It was just a few months ago when Ubuntu announced they were killing off Unity, their main desktop option. Many people were wondering if this was part of their larger pivot towards more profitable ventures and thus they would be leaving the desktop behind. I too was filled with worry about that potential outcome but calmed myself remembering that I was not locked into one vendor for my OS any longer. In the intervening months however it has become clear that Ubuntu is not killing of the desktop, far from it. In fact the strides they are taking with Ubuntu 17.10 and Ubuntu 18.04 look like they are about to put out the strongest desktop offering to date. Not having to carry the weight of a phone platform, their own desktop environment, etc. has allowed their team to focus on giving positive contributions to Gnome proper. I’ve had the opportunity to play around with the Ubuntu 17.10 betas and have to say that I don’t think I’d be missing anything from my current Ubuntu experience. I look forward to upgrading to 18.04 when the time comes and no longer worrying about if one of my desktop baselines was going away.
As the whole “what happens to Unity” thing unfolds I decided to redouble my efforts in trying different distros again. I’m trying everything from trailing edge (latest Debian) to bleeding edge (Solus). As luck would have it it was time for me to refresh one of my development VMs so I decided to jump that one from Mint to Solus to give it a real world spin. My first impressions are that it is a really interesting distro and one I’ll keep playing with but there is one not-so-tiny problem that hopefully they will grow out of.
As much as I’ve never been a fan of Unity I’ve learned not to hate it as much as my host OS (and even in some of my VMs). Sure, my go-to desktops of late are mostly MATE distros or Cinnamon, but Unity hasn’t been completely unacceptable. With Ubuntu’s recent announcement of the demise of Unity and people openly pontificating on if this means Ubuntu is abandoning the desktop or looking to sell to someone like Microsoft who will then kill it on the desktop I started to analyze what this meant to me as a Linux desktop user. Is this the end of the road for that journey and therefore back to Mac or, god forbid, Windows?
I’m being impatient, and it’s my own fault. I started that Linux Craptop experiment to see how much mileage I could get out of a decade old laptop running a lean(ish) Linux. That actually became my only home laptop while my 6+ year old (I think) MacBook Air was getting its battery replaced. I was going to “suffer” through it for just the few days and then the MacBook would hold me over for at least another couple of years. At this point however I’m really chomping at the bit to retire that Mac and go Linux full bore.
At the beginning of January I decided to try my hand at using a ten year old laptop running Linux Mint MATE as my daily at home machine. While there is certainly some cruft associated with using such an old machine for the most part the experience was perfectly fine. In fact I’m using it right now to write out this article. I wouldn’t recommend running out and buying one solely for the purpose, but the fact remains that Linux Mint MATE, and probably Ubuntu MATE as well, provide a great average user load experience on underpowered hardware.
I was away for a week so couldn’t do my Linux craptop experiment. Sorry, but I refuse to be beholden to a ten year old laptop while on travel. So now, today, is the second day that I’m using this as my primary machine for when I’m browsing the Internet and doing things while I’m watching TV on the couch. Yes that seems like a limited subset, but I spend a good amount of time vegging in that state so it’s not as insignificant as it seems. I’ll have a thorough breakdown of my experiment at some point but by far the biggest nuisance I have that is driving me crazy is the lack of trackpad gestures.
When gestures first came out for laptops I thought they were mostly gimmicky, but once I had my first laptop that really had them I was hooked and didn’t know it. Now that I’m trying to use a laptop without them I’m finding it very cumbersome. It’s not a total loss however because this trackpad has the beginning of gestures in the form of scroll bars on the right and bottom sides. I can simulate the scrolling to some extent which is a big part of my gestures, but it really isn’t the same thing. How did we live without gestures all this time? At least Linux Mint Mate 18 supported these limited gestures out of the box for this ancient laptop.
Sometime in 2016 the Linux Action Show podcast on a yarn decided to run both a modern and then a contemporary version of Linux on ten year old equipment. As luck would have it along with my other eccentric hobbies I also have a classic computer collection. One of the computers in my collection that I ran across recently is a Dell XPS M1530 from late-2007 (specs). I bought it as not too crappy but not so great home laptop suitable for browsing the internet, doing my home finances, et cetera. Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess, I have decided to try to use this laptop as a modern browsing computer for a little while. With a 2.6 GHz Intel Core2 Duo and 4 GB of RAM it shouldn’t do too bad, especially with the 4 GB of RAM. I’m going to run Linux Mint MATE18.1 to give it a fighting chance. Ubuntu and Cinnamon require a bit more graphics and CPU horsepower and while the 4GB of memory should allow it to hold its own to some extent, the ten year old processors and graphics cards will suffer. MATE on the other hand is far lighter weight and more streamlined.
Probably the biggest hiccup is going to be the battery. This is the original battery from ten years ago. I doubt that it is going to hold up well to being unplugged. That’s okay though, I’ll be able to leave it plugged in while I’m using it without much inconvenience. I’m not going to make this my primary laptop or anything so if I can only use it while tethered to the couch then so be it.
I’m currently finishing up patching the system, getting printers setup, and doing software installs for things like Chrome. I look forward to playing around with this in the coming weeks and reporting on it. In fact I’m writing this very blog post in FireFox on it right now while the OS patches continue to progress…