Over the last 12 months, netbook and mobile Linux has made massive advances in features and install base. This is primarily thanks to two netbook distributions - Moblin and Canonical's Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR). Both have built on the massive potential that was unlocked by the Asus Eee PC but led nowhere, as its operating system failed to inspire a new generation of Linux users.
But now technologies from Google such as Android and Chrome OS are bringing a new wave of innovation to the Linux netbook space, so we thought it was time to take a look at the contenders in the netbook and mobile distro space to see just what's going on. Which netbook distro is right for you? Do they work just as well on desktops? Are Chrome OS or Maemo real contenders? Read on to find out!
(NB: if you missed our previous articles, catch up by reading our group test of netbook distros and our guide to choosing the best Linux distro for you.)
Not just netbooks
We're going to document the current state-of-the-art in mobile Linux, and uncover the innovation and the technology that has enabled recent developments to happen. And we're going to start with netbooks, as these desirable items are becoming increasingly important.
Ideally, a netbook OS needs to take into consideration three things: the limited amount of screen space that these devices typically have, the need for applications to be quick and responsive, and fact that these devices have to last as long as possible without being connected to a power source. And this is exactly what both Moblin and Canonical's UNR have been designed to accomplish.
The Moblin and UNR interface
Moblin's great advantage, and the reason why it's been such an important development for the Linux netbook platform, is that it started life as an Intel project (it's now under the guardianship of the Linux Foundation), and Intel makes the hardware that the vast majority of netbook devices use. This meant that the company had an unparalleled knowledge of the inner workings of these devices and also had the opportunity to make them work to the best of their capabilities by adding drivers and various other components to the Linux kernel.
Despite all the work that has been done in the background for Moblin, it's the user experience that most people will judge this distribution on. Moblin uses a toolbar that scrolls down from the top border of the display, and from this, you can launch any of Moblin's apps, including a Mozilla-based web browser, an instant messenger client, media player and home screen.
Ubuntu Netbook Remix
Canonical put a great deal of effort into developing Ubuntu Netbook Remix, pulling massive boot speed improvements, power management code and a new window manager into the standard Ubuntu distribution. It also makes good use of recent additions to Ubuntu, including the Ubuntu One cloud storage system and the Empathy instant messenger, which makes good use of the limited screen sizes on these devices.
But the best thing about UNR is the breadth of packages available. You can install anything that any other Ubuntu user can, which is a massive advantage if you look at the tiny selection available for Moblin. UNR has been tried and tested on the Intel Atom platform that most netbooks use at their core, so you should expect better battery life and reliable suspend and resume, for instance.
One thing we don't like about the latest release of UNR is the installation routine. Canonical has tried to make things easier by only distributing UNR 9.10 as an ISO image that needs to be burned on to a CD. But of course, netbooks don't have optical drives. To get around this, Canonical wants you to use its USB Creator application. We had little success getting this to work on a couple of Ubuntu-based distros, and had to resort to the Windows version that can be found in the root directory of the ISO - which means you need to mount it first, somehow. On Windows, you will also need Python 2.6 installed. By comparison, Moblin is provided as an IMG file, the same as UNR used to be, and this can be copied using dd on the command line. It takes a long time, and it's more technical than it should be, but because you have control of the block size with the bs argument (we used bs=1024), the writing process shouldn't fail. We'd love to see Canonical providing both packages.
The embedded instant messenger in Moblin is one of the many apps that keep the GUI closely tied to the limited screen space of a typical netbook.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect to Moblin in particular is its boot speed, because a netbook has to boot quickly. It's a device that's going to be routinely turned on and off, opened and closed. It needs to present a desktop with a working internet connection fast enough for people to look up train times, local restaurants and cinema listings without having to resort to their mobile phone.
Fortunately, the unified nature of the Atom platform is a significant advantage for netbook distro builders. It means they can optimise boot speeds knowing the exact capabilities of the hardware. This is a luxury that general Linux distributions don't have. Instead, they have to play it safe by bundling support for as many different variations in configuration as they can, and this still causes problems.
But Atom-based netbooks don't have the same problem, and this is exactly why Moblin and UNR have been able to make improvements to boot speed. The Moblin team have been extremely vocal in their belief that they can dramatically reduce the time it takes for a netbook computer to get from post BIOS to a fully operational environment. They've also said that there's no single Linux system that needs to be improved. Getting a faster boot speed means looking at the whole booting system, which is exactly what they've done.
This initiative for Moblin was dubbed the 'fast boot' project, and it was widely reported that Intel felt a 2-second boot time was a realistic goal. It has yet to accomplish this particularly milestone, but the fast boot changes have made a dramatic improvement in boot speed. But there's no magic piece of optimisation that can suddenly turn a slow-booting netbook into a fast-booting one. There are so many things going on when your computer boots that overhauling a single application won't make that much difference.
Instead, the Moblin team had to look at everything that happens between the moment you press the power button and the moment you log in to your desktop, and that meant looking through the code for everything from the boot manager and the graphics drivers to the window manager and desktop environment.
As Moblin software engineer and fast-boot troubleshooter, Arjan van de Ven puts it: "Fast boot is not a specific piece or a few pieces of technology. It is largely about how you put the OS together... there are a few pieces of optimisation, but that is almost secondary." To accomplish this, the Moblin team looked very closely at what was happening at boot time, what was being launched and when, before playing around with everything from compiler flags to configure options in every package loaded at boot time.
Running certain processes asynchronously also helps, such as the USB probing routines. But surprisingly, the kernel itself is only a small part of the whole routine, and as a result it has received only a few patches from the Moblin team to enhance boot speed. Many of the components required for booting are already built into the kernel image, rather than as external modules. This is also part of the reason why Moblin can't support the Celeron processor, as used in the original Asus Eee PC 701, as the some of the instructions used to optimise performance are Atom-only.
Even the X server can't escape, with several operations disabled, duplicate saved hardware states removed and UXA acceleration enabled by default. These options are only possible because Moblin knows the hardware capabilities of the netbook device.
Canonical is also heavily involved with the Moblin initiative, bundling its own Ubuntu-themed Moblin edition alongside its UNR offering, and it has also been closely monitoring Moblin development for clues on how it can improve its general distribution's performance. Despite the fact that Moblin uses the Sysvinit initialisation daemon to manage boot processes while and Ubuntu uses Upstart, many of the boot speed improvements that have been made to Moblin have also been made to UNR, and as a result both distributions have made big improvements. Moblin is still winning, but Canonical's Scott James Remnant, who has looked at the two systems in detail, reckons that they can pull Ubuntu's boot time into the 10-second ballpark for the next release.
After rapid booting, the second thing you're likely to notice when you start your netbook is the user interface. Both Moblin and UNR have tried very hard to morph the standard Linux desktop into a more mobile-friendly amount of screen space, and they've used different tactics with varying degrees of success. With Moblin, the key to this transformation is the Clutter toolkit. This is the graphical framework that Moblin uses to create most of the individual UI components on the screen. It includes the small graphical animation that occurs when you roll your cursor over the icons in the toolbar, as well as handing the way windows scroll in and out of view and the thumbnail view used for application switching.
Moblin has taken many well known GTK-based applications, and pushed these into the Clutter toolkit, giving most of the desktop a much more unified and homogeneous look than other Linux distros. It also means that these applications will fit easily into the small screen, and sometimes their layout needs to be adjusted to compensate. This has been taken to a new level with the Moblin-specific applications that are part of the default desktop, and in particular, the integrated web browser.
UNR applications have a small window titlebar that fits into the top panel, freeing up even more valuable screen space.
The browser is likely to be the most used component of a netbook, and the Moblin browser has been designed to make the best possible use of the available screen space. This means it is always maximised and is also integrated into the applications panel. Clicking on this will fill the page with your most visited sites, and clicking on any of these will open the browser. The browser is based on Mozilla, and includes Flash support by default. Pages can be opened on a new tab, and the tab bar fits snugly beneath the address bar at the top of the window.
Clutter has also been used to good effect in the contacts page. This is an instant messaging portal that's automatically connected whenever you connect to a network, and it lists your online contacts within a Clutter panel and lets you initiate conversations from the same screen. If you receive messages while using another application, the Contacts icon in the launch bar will display an exclamation mark.
The biggest change for UNR compared with Ubuntu is the way it looks. Canonical has created a large icon-based launch system that apes the same menu layout and contents as its general desktop distribution, while making its features easier to use from a netbook's smaller display and input devices. Canonical's UNR doesn't use anything as revolutionary as Clutter, but it does bundle several distinct technologies unique to its netbook distribution. The most important is called Maximus. This is the window manager responsible for the full-screen mode used by most UNR applications, and it enables these application to make the most use of the limited screen space without overlapping the application bar at the top of the screen. Unlike Clutter, applications don't have to be hard-coded to work with Maximus. The window manager is a drop-in replacement for Gnome's default, and this means it works just as well as KDE's window manager, for example.
Spotlight on: Jolicloud
Jolicloud is somewhat reminiscent of the dotcom marketing campaigns circa 1999. Create a nice logo, build a mysterious website and then ask people to sign up for further information. That Jolicloud does all this to push a new Linux-based netbook distribution is even more unusual. We got our hands on the latest release and installed it on to our trusty Samsung. We were then surprised to find that the resulting installation looked rather a lot like Canonical's UNR. In fact, it was UNR, just with a new logo and a few tweaked colours.
Fortunately, there's more to Jolicloud than yet another Ubuntu respin and the clue to this functionality lies within its name. This is a distribution in the clouds, which is why the choice of distribution for the physical installation isn't quite so important. Click on the Jolicloud icon within the Favourites section of the launch panel, and Jolicloud will ask you to login to your invitation-only account. It does this through Prism, Mozilla's attempt to pull applications off the web and on to your desktop, and when signed in to Jolicloud, there's no sign that a web browser is running. Instead, you can install all kinds of applications within the cloud, including Google Chrome with Flash, VLC and Spotify. It's a kind of online application manager.
Switch back to the normal UNR desktop, and you'll find whichever applications you've chosen have been installed into the appropriate places. Spotify can be found in the Sound & Video page, and ran for us without problems. Internet applications, such as Gmail, also have their own icons, and when launched will use Prism to appear part of the whole desktop. There are even social aspects to the Jolicloud dashboard. You can follow other members and invite friends to join you in the cloud.
Jolicloud takes a novel approach to application installation and web integration.
Netbooks on the desktop
Netbooks use standard x86-based hardware. The result is that most Linux distributions will run on them unmodified, and you can also run a netbook-specific distribution such as UNR on a normal desktop machine or a laptop - but you can't install Moblin. It's a distribution that's too tied to the Intel Atom platform on which it operates, and there are just too many kernel-specific options and optimisations in the system for it to run on generic hardware. This is the same reason why it won't install on older Asus Eee PCs, for example. But Moblin also wouldn't be as attractive without the accelerated graphics and superior power management that come with the default hardware combination.
You might ask why you would even want to run a distribution designed for smaller hardware on a normal machine. For normal users, it's true that you're probably better off sticking to the mainstream versions of OpenSUSE, Fedora or Ubuntu. You'll have proper hardware support and a better selection of applications. But if your uses are limited, and so is your hardware, a slimline netbook distribution could be the perfect upgrade. There are still people using 800x600 displays in a world where 1920x1080 is becoming a new standard, for instance. A netbook distro might also be a good choice for your family, or for other machines you have to maintain. A netbook distribution will be configured for usability and all the main functions are easily accessible, and they're also relatively secure.
If improved usability is your main concern, you can do a lot worse than choose UNR or one of its derivatives. The large icons used by the application launcher and the low resolution of the default applications would be ideal for those with impaired vision or limited input mobility. As UNR is really just a series of additional packages built around Ubuntu, it will also work on the same vast array of hardware, from the oldest supported by the kernel to the newest devices.
Unlike some of the other netbook distributions available, UNR will also install without too much difficulty. This is because UNR is distributed as an ISO disc image. It just needs to be burned on to a disc, which is then inserted into the destination machine. Most other netbook distributions prefer the flash image format, IMG, which isn't as versatile if you don't have a USB flash drive, and it can also be rather difficult to create the appropriate boot media.
If you've used Ubuntu, UNR looks different but operates in exactly the same way. Many of the bundled applications are identical, and other than the new title bar and the change in theme, they'll work in exactly the same way. More importantly, the big advantage it has over Moblin is that you can install all the same packages you can from a normal Ubuntu installation using the Synaptic package manager, which is probably the best reason for using it.
UNR might also be a good choice for desktop machines, as the huge choice of the default Ubuntu can be overwhelming.
Spotlight on: Slax
If all this talk of animated window transitions, sliding toolbars and rethemed launch menus is getting you down, Slax might just be the antidote: It's the anti-matter of Moblin. Featuring a tiny download (200MB) and install size, along with an ancient version of KDE and a fully functional desktop, this is an ideal distribution if your netbook is starting to feel a little out-dated. The KDE version uses 3.5.10 and this bundles almost any application you could ever need, including K3b for CD/DVD burning and the Kopete instant messenger.
You also get the KOffice suite of office applications, which actually works well on a netbook in its pre-4.0 incarnation. It's a better choice than OpenOffice.org on UNR and the simple text editor that's part of the default Moblin installation, although AbiWord can be installed through the package manager. But these old applications don't mean that the distribution is old - they're a design choice. You'll also find a neatly themed Firefox 3.5 for internet duties,
Of course, this being the domain of Slackware followers, you can't expect to have everything handed to you on a plate, and installation is far from automatic. You have to find your own way to partition and format your drive, and we'd suggest using a different distribution to do this. Try to find a bootable USB image of UNR, and use GParted to create a root partition and a swap partition on your internal drive, for example. You can then switch back to live Slax, download the slax6-install.kmdr module and execute it as the sole argument for kmdr-executor. This, at least, will open an interface from where you can choose the partitions you've just created and click on Install.
It's only when you start playing with an older desktop environment that you realise how bloated everything else has become.
UNR 9.10 vs Moblin 2.1
We interpreted speed as how quickly the machine boots, how long it takes to establish a wireless internet connection, suspend and resume speeds, as well as general performance and battery life, and we've tested both distribution on the same machine. It's a Samsung NC10 with 1GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive, connected to the same wireless network while plugged into power. Both distributions work well on this device, although we had to update the BIOS for the screen brightness control to work, and Moblin fails to offer a GUI for this.
Both our series of tests were conducted from a cold boot, and we took the timings from the moment we selected the OS from the Grub menu.
To measure the time it took to suspend the machine, we waited for the power light to start flashing. With Moblin, the screen went dead instantly and it took a few extra seconds for the hardware to close down and enter suspend mode. On UNR, we could see the screen and watch the audio being muted followed by the wireless connection being dropped before suspend mode was triggered at almost exactly the same time. This housekeeping is perhaps why UNR is a little faster at restoring the desktop and reconnecting to the wireless access point than Moblin, although there was some variation in the UNR results, with the fastest wireless resume coming in at under 20 seconds.
We had expected the suspend and resume times to be almost identical, and it's remarkable that both desktops were back up and running in under five seconds, with UNR posting a particularly impressive speed. It's also clear that the the biggest bottleneck is waiting for the wireless radio to negotiate a new connection, as both systems spend about the same amount of time waiting for an internet connection.
Moblin is dramatically quicker at booting, even though the wireless connection is delayed, and you can see why Canonical has been watching Moblin development very closely, and why both distributions are promising further improvements. It's also noteworthy that the UNR desktop appears with a working wireless connection immediately, whereas we have to make for Moblin to make the same leap, which shows that UNR is performing certain tasks at the same time. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why Moblin is faster to the desktop?
The only test where we couldn't pick a winner between the two distributions was battery life, as they both gave roughly the same results. In normal, low-power command line usage, we got around 5.5 hours out of each netbook, while continually running the BBC's iPlayer gave us around 2.5 hours of playback.
Vital stats: Moblin vs UNR
| ||Memory ||Boot ||WLAN ||Suspend ||Resume ||WLAN ||Shutdown |
|Moblin ||652MB ||19.7s ||27s ||5.2s ||4.8s ||27s ||10.1s |
|UNR ||662MB ||46s ||46s ||4.2s ||2.6 ||25.4s ||9s |
At least Moblin running on OpenSUSE looks a little different to the standard Moblin install.
Linux on mobile phones
The first device that really caught our attention was Trolltech's Greenphone. It ran an embedded version of Linux and provided an API for programmers to get stuck into and develop their own applications for the new platform. It never really took off, but then the motives for Trolltech doing this have always been somewhat unclear. It wasn't long after its release that it announced all the stock had been bought and that the project had come to the end of its life. And it wasn't long after this that Nokia intervened and bought Trolltech...
Nokia has long been experimenting with embedded Linux systems, via its Maemo platform. We've reviewed these devices in the past, and they each had beautiful and responsive touchscreens, alongside an accessible GTK-based graphical front-end. The only thing these devices were really missing was mobile phone functionality, which always seemed an incongruous omission. Soon after Nokia bought Trolltech it was announced that Qt would be ported to Maemo, which we're still looking forward to.
But the big announcement for Linux-based Nokia devices is the N900, a smartphone that combines the latest generation of the Maemo platform with phone functionality. It has 3D acceleration and multi-touch, and can perform SIP and Skype calls out of the box. It also comes with an open API that developers can use to build their own applications, and these can be sold on Nokia's own app store, called Ovi Store. It's Nokia's great hope in the battle to defeat Apple's iPhone, and it's a testament to how far we've come that it's built around the power and community offered by Linux.
Of course, there's one particular mobile phone operating system that has done a great deal to change attitudes towards Linux as a mobile platform, and that's Android. It's not particularly because it's any better to use or that it has more applications available, or that developers can get stuck in without selling their souls - it's because it was designed and developed by Google. This has given it an amazing amount of publicity, and positions the Android platform alongside Apple and Microsoft in the world's media.
There are now dozens of phones that either use Android now or will in the future. In the UK, the highest profile are those offered by T-Mobile, the Hero and the G1. Both are manufactured by HTC, a prolific company that builds Windows Mobile devices with similar specifications. But there are also a great number of devices from Motorola, including the wonderfully named Motorola Morrison and the much hyped Motorola Droid. This seems to be the current darling of the Google stable, as it's the only Android phone judged powerful to run its new turn-by-turn navigation from Google Maps.
But the best news is that many of these companies are part of the Open Handset Alliance, a group aiming to bring open standard to the mobile phone market. It seems the combination of Linux and Android is unbeatable.
Spotlight on: gOS Cloud
If there's one trend that seems to be emerging for netbook operating systems, it's the increasing likelihood that they'll try to bridge the gap between your on-screen desktop and the cloud. Jolicloud attempts to do this, and so will Google's Chrome OS. But there's also been an interesting development from the developers behind the popular 'Good OS', or gOS as its known. gOS is a popular Linux distribution that bundles many Google applications and extensions as part of a standard installation, meaning that tools such as Google's desktop widgets and Gmail notifier are available without any further package installation. Its new development is taking the popular Linux distribution into the cloud, and it comes as no surprise that the gOS solution looks like it's going to have a lot in common with Google's.
The aim of this new operating system (unimaginatively called Cloud) is to provide users with a computer experience they will immediately understand and enjoy, and it's going to do this by making the browser the principle portal to your applications and data. As the web site puts it, "Cloud is a web browser plus operating system, enabling the browser to perform everything that the desktop is able to perform. Since Cloud just boots into a web browser, it's perfect for netbooks, mobile internet devices and PCs for pure internet use." We haven't been able to get our hands on a copy, as the Cloud OS is currently in private beta, but if it manages to combine online applications with the desktop as well as it does with gOS, this is likely to be a fascinating new take on the Linux netbook distribution.
gOS has gone from being yet another Linux distribution to being a competitor to Google in the netbook space.
With the 2.1 release of Moblin, many mainstream distributions have started looking at creating their own versions of Moblin and making these as their netbook contribution.
The first distribution we've seen to make the leap to Moblin inclusion was Mandriva. Its 2010 release, reviewed on page 22, packages the full Moblin environment alongside the usual fayre of Gnome and KDE. Installation is as simple as searching for the task-moblin metapackage and installing the result. From what we've seen of it, Mandriva's Moblin differs very little from the standard version. Both the themes and the default package selection are identical. But you do have the enormous advantage of being to install other Mandriva packages on your netbook, even if they're not going to be able to use the Clutter features of Moblin or look like typical Moblin applications.
Hot on the heels of the Mandriva release, the Fedora team has also been able to integrate Moblin into its latest release - Fedora 12. This is something of a return to its roots for the Moblin project, as it was initially based on Fedora distribution. It also means that there should be better integration between the original Moblin packages and any new ones offered by Fedora, as both distributions are closely matched and inherit some of the same configuration files and layout. Not to be outdone, OpenSUSE is also bundling Moblin into its main distribution tree, and there are community packages you can install for the last couple of releases. But rather than make it available for general consumption, Novell would rather sell its Moblin integration to netbook manufacturers directly.
Even more Ubuntu
As UNR is built on Ubuntu, it's highly likely that we'll see almost as many UNR respins as we have for the parent distribution. We've already seen one example in Jolicloud, and we'd put money on many community distributions, such as Linux Mint or Crunchbang offering a UNR overhaul alongside their standard desktop installations.
It's also likely that Canonical will be able to forge stronger relationships with companies like Dell, which is already shipping a specific version of UNR on its Mini 9 platform. As Windows XP is phased out and the cost of bundling Windows 7 rises, manufacturers will be looking for a cheap and easily maintainable netbook OS, and UNR fits the bill admirably.
Google Chrome OS is Google's long-promised netbook distribution, which is being designed as the perfect platform for Google's growing library of online applications and services. Its release was described by Google Software Engineer Martin Bligh as a foundation rather than a fully functional operating system, and the plan is to have it ready for this time next year. Chrome OS currently includes user interface experiments and some initial designs for ongoing development. The official blog describes these components as a sketch that will be coloured in over the next year. To all of us here at LXF though, it's just the Chrome web browser running in full-screen mode.
That said, there are some features that Google obviously wants to emphasise. There will be no conventional desktop applications, with all facilities provided through the Chrome browser. Security has also been a big issue: each session will run as a sandbox, isolated from all other sessions. .
But the most important feature is speed. Google claims that its operating system will take you from boot to login in seven seconds, which gives Moblin and UNR something to think about, especially if that includes wireless initialisation. It could also be the reason why Google intends to ship its OS on specific devices, and not make it available for general consumption.
However it turns out though, you don't need a time machine to know that when Google takes a project like this seriously there are going to be serious implications and exposure for Linux.
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