions of the respective operating systems. This performance improvement is well worth it and given that Linux is free it makes perfect sense. Using far less technical measures there is also as subjective feeling of improved performance when opening and closing applications.

The system footprint of XFCE is also quite small so it never hogs the machine either in terms of RAM or resource usage, the result is a generally fluid experience that is better than Windows.

User Experience

If you don’t install the graphical drivers then the performance of the GUI can be sluggish. Once the drivers are installed however the interface is fast, responsive and generally stable. XFCE in itself is no Mac OS X but is easy and simple enough to get the job done. That said it seems to crash sometimes and the window decorations (e.g. close, minimize etc) disappear – although the rest of the interface seems to remain live. The result is a rather annoying inability to use the GUI properly. Although not acceptable the problem can be resolved by typing “xfwm4 &” into the terminal, yes it makes “geek” sense and Mac OS X does put this usability “feature” to shame. This bug really must be fixed soon!

Third Party Software

Skype does NOT work out of the box with webcams, while you can see your own webcam for some odd reason no image is sent. Right now I have no idea how to fix this and it is very annoying! Note however, that I installed the official version from Skype and not the officially supported one that is within the Mint repository, However, the one in the repository is so old I don’t think any sane person will use it. There is also frequent problems with crackling sound on Skype, in particular when an alert tone (such as someone coming online) occurs. Also the quality during a call while good for most of the time has this odd problem as well.

Ignoring Skype the range of free software is as ever good, from the excellent VLC media player through to LibreOffice and the superb Lyx text processing system. The latter I would recommend to anyone who wants a document to appear as you want it to appear and not how the word processor tells you how it would like it. The excellent Evolution email client is also available which means you can easily digitally sign and encrypt your emails. Linux also makes the process of generating encryption keys and using them in software much easier than under Windows. Setting up and using this is far more simple than I thought and even can be used with Gmail via Evolution. Also you do not need to buy expensive tools or install anything extra to sign or encrypt your emails beyond the Evolution email client. You can also carry out these tasks using the Thunderbird email client, but in general I found this to be inferior in many respects to Evolution.

Once you get into more bespoke software you may find that only 32 bit versions available or that there may be problems with certain software running under a 64 bit architecture. Therefore before moving to this distribution from any 32 bit version please check you can still get what you require from within the 64 bit software library, unless of course you want to spend time building and installing it yourself.

Should I dump Windows and move to Mint XFCE 64?

I should be honest and say that in many ways I quite like Windows 7, it is generally pleasant and works pretty well; although as we all know it is prone to viruses and other forms of malware. Also you do get the standard real world tools such as Skype (that fully works), Office and of course iTunes. If you move to Linux you have to make some sacrifices in these respects. If however you can live without Office and probably more importantly iTunes then it is a good idea to move as you will not have the same security problems. I would however keep Windows on the system for those Office moments if required.

Conclusion

Well done to the Mint team. As ever though nothing is perfect, in particular the issues with Skype which really should be regarded as a key tool to support out of the box. Skype problems were also around on earlier versions of Mint and seem to be related to the audio architecture or to webcam. Also the annoying window decorations issue really should also be fixed. Aside from the noted issues this is a nice distribution which is fast and worth trying out.

Summary

Good points

  • Performance improvements over Windows of up to 25% (preliminary via Geekbench)
  • Small system foot print leaves resources for other applications
  • Easy installation
  • Easy to use
  • FREE!
  • Good range of software available for download
Bad Points
  • Graphical rendering out of the box sucks, remember to install those drivers!
  • Wifi has a couple of annoying issues, but the additional driver improves things a lot
  • XFCE is not always stable
  • Problems with Skype

 Who should use it: those with modest hardware who are happy with a basic GUI experience, who also do not require a specific commercial application and want to avoid the security pitfalls of Windows.

Reviewed on: HP DM1 Netbook running with an AMD E-450 and 4GB RAM

Using: Linux  Mint 64 XFCE

You can download it from the Linux Mint website or directly from here

About Rod McCall

Rod McCall is a researcher in the field of human-computer interaction in areas such as augmented reality, mobile gaming in-car systems and virtual environments. He has a passing interest in economics after not being entirely convinced by the rubbish presented as fact during lectures on that particular subject while at uni.
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2 Responses to Review: Linux Mint 13 XFCE

  1. H T says:

    —————————————————————
    Xfce loses its window dressing, minimize-maximize-close buttons
    —————————————————————
    Reason: some process used its own window manager but then
    failed to restart Xfce’s standard window manager, xfwm4.
    This setting is stored in the directory (folder) /.cache/sessions,
    so even booting won’t get rid of the problem.

    Solution: Go to /.cache/sessions, delete all files and reboot.
    Select View >> Show Hidden Files (Ctrl+H) in File Manager
    to see the hidden .cache directory.

  2. H T says:

    Previous path has a typo, it is not from the root,
    should have a tilde first:

    ~/.cache/sessions

    (If you were logged in as joe, that would translate to
    /home/joe/.cache/sessions)

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