Xubuntu 21.04 Review


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After taking a closer look at Ubuntu Mate 21.04 a few days ago it’s time to check-out Xubuntu 21.04. They both occupy a similar category with their light-weight traditional desktop offerings so we’ll be doing some comparisons as we go.

Xubuntu 21.04 is a standard release with 9 months of support. It sports Xfce’s desktop in version 4.16 a major development over the previous 4.14. It is now GTK3 only and uses Wayland. Linux Kernel is version 5.11, standard for all 21.04 Ubuntu flavors.

Xubuntu 21.04

I downloaded the ISO via torrent. It came in at a lighter 2.0 GB, compared to MATE’s 2.76 GB. As usual, I used Etcher to pass it onto a USB drive.

Installation

Xubuntu uses the same Ubuntu installer and this time I could nicely install Xubuntu alongside the previous Ubuntu Mate installation. Just keep in mind that both the installer and GRUB will refer to all installations as Ubuntu, they don’t seem to be able to distinguish between flavors.

Standard Ubuntu installer allowing side by side installations

The installation went well and very fast at under 4 minutes. Ubuntu Mate needed a little longer at around five and a half minutes. This also reflects the ISO size difference: More data, more installation time.

Boot times are also excellent at under 8 seconds to the log-in screen. MATE needed 4 to 5 seconds longer. Xubuntu also sports the older splash screen without vendor logo.

Htop confirms Xubuntu’s lightness:

  • 477 RAM
  • 80 Tasks
  • 133 Threads

These are very frugal figures. RAM usage is roughly 100 MB lower than with Ubuntu Mate.

The Desktop

I was surprised to find the panel at the top. Other than that this is a very traditional desktop with nothing out of the ordinary. We get an applications menu on the left and the system tray on the right. There are no other virtual desktops in the default set-up. The panel is just a tad semi transparent and there is a slight roundness to items displayed on it. Xubuntu uses icons derived from elementary OS together with the Greybird GTK3 theme. Window borders and controls are quite small. Enlarging a window is a bit cumbersome and I imagine that touch inputs would be a bit more difficult too.

Default look with Greybird theme and elementary icons

Xubuntu uses the same Whisker Menu as we’ve seen in Ubuntu MATE. It is simple but does the job just fine. The system tray items look very sleek reminding me of elementary OS.

Modern system tray

What instantly bothered me was the inability to toggle the menu with the super key! Hitting the super key does nothing at all and we need to use the mouse to open the menu. This can be obviously modified in the settings but I find this default behavior decidedly odd. So, checking the keyboard short cuts I find that we can for example launch the default browser with Super + w but to launch the menu we would need to hit Control + Escape ! What? Anyways that was easily fixed so let’s move on.

The settings are generally more complex in Xfce and require a bit more manual work. I added for example 3 more work spaces for  a total of 4. In order to have them appear on the panel we need to open the panel settings and manually add the desktop switcher item to where ever we wish on the panel. I then tried to move the panel to the bottom but it wouldn’t budge. Turns out we need to unlock the panel in the settings first and then right click on it and choose “move”. Only then can it be moved by dragging it from a tiny icon next to the menu. This work flow is a bit cumbersome and obviously makes Xfce a bit less suited to newbies.

Adding more work spaces to the panel involves some work

Appearance wise we only have a few themes and icons to choose from. I switched to the dark theme and this is when I noticed that the window decorations of the file manager Thunar were different from the settings window. Even clicking the “About” icon on Thunar opened a different style window. Thunar looked pretty odd as you can see from the screenshot below and this was the case with other apps too. Apparently this has to do with Xfce’s move to Client Side Decorations. So far it appears to apply only to dialog windows and system apps so we are left with an inconsistent appearance that is quite annoying to be honest. On a more positive note, I found the included abstract wallpapers really good.

Dark theme clearly showing the issue with “client side decorations”
Usability

Media Playback: The included Parole Media Player played everything I threw at it just fine. There is no dedicated music app included.

Bluetooth: Pairing my JBL speaker worked during the first attempt but just as in Ubuntu Mate we then need to open the device and connect manually for the system to use it. Thankfully no error messages this time around – solid!

Media playback and Bluetooth all good!

Display Options: I was pleasantly surprised to find fractional scaling options in the display settings. We can use 1x, 1.5x or 2x. There is even a custom option. I only tried it on my paltry 1366×768 display so the result of 1.5 isn’t very sharp but it worked without a hitch. I then connected it to my dock with an external display and it easily allowed me to extend my desktop.

Software

As with Ubuntu Mate 21.04, choosing the normal install option during installation provides us with a huge amount of software right out of the box. The office section is identical to Ubuntu MATEs, as is the browser. For mail, however, we get Thunderbird instead of Evolution. Below is a quick highlight of the most prominent apps:

  • Internet: Firefox v.87, Thunderbird, Transmission
  • Office: The complete LibreOffice suite, Atril Document Viewer
  • Multimedia: Parole Media Player, GIMP, Xfburn, Ristretto Image Viewer
  • System: Thunar File Manager, Xfce4-Terminal

To install additional software we have 2 options: Ubuntu’s Software Center and the Synaptic Package Manager. I did a quick test as usual with AbiWord and it downloaded and installed just fine. I also took a quick look at Chromium and it was clearly shown as a Snap. Interestingly the displayed download size was “just” 145 MB – I was expecting a lot more or maybe this was just a launcher of sorts?

AbiWord installed through the Software center. Note the inconsistency with window decorations.
Final Thoughts

Compared to Ubuntu Mate, Xubuntu is clearly better suited for experienced users. There is no hand holding here. Aside from the inconsistent appearance and some odd default choices this was a very solid experience. It is very light and responsive. Boot time is the best I’ve had on this machine so far. No crashes or any significant issues during my time testing it.

I hope others will share their experience with us in the comments section below. Maybe some long term Xubuntu users can give us  feedback on how 21.04 stacks up to previous versions.

Cheers!

Mike

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Mike

Chief geek (editor) and maintainer of distrocrunch.com
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Sam
Sam
5 months ago

Hi there, just a correction: It’s true that XFCE 4.16 uses GTK3, but this only *allows* for running with a Wayland compositor, it isn’t available yet in XFCE.

I’m surprised about all the issues with CSD. I also run XFCE 4.16 on my distro based on openSUSE Tumbleweed, and everything is fairly consistent. I’m attaching a screenshot from my system with Thunar, Evince, and XFCE Settings side by side (the white color in XFCE settings is only because it’s not focused). And Thunar doesn’t use CSD… so I’m not sure what gives.

Screenshot_2021-04-27_08-46-23.png
Robin
Robin
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike

All application without CSD like Thunar have a separate appearance setting for all for SSD in the xfwm4-manager-settings. What you see is just a side effect of using a dark theme for the applications and the xfwm4 is still using greybird’s light theme. It has nothing to do CSD, as CSD applications have no split between client decorations and server decorations, so they are appearing with uniform style. Server Side Decoration i.e from xfwm4 have to be set separately.

Maryam
Maryam
5 months ago

Please make a review of Kubuntu. It is arguably the best Buntu out there.