If you’re buying a new netbook for this holiday season, odds are that it will be loaded with Windows 7 Starter Edition. While many users will be happy with Microsoft’s new OS, others might balk at the limitations that this version includes — for example, you won’t be able to change your desktop background, and it doesn’t include Windows Media Center. And it may even add a bit to the cost of the device.
So what are your alternatives?
Well, you can ask your vendor to install old, faithful Windows XP. You can wait to see what OS Google eventually comes up with. Or, if you want to bypass the major vendors, there are several operating systems built upon Linux you can download now for free and install on your netbook.
In this round-up, I take a look at three alternative netbook operating systems: Ubuntu Netbook Remix (from Canonical Ltd.), Moblin (from The Linux Foundation) and Jolicloud (an upcoming spin-off of UNR which, as of this writing, has yet to be officially released). I evaluate their ease of installation, usefulness, and whether they might breathe new life into your netbook.
Three things to note right off that apply to all three of these netbook OSes:
1. These OSes are downloaded as large files (up to 1GB) and installed onto a USB flash drive. You then insert the USB drive into your netbook, and boot from it to start the installation process. One of them, Jolicloud, is also available as a disc image file; you burn the file to a CD-R, connect an external USB CD-ROM drive to your netbook, and boot your computer from the drive to start installing the OS.
2. There may be compatibility issues when it comes to playing media (audio and video) files on the newly installed OS, because the developers of these netbook OSes usually do not have the licenses to legally distribute the proprietary code that’s needed to play some media formats. (This is an issue with most Linux-based OS distributions, regardless of whether they are designed for a netbook, notebook or desktop.)
3. The developers behind these OSes aim for compatibility with many, but not all, of the latest netbook models. Assuming your netbook is an Atom-based machine with 1GB RAM (which is pretty much the system specification standard in the netbook market now), these alternative OSes should be able to run.
A note for those still using some of the first netbooks: You probably won’t have much success if you attempt to install one of these OSes on, for example, the pioneering but now-legacy Asus Eee PC 701. If in doubt, check the official sites of these OSes for compatibility lists, or search user forums to read what kind of results others might have achieved running the OS on your netbook model.
For this round-up, I tested each of these Linux-based alternative OSes on an Asus Eee PC 1005HA, which came with a 1.66GHz Atom N280 CPU, 1GB RAM, a 160GB hard drive, and a version of Windows XP Home Edition optimized for netbooks.
I’ve listed the three OSes in the order of their evolutionary development: First came Ubuntu Netbook Remix (released June 2008), followed by the current version of Moblin (released October 2009) and lastly, the currently-in-alpha Jolicloud.
Although it’s based on the popular Linux distro, Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UBN) is not a pruned-down version of Ubuntu. Instead, this lightweight OS was built mostly from the ground up; its developers discarded old, legacy code not relevant to netbook system specifications. As a result, UNR is supposed to run with less memory and processor requirements than its desktop counterpart.
Also significantly different from the original Ubuntu: UNR places access to applications, the Web, user documents and media all under a simplified, quick-launch interface. Superficially, the only thing UNR and Ubuntu share in common is the orange-and-brown color scheme.
Dell offers Ubuntu Netbook Remix as an optional OS pre-installed onto its Mini 10 line of netbooks. But how well does this OS fare on other, non-Dell netbooks?
Installation: The Ubuntu Netbook Remix file download is almost 1GB in size. Installing UNR onto the Eee PC 1005HA took about 15 minutes.
What’s to like: It’s very intuitive to navigate UNR’s quick-launch user interface. The left side of the main menu organizes applications into categories (e.g., “Accessories,” “Games,” “Graphics,” etc.). Clicking a category lists icons (which are large and easy to identify) for the applications in the center of the launcher menu screen. The right side lists the folders of your personal files (“Documents,” “Music,” “Pictures,” “Videos”); when you connect a USB flash drive or other USB external device to your netbook, its icon appears under this list.
Major applications loaded quickly: Getting OpenOffice’s word processor or spreadsheet program running took only a few seconds. Firefox popped up pretty quickly, too.
Even though there were the expected compatibility issues with media files, clicking an MP3 file automatically caused the OS to search for, and ask for permission to download and install, the appropriate code to enable playback. It was a convenient click-and-fix process.
What’s not to like: On the Eee PC 1005HA I used for testing, neither the wireless networking nor the Ethernet connection worked. The current version of UNR doesn’t have the proper networking drivers for this particular Eee PC model.
Thus, I had to do some Googling to find a solution. The fix required using another computer connected to the Internet to download two sets of files, transferring them over to the 1005HA, evoking the Linux terminal in Ubuntu Netbook Remix, and carefully typing arcane and very long commands to get these two essential pieces of code installed and running.
As always, I recommend first checking the compatibility list for each of these alternative netbook OSes before deciding whether you want to try installing it. In the case of the Eee PC 1005HA, the site for Ubuntu Netbook Remix does describe issues with this netbook’s wireless and Ethernet hardware.
Worth replacing your current OS? Ubuntu Netbook Remix has a tightly integrated and speedy feel to it, and an easy-on-the-eyes design. I found UNR’s quick-launch UI not only attractive but so convenient and quick to navigate that I preferred using it on a netbook over the usual desktop interface. Text was large and clear enough to read on the 10.1-inch screen of the Eee PC 1005HA.
If you can resolve any issues it may have with missing drivers for your specific netbook model, this alternative OS performs superbly as a drop-in replacement for your netbook’s pre-installed OS, especially if its current one is a Linux-based OS showing its age. Even if your netbook runs Windows XP or 7 (and if you have no need to run Windows programs on it), you should give Ubuntu Netbook Remix a try.
Launched two years ago by Intel and now hosted by The Linux Foundation, Moblin is a Linux platform aimed at netbooks and mobile Internet devices. Version 2.0 of the OS was released in October.
(Moblin 2.0 is also used as the basis for the Ubuntu Moblin Remix Developer Edition, an Ubuntu version of Moblin that’s customized for Dell’s Inspiron Mini 10v netbooks and is only meant to work on these models’ hardware. I did not review Ubuntu Moblin Remix.)
Moblin 2.0 is a bit of an odd bird when it comes to its UI. I also found it to be the buggiest and least optimized in performance when I tested it on the Eee PC 1005HA.
The main interface is a toolbar running along the top of the screen. This bar drops down for you to access it when you move the cursor to the top of the screen; otherwise, it stays off the screen. When it does appear, you click on the functions listed across the bar as you would with a Web browser’s tabs.
The various built-in functions are separated into categories on this toolbar. These include “Myzone” (a personal start page listing your recently visited sites, your to-do list, appointments and friends’ Tweets), “Media” (storage for your audio, video and image files), “Pasteboard” (a clipboard for cutting, pasting and editing text), “Applications” (which is further broken down into sub-categories like “Games,” “Office,” “System Settings,” etc.) and “Zones.” The Zones feature works as a combination of a desktop workspace and application task manager; you click this to move from one application, or desktop workspace, to another.
Installation: Installation was fast. It took less than 10 minutes for Moblin to install from a USB flash drive to the Eee PC 1005HA. The size of the installation file for Moblin is about 720MB
What’s to like: Wireless networking worked without a hitch, and I was surfing the Web almost immediately. (Your results may vary. This could simply mean that the build of Moblin I tested happened to support the 1005HA’s wireless networking chipset.)
As if the sluggishness of the browser wasn’t bad enough, the calendar app crashed twice, and the window for it wouldn’t close. So I had two frozen calendar windows cluttering my workspace.
On the 1005HA’s 10.1-inch screen, text appears too small and barely readable in some areas of the Moblin UI. For example, in the folders displaying the user’s personal files, filename text was tiny and slightly distorted.
With Moblin, I found switching between actively running applications cumbersome and awkward. You click the “Zones” tab, and then choose the next running application you want to access. Or you point the cursor towards the bottom of the screen, whereupon a bar will appear, which, when you click it, scrolls the application up like a window shade, revealing the next active program behind it or the desktop background.
Neither way feels effective for jumping from one program to another — you can easily lose track of things if you’re running more than two programs at once. In fact, you cannot tell in a single glance how many applications you have running.
MP3s wouldn’t play, and Moblin, unlike Ubuntu Netbook Remix, didn’t automatically search for — and offer to download and install — the appropriate software to play them. Instead, it simply popped up a notice suggesting that I go to the software repositories (a kind of search engine for software that most Linux distributions use) and search for the correct code to download (which in this case is a set of decoding software called Gstreamer).
Worth replacing your current OS? The absence of an office application, like a word processor or spreadsheet, is curious and may stick out as an oversight for many users. (There are apparently no such office applications that you can download through Moblin’s software repositories.)
Hopefully, future revisions of Moblin will be optimized, and its Web browser will become speedier or be replaced with a better one.
Jolicloud is built upon Ubuntu Netbook Remix and features the same quick-launch menu interface as UNR.
Currently, you have to request an invite in order to try Jolicloud (the distro is in alpha). When you get the invite, you then have to register for a free user account at the Jolicloud site; the installed OS signs you onto the Jolicloud network whenever you go online. It’s set up like Twitter — you can “follow” other Jolicloud users and they can do the same to you.
In the official release version planned for later this year, your data and configuration settings will be synchronized to the cloud. So, for example, if you install Jolicloud on another netbook, your personal configuration settings would be downloaded from your Jolicloud account and installed onto the new computer.
Jolicloud features a one-click application directory, updated weekly, where you can peruse through an online catalog of software and shortcuts to Web services that you can download.
Installation: Installing Jolicloud on the Eee PC 1005HA took less than 13 minutes. The size of the installation file was 600MB, the smallest in this round-up.What’s to like: Unlike Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Jolicloud recognized the wireless networking chipset of the 1005HA and installed the necessary driver immediately. After going through the ordeal of getting the wireless working correctly on UNR, I found it both a relief and surprise to be able to go online without any hassle.
And MP3s played right away!
Even in its “alpha” state, Jolicloud proved itself to be stable and provided a great “out of the box” experience. Like Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Jolicloud ran smoothly on the 1005HA and was a pleasure to use.
The requirement that you have to sign up to virtually socialize with other Jolicloud users is compensated with the App Directory. This online software repository, presented as a professional and slick-looking app store front-end, allows registered users to conveniently install applications. With a single click, the selected application is automatically downloaded, installed, and its icon put into the appropriate category of the main quick-launch menu.
You’ll find most of the popular open-source applications listed in the App Directory, including GIMP, the OpenOffice suite, VLC media player, WINE and Skype. Additionally, shortcuts to Web services like Hulu, YouTube, Pandora and Google Docs can be installed from the App Directory.
Jolicloud can also be installed from within Windows. By running the Windows program Jolicloud Express, this Linux-based OS can be installed alongside Windows, so you can switch between the two.
What’s not to like: The only problem I could come up with is that, as of this writing, Jolicloud is not yet offered for public consumption. You have to submit your e-mail address and wait for an invite to download it. Tariq Krim, the creator of Jolicloud, said in an e-mail to me that they have been granting invites to anyone; users should get their invites within two days of sign-up.
Worth replacing your current OS? As mentioned above, Jolicloud appears rather stable in its alpha state. Because it is in active development production, though, updates are becoming more frequent as its official release nears. So expect to be asked to download and install them.
Ubuntu Netbook Remix can be a solid and stable replacement for your netbook’s OS — if you can ensure that it works on your netbook model. Its installation file is large at nearly 1GB.
Jolicloud is the next step up from Ubuntu Netbook Remix. Think of it as UNR, but it probably will work “right out of the box” when recognizing your netbook’s networking — and it plays MP3s immediately. It latches on a Twitter-like social network that you’re required to sign up for, but Jolicloud’s very cool-looking and convenient App Directory makes up for this.
Once Jolicloud is officially released to the public, it will be the best alternative OS — Linux-based or otherwise — with which to replace the built-in OS of a netbook, probably even more so on a slightly older (one year or more) model. Until we see what Google will offer netbook owners and how Windows 7 will shake out on this small computing platform, Jolicloud is the best alternative OS to consider right now.
Howard Wen is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.