Moblin is a Linux distribution (versions are available based on both Ubuntu and Fedora kernels) targeted at mobile devices. It boasts a stripped-down UI, and a stable core of basic hardware support; its profile is very similar to Jolicloud, with a smilar (though understated) focus on social media integration.
I originally installed the Dell Moblin 2.0 Remix; it was an easy installation, with all of my netbook’s hardware supported out of the box, but the system was severely limited in functionality. It didn’t offer a package manager for easy software updates and downloads, and the browser–a stripped-down Mozilla version–was crippled by its lack of plugin support. (If I can’t install Adblock, Feedly, and Diigo, I have serious reservations about using the browser.)
Luckily, Moblin 2.1 is available, and includes the Moblin Garage for finding and installing applications, including a fully-functional Firefox 3.5. Unfortunately, Moblin 2.1 doesn’t have out-of-the-box support for the Broadcom wireless card that ships with Dell netbooks; Glen Gray offers a Broadcom driver and great instructions, though, so with a wired connection and a little time on the terminal I was up and running.
Ease of Installation
Like Ubuntu and Jolicloud, Moblin is distributed via a disk image that can be booted from a USB stick. And also like Ubuntu and Jolicloud, the wizard-based installation process is very easy to walk through, with advanced options for partitioning your disk and such. (Since I’m only running one OS at a time, I had the installer wipe out my old partitions and set up its default main partition and swap.) The 2.1 installation conked out on me a couple times, but on the third try installed cleanly. Aside from the wireless setup, the netbook was up and running in less than 30 minutes.
The Moblin Garage is between Ubuntu’s Synaptic and Jolicloud’s application repository in terms of ease-of-use and thoroughness. It offers categorized listings of popular Linux applications (Firefox, Thunderbird, Gimp) that can be installed very easily. The list is a little smaller than Jolicloud’s (though these are, for the most part, real applications, rather than Prism versions of web sites), and doesn’t include some of the bigger packages (like OpenOffice) that Synaptic lists. The focus seems to be on the applications that are most easily installed and used on the netbook’s smaller profile.
Garage didn’t include Dropbox, but I was able to install it (the Fedora version worked best) through the package manager with no fuss: not as easy, perhaps, as plucking it from the Garage, but not too difficult.
For the most part, Moblin stays up under normal usage. The wifi periodically conks out when the netbook wakes up from hibernation, and doesn’t maintain WPA credentials consistently between sessions, but overall stability is good.
Moblin is a fast-booting system, though the wifi can be slow to initiate. I’ve found that Firefox is plagued by frequent sluggishness, though, particularly in network operations (Ajax calls seem especially sluggish: Feedly and LibraryThing were noticeably less responsive under Moblin than under Ubuntu and Jolicloud). I suspect that the root cause of both the performance and the stability issues is the Broadcom card and driver; with a card that has a native driver, or with a later revision of the add-on driver, things may improve in this area.
The Moblin interface is quite impressive, and geared to the small netbook screen. A tool bar appears at the top of the screen when you move the mouse up, consisting of a dozen (somewhat cryptic) monochromatic icons representing different tasks: a “status” icon for updating Last.fm and Twitter, an Internet icon for accessing the built-in browser (the same hobbled one that was part of 2.0), an enhanced clipboard (very handy for storing links and quotes for a blog post), and your collection of installed applications. The aesthetic is not unlike Sugar, the OLPC platform developed for children.
Switching between applications is accomplished with alt+TAB, a familiar enough maneuver. Unfortunately, the “zone” architecture sometimes results in “lost” application windows. For example, when Firefox restarts after installing a plugin, it isn’t automatically brought to the front; you need to alt+TAB into it to discover if it’s back up.
The tool bar is locked down; at least, I never found a way to add or remove icons. And the Internet “zone” appears to be locked on the Moblin browser; to use my Firefox install, I had to go to the Applications zone and search for the icon. It would be nice to have a little more control over this configuration; it’s a useful and powerful tool bar, but made less than ideal with its static setup.
The user interface is Moblin’s strong selling point for me; I like the tool bar despite its limitations, and I like that the UI generally gets out of the way when I need it to. It’s a simple, uncluttered layout that lets me get right to work, and which fits beautifully inside the confines of the netbook.
I do wish, though, that the wifi support were a little more stable, and that the tool bar were more configurable. If, when I get to the end of my OS travels, there’s a Moblin 2.2 (or 3.0!) on the horizon, I’d be perfectly happy to make it my permanent netbook operating system.