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Fluxbuntu: User-friendly Featherweight Linux?

Mon, Mar 2, 2009

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Introduction

While Linux is praised for its ability to run on older hardware, modern distributions such as [K]Ubuntu and Fedora eat up lots of disk space, memory, and processing power. And, while there are many smaller distributions that are designed to run on antiquated machines, most of them require years of Linux experience, lest the user risk becoming bogged down in problems. Fluxbuntu’s aim is to be a “lightweight, productive, agile, and efficient” operating system; this review takes a look at Fluxbuntu and whether it lives up to the challenge of creating a user-friendly experience on a tight resources budget.

Installation

Fluxbox, unlike Ubuntu, uses a text-based installation program that might scare away some users that haven’t experienced a text-based install. That being said, it’s really a simple, straight forward process, and it’s necessary to keep resource requirements low. The entire install CD comes in at a slim 306MB, which makes it relatively practical for dial-up users to download (just over one day at 3.5KB/s, compared to 57 hours for a 700MB ISO).

The installation program will detect your hardware for you, ask how you want to partition your disks (or allow you to manually setup your partitions), configure your network, install all the components, and allow you to pick a username. If all goes well, the installation should be as simple as the graphical installations which require much more memory and processing power (not to mention download time) to run.

The desktop

“Fluxbuntu” is a portmanteau of “Fluxbox” and “Ubuntu.” While it is based upon Ubuntu, and uses the Ubuntu repositories for software distribution, it uses the Fluxbox window manager and ROX file manager to build a desktop desktop environment. Both of these programs are featherweights, fitting with the Fluxbox goal of building a system that uses minimal resources. Not to mention, the artwork is simply beautiful:

The Fluxbox Desktop

Those used to Gnome or KDE are likely to feel a little uncomfortable with Fluxbox at first. There is no “start” menu – you access the menu by right-clicking on the desktop. The Fluxbox panel at the bottom serves to indicate the current workspace, switch between open windows, and display a clock. The Fluxbox Configuration program is used to change various aspects of the user interface, although its cryptic options will probably frighten most new-comers (see the Limitations section below).

While Gnome uses Nautilus as a file manager and to display desktop icons, Fluxbuntu uses the light-weight ROX program. Compared to Nautilus, ROX has only a minimal feature set and a rather confusing interface, but there’s no argument that it’s a snappy, stable piece of software. Again, users coming from KDE or Gnome will feel out of place using ROX at first, but once you learn the interface it’s easy enough to use.

Internet applications

Web Browsing
In an effort to keep down the bulk, Fluxbox has tossed Firefox from its default set of applications, and substituted Kazehakase as the default web browser. It has some important features that you’d expect from any browser: tabbed browsing, bookmarks, and integrated search. It also has some more advanced features, such as mouse gestures and integrated RSS feeds (via the bookmarks bar), which makes it feel like you’re not using a completely stripped-down application.

Browsing the web with Kazehakase

It does, however, lack a pop-up blocker, which is just asking for trouble if you do any serious web browsing. Users that need more than the basics will probably wind up installing Opera, which manages to keep itself relatively light while providing a full-browser experience.

Messaging

Fluxbuntu ships with Pidgin (formerly Gaim), which is also the default on Gnome and has a home on many Windows desktops. It supports a load of protocols (AIM, Jabber, Yahoo, MSN, etc…) and is an incredibly mature piece of software. There’s not much to say about Pidgin that hasn’t already been said, since it’s such a standard application, and it’s nice to see that it was included in Fluxbuntu. It isn’t an incredibly heavy piece of software, so it fits in with the light-weight scheme of the operating system.

Mail
Correction: This section previously incorrectly identified the mail client in Fluxbuntu as Sylpheed.

Evolution, included by default in Ubuntu, is far too heavy to be the mail client for Fluxbuntu, so the developers have chosen Claws-Mail in its stead. I personally used Sylpheed, the ‘grandaddy’ of Claws-Mail, as my primary mail client several years ago, and can attest that it is a well-written, fully-functional email program. Users not looking for a complete Personal Information Manager will find it to be easy to use, and powerful enough for their day to day needs.

Claws-Mail has a host of features, such as mail filtering, an address book, and spam filters which make it amazingly powerful for its size. Thunderbird users will be impressed with its speed, and there aren’t any noticeable features missing. Claws is mature enough that some users may even consider switching to it as their default email client on other desktops!

Word processors

While OpenOffice.org is an incredibly powerful office suite, it’s far too cumbersome to run on the dated hardware that makes up Fluxbox’s target audience. That being said, the makers of Fluxbox have included OpenOffice.org Writer with the distribution, probably as an effort to increase compatibility in a Microsoft Word-dominated world. Along with OpenOffice.org Writer, Fluxbox installs Abiword, which is a complete word processing program that manages to keep its footprint surprisingly small.

Abiword inside Fluxbuntu

This is another application that users of other distributions might consider installing on their more powerful machines, due to its extensive feature-set and limited resource use.

Gnumeric is also included with Fluxbuntu, but oddly (see the Limitations section below) it is not placed in the menus – only when I went to install it from the repositories did I discover it was there. This leaves me to wonder what other programs were installed that I haven’t yet found. Unfortunately, those looking for a complete office suite will have to download various applications from the Ubuntu repositories.

Limitations

Although there’s a lot of good things going for Fluxbuntu, you can’t use it for more than a few minutes before running into some serious limitations that make it largely unsuitable for beginners or even intermediate users.

A major limitation is the distribution’s lack of installed-by-default applications. While it makes sense to limit the number of programs included on the installation disk, most people intending to use Fluxbuntu as a desktop operating system will find themselves installing a slew of applications the first few days. As stated above, Fluxbuntu lacks a complete office suite, yet they chose to included two word processors. There is no PDF or image viewer, both of which take up little space (xpdf, xview) and are vital for any desktop.

Another concern is that some of the menu options point to terminal-based applications. Most disturbing of these is the Help command, which points to an Info file. While advanced users might see this and immediately understand how to use the manuals, most will experience a moment of shock the first (and likely, last) time they open this window. For all the time that the Fluxbuntu team spent on artwork – and I must admit, they did an excellent job making Fluxbuntu look amazing out-of-the-box – it’s disappointing to see that something as important as a basic User Guide was not included. Also of note is that most everything in the System menu opens a command-line based program (for example, Aptitude, which is used to add/remove programs), which is not as bad as the Help option, but still makes Fluxbuntu unsuitable for the average end-user.

I decided not to write about the multimedia functions in Fluxbuntu, since any machine on which it is installed will probably be too slow to playback DVDs or movies (and, in fact, will likely lack a DVD drive entirely), but I have to wonder about the choice of mp3/audio player. Instead of going with a product under current development, included in the distribution is the antiquated XMMS. While XMMS was once the end-all-be-all of simple MP3 players on Linux, its glory has been replaced with a selection of other players, with better support (Audacious and Beep immediately come to mind).

Finally, I can’t at all understand the situation with the Fluxbuntu menu. As I stated above in the Word processors section, I only found out that Gnumeric was installed by default after attempting to install it myself; it is not included in the menus at all. Furthermore, the menu includes two entries for applications – “Apps” and “Applications.” While most everything is included under “Apps,” Pidgin is listed under “Applications – Network” rather than “Apps – Net,” while Open Office is listed in “Applications – Office” rather than being placed alongside Abiword in “Apps – Editors.” While this isn’t a particularly big deal (although the complete exclusion of programs is a rather large problem), it smacks of an incomplete desktop. And – since there is no menu editor installed – most users will likely leave this as-is, rather than edit the menu configuration file.

Conclusion

Fluxbuntu bundles a relatively complete desktop experience in ultra-light package. Those with significant Linux experience under their belts might find the operating system to be a miracle that brings their older machines out of the graveyard and back to life. Another good place for Fluxbuntu – and one where I think it is currently more appropriately suited than the desktop, due to its limitations – might be on a home server, where you don’t want all the extras included in Ubuntu, but still want a GUI interface instead of a commandline-only machine. Fluxbuntu certainly has a niche to fill but it has a long way to go, and if you aren’t comfortable using the command line and editing the occasional configuration file, it’s probably best to stay away from Fluxbuntu.

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5 Responses to “Fluxbuntu: User-friendly Featherweight Linux?”

  1. How do I change the time in user-friendly Fluxbuntu?

  2. Mohit says:

    Thanks for the review Jonathan.
    Sadly, I saw it after I installed Fluxbuntu on my old PC in an effort to rescue it for my mother to use for simple tasks. Not such a good idea since Ubuntu’s user-friendliness has been compromised a lot in order to make it (sort of) efficient and very fast.
    And typing help in command was quite unhelpful too.
    I might try Puppy Linux as an alternative.

  3. Dan says:

    You stated in your article:

    As stated above, Fluxbuntu lacks a complete office suite, yet they chose to included two word processors.

    I’d like to point out that Abiword is a word processor, Gnumeric is a spreadsheet program.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnumeric

    • admin says:

      Dan,
      I was referring to the fact that they include both Abiword and OpenOffice.org Writer. A complete office suite consists of more than just a word processor and a spreadsheet application; it also requires (at a minimum) a presentation program (powerpoint/impress).

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