LXDE - the cure for what ails our older PCs

LXDE - the cure for what ails our older PCs

Summary: And our Linux servers...and our netbooks...and...


It's been a while since Ubuntu could be called a leaner alternative to Windows. While it's safe to say that it runs a bit better on older machines than Windows Vista, its transformation into a truly full-featured operating system capable of replacing Windows in most situations has rendered it more bloated than other less mainstream alternatives.

However, one of the nicer features of Linux (at least for the end user) is the ability to choose the windowing environment with which we interact with the underlying OS. Essentially, we can choose from any number of graphical user interfaces that suit a particular situation. By default, Ubuntu desktop editions come with the Gnome interface which works quite well, but is far more responsible for the apparent bloat than the actual Ubuntu operating system itself. KDE and Xfce are two other "desktop environments" and can be installed as the native Ubuntu GUIs that make up the so-called Kubuntu and Xubuntu official variants. Xubuntu is generally considered to be lighter in terms of memory and CPU utilization than either the Gnome- or KDE-based versions of Ubuntu, but they don't hold a candle to LXDE.

LXDE is the "Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment." For a nice summary of the various *buntu versions, including detailed speed/footprint comparisons of LXDE running on Ubuntu to the other variants, click here. "Lubuntu" is not yet officially supported by Canonical, but is easy to install by simply using Synaptic to install the LXDE package in any Ubuntu installation.

So why all the Linux tech talk over here in Edu? Just when you thought I couldn't write about anything that didn't have something to do with Google, I had to throw you a curve ball, right? Actually, I've just been doing lots of work with netbooks, aging machines that we're looking to recycle or redeploy, and Linux servers.

Ubuntu Server Edition, for example, runs wonderfully on most hardware, and has fairly minimal requirements. However, while I'm certainly learning my way around the Linux command line, I'm still a fan of a GUI. Windows Server comes with a nice point-and-click UI and such an interface is particularly important for the average school admin just looking to save some money. Obviously, you don't need to license Windows Server 2008 to run a website or print services. Setting up a website with only a command line on a headless server is not something a struggling sys admin (who is probably also teaching three math classes) in a typical school is prepared to tackle.

That being said, if you want to recycle an older computer or server to act as said web or print server, the full Gnome interface simply absorbs too many resources that should be devoted to doing "server stuff." LXDE gives administrators a GUI with which to access the variety of graphical administrator tools that make Ubuntu servers relatively easy to set up and maintain, even for novices.

Similarly, many of us have looked to netbooks in schools to provide 1:1 experiences or simply make labs available to students for minimal cost (and disposability in the event of breakage or theft). Most netbooks come with Windows XP Home and XP Service Pack 3 with anti-malware makes for tepid performance at best. I'm writing this on a Lenovo S10, however, running Ubuntu with LXDE and performance is positively snappy.

And about those old machines that were made for Windows 98 but you just can't bear to recycle in the face of budget cuts? LXDE is the answer. I'm installing it on a 500MHz Celeron with 128MB of RAM. So far so good and it certainly meets the requirements for the system. I'll tweet how it goes once it's up and running.

The point here is that LXDE gives us lean and mean performance in the context of the familiar and extensive Ubuntu software repositories. Install and enjoy the speed, regardless of hardware.

Topics: Operating Systems, Emerging Tech, Hardware, Open Source, Software, Windows

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Why Stop with LXDE?

    I went through a long period of testing various
    distros and desktop managers prior over the
    last year. My favorite tester is my grandson...
    then 10 to 11 years old.

    He's pretty resilient. He's able to navigate
    around in WinXP, Win7, Ubuntu/Gnome, BlackBox,
    OpenBox and Mac OSX. His chief complaint about
    anyone of these systems is not whether or not
    he can get to a browser... he can. It's whether
    or not it runs the games he wants.

    If it's a lightweight distro may I recommend
    that you look into ARCH linux with OpenBox?
    Arch eschews all the fancy, and frivolous GUI
    configuration tools for editing text (your
    choice of VI or NANO). OpenBox opens to a blank
    screen. Right-click for a menu.

    If you're not quite willing to go *that* far,
    perhaps CrunchBang will do. It is based on
    Ubuntu and uses the Ubuntu repositories but
    layers on minimal applications under a pre-
    configured OpenBox.

    Both are able to make amazing use of old
    workhorse computers long since put out to
    pasture by the latest GUI-laden operating
    • OpenBox with Ubuntu

      You can install and use OpenBox with Ubuntu, btw ... it does lighten the memory usage considerably, though as you fire up KDE or Gnome apps, libs get loaded, and that starts using more mem. You can also use OpenBox as the Window Manager with KDE (not sure about Gnome) ... I played with that for a while, but it didn't seem to offer a lot of advantage over simply using KWin native w/ KDE - reduced mem usage a little, but not a lot.

      Today, I personally tend toward XFCE (xubuntu) -- right mix of desktop environment features, with better performance and lower mem usage. On my old Dell GX260 Pentium 4 2.8GHz system with 1GB of mem, I can run both a full native XFCE desktop, and under it a VirtualBox running Ubuntu 8.04 (for compatibility with my company-required VPN client, Apani), and both are snappy and responsive. Doing the same w/ KDE, there are occasional lags (not burdensome, but occasional).
  • Sorry. I am not falling for your Linux du jour enthusiasm.

    • Well, That Was a Pointless Post

      Your post is absolutely pointless. Unless you post the reasons, nobody else cares whether you will try this or not. Just like nobody cares about any other person's personal choices without hearing the reasons for them.
  • RE: LXDE - the cure for what ails our older PCs

    • Please see: Well, That Was a Pointless Post

      by: CFWhitman, on: 02/19/10,
      at http://talkback.zdnet.com/5208-12355-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=75415&messageID=1467154
  • RE: LXDE - the cure for what ails our older PCs

    Does it work in Windows XP?
    • You're not doing it right

      just sayin'.
  • RE: LXDE - the cure for what ails our older PCs

    Well done,
    I am still waiting for someone to figure out how to network older computers to thread tasks out and work in unison. You wouldn't happen to be the intrepid explorer to push forth would you?
    • Compute Cluster

      It sounds like you're talking about a compute cluster.

      Check out http://www.beowulf.org/

      Considering the power a bunch of old PCs would consume, it might make more sense to use newer PCs with multi-core processors if you're wanting to use the extra processing power on a day to day basis.

      It might still be fun project though. I believe there are several mainstream distros that provide the option to select clustering software during the initial install.

      I haven't had much chance to try out them out, so I couldn't give a good recommendation. I know that CentOS and Mandriva provide clustering options. I'd imagine that Slackware, Debian, SuSe, and Gentoo do as well.
    • With SMP, no longer doing this

      What you are talking about is called Single System Image Clustering. Whereas Beowulf clusters generally require programming targeting compute clusters, SSI clusters will work with normal apps that have multiple threads. Each thread is moved over the network to other nodes depending on some algorithm on the head node.

      The most famous example was openMosix (http://openmosix.sourceforge.net/) but that has since shut down. With the increasing ubiquity of multiple processor cores, the original author decided to shut down the project since its use was beginning to wane. There are still others out there; Nimbus was one of the first results from a Google search.
  • RE: LXDE - the cure for what ails our older PCs

    One can still be with the Ubuntu Head less Server and manage the Services using webmin though the Web Browser from other Lin/Ux/Win Clients
  • Ubuntu is not an OS

    Just thought you might like to know. Of course neither is any *nix solution, well not a good one anyway. As far as the GUI interface...you can put lipstick on a pig but you still don't want to kiss it.

    *nix's, for all their fans, really are simply program loaders that are less efficient than JCL (job control language i.e. main frames for the kids) but then again so are any of them (fundamentally). What makes them attractive is their cost and for some the customization.

    Of course for me, I like some of the innovative applications that have arisen such as aptitude (no that's not the OS either).
    • an operating system (OS) is an interface between hardware and user...


      an operating system (OS) is an interface between hardware and user, which is responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of a computer, that acts as a host for computing applications run on the machine.



      "What is Ubuntu?

      Ubuntu is an [b]operating system[/b] built by a worldwide team of expert developers. It contains all the applications you need: a web browser, office suite, media apps, instant messaging and much more.

      Ubuntu is an open-source alternative to Windows and Office."


      Maybe I just don't comprehend elitism. I get in my car (or hop on my dual-sport cycle), turn the key, and it starts up and takes me where I am going. It is not flashy, or trying to make a statement of any sort. It is what it is, and it works for what I use it for.

      An elitist will argue why my choice would not be theirs, and give a whole list of reasons that really don't matter to me.
      • Yep!

        BIG +++
  • RE: LXDE - the cure for what ails our older PCs

    Not only that, it's not 100% compatible with Microsoft Windows.
    • Which means what, exactly?

      Windows is not 100% compatible with Windows.
      Windows 98 is not 100% compatible with Windows 95.
      Windows 2000 is not 100% compatible with Windows 98.
      Windows XP is not 100% compatible with Windows 2000.
      Windows Vista is not 100% compatible with Windows XP.
      Windows 7 is not 100% compatible with Windows Vista.
      And Windows ME was not compatible with itself.

      So...what's your point? What does that have to do with LXDE being a faster and lower resource consuming interface than Gnome or KDE on Linux?
  • RE: LXDE - the cure for what ails our older PCs

    Try MoonOs. It is the best LXDE distro period.
  • I've been using LXDE for various purposes for a while.

    I use Debian and LXDE as the operating system on my
    OLPC XO netbook. I got it for less than $150 on eBay,
    which is way less money than I could find for any
    netbook on the market.

    I used Ubuntu and LXDE on an old Pentium III laptop to
    create an educational computer for my two young
    nephews. Tons of free and open source software on it,
    and my sister no longer has to worry about the kids
    messing up the family's computer, cuz the kids have
    one of their own that cost less than $50 (ebay again
    for the hardware).

    The next project is to use LXDE to repurpose an old
    Fujitsu tablet pc. I tried using Damn Small Linux,
    but I couldn't get XORG working right.
  • You Can Just Install Lubuntu Now

    All you have to do is take the alternate install disk for any variation of Ubuntu and just install the base system (that means no GUI, so you will be in the command line). Then make sure you have networking and usable install sources for Ubuntu. Then just issue:
    apt-get update
    apt-get install lubuntu

    This will get you everything that is slated for the Lubuntu release without installing all of another variation of Ubuntu.