News
5/12/2009
11:07 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail

Linux Distros For Netbooks

Our Linux expert tries out netbook-ready Puppy Linux, Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Xubuntu, gOS, and Moblin, and reports on how they stack up.






Moblin running on our test machine.
(click for image gallery)

Like single hydrogen atoms, netbooks and Linux were destined to come together. With Windows 7 still months away from full release and XP itself headed for limbo at best, it's no surprise attention has turned to Linux as a way to keep the netbook market lean and lively.

When I originally started writing this, the original idea was to single out the distributions best suited for netbooks and profile them. That's what's comes out here, but to be candid, most any Linux distro should have no trouble running as-is on your average netbook. Since most netbooks come with 1GB of RAM and a fair amount of storage, it's generally not a question of the hardware being robust enough.

So what are the real issues? The main one is whether or not the distro has been built with solving netbook-specific problems in mind. Will the visual elements intelligently scale down to fit on that tiny screen? Will I have support for my camera and microphone, which I use to make VOIP calls over wireless? Can I use my cell phone's modem when I don't have a wireless connection?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. I've checked out a number of different distributions that are offered specifically for netbooks or that can be used on them with relatively little configuration, and found that there are two main problems: screen size and connectivity.

The first can usually be adjusted with a little post-install tweaking; the second isn't as easy, and often involves venturing into one of the dread nether regions of Linux: adding driver support for proprietary hardware. To be brutally honest, since you've got your choice of distros, you're best off sticking with one that already supports everything you have right out of the box.

For the sake of testing on my end, I used an Intel Atom-powered Lenovo S10 IdeaPad , which sports a mix of devices that are both widely and narrowly supported. Its Intel 945 video card, for instance, worked right out of the box with everything I threw at it -- but the Broadcom wireless adapter was another story. It required a proprietary driver to work right.

How To Try It All Out

Since most, if not all, netbooks have no internal CD-ROM, installing an OS on a netbook takes some care. If you have a USB-connected optical drive, you can hitch that up to the machine, boot the installation CD from there, and perform the install. Most people typically don't have one of those lying around (I know I don't!), so you'll probably want to use approach #2: copy the installation .ISO file to a USB flash drive and boot that.




Puppy's tightly knit community make's it an interesting netbook choice -- if you don't mind some quirks.
(click for image gallery)

This typically requires a third-party utility. On both Windows and Linux, there's a number of them, but my favorite (and the one most specifically suited to Linux distributions) is UNetBootin. Use it to create a bootable drive from an .ISO, or by picking a distribution from a menu in the program. The end result should boot and run as if it were the CD itself, although some distributions (openSUSE, for one) might require special tweaking to run properly.

Be mindful of all the hardware that exists on your netbook that's worth testing: the network connections (cellular, wireless, wired); the camera, microphone and audio subsystem; and so on. Some devices may require proprietary drivers to work properly, which not all distributions may carry by default.

Always keep in mind that you've got your pick of distributions. The overwhelming majority of them will cost nothing to download and try out. If one doesn't work, grab another.

You can typically try them out with no changes made to your computer. To that end, many of your favorite distributions -- Fedora, for instance -- may already work as-is.

Puppy Linux

Puppy Linux has earned a reputation for being one of the most compact, spiffiest and most all-around useful Linux distributions around, both because of and despite its quirks. It's well suited to netbooks out of the box in a lot of ways -- but it's also imperative that you make sure its batch of drivers works with your machine.

Puppy was written to run on a variety of devices, from ZIP drives to Flash cards. For that reason, the installation process requires a little more care and attention to detail than with, say, Ubuntu. Example: If you install from a flash drive, mount the flash drive (there will be an icon for it on the desktop; just click it) before starting the Puppy Universal Installer. That way you won't have to poke around trying to mount it later and possibly mess up the installation process.

Puppy does have some limitations that are probably a product of its hybrid nature. For one, it doesn't seem to support power management out of the box: hibernate and sleep aren't available. On the other hand, it boots and shuts down fast enough that this is scarcely an issue.

Another is the way hardware is detected and used: if you have hardware that requires closed-source / proprietary drivers, you may be in for a bit of a struggle with Puppy. Tip: If you boot Puppy in live mode and your network's not detected automatically, that's a sign you might want to go with another build first.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix And Xubuntu

Canonical's Ubuntu is Linux, for most people who sit down to try it out. And for most people with a netbook, it might well be the first distribution they try out anyway. It's hard to go wrong with Ubuntu on most hardware, netbooks included: the new 9.04 version intelligently detects display sizes and does its best to make sure visual elements are rendered correctly on small screens.

Ubuntu has another major plus: it supports a wealth of proprietary hardware, including (and especially) network cards. You'll be warned about whether or not proprietary drivers are in use when you're first up and running; there's a green "device card" icon in the tray at top right on the desktop when you have a proprietary driver running.

Aside from the stock version of Ubuntu, which runs fine for many users as-is, there are a few offshoots worth checking out. First and most obvious is the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which fits in 4GB, contains no proprietary components (if you're concerned about such things), and sports a redesigned interface for quickly accessing common tasks.

If you'd rather not stray too far from a familiar desktop, there's Xubuntu, another Ubuntu derivative that sports the Xfce window manager and has been slimmed down in other ways, too. I had much less trouble getting Xubuntu and Ubuntu proper to run on my netbook of choice; you might try those first.




The Mac-like gOS interface might be a bit tight on a netbook screen.
(click for image gallery)

gOS, That's A Good OS

Short for "Good OS" (which it is, pretty much), gOS is for those who mainly use the Web as their operating system, rather than the PC itself. If you spend a lot of time using online apps and services, this one might be worth a try.

It originally appeared as the OS for the Everex gPC, but has since become its own animal. With a desktop that sports Google Gadgets, native integration for Google Gears, and your choice of native interface or a more netbook-style simple view (the latter a community add-on), it's a quirky choice.

Keep in mind that "quirky" doesn't always mean "well-suited": you might find the menus tough to navigate with a tiny touchpad, or find the array of desktop gadgetry more annoying than useful. These are all reasons by themselves to give gOS a whirl in live-CD format, both to see if the interface metaphors are comfortable or confounding and to see how well your connectivity and graphics hardware hold up. My Lenovo test machine's wireless driver was detected but not enabled by default, since it needed a proprietary driver. Fortunately, that wasn't difficult to turn on and get running.

In short gOS is a bit of a mixed bag. In some ways, it's discouraging. Key programs are out of date: the only version of OpenOffice available in the repository is 2.4, for instance. Yet it has appeal. Wine, the Windows application compatibility subsystem for Linux, is preinstalled; that makes it easier to drop in existing Windows apps and run them.

It's absolutely worth a try on your netbook, but don't be surprised if gOS turns out to be a tough fit.

Moblin

Moblin is officially still a project under wraps, so you're encouraged to use it only if you feel adventurous or want to stick your neck out and beta-test it. But for a project that's alpha-bordering-on-beta, it's remarkably stable and functional.

Most of the work that needs to be done on Moblin seems to fall into two realms: proper integration of hardware drivers, and the applications available for the distro. In the case of the former, it turned out to be my netbook's wireless drivers (again!). They weren't detected automatically, and it was back to the wired connection for me.

With the latter, there's not much yet available in the repositories -- even productivity chestnuts like OpenOffice and AbiWord aren't there yet. On the plus side, stuff like suspend/resume and other power-management features all worked excellently.

In short, Moblin is unfinished, so don't expect anything other than a bumpy ride even for trivial work. But do check back often, since the insanely fast boot time and support from a major hardware maker (in this case, Intel) means it will be more than worth the wait when it's baked all the way through.

Conclusion

Most Linux distros are suitable for netbook use. But fine-tuning your particular flavor of netbook by finding an even friendlier Linux distro isn't too difficult. Matching up your rig's configuration: screen size, devices, and drivers -- and your own style of work and play -- with the most conducive Linux distro, you'll get the max out of your mini-laptop.


InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis of the current state of open source adoption. Download the report here (registration required).

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Email This  | 
Print  | 
RSS
More Insights
Copyright © 2021 UBM Electronics, A UBM company, All rights reserved. Privacy Policy | Terms of Service