Ubuntu has rolled out with version 11.10 of its distribution (or should we say that Canonical rolled out with Ubuntu 11.10?). This is the second release that features Unity front and center, but unlike 11.04, there is no backup option to allow users to drop back to GNOME 2. To make matters more complicated, GNOME has pushed GNOME 3, also similar to Unity and a complete break from the GNOME 2.x line of desktops. Just as the options for Linux desktop environments is growing confusing quickly, so, too, are the options for a stable, functional distro itself.
None of this is an issue for an Ubuntu user if you’re happy with Unity. But there is quite an undercurrent of users who are uninterested in Unity. They miss the familiarity and productivity that they had with GNOME 2, and even if the larger aim of making Unity a formidable UI is a group effort, many feel miffed for having been co-opted without an opt-out. The notable number of disaffected users seems apparent when webpages in the top 10 or 20 search results include things like Sick of Unity in Ubuntu 11.10? Give Xubuntu a try and Introducing Ubuntu 11.10 Without Unity. So to recap, the GNOME users in the Ubuntu ecosystem are looking to using other desktop environments like Xfce (via Xubuntu) or LXDE (via Lubuntu), some people have rolled out a PPA to install the GNOME 3 desktop (GNOME shell), and others have moved upstream to Debian or to Debian/Ubuntu derivatives like Linux Mint.
At first, I tried the default Unity. It was pretty sluggish, to behest. Make that is because my main development computer is nothing more than a cheap PC version of a Mac-mini (aka, HTPC). But really, shouldn’t 2 GB of RAM and a dual-core processor be enough for most simple things? I expected better performance, so I tried LXDE. LXDE is, as the name says, the most light-weight of them all. But I had some difficulties configuring keys on my Apple Aluminum keyboard, and for the life of me, I couldn’t find a GUI way to configure that. I also installed IntelliJ, and then I wanted to make a menu icon for it and a task bar shortcut for it, only to realize that there was no easy way to do that. Xfce was the best compromise for me — about as responsive as I expect, I can specify at least somewhere what keyboard I use, and the .desktop file that I had created for IntelliJ in attempts to get it in the LXDE startup menu was picked up by Xfce. The advanced keyboard configurations, however, were only available in GNOME/Unity for some reason. I think it is also important, when installing the desktop environments, to choose the Ubuntu-family distro desktop package, not just the desktop itself:
sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop
sudo apt-get install lubuntu-desktop
The desktop alone may not provide the all the settings preferences, etc. that the vanilla desktop packages provide.
But based on a couple of comments I’ve seen, Linux Mint might be worth trying. Beyond the proprietary things that make an OS useful (hardware drivers, codecs, Sun/Oracle Java, plugins like Flash), there’s not much else I want except stability and performance, and maybe some configurability of the appearance. Given that Linux Mint takes a month after an Ubuntu release to pull in the changes and turn it into the next Linux Mint release, you can have some confidence that things will be done well. And Linux Mint used to be the best for making installing multimedia codecs easy back 3 years ago when it wasn’t easy in any of the other distros.
The only catch with the Ubuntu-based versions of Linux Mint is that the recommended upgrade path is to just completely re-install the next version. But that may not be such a big deal, really, since each regular release is supported for 1.5 years, with the Long Term Support (LTS) releases are supported for 3 years. The next Linux Mint should be coming out in the next few weeks, at which point, a re-install of Linux at home may be on the cards…