How to speed up your Ubuntu after an Update 01/09/12

Updated your computer to the latest version of Ubuntu, just to find it freezing or running so slowly that it is almost unusable? Well, read on and we’ll have you running back up to speed in a couple of minutes…


The Problem.

I was visiting my parents home over Christmas when my Dad asked me to have a look at the computer which he said he had updated and was now running at a speed he described as “Soul Destroying”. As this was a low end computer just used for emails and internet and had been happily running Ubuntu for the last 4 years, I was expecting him to be over exaggerating the problem.

After trying to start Firefox on the machine and it taking about 5 minutes, I was on the verge of throwing the whole system through the (closed and on the second floor) window…


The Solution.

So what is causing a perfectly good Ubuntu install to grind to a halt after an update to version 11.1? Well, the answer is Unity. This is the new Graphical User Interface (GUI) used in Ubuntu.

There is a lot of (ahem) “controversy” about Unity in the community (that rhymes!) and I’m not going to delve into that here, but when you try it on a low spec piece of hardware it basically kills your computer and makes it unusable. (Does that make it a Graphical Unusable Interface?).

To get back on track, you need to tell Ubuntu that you don’t want to use Unity on this machine.
(The above line seems to have caused a bit of confusion to readers, see comments below, so it should be ignored and instead replaced with the following paragraph).

To get back on track, you need to tell your current operating system on your own private machine to use a different interface while still respecting the fact that some people are having no problems with Unity and that some people have faster computers than you and perhaps recognizing that you should run out immediately and spend several hundred dollars on a new machine.

If you are using a machine which is more than a couple of years old and if you just want to stick to the same user interface that you have became used to (buttons and menus all where you would expect them to be), then I would suggest using XFCE. This is a lightweight interface and will suit the needs of most users, such as my Mum and Dad.

Install it by opening a terminal and typing…

sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop

Enter your password and let it install (accept Yes to any questions).

This is Important! Now you need to restart your system. When you reboot, you should see a small gear icon on the login screen. This will allow you to choose which interface you would like to use by default. You choose the XFCE desktop.

Now you are back up and running at the speed of Linux! (and you still have all the non Unity benefits of upgrading). All that remains for you to do is to like this article on Facebook, or add this site to your Twitter feed… ๐Ÿ˜‰

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19 Responses to this article

LinuxCanuck January 9, 2012 Reply

This is total bollocks. Unity is no slower than GNOME Shell. I actually find it slightly faster. KDE is faster than either. XFCE is faster than KDE. But KDE, GS and Unity have more features. It is a trade off.

If you have a slow computer do not blame Unity or Ubuntu. Some people have fast computers. Unity works fine for me and many others. To make a blanket statement on your personal experience on a single computer is nonsense. Don’t you think that Canonical does not test their OS on many different architectures and different computers chipsets and with varying degrees RAM before releasing the product? Don’t you think that groups such as Phoronix test various distributions and publish the results?

Over the years all OSes from Windows to Ubuntu have grown in size. The kernel is bigger than it was years ago. Ubuntu runs slower over the past several years, but it is only a tad. They have done much to improve speed while adding new features.

There are two versions of Unity, the normal one which requires a 3D graphics card or 2D which does not. If you have a lower quality card use Unity 2D or the GNOME Session Fallback which looks like old GNOME.

If you are comparing Ubuntu to previous versions be careful because much has changed, not just Unity. The basis for Ubuntu and all other GNOME distros has changed from GNOME 2.x to GNOME 3 because GTK 2 was no longer viable as a language for programming. That decision was not Canonical’s and all distros are affected.

Unity may not be your idea of what you want in a desktop but to make false assertions and ask others to launch a campaign based on it is not helpful.

I am glad that XFCE has worked for you. It is a good alternative for people with older computers or who like a tradition DE.

Gary MacRitchie January 9, 2012 Reply


Did you even read my post?

“Unity may not be your idea of what you want in a desktop but to make false assertions and ask others to launch a campaign based on it is not helpful.”

Really?!? False Assertions? Campaign Launching? Where did you get that from?

I specifically said that I wasn’t going to delve into the controversy around Unity, but instead wanted to give the people who have been negatively effected by the change a quick way to get back up and running so they can dig deeper into the issue themselves.

Unity may be fantastic in many ways, but it is a fact that thousands of people updated their computers and got a nasty surprise. Should we just let those people go back to Windows or should we try and inform them of how they can easily stay with Ubuntu?

If you would rather have them stay, then you will know why I wrote this post.

Anyway, thanks for the useful contribution about Unity 2D. You are quite correct about 2D and this may be something that readers who have experienced problems should try out.

I recommended XFCE as a way to guarantee a return to good performance on an older machine and from there people can investigate Unity 2D, Gnome and KDE.


Igor Ganapolsky February 22, 2012

I second that – Unity made my 3-year old laptop slower. Much slower.

LinuxCanuck Smile Campaign March 16, 2012 Reply


Who’s a grumpy, grouchy guss?

Not everything is an attack. Lighten up already. :) Smile sunshine! Linux loves you! :)


Kota Weaver January 10, 2012 Reply

A very good point I think. Although I don’t use Ubuntu (Gentoo, Arch, and OpenSUSE), I’ve run into the same issues on low performance machines even with Gnome 2.x, and especially now with Gnome Shell. For those, I either use no GUI and run a text based environment, or Fluxbox, which I’ve had a lot of success with.

I also suggest LXDE, which I believe to be a little more user friendly and beginner oriented than XFCE. Since it uses Fluxbox as its windowmanager, I suspect it is very snappy the way Fluxbox is.

Also, do you need to do a full restart after installing xubuntu-desktop? I think you just need to log out, or maybe restart GDM/LightDM at most.

Either way, a good analysis, and good recommendation for anyone having a performance impact with the more modern DEs!

Gary MacRitchie January 10, 2012 Reply

@Kota Weaver

Thanks, I had a look at LXDE and it looks like it would do the job nicely.

You do not need to do a full restart, juts a log-out will do.

As I think a lot of people who are looking for Linux help come from the Windows world, I try and frame things in the terms that they are used to, so I tell people just to re-start. But you are 100% correct, a log-out is all that needs to be done! :)

Kota Weaver January 10, 2012

Gee, if they are coming from the Windows world, I think important to teach them the Linux way! Your decision however, is respectable, I can believe that logging out can be a source of confusion to new users that have just converted.

Gary MacRitchie January 10, 2012

Good point there. I’m still learning myself how best to try and get information over to people. In the future, I’ll maybe try and show both methods or mention the difference between them. Thanks for your comment.

LinuxCanuck January 10, 2012 Reply

I read it.

You wrote: To get back on track, you need to tell Ubuntu that you donโ€™t want to use Unity on this machine.

That sounds like a campaign to me, urging people to tell Ubuntu they won’t use Unity. So if your parents’ computer has less than a smartphone them maybe it is time for new computer.

Your assumption is false. You diagnosis is probably wrong. Unity runs on my netbook just fine. I have seen it on smartphones, tablets and now Canonical has it on a TV at CES.

Gary MacRitchie January 10, 2012 Reply

Ah, now I see what you mean. I agree that line could be misunderstood. I simply meant that you need to get your operating system to use a different interface. I have edited the blog post now and hope that it is clearer.

Please everyone, put down your pitchforks, there is no need to storm the Ubuntu headquarters, it was just a poorly chosen phrase…

By the way, it’s not just my parents computer that is effected. Although it is in fact a true story, I just used it as a way to build a bit of narrative in to the blog post, make it a bit more interesting. Beginning – Middle – End.

In fact I run 6 Ubuntu machines, some virtual machines, some that I use as servers and even one I use as a little media center. For example my media center is a little Asus EEEbox which fits very nicely behind my TV. It has a 1.6GHz Atom Processor and 1Gb ram and Intel GMA 950 Graphics card and it dies on it’s ass when using Unity and is instantly fixed by running XFCE.

Anyway, I’m glad that you love Unity. Everybody is getting the chance to experience it and everybody can make up their own mind. For those who cant use it, I wanted to give them some more useful advice than “Go and buy a new computer”.

Kota Weaver January 10, 2012 Reply

I don’t buy this point: “maybe it is time for new computer”. A HUGE portion of the Linux desktop market is comprised of people who choose to use Linux precisely because they have slow computers that they want to continue using. With a properly configured system, even a very low powered computer can be very snappy. Heck, I even know someone who runs a 0.6 GHz machine, and there is no way that Unity would run just fine on that.

While it is true that it runs “fine” on netbooks, you might find other DEs or just window managers to run quite a bit snappier. I used to run Unity on one of my old laptops, and I felt it ran ok, but I switched over to Fluxbox, and it felt like my computer was brand new again… And that’s on a dual core system.

Gary MacRitchie January 10, 2012

I think there is a discussion here that touches on the different kinds of Linux users. I am starting to think that Ubuntu is aiming towards a “higher end” of Linux users. (Ubuntu powered TV’s are the talk of Twitter today, and I guess that those wont sell for $99).

I think that the decisions Canonical are making are exciting and will lead perhaps to two tiers of Linux users. Watch this space as they say in Hollywood!

LinuxCanuck January 10, 2012 Reply

@Kota Weaver

I was being sarcastic. [blush] The emphasis is on the earlier part. There is no reason that Unity should not work if can install on an ARM processor, smartphone or TV. I agree that XFCE will make it run faster BTW. That was not the way it was presented, initially. I think we have that straightened out.

Yes, Linux gives legs to old computers and that is good. You have choice, but your choices diminish as the processor gets older and the RAM is lower. The bar is being raised over time and that is not a bad thing, unless you want to work in a terminal or just use EMACs (not a dig).

I like to push my system to its limits and run the latest and greatest while another user just wants it to work and not worry about updates. Someone else may just need a workstation with minimal requirements. We are all different and with different needs and Linux can accommodate most users’ desktop needs.

What excites me about Unity (not a regular user)is that it brings more choice (not less as critics initially presented it). Early on people lamented the loss of GNOME 2.x and blamed Canonical for changing and reducing their choice. Now people have a broader view. They understand that keeping GNOME 2.x alive was not an option and Canonical was choosing to go with Unity which they could control over GNOME Shell which was under the control of GNOME and there was a bad history.

So now, we can choose between GS, two versions of Unity, KDE, XFCE, LXDE, E17 and a bunch other DEs, including Mate and Cinnamon made to look like GNOME 2.x. We have a choice of window managers as well. So we may have lost GNOME 2.x but we have more than we had before. I call that a win for users.

Many GNOME 2.x users will be happy with XFCE as Gary found. It has always been a good desktop choice and the demise of GNOME 2 may give it impetus to get even better. Another project to benefit was Comiz which was dying until Canonical decided to use it as the window manager in Unity 3D.

Kota Weaver January 10, 2012 Reply

I agree with this view. I do wish however, that Ubuntu’s download page had a little note or something saying, “Got a slow system? Try Lubuntu!” with a link to the Lubuntu page or something. A lot of people try Linux having been told that it will breathe new life into their systems, and I think this will help that confusion.

Gary MacRitchie January 11, 2012

@Kota Weaver and LinuxCanuck

There is a good point about Ubuntu really pushing the envelope and trying to be innovative and I think that is really where they should be heading (and I think that in 12.04 we will see them go even further down that road, moving away from the group who see Linux as a hobby but not something to use on their main machine and moving more towards Ubuntu as a real alternative for the Desktop of tomorrow). I’ll write a post about that later.

In this case, a lot of people were caught out just through an update, rather than actively making a choice to change operating systems. But maybe you don’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

Would be great if the updating protocol could perform some kind of system diagnostics and help users be more aware of their options.

By the way, I’m actually in favor of Ubuntu having control over Unity instead of going with Gnome, so I guess I just know how to annoy both sides of the argument! :)

Roger January 17, 2012 Reply

great post – Thanks. I wish I had known this before I tried installing 11.10 on my dad’s box!

One thing… Anyone know a way of specifying/installing this during an Ubuntu install?

Ubuntu works great on Shuttle boxes, until apparently 11.x ?? :/ We dropped back to the old 10.04LTS version and everything was working again.

In my dad’s case, the GUI was completely unusable! Where the top panel should have been located, it was just jumbled colours. And all down the left side of the screen, the same thing (crazy jumbled colours).

While I love Ubuntu, and have used it for many years, for the first time, I’m not so sure if I want to go to the upcoming 12.04; as this might break on my own Shuttle box.

Kota Weaver January 18, 2012 Reply

There are a few spin-off distributions officially endorsed by Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) that have other desktop environments. For performance improvements, try either Xubuntu (XFCE, which is the featured environment in this article) or Lubuntu (LXDE).

Poltiser July 2, 2012 Reply

Core2Duo/8GBRam – no big difference
Unity3D=KDE(no effects)=XFCE=Lubuntu
after relise of U12.04AMD64LTS and everything works (even scaner HP3670) and Unity has its good side as well, it became mater of preference what one chooses
All those discussions about what is better are like analising if Xmas is nicer than Easter…

Samarth November 29, 2012 Reply

Hel yeah, i was using Virtual box for ubuntu for some lab work. after upgrade from 11 to 12, the shit became really slow. i have a sony vaio with decent config, i5, 1GB ati 6630m, etc, so mine is not a rusty pc. but then this ubuntu was killing the VM so i was looking for a quick fix and i cannot thank you enough..

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