Netbook: Moblin

Version 10.04 of Ubuntu is due to be released at the end of this month.  While waiting, I thought I’d try one or more alternatives. Moblin is a Linux distribution optimized for the Intel Atom processor running inside my  Dell Mini 10v.  Under the covers it’s Fedora, but it comes with a desktop designed for netbooks and an integrated software suite.

The basic installation worked fine.  The result booted up, but wouldn’t connect through Wifi.  It seems that Moblin doesn’t include drivers for the 10v’s Broadcom Wifi card.  Wired ethernet worked fine, but Wifi was quite obstinate.  Googling around turned up many people who had the same problem, none of which worked with my installation.  After a lot of trial and error, I got it working.  The solution involved loading dev tools, downloading the source code from Broadcom, and manually installing the driver.

Moblin, version 2.1

Moblin is designed to be light and quick. Bootup took about 20 seconds from the time from the time bootloader kicked in to the opening screen. That’s quick, but only about 5 seconds quicker than Ubuntu 9.04.

The “Moblin Internet Browser” (known as MIB) is Mozilla based. It comes with Flash 10 installed. Java is not provided, and there was no quick to to install it. Normal Firefox add-ons seem to work.

Conveniently, the Application Installer allows you to load Google Chrome and the normal Firefox.  Firefox even comes with a Moblin icon theme.  Ultimately, Chrome is always the best choice on underpowered hardware.

One frustrating aspect of MIB is that it doesn’t provide full-screen mode. On a netbook, the vertical space is especially valuable, so all apps should have a full-screen function to turn off optional chrome and window controls.  Both Firefox and Chrome offer full-screen modes, both triggered by the F11 key.  Unfortunately, the Moblin toolbar is disabled whenver the full-screen kicks in.

The Moblin mail application works fine, and connected up directly to my gmail account. However, I’m completely baffled that mail isn’t an icon on Moblin’s toolbar. Also, although the myzone page lists all your Twitter feeds, it doesn’t show updates to your mailbox.

The Media application can play Ogg Theora video, but no others.    Music plays  fine, as long as it’s Ogg Vorbis.  The Application Installer offers media alternatives, including Banshee and Totem, but these programs will suffer from the same lack of codecs.   Other codecs are available, but  require modest command line kung-fu to  install.  Again, lots of kind folks have posted instructions on loading the codecs, most of which don’t work on my particular hardware or kernel.

For word processing, the Moblin Installer doesn’t offer Open Office, but it does let you load AbiWord, which should do the job for most users. Dia is available for drawings.  I couldn’t find any spreadsheets.

Finally, I tried Skype.  After the headaches of getting simple drivers and codecs to install, you’d think that Skype was completely out of the question.   Incredibly, and as if to demonstrate that life doesn’t have to be so hard, Skype loaded up without much problem.  Microphone, speakers, and video work fine.

  1. Download the RPM for Skype on Fedora.
  2. Install libXScrnSaver:   sudo yum install libXScrnSaver

After spending a couple days with Moblin, I’d have to say there are promising features here, but that it’s definitely not ready for prime time.  The Wifi troubles are perhaps understandable; Moblin didn’t anticipate my particular hardware.  Wireless probably works fine on some netbooks.  Moblin isn’t positioned as a general purpose distribution like Ubuntu.  Moblin is intended for installation by hardware manufacturers, who would take responsibility for driver setup.

Moblin’s speed and standardized graphics are nice.  I like the concept of zones to organize programs.  The toolbar and myzone page show promise.

The MIB browser is a particular weakness.  Besides the poor use of screen space, I find that the JavaScript performance is worse than Firefox’s and distinctly inferior to Chrome’s.  Since MIB gets special treatment by myzone, this will be a problem for casual users.

In general, this is a good distribution, and would provide a totally workable experience for netbook users.


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