Officially, Xubuntu is supposed to be a lighter, quicker version of Ubuntu. Critics claim that Xubuntu is far from a lightweight distribution. However, now that Unity is the default graphic interface for standard Ubuntu and GNOME 3 is radically different from its predecessors, Xubuntu may have found a new purpose in life. Since Xfce looks more like a standard Windows-style desktop than either Unity or Gnome Shell, Xubuntu may be poised to gain users who prefer a more familiar interface.
Xubuntu uses the same installer as Ubuntu, making installation an easy experience even for beginners. The whole process is seamless, and the installer will even import files from your Windows Documents, Pictures, Music, and Video folders.
Being based on Ubuntu gives any distro certain advantages. The most obvious of these is compatibility with more hardware immediately after installation. In fact, only Ubuntu-based distros will work with my laptop's built-in wireless chip.
Beyond the standard benefits shared by all Ubuntu-based distros, Xubuntu 11.04 has made several noticeable visual improvements over its predecessors. First, there is the new default desktop layout, pictured below both with and without compositing:
|Xubuntu Default Desktop|
|Xubuntu Default Desktop with Compositing|
Apparently inspired by Unity's panel + launcher configuration, the new Xubuntu includes a bottom panel that functions more like an application launcher (or Mac OS dock). Obviously, this is a boon for Mac users who try out Ubuntu. The bottom panel also autohides, so people who don't use it can ignore it.
Xubuntu 11.04 also includes a new GTK theme, Greybird, with a matching theme for the xfwm4 window manager. The new default icon set is based on Elementary. Overall, the new look is slicker than previous versions.
Another significant visual change is the default font. Instead of the large, clunky Deja Vu Sans which is used as he default font in most GNOME and Xfce-based distros, Xubuntu 11.04 switches to the more compact and elegant Droid Sans. This change saves me, at least, the trouble of changing the default font to something less sloppy.
Xubuntu also features Xfce 4.8, the newest version of the desktop. Any user who is unfamiliar with 4.8 should read the tour at the link because some of the best features of the new Xfce aren't obvious. For example, you can move the panel anywhere on the desktop, but you have to do it by dragging and dropping. The old, detailed location options under Panel Properties are gone. Here's a picture of my desktop, with the "launcher" panel on the side like Unity (though with autohide still on).
|Xubuntu with Side Panel|
Like Xubuntu 10.10, version 11.04 uses a different menu configuration than most Xfce-based distros. Instead of having fly-out menu options for every settings dialog, Xubuntu forces you to use the Xfce Settings Manager.
The Settings Manager isn't bad. It does give you the ability to switch back and forth between different dialogs without going back to the Menu button repeatedly. However, you also can't have, say, the Appearance and Window Manager dialogs open at the same time. It's also an unfamiliar setup for people who have used other Xfce-based distros.
And, of course, the big question about any new Xubuntu release is how slow and hungry it is. Xubuntu 11.04 seems to use a fair amount of system resources, especially if you open two Chromium windows at the same time. This may be due to my use of compositing, but I would still be wary of running Xubuntu on a truly resource-limited machine.
There are also a few resource-hungry applications installed by default on Xubuntu, most notably Gimp. Even some lightweight applications run exceptionally slow on this distro. For example, Thunar, the file manager, seems to take forever to load the first time I open it in a session. The scary thing is that this happens even though I'm running Xubuntu on a computer with a dual-core processor and four gigs of RAM. I don't run Xfce on my laptop because I need to save resources; I do it just to get better Flash performance.
Though Xfce functions well as a light, fast environment in some distros, Xubuntu doesn't function well as a lightweight distribution. It's better suited to people whose computers have plenty of resources, but who prefer a more traditional interface to the more "modern" GNOME 3 and Unity.