Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/06/09/which_linux_for_netbooks/

The best netbook-friendly Linux distros

Android on your Eee, anyone?

By Andrew 'Spode' Miller

Posted in Software, 9th June 2009 12:08 GMT

We loved the Xandros based OS the Asus put on the original Eee PC for its simplicity and direct access to applications. Likewise Acer's version of Linpus, installed on the Linux versions of its Aspire One netbook. For 90 per cent of the tasks anyone's likely to perform on a netbook, they're spot on and allow the machines to boot up in under 20 seconds.

But what about that other ten per cent of tasks? Try to do anything the UI wasn't designed for and you had to delve deep into the terminal - often to find that key code, like driver software, wasn't included. Trying to connect to the internet using a 3G dongle is a case in point.

Ubuntu

Android on your Eee, anyone?

Then there are the folk who want a full desktop operating system on their mini machines. For them, for anyone who's out-grown the original UI, for enthusiasts who want to see what a full Linux distro can do and for anyone who's had enough of Windows, we've downloaded and tried a heap of netbook Linux variants to see how they well they perform on a trio of typical netbooks: the Asus Eee PC 1000, the Acer Aspire One and MSI's Wind.

We looked at many more distributions than those featured here. Most were good, but either offered nothing more than the ones below do, or lacked drivers or software necessary to run smoothly on a netbook. What we've listed below are those that we feel are most worthy of your attention, the ones you should try first.

We've also included some more leftfield options which, while not ready for everyday netbook use, are generating a lot of interest in the netbook world. How well do they justify the hype?

We'd certainly encourage you to try others too. Linux distros can evolve rapidly, and new releases are coming out all the time. Almost all Linux distros now come as "live” CDs, meaning they boot up off the disc to give you the entire OS without actually installing anything. Just download the distro's .ISO file and burn it to a CD or DVD on your main machine.

Ubuntu

Let go of Linpus and upgrade to Ubuntu

If you have an external optical drive, this is the best way to go, and you can quickly install the OS you like best after trying the various live discs. It's also possible to convert the .ISO images into a bootable USB stick. Unetbootin is a utility that attempts to do this all for you - you can download it and get full instructions here.

Did we miss out your favourite netbook distro? Use the Comments section to tell other netbook users why they should give it a try.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04

Prior to Ubuntu 9.04 - aka 'Jaunty Jackalope' - you could only get the Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface built into other distributions such as Eeebuntu or Ubuntu-Eee (now Easy Peasy). Both of these were unofficial Ubuntu remixes, so usually a little behind the curve.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix

Ubuntu offers a good netbook-ready UI

Unlike the rest of the Ubuntu releases, which come as an ISO to be burnt to CD, the netbook version comes as a file ready to be written to a USB stick – handy, as almost all netbooks don't have optical drives. This good thinking is indicative of the OS itself.

The underlying system is the same as the desktop Ubuntu 9.04 so has everything you'd expect from the complete distribution, including full support for 3G dongles – even split mode. All three of our test netbooks had excellent functionality, with everything working out of the box.

The AA1 was the least happy with Ubuntu, presenting some minor issues with the SD slots and the indicator light for the Wi-Fi. With the Ubuntu community as large as it is, it's no surprise that there are already fixes for these issues on its forum.

The only other issue, which affects other machines as well as netbooks, is the poor performance of Intel graphics cores in Jaunty. On the EeePC 701, for example, the effect is so severe that UNR is almost unusable without some tweaking.

This performance degradation is really noticeable when you're watching YouTube videos full screen or trying to play HD content. For general use and SD playback, it's fine, so whether this will be a problem for you depends on how you use your netbook.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix

To cater for the small screen, apps auto-maximise

The netbook-specific portion of UNR is the interface. Split into three panes, the UI presents icons for menu entries, much like you'd find in the launch menu, for your applications and, on the right hand side, for commonly accessed folders such as documents, or the local network. It's a little like the Asus Eee PC interface, but much more adult and customisable.

Incidentally, it's a lot easier to use in moving vehicles than the standard desktop is.

UNR is designed so that every application you run is automatically maximised to fill the scree, with the icon of the application docked in the top-left corner, giving you a tabbed interface for accessing your running applications. This works nicely, although you do notice a slight delay when each application opens up for the first time. Attempting to open more than one instance of an application simply returns you to the first instance.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu's regular desktop is just mouse clicks away

If you don't get on with UNR, you're but three mouse clicks away from reverting to the traditional Ubuntu desktop based on the proven Gnome environment.

Jaunty itself has bought with it some huge speed improvements that mean boot times of around 20 seconds, excluding the initial start-up test. Taking the graphical performance into account, this is certainly a choice distribution for getting work done.

Download Here

Eeebuntu

Until the release of Jaunty, Eeebuntu was one of the best ways to get Ubuntu Netbook Remix onto your netbook. Version 2.0 was based on the previous release of Ubuntu, Intrepid, but Eeebuntu 3.0 is now available and it's based on Jaunty.

Eeebuntu

Eeebuntu offers a standard desktop as well as a netbook UI

EeeBuntu isn't simply a rehash, though. The developers have gone for a variant on the standard Ubuntu UI for the mainstread Eeebuntu Standard release, but Eeebuntu NBR delivers the Netbook Remix UI. You can download either of these separately - or Eeebuntu Base, which is a pared back version that installs a bare minimum of software, leaving you to put in place only the apps you want.

All three versions of Eeebuntu comes with an Eee PC-specific kernel rather than Ubuntu's generic one, so it's tuned from the start for the Eee's hardware, from the Wi-Fi module to the function keys. It also comes with EeeConfigure scripts also set you up with everything you need depending on what model of Eee you have, and there's EeePCTray, a menu item that provides direct access to Eee-specific features.

We also see other nice additions such as VLC installed out of the box, as well as Flash and Java.

Eeebuntu

Eeebuntu gives direct access to Eee PC hardware settings

If you have an Eee PC, this is certainly the version of Ubuntu to go for.

Download Here

Fedora 10

Fedora has a strong following thanks to its Red Hat roots, and many desktop users will want to run this on their netbooks too. Unfortunately, nothing about the distribution has been optimised for netbook use and you certainly won't get out-of-the-box support for wireless on any of the machines we tried out of the box. Fonts appeared too large, and the UI generally felt cramped on the machines' 1024 x 600 screens.

Fedora

Fedora's not as netbook-savvy as some other distros

However, with a little work you can get help - here's a fix for the wireless on the MSI Wind, for example - and there are even kernel packages specifically for the Eee PC, which you can get here.

However, brand loyalty aside, we wonder if this is making work for yourself for no reason.

Unlike Ubuntu, there wasn't a wizard for getting the 3G dongle working so we where left to our own devices. OpenOffice was an obvious exclusion too, but Abiword was installed as standard. It doesn't take too long to install extra apps, though.

Overall, we feel you would be better off using a netbook specific distribution.

Download Here

CrunchEee

CrunchBang Linux is a lightweight Ubuntu-based distribution using the OpenBox window manager. CrunchEee is the same operating system, but optimised for the Eee PC, using a stripped down “lean” kernel designed for speed. Fonts have been optimised for the smaller screen, too, making for an excellent companion to the Eee PC.

Based on Ubuntu 8.10, Crunch Eee's boot time is half that of a standard Ubuntu Intrepid install – so we can't wait to see what the team can do with Ubuntu Jaunty – which is already considerably faster at booting up.

CrunchEee

Refreshing in its geeky simplicity

Once booted, it's a very simple affair, with just a grey and black colour scheme. Its simplicity is refreshing. The launch menu has no icons, but most of the applications you'll want are installed for you. Naturally, being Ubuntu based – installing more easy.

The same Eee PC tray utility that Eeebuntu provides is included here to allow you to turn off netbook hardware such as the webcam – something you'd usually need to go into the Bios to do. You can also over and underclock the CPU, allowing you to squeeze a little more battery power out of the machine, or speed up game play.

Wireless works out of the box, as do 3G dongles. Despite the name, CrunchEee also worked flawlessly on our other netbooks.

Download Here

Google Android

Ever since it was first talked about, Android has been an exciting prospect and its use on netbooks as well as mobile phones has been on the books since day one. Acer claims to be launching an Android-based netbook later this year, and we expect other laptop makers to do the same.

Android

Android marches from phones to netbooks

Right now, though, the project needs a lot of work to make the transition from phone to desktop a smooth one. There are guides on compiling the Android source code for your x86-based netbook, but even when you've got it, it's lacking even the most basic of netbook functionality. You won't get support for your mouse, let alone wired or wireless networks. Without internet access, you won't find much in the way of software support, either, even a basic word processor.

Android

The UI works, but software support is limited

It's going to take a lot of work and an official netbook launch before we see this being a grown your own option, but it's definitely worth keeping an eye on. And if you're happy tinkering, it can be fun to try.

Download Here

Good OS' gOS

Gadgets 3.1 is the latest version of gOS publicly available. Even so, it's based on Ubuntu 8.04 'Hardy' which is now over a year old. There's a new version, Cloud, on the way, and it's more netbook-centric than Gadgets. However, it's focused on linking your netbook to online applications and it's designed to act as a quick-access environment alongside Windows.

In the meantime, though, we still have Gadgets. More than just a re-spin of Ubuntu, gOS Gadgets looks and feels incredibly different. Google Gadgets have been integrated into the desktop and the Mac OS X-like dock has icons for every cloud-based service Google offers – as well as other popular services. The dock works really nicely, but from our experience most of the Google Gadgets are a little pointless or Windows specific.

gOS Gadgets

gOS: cloud computing with Google Gadgets

Certainly the the choice of installed software is impressive, with Skype as standard, plus the Windows emulation environment Wine, Picasa for pictures and Thunderbird for email. Clearly some thought has gone into choosing these, with a look and feel that matches its modern outlook.

Unfortunately, wireless wouldn't work on any of our machines – and neither would our 3G dongles. Decent 3G dongle support was added in the Ubuntu 8.10 'Intrepid' release, which came six months after Hardy, which just goes to show how far behind the curve Gadgets really is.

That said, gOS is very promising and certainly worth a look – if only to work out what packages you should install onto Ubuntu to get a similar look and feel. Hopefully, Cloud will be publicly available and exceed our expectations. If you fancy giving 3.1 a go, with enough Googling, you'll find ways of activating your wireless and maybe even get your dongle working. The instructions should be the same as it would be for Ubuntu.

Download Here

Moblin

Originally developed by Intel - which is why it takes special advantage of the Atom processor - Moblin has now been handed over to the Linux Foundation for completion. Moblin isn't an Ubuntu respin, like so many netbook Linuxes, but a distro in its own right.

Moblin

Revamped UI: Moblin Beta 2 gets more netbook friendly

When we first looked at Moblin, it was in alpha phase and looked like a fairly standard distro on the surface. Reading the documentation, however, it was obvious that some clever stuff was going on underneath. The sub-15 second boot-up time and support for all of our netbooks was also promising.

The latest version, 2.0 beta, is a better indication of where things are meant to be. It's dramatically different to an off-the-shelf distribution and clearly pitched as an Android competitor. Acer is speculated to be using Moblin in a new range of netbooks, and several other linux distributions are looking to work closely with Moblin – including Canonical, the people behind Ubuntu, who are eager to release a Netbook Remix version.

However, using the current version it felt much closer to an alpha than a beta – with quite a few apparent bugs even during the relatively short time we spent with it. Looking on the Moblin site, it seems most people are having troubles.

The interface is designed for the modern social networking, cloud-based user – which isn't everyone. It integrates Last.FM and Twitter straight into your welcome screen. Twitter functionality is pretty worthless though, displaying only a few recent tweets. A tab for updating your status is useful, but realistically, anyone who uses Twitter seriously will want to use something more powerful.

Moblin

Well tuned for Intel's Atom

Instant messenging is also integrated, but only supports Google Talk, Jabber and Salut. The exclusion of Skype and MSN will certainly get in the way for some users. There's no word processor as standard, but Abiword is in the repositories – but that's about it. There's no sign of OpenOffice and a lot of other common software.

The interface is really nice to use, but we can't help but feel teased as this is from a complete product. Yet another distribution to keep an eye on, but not really ready for use.

Download Here

Did we miss out your favourite netbook distro? Use the Comments section to tell other netbook users why they should give it a try.