A YouTuber I have followed for years just posted a series of videos about the new monster Linux computer he just built. This thing has an eight-core processor. Each core is multi-threaded, so his System Monitor reports 16 cores, mind you. It has 32 GB’s of memory, a video card with two cooling fans and four GBs of dedicated video memory… What a beast! Just like some who loves overpowered sports cars, there are those in the Linux world who get a charge out of having way more computing power than they’d ever really need. It’s cool with me ’cause it takes all kinds to make a Linux ecosystem. Me? I get more of a kick out of taking some old heap that most folks would send off to the recycling center without a second thought and putting it back in service. Linux offers you the ability to do just that and I have been able to build a small network of computers cobbled together from spare parts and cast-offs from client’s machines I’ve repaired or upgraded.
The ability of Linux to run on older hardware is often one of its selling points but there are some provisos and caveats to that claim. First off, we gotta get a handle on the definition of the word “run.” Lots of popular distros publish minimum requirements for hardware but if one were to actually install those distros on a machine with the published bare minimum requirements and then try and actually use it they would probably end up bashing their heads repeatedly into the keyboard in frustration. I don’t want to single anyone out but Ubuntu with a full Unity Desktop will technically run on a 700 MHz processor with 512 MB’s of RAM but it would be dreadfully slow. If you actually plan on trying to use Ubuntu, I would suggest that realistically you should have at least a Core Duo processor with 2 GB’s of RAM and accelerated graphics.
Enter Linux Lite: It’s one of the several distros available these days that claim to be good for low resource applications like older computers designed with Windows XP in mind or Netbooks. It is based on Ubuntu 14.04 LTS and they are up to version 2.8 as of February the First. I am typing this article on an eMachine that is around eight years old now that is running Linux Lite. It has a single core 3.33 GHz Celeron 64 bit processor with no multi-threading, two GB’s of 533 MHz RAM and integrated Intel graphics with 128 MB’s of dedicated video memory. The hard drive is an old Western Digital Caviar 160 GB I’ve had knocking around for at least ten years. The memory came from a client’s machine I upgraded but I have yet to find a DVD drive that will work with the power supply. Believe it or not, this computer will happily run Ubuntu with Unity or Linux Mint with Cinnamon, but it does tend to get bogged down easily so I have been searching for a lightweight distro to make it more useful. I’ve tried all kinds of lightweight distros on it with mixed results but the one that has truly lived up to its promise of usable performance is Linux Lite.
My first experience with Linux Lite was when my brother asked me to help him get started with Linux. The computer he’s using is an old Dell XP machine with a whopping 512 MB’s of ram. I recommended Lite to him on reputation alone and I must say that I am impressed with what he’s been able to get that machine to do. So I decided to give Lite a try myself. Wow! This thing is working better than I have ever seen it work before. The Linux Lite developers have come up with a true low-resource distro but one that has access to a lot of software. Many lightweight distros come with low-end software and by the time you install everything you need to make them useful, they’re not lightweight anymore.
So, what makes Linux Lite different? Well, for one thing, they do everything they can to reduce the number of flops your CPU has to deal with just running the Xfce desktop. If you use desktop effects, a compositor or have services running in the background, like daemons to watch for system updates, the machine will run slower. Linux Lite has eliminated as many of those as they could. It’s actually not so much about memory but the number of processes running at any given time. This becomes critical when running modern software that is designed for later multi-core processors on single core processor equipped hardware. A single core processor struggles with them already and the fewer already-running processes they have to deal with before launching such an application, the better.
The other thing that makes Linux Lite unique is the way they have enhanced what could be a very boring distro with tools and tweaks that make getting it up and running and maintaining it a snap. The first thing you’ll see after installing it is the Welcome screen with a “Start Here” and clicking on the highlighted button will guide you through installing updates and choosing software.
The “Lite Software” app gives you a list of popular Linux software and installing it is just a matter of ticking a box. This is quite handy for getting Google-Chrome installed and many other applications that require adding repositories in regular Ubuntu. The user can launch this app again to remove anything they installed that they find they don’t want to use. Of course, being based on Ubuntu the Install/Remove software link (Synaptic Package Manager) will allow you to put anything on the system you like
One of the curious things about the Xfce Desktop is that the “All Settings” menu doesn’t really show you all of the settings most of the time. The Lite developers have added an icon in the panel that takes you to the Light Control Center which is an app that brings all the distro’s settings into one place. It’s well organized and easy to figure out. Even a novice computer user should be able to follow along.
They have also included a tweak tool for more advanced users and updates are easily done by clicking “Install Updates” in the pre-configured Xfce Whisker Menu. All, in all, this is a very well done distro and a good place for newbies to start.
All was not Unicorns and Rainbows when I got into setting up Linux Lite. I did come across some weirdness that made me scratch my head for a while. The first problem I encountered was when I went to setup a second account for Cindy. She occasionally uses this machine to check e-mail and stream Spotify while she’s cooking. The system uses the familiar Ubuntu Ubiquity installer and it sets up the admin account in the usual fashion, asking for the user’s full name, password and so on. Those who wish to create additional user accounts are presented Lite’s User Manager utility. It is very simplistic in nature and only asks you to give it a username and password when creating a new account. It doesn’t take any of the Finger info such as the user’s full name and picture and it does not designate whether they will have administrative access to the computer. Each new user is setup as a standard user and you must manually add them to the ‘sudo’ group to give them admin rights. No big deal, I thought, I can log into Cindy’s account and put in her name and picture using the ‘About Me’ app. Wrong. About Me opens with the field’s for a user’s name ghosted out. You can’t add the name there at all. Plus, making any change requires admin privileges.
I can understand perfectly why a standard user would be prohibited from changing their group access but why can’t they change their profile pic or edit their Finger info? The About Me app is effectively useless and since I am a stickler for doing things ‘right,’ I opened a terminal and used the chfn (change finder) command to entire Cindy’s full name. I added the picture by simply dragging into her home folder the .face file I have backed up. Many Linux desktops use this little .face jpg file to display a user’s avatar nest to the name at login and so forth, Xfce included.
The documentation for Lite’s User Manager app states that it cannot be used to change a user’s password once set at the time the account was created. It recommends opening a terminal and using the passwd command. This is an area the Lite developers need to take a closer look at and I would recommend that they implement a better way of doing things here. There are good user management applications currently available that handle all of the above-mentioned functions in one place and much more logically.
The next issue I ran into was not quite so easy to work around because it involved the way the computer handled locking the screen and suspending after being idle for a while. This is not a Linux Lite specific issue because I have run into it on other distros that feature Xfce.
Here’s what I want the machine to do: First, I want the monitor to go to sleep if I didn’t touch the machine for 30 minutes. If I should hit the space bar after the screen has gone off, I want the monitor to come back to life and I don’t want the screen locker to come on. Now, If I don’t do anything with the machine for an hour, I want it to automatically suspend. I do want the screen locker to be on when I come back and tap the power button to wake it up. This will discourage nosy people from messing with my computer when I’m not around. Also, there needs to be a ‘Switch User’ option available if Cindy wants to get into her account and my account is suspended and locked. This sort of functionality works fine with most Linux desktops but can be a pain in Xfce. It certainly was in Linux Lite.
I’m not entirely sure why this is such a problem but I suspect that it has to do with the fact that there are three applications that all have something to do with it. Power Manager, Light Locker, and Xscreensaver. Each one presents similar setting options that don’t interact all that well and give the user unpredictable results. In my case, the first settings combination I tried made the monitor go off after only 15 minutes and come up locked, the second combination made the monitor go to sleep after the desired 30 minutes but it was still locked when awakened and the third combination I tried had the machine never locking the screen at all. Arrggh!
I found a workaround that does make all of this work flawlessly. The trick is to eliminate the now archaic Xscreensaver application and replace Light locker with the Gnome Screensaver. I’m just using the Gnome Screensaver as a screen locker here…
First you have to purge the Xscreensaver and Light Locker programs completely from the machine. It’s important to remove the packages and their configuration files so there are no future configuration conflicts with the Xfce Power Manager:
sudo apt-get purge light-locker screensaver
After that is complete, install Gnome Screensaver:
sudo apt-get install gnome-screensaver
The next thing to do is change the command for the “Lock Screen” button in the Xfce Whisker Menu. Right-click the Menu bottom, choose ‘Properties’ from the pop-up and then select the ‘Command’ tab. You’ll see that all of the buttons have commands associated with them. You can either uncheck the box next to ‘Lock Screen’ to remove it from the Whisker Menu or change the command in the text box to:
I like having that button so I went on a changed the command. Now I can lock the screen if I want to take a short break and not have prying eyes looking at my stuff.
In conclusion, the issues I listed above were minor ones and anyone who isn’t planning on having a multiple user setup or cares much about the lock/suspends function can just ignore them. Linux Lite is a damn good distro. It’s not just for low-end hardware, either. Anyone who wants more resources devoted to applications can take advantage of its streamlined design.