Group test: netbook distros
Ultraportable laptops – netbooks such as the Eee PC – are becoming increasingly popular. A computer that’s small enough to live permanently in your bag without giving you backache can be incredibly useful, especially as wireless connectivity and 3G hardware are growing in ubiquity.
Netbooks aren’t just consigned to disposable web surfing, though – they can rely on cloud computing services to provide you with a host of additional functionality. If you’ve never heard of cloud computing before, the idea behind it is that you’re able to store and use your data online, rather than on a local computer. That may sound confusing, but for commonly used examples of online apps that save data to remote servers, you need look no further than Google’s range of apps. The upshot of this is that all you require is an internet connection to have access and control over all your data, regardless of where you are.
If you already read our Ubuntu Netbook Remix review and decided it wasn't for you, read on to learn about four good alternative distros for your netbook...
How we tested
Our test machine was an Eee PC 701, featuring 4GB of internal storage, 512MB RAM and a 900MHz Celeron processor. Three of the Linux distros we tested (namely, Xandros, EeeXubuntu and Pupeee) are optimised for Eee PCs, but each of these should also run on other netbooks. The fourth distro on test meanwhile, gOS, is the default one installed on Everet netbooks.
As we tested each of the distros here, we were looking at their ease of installation and use, the applications that came pre-installed and what was available in terms of further installs. We also paid close attention to the extent that everything (including the netbook’s sound, wireless and Ethernet) worked directly out of the box.
Xandros is the default OS that comes with the Eee PC. On initial bootup, you’re presented with Easy mode – or, roughly translated, ‘My First Desktop’. There are tabs for Work, Internet, Learn, Play and so on, with big buttons for each application. There’s also no start menu and thus no obvious way to get at the terminal, but hitting Ctrl+Alt+T brings one up.
If all you want to do is pull up a web browser and maybe open the odd document, this will just about do, but it’s limited and frustrating if you’re remotely experienced with Linux. More useful is the Advanced Desktop, which is fairly easy to set up; however, you do have to download a non-standard package and make a few config changes. You’ll find the instructions for this on the Eee PC forum, rather than being provided by Xandros.
Xandros has a frustratingly oversimplified Easy mode.
Once you’ve got that running, you’ll find yourself in a KDE-based desktop that looks a lot more familiar. OpenOffice.org is provided, as is Firefox (version 2), Skype and Thunderbird. There’s a painting program, and Gwenview (photo/image viewer software), but no Gimp. Amarok is your music app and the default text editor is Kate, which does the job competently, but it’s an older version. Remote desktop software is also provided by default. Configuration is dealt with through a Control Centre and the menus are well organised.
Everything works without fuss, in particular networking (wired and wireless, including WEP keys) and sound (MP3 and AVI as well as OGG). However, the software doesn’t always seem to be reliable in picking up wireless networks – you sometimes need to specify the network SSID rather than just searching for it, which is a real nuisance when you’re out and about.
One issue which cropped up with all of the distros tested is that some app dialogs and screens are too large for small netbook screens (800x600 in the case of the Eee PC). The solution to this problem is to hold down Alt and then use the mouse to drag the window around. We think it’s a shame, though, that more of the dialogs don’t behave like Xandros’s built-in config screen and automatically size themselves to the limited screen space.
A more irritating issue is that Xandros doesn’t seem too bothered about updating its applications. You can install other software from various sites (there’s a lot of information available on the forums and in the wiki, both of which are user-run), but it’s always possible that they might cause conflicts with the pre-installed Xandros software. Unfortunately, the more up to date you are, the more likely it is that there’ll be problems. This is annoying even if you’re using Xandros because it was provided with the machine, rather than having deliberately installed it yourself.
The Xandros Control Centre is well organised, which makes it easy to pick up.
The final problem – and by far the most difficult one to reconcile with – is the use of the unionfs filesystem. In effect, the 4GB hard disk is divided into two partitions: one of these is read-only and contains the factory defaults, the other is your user space, which can be modified. These two partitions live on top of each other (think of it as merging them). This means that if, say, you upgrade Firefox to version 3, you don’t overwrite the existing Firefox in the first partition.
Instead, all of the new data has to go in the user partition, effectively doubling the amount of space taken up and significantly reducing the room available for your data. The advantage is that you can restore the factory default settings in seconds and there’s an option to do this at boot, but it’s not really worth the loss of valuable space. Sure, it’s possible to remove this and replace it with a regular filesystem, but hey, once you’re doing that, you might as well try out another distro, right?
Verdict: Easy to use, but falls down on package availability and due to a memory-guzzling filesystem. 6/10.
The main attractions of Puppy Linux are its small size and suitability for live CD or USB stick booting – both great qualities for a netbook distro. In fact, it even runs well from a USB stick, so if you don’t want to change distros permanently, you can keep it around for occasional use. Pupeee is the Eee PC-specific version of the distro, which should also be suitable for other netbooks. However, Pupeee won’t work on the Eee PC 901, so try its parent distro, Puppy, if you have a 901.
With Pupeee taking up a svelte 131MB, and regular Puppy consuming even less space, this means that you can make the best possible use of the small storage space of your netbook. Another advantage is the distro’s ability to run entirely from RAM, reducing the number of writes required to your solid-state drive and hence extending its life.
Pupeee Linux's desktop is neat and compact.
Yet despite taking up so little room, Pupeee has plenty of software available by default and a clearly organised menu to find it all. The desktop is pretty plain, but on a small screen that works well.
SeaMonkey is provided for net access – this is an all-in-one web application that covers web browsing, email and newsgroups, IRC, and HTML editing. It’s based on the Mozilla code, saving some space over separate installs of Firefox and Thunderbird.
You also get Skype, which is particularly handy when you’re on the go. The built-in editor is Geany, but Leafpad is also available, and you get AbiWord and a PDF viewer as well. For graphics, MtPaint, Inklite, and GTKSee are onboard, while mulitmedia is handled by XMMS, Gxine, Xine and a couple of CD/DVD ripping and writing tools.
The ROX-Filer file manager is basic, but can still select files, sort and display them in various ways and it contains a bookmarks menu. It’s also worth noting that USB keys aren’t automounted, so you’ll need to make use of the Pmount tool – there’s an icon on the desktop for this. The tool itself is simplistic, but it does the job and you get used to the interface quickly.
But what if you want more software? Well, Puppy uses a PET packaging system: the official packages are what’s available on the live CD (what you get on install) and anyone can create an unofficial package. However, since this isn’t a mainstream distro or system there are significantly fewer packages available than with a Debian/Ubuntu/Fedora-based distro.
Moving away from software, sound works fine out of the box – Pupeee happily plays MP3, AVI video, and OGG files without the need to install any other codecs. However, you do have to open the sound mixer to get the sound up to an audible level.
The Puppeee menu - a whole host of applications and a cute dog face hiding at the bottom.
Clouds on the horizon
Crucially though, we struggled with wireless networking. Pupeee tries to make things easy by presenting you with a “connect” desktop icon, but although the setup worked, we found the interface was a little confusing. Rather than just having a single button to do everything, you have to set up the wireless profile first and then click another button to connect to the DHCP server. We also couldn’t make it work with a WEP-protected network, but the default profile connected well with an open network.
One final note: there’s not a full website with support for Pupeee, so if you need help, you’ll have to go check out the various forums. Puppy Linux does have a decent website, though, and by and large things should work in Pupeee as they do in the parent. But, again, you’d find more support if you opted for a more mainstream distro.
Verdict: This tiny and well-equipped distro unfortunately fell down when it came to WEP wireless configuration. 7/10.
We had some trouble getting EeeXubuntu up and running: the automatic Install To USB Stick function didn’t work properly, so in the end we had to manually copy the files over to the stick and then edit the syslinux.cfg file. After that, it took a couple of minutes to boot.
Once we’d got it working though, we found that EeeXubuntu’s overall desktop experience is very similar to other Ubuntu distros. Since its whole design revolves around being user-friendly and presenting a familiar experience, there’s an unsurprising tang of the Xandros desktop about this Eee PC-tailored distro.
Like father, like son
The similarities don’t end at the aesthetic and EeeXubuntu comes complete with a set of apps that ape its popular parent distro. Thunderbird, Firefox and Pidgin are all present, while AbiWord and Gnumeric are here for your office applications. There’s no OpenOffice.org unfortunately, but it’s a large piece of software to put by default on a small-capacity machine and if you feel the lack of it then you can always install it yourself from a Ubuntu repository. In addition, there’s also a basic calendar program, Brasero for CD burning and a towering stack of games to work your way through. Unlike Pupeee, you’ll also find that USB keys and SD cards are automounted.
The lightweight Thunar file manager is another part of the package and it works well enough, even with limited resources. We were particularly impressed with its bulk file renaming tool, which can be used independently of the manager itself. Brilliantly, this features a search and replace function, meaning that you can load up a bunch of files with one string in the title and then easily replace that string with a different one. It also supports renaming based on media tags, such as ID3 audio tags, which is handy for managing your media collection.
The Thunar file manager in all of its Norse-inspired glory.
The desktop environment is Xfce and this does broadly the things you’d expect from your desktop. However, we experienced some trouble with the battery-monitor gadget, which kept warning us (erroneously) that there was something wrong with the battery on our test machine.
In terms of accessibility, wireless networking with EeeXubuntu works straight away and it’s complemented by a pleasing Visible Networks interface. We found that connecting to a wireless network with a WEP key was a little fiddly, but we did get it to work eventually. The important points to bear in mind from our struggle are to know the difference between a WEP passphrase and a WEP ASCII key and to note that Shared Key isn’t automatically selected over Open Network when you’re asked for a key, which seems like an oversight.
Visible wireless networks and their statuses are shown by default.
Our network niggles are minor, but out-of-the-box file compatibility is a bigger issue. While OGG files play automatically, you’ll need to download an extra plugin to play MP3 or Xvid (AVI) files. The only multimedia player provided is Totem Movie Player, which can also deal with music files.
A host of options
You can, of course, install any other package available from Ubuntu or Debian, and that’s a lot of software. It’s the natural advantage to using any version of a distro with mainstream support – you have access to what’s been created for the bigger distro. However, in the case of the MP3/Xvid codecs, it’s a nuisance that the plugins aren’t identified, meaning you have to find them online and then use the Synaptic package manager to get them. This is particularly surprising, as you’d expect an Ubuntu distro to provide an option to install them when you try to play an unsupported file, although it’s probably due to licensing issues.
Nowadays, EeeXubuntu is replaced by standard Eeebuntu/Xfce or Xubuntu with various netbook packages added on - you get the same thing in the end, and it's just as good.
Verdict: It’s Ubuntu on a netbook – it does the job and does it well. 8/10.
Contrary to popular belief, gOS doesn’t stand for Google OS, but rather for good OS. It is, however, closely linked to Google and Google Apps (it’s also another Ubuntu-based distro in the vein of EeeXubuntu). Aside from the emerald colour palette, gOS heavily resembles Mac OS X, with curved edges, a task bar along the top and a set of slick widgets.
The optic-nerve-pleasing desktop of gOS.
That eye candy comes at a price, and this is the largest of the distros on test. It runs in at a hefty 694MB for the download and 2GB for the installed OS. Bear in mind that this limits the disk space available for your own files. It also takes noticeably longer to boot up than the other distros tested.
The sound works immediately, as is evidenced by the Microsoft-alike boot sound it plays (thankfully, this can be turned off in the config). Rhythmbox is the player installed by default, but as with EeeXubuntu, you can’t play MP3s out of the box. There’s no explanation of why these files are greyed-out when you try to open them within Rhythmbox, but if you use the file browser instead then Totem Movie Player launches – an odd choice for the default MP3 playing app. Helpfully, a dialog also pops up to enable you to download the codecs. Additionally, OGG files work fine from the off, but playing AVI requires you to download a codec. Again, you’re offered the option of downloading this when you open such a file in Totem.
The distro comes with Firefox, Pidgin, and Thunderbird for your web-based activities, but also a link to Google Docs, Google Finance, Google Reader, Picasa and others. Instead of running in your browser, these are run via Prism, a new app from Mozilla that enables you to run web-based apps without all the paraphernalia of a browser. This is an interesting idea, although we found it a little weird to be working in such a plain window! The other notable addition to this pack of software is that Wine is installed by default, enabling you to transparently run Microsoft programs and Notebook is included to go with it.
In terms of everyday software, Gimp, OpenOffice.org, and XSane are packaged together with some games. Vim is installed but not Emacs, and the default graphical text editor is Gedit.
In the details
There’s a set of gadgets that loads at start up: a wireless signal meter, a battery meter, a weather applet, a calendar that can link with Google Calendar and a calculator. We also had an unidentified gadget, which only displayed an error message. This is quite a lot to fit on a small netbook screen, although you can remove any of these applets by right-clicking on them.
Unfortunately, wireless networking on our Eee PC was a no-go. It’s fixable (with a replacement kernel), but an enormous nuisance, especially when compared with our experiences with the other distros. Given that gOS is really intended as a cloud-reliant distro, this seems a really strange omission – it’s not as if the developers are trying to keep the image particularly small. We suspect the issue is that gOS isn’t particularly aimed at our test Eee PC, unlike the other distros we’ve tried out here, so the specific wireless card drivers aren’t built into the kernel. On other netbooks, we gather that gOS networking does work well, and we’ve heard that’s also true for the Eee 901. As we mentioned, installing the most recent kernel solved the problem.
We really liked the idea of a heavily net-based distro, which netbooks are absolutely intended for. However, in practice gOS was pretty sluggish, and you can’t always rely on your wireless connections to be high-speed to compensate, so it’s often frustrating to use on the go. Without the heavy tie-in to the online content (the various Google Apps) working, gOS is relegated to being just an overlarge and slightly slow version of Ubuntu for netbooks. The eye candy’s great, but on a small, low-powered notebook that takes up a lot of processing power as well.
However, this is a great system in a lot of ways and certainly far and away the prettiest of those we tried out. It shows potential for beefier laptops and newer netbooks, too, so keep an eye on this for the future.
Verdict: Fabulous eye-candy and online app integration, but can be sluggish. 6/10.
Our choice: EeeXubuntu
With their dependency on networking and limited hardware, netbooks ask more of their OSes than many modern computers. And from what we’ve tested here, it seems fairly obvious that no one has quite perfected the art of cloud-focused Linux yet.
That said, the best reason to move away from the pre-installed distro on your netbook is if you can garner the advantages of a larger parent OS, enabling you to install plenty of useful upgrades and packages, rather than being restricted to a small subset of netbook-specific apps. Which is why the winning distro, EeeXubuntu, best nails down the essence of what makes a netbook distro change a good idea.
It builds on the foundations of Ubuntu’s popularity. Fundamentally, that success is based on reliability – perfect for netbooks, where you want something that will work straightforwardly and without any fuss. EeeXubuntu provides that in spades and of the distributions reviewed here, it was the one that was the least painful to set up and to use.
It's fairly predictable, but EeeXubuntu does the job well.
Pupeee very nearly beat it to the top spot: it’s a great, small distro, with a lot packed into it. Unfortunately, the WEP problems meant that it just slipped below EeeXubuntu in the practical usability stakes. It also lacks the range of software that EeeXubuntu has available, even if it can cover the basics well. It’s worth noting that Pupeee can easily be run from a Live USB key so you could combine the advantages of both distros; all you need to do is mount your regular home directory after you’ve booted and saved files there. There’s scope for saving data between sessions in a special Pupeee file and it will automatically pick this file up again the next time you boot.
Meanwhile, gOS has far and away the best eye candy of the distros tested here, and the online integration is great if you’re certain that you’re going to have decent network access. It is, however, a little slow and would need streamlining before we’d use it regularly.
Finally, the lack of current packages for Xandros and its dependency on an irritating filesystem setup make it the clear loser of the four, although it does have an initial functionality edge over EeeXubuntu and gOS.
Update: what, no CrunchEee?
Several readers have written in to recommend CrunchEee, a Crunchbang Linux respin for netbooks. We've covered Crunchbang Linux before, but perhaps it's time we gave CrunchEee some love. What do you think - is it worth a review?
First published in Linux Format magazine