|What Users Want -- Selecting a System for Their Needs|
|By Howard Fosdick on 2013-06-24 03:00:33|
|I volunteer as tech support for a small organization. For years we relied on Ubuntu on our desktops, but the users didn't like it when Ubuntu switched to the Unity interface. This article tells about our search for a replacement and why we decided on Xfce running atop Linux Mint.
We tried MATE because it's based on GNOME 2. It sounded most similar to Ubuntu back when it used GNOME. MATE includes GNOME 2 applications that are forked and renamed: Caja file manager (from Nautilus), Pluma text editor (from Gedit), MATE terminal (from GNOME Terminal), Marco window manager (from Metacity), and Eye of MATE image viewer (from Eye of GNOME).
Xfce: Simple Hits the Spot
My users liked MATE, but then I downloaded Xfce and added it to our base install. Bingo! Xfce was an instant hit. With its simple, straightforward desktop, you can see why. How to use Xfce is obvious, regardless of whether one comes from a Windows, Mac, or Linux background. Even beginners can use it without help. Xfce buries the old canard that Windows is easier to use than Linux once and for all.
Xfce Menus: Simple, old-fashioned ...
and exactly what many end users still prefer.
Xfce is easy to customize. I moved the top panel down to the bottom of the screen with just a mouse click and a drag-and-drop. You can quickly add, remove, and alter panels. And you can easily add quick launch icons and applets to either panel(s) or the desktop. Xfce runs light. Current computers handle any OS + UI combination with ease, but we still have some old machines. Mint 13 with Xfce runs runs fine on a Pentium 4 and rarely swaps to disk even with only 512M memory. It really flies on a dual-core machine with a gig or two.
You can add quick launch icons to the panel as easily as in Windows.
Xfce doesn't try to jam an interface designed for touchscreens onto your desktop. This Register review summarizes why our users like it: "... Xfce isn't planning to try "revolutionising" the desktop experience... The focus is generally on improving existing features...rather than trying to out whiz-bang the competitors... If you've felt left behind by GNOME's attempt to redefine the desktop experience and just want a desktop that works the way it always has, Xfce fits the bill."
Xfce is missing a few things. It comes with an "App Search" function, but I couldn't find a "File Search" or "File Content Search" tool. No problem, just download one with the Synaptic Package Manager. Gnome-search is spare and simple, or try SearchMonkey or Catfish for more features. I also downloaded the gnome-system-tools package to manage user id's. You might need to update the Xfce menu, as I found it placed one or two applications in odd menu positions after I installed them. Alacarte does the job. Finally, Xfce bundles lightweight apps. You may favor some alternatives, which you can get through the repository.
Of course, Xfce's biggest "shortcoming" is that it doesn't have the cool new interface of a Cinnamon or MATE. My users like it that way. But others will prefer Mint's more featureful, state-of-the-art GUIs.
Mint also has its quirks. You must define a swap partition during the install, even if your system has a ton of memory and might never need it, or you could have install difficulties. If you really don't need disk swap space, use the kernel's zRam feature to define memory as swap. Or reset the swappiness control variable from its default of 60 to a low value like 10. The lower the value the less the system swaps. (You can eliminate swapping altogether by setting swappiness to 0 but then the system will crash if it needs to swap and can't... a problem when it Suspends or Hibernates, unless you've made advance plans.) To view your swappiness value, enter:
$ cat /proc/sys/vm/swappiness
To permanently change swappiness, edit the file /etc/sysctl.conf as root. Add or change the line with variable vm.swappiness to your desired value:
Then reboot for the change to take effect. (A simple logoff/login will not effect the change as this is a system-level parameter.)
Other issues? The Mint Update Manager has no version Upgrade button. We only upgrade from one LTS release to another, so this is no problem for us. For those who prefer frequent upgrades and install intermediary releases, this is a feature that Ubuntu has and Mint lacks.
The biggest issue with any Linux distro is whether it will work with your hardware. Certain laptops and odd video cards are the usual culprits. Our computers are all desktops, and out of twenty-odd machines, the sole problem we encountered was with the Suspend function on a couple early dual-core AMD boxes. We just turn them off when not in use. I was especially pleased that Mint recognized every one of our diverse WiFi cards -- not always common components in desktop computers.
By now I'm sure some readers are ready to flame me for promoting a "boring interface" or for "resisting learning something new." But this isn't about what you or I would run on our computers. We're excited about the new directions of Windows 8, Unity, and GNOME 3. End users with desktops and laptops are not. They don't want to spend time learning new software unless it clearly benefits them. If you're not using a handheld, it's not clear that these new interfaces do.
Perhaps there will come a day when users expect their desktops to mimic their handhelds. If so, that day has not yet come. Today, desktop and laptop users find Xfce easier to use than either Unity or Windows 8. Mint with Xfce makes a great platform for those who just want to use computers without hassles.
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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems.