I finally had the chance to install Xubuntu 8.04 on a laptop for another of my kids this weekend. My first attempt to install Xubuntu (Ubuntu running the Xfce interface instead of Gnome and generally considered lighter and faster than other *buntus) on a seriously aging and memory starved computer was a disaster. However, between a video chip that had always stunk (the resolution, image quality, and tracking under Windows was terrible, too) and a mere 64MB of RAM, I think I found some practical limitations for Xubuntu.
I'm sure that some extra fiddling and tweaking could have yielded at least a usable system, but the old laptop was a paperweight anyway, so I wasn't going to waste my time. This weekend I turned my attention to a Dell Latitude C400 with 512MB of RAM, a 30GB hard drive, and a 1GHz Pentium III-M processor. It was running Windows XP Pro, but was nicely loaded down with malware, so I did a clean install of Xubuntu from an alternate installation CD. The alternate installation dispenses with LiveCD capabilities and a graphical installer, but is quite easy to follow.
The full installation took about 40 minutes and picked up all of the hardware (WiFi, video drivers, etc.) without incident. Within another 10 minutes, OpenOffice was installed (Xubuntu only includes Abiword by default since its aim is to very lightweight), as were the proprietary plugins for Java and Flash.
What was most surprising was the performance. Bootup and shutdown were speedy (certainly an improvement over the Windows install, although that install wasn't in the best shape) and applications launched quickly. Xfce is a very streamlined interface and was completely uncluttered. This machine is ideal for the 14-year old who is inheriting it as he needs basic productivity applications and web browsing.
This is where Xubuntu really shines. Will it make that 386 sitting in the corner of your storage room run like a champ? No, although I'm sure some Ubuntu guru could get it running. What it will do is take some very moderate hardware and provide a solid, reliable, and relatively snappy machine for a user with productivity needs or who accesses terminal services.
I have to say I'm curious what Xubuntu would do on higher end hardware. For those of us who multitask too much and are usually bouncing around more applications than we like to admit, this is probably worth another weekend project. It will certainly be my OS of choice that I provide to students looking to hang onto an aging computer system for another couple of years.