The other side of the equation for this project was the overall desktop environment. Right away I knew that Gnome and KDE were far too heavy for these machines. Previous experimentation with Xfce had demonstrated that, while lighter than the 2 full-featured environments, it was still not really a “lightweight” environment. Gnome was tolerable, Xfce was merely okay, and the other machine running Fluxbox was downright snappy. (As an aside, for comparative purposes, Windows XP Pro was extremely sluggish.) Between the Fluxbox and Damn Small Linux experiments, I had a pretty good idea just how far these laptops could be optimized for speed, and Xfce was well underperforming the other lightweight environments.
I dabbled with some of the other suggested lightweight environments as well: IceWM, JWM and WindowMaker, to name a few, but ultimately went with WattOS’s playbook and settled on LXDE. It’s not quite as responsive as Fluxbox or IceWM, but it clearly outperforms XFCE, and it provides a somewhat more comfortable interface for the inexperienced user. Getting the desktop icons working right takes a little bit of configuration, but it’s actually not too bad.
The last step was to give the intern both laptops and tell her to do her work as normal on them. I asked her to provide feedback on which setup she preferred, as well as providing feedback on things she’d like to see or shortcomings she found in the way things were set up. So far, she hasn’t asked for any improvements, but she was pretty clear in indicating her preference for the Mint/LXDE setup over the Xubuntu/Fluxbox setup, even though the Fluxbox solution was the more responsive one. Usability does matter a good deal, and the intern seemed pretty satisfied with the performance of the LXDE machine.
I’m reasonably certain I haven’t finished the laptop project entirely, although there’s a good chance that when I revisit it, I will have the benefit of newer and more powerful hardware. I saw a lot of really good stuff out there that would generally have been appropriate for this sort of project: CrunchBang, Puppy Linux, DSL and wattOS all have a lot to offer. For me, the devil was that wireless card. Had the laptop been equipped with something more “open”, I would have had a broader range of distros available, and would likely have ended up running DSL, so rather than looking all over for which distros and variants would cover that card, I simply narrowed my search to Ubuntu and derivatives, since I knew those were generally safe.
The other key factor in my decision-making process was the convenience of APT. I know it can be something of a crutch, but I really, really liked the convenience of being able to apt-get whatever it was I needed, with a reasonable expectation it would work. This is one of the main reasons I didn’t even attempt a Slackware solution (well, that and Patrick V’s lack of future support for KDE 3. But I digress.) I was really hoping a pure Debian option would work, but alas, that wasn’t the case. At any rate, I’ve been very impressed with Ubuntu and the various community releases. A big part of me wanted something that “just worked”, and all but the most stripped-down Ubuntu flavors delivered with flying colors.
All in all, I’m satisfied with how this project has turned out. We got two obsolete and under-powered laptops to a state in which they will function effectively and with minimal additional training, and that was really the object of the exercise.