Archive for the ‘netbook’ Category

Netbook: Ubuntu 10.04 release candidate

For the past week, I’ve been using the release candidate for 10.04.  Today I read that the update manager will automatically give me 10.04 final when it’s released.

Doesn’t this take the wind out of the big countdown?  If the final version is just incrementally different from the beta version, then Ubuntu is released continuously instead of in big milestone releases twice a year.

Honestly though, the version I’m running uses normal Gnome windows and menus, not the netbook-specific application launcher.  So at least I’ve got that to look forward to.  Also, this release candidate came without Java installed and without the Broadcom driver for wireless internet.   From these senses, it’s less of a complete consumer product than the 09.10 netbook remix.


Netbook: Jolicloud

While searching through DistroWatch for netbook specific distributions, I stumbled on Jolicloud.  This version is labeled “pre-final release”, but it seems pretty solid.  Jolicloud is another Ubuntu derivative, this one based on  Jaunty Jackalope.  It comes with a desktop launcher similar to Ubuntu’s netbook remix, except that it displays all disk volumes on the main screen.

Installation went off without a hitch.  WiFi connected without any complaint.  Apparently it’s been tested against a substantial list of netbooks.

There’s no synaptic package manager in Jolicloud.  Instead, you must sign on to the free Jolicloud service.  Once connected to the Jolicloud app, you can download applications.  There also “social” aspects to Jolicloud, which are pretty much lost on me.  One interesting twist is that some of the downloadable apps are actually websites, which are wrapped by Mozilla’s Prism framework.  Websites such as Google docs, Netvibes, and LinkedIn become first-class application icons available on desktop launcher.  In fact, the Jolicloud app itself is a Prism application.

The basic browser is Firefox.  It comes with Flash, but not with Java.  There’s no easy way of installing the Java plugin.  Chrome is available from the Jolicloud installer.

Surprisingly, there’s no email application in the default installation.  You can download Evolution and Thunderbird from the Jolicloud installer, as well as Prism applications around Gmail and Yahoo mail.

Movies and music run fine from the Totem Movie player.  All codecs are already installed.  Music plays directly from the Nautilus file browser.

No office apps are in the base distribution, but you can easily download Open Office, Abiword, or others.

Skype loads directly from the Jolicloud app, and everything about it works.  This was even easier than the Ubuntu netbook remix install.

The only problem I’ve seen so far is that the desktop launcher crashes occasionally.  OK, that’s a pretty serious problem, but hopefully they can resolve things before things go “final”.  Also, the Prism basis around the Jolicloud app means that searching for apps suffers from slow page refreshes.  Again: fix it.

In general, this seems like a pretty solid choice for general netbook users.

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.

Netbook: Ubuntu Netbook Remix

So I’ve been using my new netbook for a while now.  I play with it at home.  I brought it in to work for a week to use as a secondary console and web browser.  It’s fun and cute.   It’s also slow and the screen is tiny.

Mostly it’s an experiment to see how much value I can get out of a computer that’s smaller than most tech books and whose cost is minimal.  I should start by saying that my expectations are pretty low.   I want this thing to :

  1. Browse the web, including Flash and Java applets.
  2. Read the mail.
  3. Play movies and music
  4. Do a little word processing, spreadsheets, and drawing.
  5. Run Skype.

That’s a pretty modest list.  I think it represents the needs of an average consumer.  I don’t need it to play high-end games or edit movies or host a database.  Just normal day-to-day communication and simple entertainment.

Ubuntu 9.10 Netbook Remix

The first task was to load up the latest release of Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix operating system.  This Linux distribution was customized for the Atom processor in my little Dell Mini.

The netbook came with Windows XP installed.  My intention was to overwrite this completely, but the Ubuntu install offered to set up a dual boot setup, so I could pick either operating system during startup.  What the heck.

Here’s my experience:

  1. Firefox was built in, with Flash v10 and Java 1.6, which takes care of this requirement completely.  For fun, I installed Google’s Chrome browser.   It’s actually shocking how much faster Chrome is on JavaScript intensive sites.  On my other computers I don’t notice much difference, but on the netbook Chrome is much snappier.
  2. Evolution is built in for mail.  It connected up to GMail and other IMAP accounts with no problem.  If you prefer Thunderbird, it’s available in the Synaptic Package Manager.
  3. Movies and music played without a hitch.  This was a pleasant surprise, since in past years I’ve had trouble getting movies to play on Linux.  I guess all the codecs must be lined up now in Ubuntu, because it all just worked.
  4. Open Office comes with the distribution.  That’s all ya need.
  5. It took a while to get Skype installed.   Since this isn’t free software, it wasn’t available on the default repositories within the Synaptic Package Manager.  Once I got this configured, Skype worked fine, including video.

In general, I’d have to say the Netbook Remix is completely usable, and I’d recommend it to non-technical users as a virus free alternative to the big operating systems.

New Netbook

I just picked up a new toy, a Dell Mini 10v.

It’s difficult to explain why I got this, since our house isn’t lacking for extra computers.  My boss pointed out that for fifty bucks more buys a full-powered laptop.  Honestly though, the form factor on the netbook is sufficiently different.    It’s just easier to sit on the couch with it. It’s substantially lighter and quieter.  Folded up, it fits in my hand like a book.  And, at half the price of the low-end iPad, I figure I won’t worry about the thing the way I do with my laptops.

We’ll see.


Also, although I’ve been using Linux on the server side for years, I’ve spent hardly any time with client side Linux.  The open question for me is  whether I can recommend desktop Linux to my non-technical friends and relatives.