Minimal Desktops

Posted on Sat 06 December 2014 in Articles • 5 min read

There was a saying I once heard that went something like, "What Intel giveth, Microsoft taketh away". The meaning behind this quote is simple; when manufacturers increase hardware performance, software developers typically add more bloat negating much of the gains.

I've observed this trend for some time now and it's common across all the major desktop operating system. New features typically mean more background process and that means more RAM and CPU cycles. New 3D effects, animations, transitions and graphics APIs typically mean greater reliance on a computer's graphics hardware to offload rendering of the user interface. In my opinion those resources are best utilised for your applications, when you need them, and not your desktop to do fancy windowing effects.

I'm sick of it; yes I'm a grumpy Linux Luddite.

I've posted on my switch to Linux from OS X and this was in no small part due to the bloated memory hog that OS X has become. My laptop is my go-to device for everyday writing, surfing and web-based communication; it doesn't need to be a beast and I shouldn't have to spend $1000+ for that kind of functionality. In truth I could probably do 80% of what I use my laptop for with a cheap android tablet and a bluetooth keyboard but I'd be missing out on a command line and shell scripts, which I'm not prepared to live without.

I've been really happy with my switch to Linux but Linux is not without its share of memory hogging desktop environments, namely Unity, KDE and Gnome Shell.

First off, I want to note that this is not a Unity bashing. I use Unity on my work computer and on decent hardware I find it a responsive and elegant desktop, certainly one with the wow factor. For a long time I also used Gnome Shell and while I like it a lot it's a little heavier than I want and the constant albeit minor problems with extensions breaking every update (or indeed randomly switching off) was starting to annoy me.

My daily personal driver is a cheap Chromebook with an Intel Celeron processor (Haswell generation) and just two gigabytes of RAM. The screen has a paltry resolution of 1366x768. So when I combine these limitations with my desire for a operating system that's light, responsive and gets out of my way it means that I'm looking for an alternative to the big three I mentioned above.

Lucky for me, the Ubuntu world has something for everyone and every computer, including several light weight environments namely Xubuntu (XFCE), Lubuntu (LXDE) and most recently, Ubuntu Mate. Early in November, I started trying out Ubuntu Mate then I tried Xubuntu.

Ubuntu Mate feels like an old friend; it's like Ubuntu before Unity because it uses Mate, the popular fork of Gnome 2. The derivative has exploded in popularity and with good reason. When the 14.04 release came out, I immediately switched from Ubuntu Gnome on my Acer C720 and I also installed it on my home server where's it's been happily running for several weeks. Most recently, I added it to my ageing Asus desktop, replacing Windows 7 Home, and it will likely become my main workstation.

For a while, I was happy. Mate was instantly familiar to me because of my long history with Ubuntu. The environment is light on resources, easily customisable and it stays out of the way. There were several issues though that ended up being dealbreakers (at least temporarily). The 14.04 release of Mate is a little buggier than I'd like for an LTS, moreover there were problems with my chromebook namely the battery indicator not updating correctly and the computer refusing to suspend when I closed the lid. I'll come back to Mate shortly.

Since it was November and I was half-way through Nanowrimo I didn't have time to fix them personally and so I wanted to use a distro optimised for the C720's quirks, namely those produced by the awesome work of HugeGreenBug hosted over at distroshare.com

I decided to try Xubuntu over Lubuntu, just because I'm more familiar with XFCE than LXDE (which I'd only ever used on the Raspberry Pi and never liked it). I was immediately impressed both by the memory footprint (330mb on boot) and by how easy it is to change XFCE to suit my tastes and my workflow (more on that in a later post).

For theming, I went with Numix, as I do across all my installations. I don't know if it's my imagination too but the default fonts and title bars in the theme on XFCE is pleasingly compact, a win on a small resolution screen.

The other thing I appreciate about Xubuntu is the default choice of programs. LibreOffice is a great suite but it's heavy and I don't need most of the features it provides. AbiWord and Gnumeric are sensible alternatives for the odd occasion I need to open a Word or ODF document or when I crunch word counts and scene lists for my books in a spreadsheet.

The file manager, Thunar, is in my opinion seriously underrated. It gets the job done and done well and coupled with Custom Actions it can be tailored to suit any script-driven workflow you have (and I have a few).

I also like the whisker menu and the default desktop search utility, Catfish. The panel is sensible, compact and supports notifications and Unity indicators.

Of course it also has the usual assortment programs common across the Ubuntu universe (Pidgin, Firefox, Thunderbird, Evince etc) and access to the thousands of applications available in the official repositories.

It's also relatively bug free too but with one glaring bug that's rather annoying, namely the mouse cursor goes invisible after resuming from suspend. I mostly use the keyboard but it will be nice when the bug is fixed so I don't have to guess where the pointer is.

Regardless, there's a good selection of lightweight distros out there that can help you get the most out of your hardware while packing enough features to be productive. I may dabble with Lubuntu and Elementary OS at some point. For the time being though, I plan on using Xubuntu and exploring ways to tailor it to my writing workflow.

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