Linux Xubuntu and Kubuntu impressions

Sat, 2008-08-16 09:25 by admin

My background is that I'm a long-time Windows user, MVP for 12 years, and know Windows inside-out, except Vista, to which I have so far kept my exposure low.

I just got a batch of oldish 700 MHz / 256 MB / 15 GB computers and decided, just for fun, to put xubuntu on them, a lightweight Ubuntu variant. I guess this makes me a good source of well-founded newbie impressions.

The first impression is excellent. xubuntu 8.04 installed quickly, without fuzz, and ran just fine.

Then I had a series of problems. I spent hours trying to install Flash into Firefox, because I tried to follow the false installation instructions on Adobe's web site. Eventually, after endless searching, I found that the solution was already in xubuntu, in an obscure program called Synaptic Packet Manager, and inside that obscurity in another obscurity called "xubuntu-restricted-extras" with the equally obscure description, "Commonly used restricted packages".

Similar procedures repeated themselves when I, for example, tried to access a Windows network. Since Windows networks are ubiquitous, it is difficult to understand why Xubuntu cannot access them out of the box, but even if not, it should at least be discernible what to install.

I think my main problem with xubuntu turns out to be that the needed functions are hidden behind an illogical menu structure and very obscure names. A very typical example is that an outright cryptically named program, smb4k, installs itself into the Accessories sub-menu, rather than into Network, where it clearly belongs. And don't ask how much time I spent on finding out that I actually needed smb4k.

And I won't even complain about its installation taking 130 MB of disk space, but I remember Linux afficionados joking about Windows bloatware. My impression is that such Linux software easily tops anything I've installed in Windows. Anyway, disk space is cheap, so I'm not complaining.

"smb4k" or "Synaptic Packet Manager" means nothing to the casual computer user. The naming borders on sabotage. And this is a real pity, because it hinders the otherwise good stuff a lot, when it comes into the hands of the general public.

The solution seems obvious. Sort these "packets" into a logical hierarchy and give the user some evaluation and assistance on what he needs to install. And add functional names or descriptions to the cryptic ones. Synaptic Packets should be visible as something like "Find and install software".

One could blame the problem on the makers of these pieces of software. The result partly looks like software tools made by computer fanatics for computer fanatics, not for ordinary users. But the ordinary users are the largest part of the market.

Perhaps we need a new structure to perform open usability tests. Microsoft certainly doesn't do everything right, but they do perform usability tests and sometimes even heed the results. Has anybody ever spent some thought on adding usability tests to the open source community?

There are some strange functional gaps in the software as well. For example, through the graphical user interface I can change two parameters of the (unwanted, in my case) mouse pointer acceleration, but I cannot change the much more fundamental mouse pointer speed. But fortunately this seems to be the exception. Most software modules appear to be intelligently designed and crafted, which I find quite admirable.

All this said, after spending many hours more than would have actually been needed, the computers run fine. To say it very briefly, I think the software is good, but its packaging is bad.

[2008-09-21 Addendum] I have meanwhile changed over to Kubuntu, which already contains Windows network access "out of the box". It still runs fine on the weak computers. Perhaps Xubuntu was too minimalistic for me. I can recommend Kubuntu, which uses the more popular KDE graphical interface, instead of Gnome, that Ubuntu uses.