Lubuntu 11.04 review – If it’s good enough for Mark Shuttleworth…

This lightweight distro could be the perfect match for your netbook or for that old computer you’ve refurbished. Find out why Mark Shuttleworth has seen fit to welcome Lubuntu into the official Ubuntu family...

Lubuntu ball logo

Pros: Lubuntu 11.04 is a mature Ubuntu derivative featuring the LXDE desktop environment and lightweight applications
Cons: Some software choices are odd, and Lubuntu lacks the Ubuntu Software Center. i586 processors aren’t supported any more

When installing Lubuntu 11.04, the differences with its official Ubuntu cousin are negligible. It shows the same boot menu and the same installer, just with a different background colour. However, from the moment you start working with the desktop in the live environment or the installed version, the difference is immediately clear: this is not a fully fledged GNOME or Unity desktop with bells and whistles, but a classic, lightweight desktop.

The use of LXDE is not the only cause either. Lubuntu also starts less daemons and services than Ubuntu by default, as you can see in the process list as well as in the menu (Preferences>Desktop Session Settings -> Automatically Started Applications). For instance, Bluetooth Manager, Network Manager, the print queue applet and disk notifications are all disabled by default in your user session.

LXDE’s appearance and the behaviour of the Openbox window manager are customisable

The Lubuntu developers have also carefully chosen default applications with your precious hardware resources in mind, meaning no or LibreOffice. Instead, you get AbiWord as the default word processor and Gnumeric for spreadsheets, as well as the lightweight mtPaint in place of GIMP for image editing.

The default music player is Audacious, while GNOME MPlayer plays all your video files. Furthermore, there’s the Sylpheed email client, Pidgin for instant messaging, XChat for IRC, Transmission for BitTorrent, and the Evince PDF viewer. Of course, many other applications are inherited from the LXDE desktop environment, such as the Leafpad text editor, the GPicView image viewer, the LXTerminal terminal emulator, the PCManFM file manager and not forgetting Openbox window manager.

Lubuntu ships lightweight applications, such as the Audacious music player

Some of the software choices are rather odd, however. For instance, Chromium is the default web browser, which is a sensible move for a distro aimed at low-end computers, but the developers also ship Firefox, so Lubuntu shows both web browsers in the Internet menu. Also, the default screenshot program is scrot, but this is a command-line program and it is not shown in the Accessories menu, so not everyone will find it.

Another odd choice is that you install your applications with Synaptic: by default Lubuntu doesn’t have the Ubuntu Software Center, which has been the preferred software installation program in Ubuntu for a good few releases now. These are just minor inconveniences, though, since you get access to the full Ubuntu software repositories, meaning you can install your favourite applications in a blink of the eye.

Chromium is the default web browser in Lubuntu, but Firefox is also installed

One problem with the Ubuntu base is that Ubuntu 10.10 dropped support for i586 processors, including the VIA C3, AMD K6, National Semiconductor and AMD Geode CPUs. The same holds for Lubuntu, so if you want to revive an old computer with one of these processors, you’ll have to make do with Lubuntu 10.04. Although this is not an officially supported LTS version (like Ubuntu 10.04), the Lubuntu developers have dedicated themselves to extend the support of this release until April 2013, as if it were an official Ubuntu LTS. But even on newer computers, hardware support isn’t perfect: while the minimum memory requirement for running Lubuntu 11.04 is 128MB RAM, we didn’t succeed in installing the distro on an Acer Aspire One with 512MB RAM due to persistent installer crashes.

That said, it’s clear that Lubuntu is already quite mature. The developers have been working on it for two-and-a-half years now and they have been trying to achieve endorsement as an official derivative of Ubuntu. For the last two versions they even managed to release Lubuntu on the same day as the corresponding Ubuntu release. Mark Shuttleworth has praised the Lubuntu developers upon their latest release, and with the other desktop environments demanding more resources, he sees a role for LXDE and Lubuntu. At the recent Ubuntu Developer Summit in Budapest, the developers finally announced that Lubuntu 11.10 will be the first official Ubuntu derivative. Knowing that on Distrowatch, Lubuntu is already more popular than Kubuntu, this only seems fair.

Verdict: 4/5
If you have a first-generation netbook or an old computer that you want to revive, chances are that Ubuntu will be very slow (if it works at all). Lubuntu offers a lightweight alternative for these situations, with the LXDE desktop environment and appropriately resource-light applications. For i586 processors, however, you will have to stay with the 10.04 version – which, to be fair, is still supported until April 2013.