Friday, May 13, 2011

Canonical sponsored alternatives to Ubuntu

In recent weeks we have seen the introduction and release of the 11.04 versions of the Canonical Ubuntu-based distributions, Ubuntu, which uses GNOME 3.0, but Canonical substitutes the Unity Shell in place of the GNOME 3 Shell, Kubuntu, which uses the KDE 4.6.2 desktop (current as of April; 4.6.3 was recently released as an update; Personal Package Archives (PPA) can track these changes if you want them), Xubuntu, which uses the Xfce 4.8 desktop introduced at the end of January, with updates and patches included since then (some up to Version 4.8.3), and then Lubuntu, the LXDE-based desktop which just recently was recognized as an official Canonical distribution, which means that in future releases, the Lubuntu packages will be in the Canonical repositories with the lubuntu-desktop metapackage, alongside the desktop metapackages for each of the other three supported desktop environments.

All four of these desktops are usable, but the main one, Ubuntu, is in a bit of a state of transition. I found the fundamental features to work, but the flexibility with it at this stage is limited. A year from now, when the next Long Term Support (LTS) release becomes available, these issues ought to be better handled, and hopefully completely resolved. In the meantime, the other three alternatives represent very solid alternatives to Ubuntu. If you want a full featured desktop with even more flexibility than Ubuntu has ever offered, then try Kubuntu. It continues to evolve and improve, and this may well be the best release they've had. The only complainers I have seen have been those with multi headed displays and an arrogant attitude. Most others have had high praise for Kubuntu. If you would prefer to have something slightly lighter and a bit closer in features and appearance to Ubuntu, then try out Xubuntu. It may be the best overall compromise of the bunch, enough features to handle most every daily chore, but not too many extra bells and whistles. On the light end, Lubuntu is easily the lightest and fastest member of the Ubuntu family. It sacrifices some of the convenience tools and flashy graphical capabilities for a simpler, lighter, faster feel and performance. All of these distributions, however, have common software repositories, so if a certain application is missing from one of them, the software manager is more than capable of finding and installing them.

APT stands for the Advanced Packaging Tool - it is a package management system for Debian GNU/Linux. The apt family of tools can be used from a command console to update the package cache, install or remove one or more packages, to search for packages, and to ensure that any dependent libraries are installed along with whatever applications are installed. Debian includes a number of different command and graphical interfaces to the APT environment. Kubuntu uses Kpackagekit as its default tool; Ubuntu uses the Ubuntu Software Manager, and Xubuntu offers a choice of the Software Manager or Synaptic. Lubuntu makes Synaptic available. Note that you can acquire any of these tools from the Ubuntu repositories for any of these systems, so if you don't see what you want, install it.

The Ubuntu-based distributions are a nice blend and compromise between the tremendous flexibility available in Linux software and the simplicity of the user interface in proprietary systems from Apple and Microsoft. Critics of Linux-based systems claim that Linux is more complicated and difficult, but those who say that are often simply not as familiar and well educated with the differences between Linux and their favorite system. Even the arguments that too many choices are provided and confusing is a weak argument: derivative distributions from other projects, such as the Linux Mint project, the PCLinuxOS project, and the SimplyMEPIS project, clearly demonstrate that the software need not be overwhelming or overly complicated in order to be useful. All three of these projects have derivatives within themselves to promote and exploit several features, which speaks to the flexibility of each one of them and of the underlying Linux systems. In the case of Mint, this software directly descends from the Ubuntu project. It is not a Canonical sponsored project, but it does represent a viable alternative to Ubuntu, and it is one that I expect quite a few people will be investigating; a release candidate of Linux Mint 11, built on the code in Ubuntu 11.04, is now available.

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