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.