What does Linux look like on a netbook?

>> Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The other day I said I might do a post on my Ubuntu netbook, and since I don't have anything else to write about and the subject might interest some folks....

The first thing to say about netbooks in general--and I pointed some of this out to my Dad on the phone--is what they aren't. A netbook is going to have a low-voltage CPU like Intel's Atom and a minimal amount of RAM (my Dell Mini 10 has a single gig of RAM--tons, if you remember the days when onboard memory was still measured in kilobytes, but only half of what would be considered a minimum amount of RAM on practically any laptop or desktop you'd buy these days); furthermore, the typical netbook is going to have a low-powered onboard graphics processor that barely deserves mention. All this is ample processing power if you want something you can throw under the arm and cart around for surfing the web or doing light tasks like word processing or watching video, but a netbook isn't going to gracefully handle a big, crunchy, CPU/memory intensive task like photo editing or playing a contemporary video game.

This is something you really shouldn't have to say but end up having to: I know people who have bought netbooks as laptop replacements and they've hated them, but frankly that was their own damn fault. A netbook is not a laptop replacement, it's a netbook.

I guess it also shouldn't have to be said but it ends up having to be said: there's been a lot of talk about the iPad being a "netbook killer." It isn't, not really; while there may be some overlap in uses and it's possible that the netbook's proper niche will shrink because of what the iPad does (hopefully not so much that manufacturers abandon the concept), what the netbook has that the iPad doesn't is a keyboard and the power to do true (if light) multitasking. The iPad is possibly a wonderful device for reading books and watching movies, but it's not exactly something you'll be writing your next novel on up at the local coffee shop, and the netbook serves that purpose wonderfully--while also letting you read books and watch movies. I'm not really trying to knock Apple, here, I'm just saying that iPads and netbooks are... well, forgive me, they're Apples and oranges.

The other thing I'd like to say about netbooks before I move on to the OS is that my Dell Mini 10 (named, natch, for its 10" monitor) is 7½" x 10½" and weighs less than three pounds. I think I told my Dad on the phone it was the size of a hardback--by which, I probably should have clarified, I mean a really lightweight harback like Going Rogue or The Overton Window, not something substantial like Infinite Jest, let's say. "Trade paperback" might have been more descriptive, though a netbook obviously doesn't have floppy covers. At least not yet. Give it a few years, I suppose.

When I bought the netbook, I ordered it with Ubuntu pre-installed; Windows XP was also an option, but I can't think of any really good reason for getting a netbook with Windows unless you're just that afraid you'll get lost using a different interface. I'm not trying to knock Microsoft here, either, though I imagine that's how it sounds; Windows is the dominant environment and if you have a Windows-specific app, you should be using Windows regardless, but given that a netbook is a low-power environment and you're not likely to be using it for high-intensity applications, if you need a specific Windows app (including games), I don't know why you'd be getting a netbook in the first place, if you see what I mean. Find yourself a nice 12" laptop with more juice and just deal with the slightly greater size and price of the thing.

Unfortunately--and this may have changed, I don't know--the version of Ubuntu Dell was shipping was 8.04, a Long Term Support (LTS) release, but one already two versions behind what was current when I bought the machine. (It is quite possible that Dell is now offering Ubuntu 10.04 if they're still selling Linux preinstalls--10.04 is the current LTS.) I ended up reinstalling to take advantage of UNR/UNE--Ubuntu Netbook Remix, now called Ubuntu Netbook Edition. It was mostly hassle-free, though I did have some issues initially with video and wireless because of some hardware quirks specific to the Mini 10 (and apparently not applicable to the Mini 9 or Mini 10v). Those were solved fairly quickly thanks to the wonderfulness of the Linux community; let me say here that if you're concerned that "free software" doesn't offer "customer service," I believe you'll find that it's frequently far easier to get solutions from blogs, forums and bugfix pages than it is to get Microsoft to acknowledge your existence (and I'd be genuinely surprised if Apple was really better).

This is a 10.04 UNE desktop (as always, an image can be clicked for full view):



You can install a standard desktop environment like GNOME on a netbook, but the major point of the UNR/UNE releases is Maximus, an interface designed to be easy to use on a tiny screen. Maximus replaces the usual menus-and-folders interface with what is basically a window with a tab-bar running down the side. The first tab is a customizable favorites tab where you can put the stuff you like using most.

This is a tab opened to "Files & Folders," showing a USB flash drive plugged in:



Maximus really gets its name, however, from the fact that it maximizes every window by default. This, for instance, is Writer's Café on the netbook:



And here's OpenOffice.org Writer, displaying the same short story I had on display yesterday:



I use Dropbox to sync Writer's Café and stories I might be working on. That way, journal entries in WC (along with scrapbooks and notes) stay up to date between the machines, as do other projects: whichever machine I'm using uploads a file to Dropbox's servers and downloads it to the other machine when I turn it on (if there's a network handy, of course). It's great for personal use--I wouldn't do it with super-top-secret files or anything, but that goes without saying.

All versions of Ubuntu 10.04, including UNE, integrate support with Ubuntu One, so why do I use Dropbox instead? Well, I tried U1 first, actually, and that's what sold me on the concept. Unfortunately, at the time I tried U1 it was very, very new and had a lot of bugs yet to be worked out--in particular, I ended up with a lot of conflicts during file syncs, and the uplink/downlink times were really, really slow. I am, as they say, cautiously optimistic about U1, however--the issues I was having may have even been resolved in whole or in part by now.

As for other things you can do with a netbook--here's Totem playing a Doctor Who episode:



Yep, the dude with the flashlight on his head and clothes drier components on his chest is a Cyberman, busy menacing the Earth. Although I don't think it's actually stated in the episode, I presume that the ginormous fan was necessary because those older models were prone to overheating and shutting down at inopportune moments, and later versions presumably had better heat sinks or were maybe liquid-cooled.

This is fullscreen (the clip is a fairly low-fi .AVI file, and possibly not a great example of video, but it's what I had handy):



The speakers on a netbook, incidentally, are going to be predictably limited and a little tinny; watching a movie or listening to an album on headphones or earbuds, of course, solves those problems or at least replaces them with different ones.

All-in-all, using UNE on the netbook is a great experience. Maximus is the kind of thing that doesn't sound like it would be a good idea ("I like my menus and toolbars!"), but the truth is that it's astonishingly efficient on a small screen ("Converted!"). For a reliable little work-away-from-home device, it's pretty damn keen.

Hope that's a helpful follow-up, and I promise the rest of the posts this week will be about something other than Linux fanboyism. Really.




5 comments:

Konstantin B. Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 9:43:00 AM EDT  

Thank you Eric. I've recently purchased a netbook, for light computing needs on the run. It came with Windows 7 Home. While acceptable to me, I was wondering if there are better options out there.

Quick question, how do you install Ubuntu? Can you do it from the SD card? Does it use FAT or FAT32?

Eric Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 12:16:00 PM EDT  

You can install Ubuntu from a 1 GB USB stick; I'm not sure you could do it from an SD card, but I doubt it because I think your BIOS will only let you boot from either a hard drive, USB or CD. (If someone knows differently, please chime in!) Instructions for installation can be found on the download page, and let me happily tell you that one of Ubuntu's strengths is that installation is a breeze--in most situations, it's as simple as plugging in the drive, booting up, selecting "install" and following the wizard.

Another beautiful thing that I didn't mention in the post, but you'll find extremely helpful, Konstantin, is that you can run Ubuntu from the USB flash drive without installing it. In other words, you can try it out before you commit to it. There are other Linux options that make this easy, too, so if you try Ubuntu and say, "I sort of like this, but not quite," please, poke around a bit--you might discover that you love KDE more than GNOME as an interface (and there's a KDE flavored Ubuntu, for instance!).

As for file system: Linux gives you choices! FAT and FAT32 are options, but you can also choose other file systems (ext2, ext3 and ext4 are common alternatives, but there are others). Linux systems can also be set up to read and write to NTFS drives, but Microsoft hasn't made it smooth or easy.

These days, with e-mail, cloud computing, and cheap flash memory, file system isn't as huge an issue as it was back in the day when Macs and PCs refused to read each other's floppy drives, f'r'instance. You should be fine with just about any FS choice; my netbook is set up with an ext4 filesystem and has no problem reading and writing FAT, FAT32 and NTFS files to/from SD cards and USB flash and portable hard drives.

The main thing is, give it a spin--you can try Ubuntu (and some other Linuxes) without changing your Win7 system, and if you like it, installation is generally pretty painless!

Tom Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 12:39:00 PM EDT  

OK, Eric, you did it again. You changed my mind. Damn you!

I've been running a dual boot WinXP/Fedora system, but it never seems to be booted into Fedora any more. Games, games, games, as you so rightly indicate. So I end up not using Linux for an extended period of time, and forgetting little tips and tricks that make things easier in Linux.

But a Netbook of some kind might be just the thing to use Linux on, and your and Shawn's occasional Linux-related posts make me think Ubuntu is something I should check out. Besides, I have some extra bucks that aren't being turned into ash on a regular basis, and a netbook outfitted with Ubuntu sounds like a fitting reward.

So now I must undertake some research to see just which netbook to start with. Do you have other suggestions than your current one?

Eric Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 1:13:00 PM EDT  

Thanks, Tom!

I really don't have any suggestions. I've been happy with my Dell, but I think there are tons of good ones on the market. Anyone else have any suggestions/experiences/warnings?

Konstantin B. Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 2:20:00 PM EDT  

I bought a Asus eepc with N280 forgot the model(I believe it's 1005ha), but it came with a 6 cell battery standard and having 9+ hours of battery life is what i was looking for.

Not as sexy as HPs or Dell's but pretty nice for the money. Been taking it to school all the time.

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