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Netbook OS Roundup: Moblin 2.1

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.

Application Support

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.

Stability

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.

Performance

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.

Appearance

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.

Overall Assessment

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.

Netbook OS Roundup: a series

linux linux everywhereThe operating system world is a crowded space–Windows, Mac, various flavors of Linux, FreeBSD, Haiku, Android, Chrome, and any number of odd and specialized projects. For the most part, though, actual usage on PCs is limited to Windows, with a smaller share of Macs and tiny numbers for Linux. This isn’t terribly surprising, given the prevalence of Microsoft operating systems in OEM builds and the difficulties involved in switching operating systems, especially on a computer that’s responsible for running your household. When I was faced with the problem of upgrading my 8-year-old computer, I opted to stick with the Windows rut that I’ve been in for almost 20 years, since purchasing an IBM PS/2 with Windows 3.0: the thought of switching from Quicken, Photoshop, and Vegas, even if the open source alternatives are just as good, was simply too daunting.

With my netbook, though, I don’t feel the OS lock-in. I very quickly moved off the Dell Linux build that shipped with the netbook to an Ubuntu netbook remix, and have dabbled a bit in other distributions. Swapping out the OS on a computer that is used most of the time as a browser or e-book reader, and occasionally for light word processing, is far less daunting a prospect. And there are so many operating systems available for netbooks, most of which can be tested for free, that there’s no excuse for a technically-savvy netbook user to try out a few systems.

My criteria in reviewing the operating systems I’ll be trying out are geared toward my own netbook usage; these may not be your criteria. But perhaps these reviews will be of some use. My interest are:

Ease of Installation

I’m technically savvy, and comfortable in a UNIX shell, but I don’t want to tax my brain too much to get a netbook OS installed. Netbooks are lightweight, and so ought their installation procedures be: I’m OK with downloading the ISO, copying it to a USB drive, and booting it up, but if the installation is even easier than that I’ll be especially pleased.

I’m also looking for an OS to recognize my hardware and network with minimal fiddling. Again, I’ll edit config files and download drivers if need be, but an OS that works out-of-the-box (or off-the-thumb-drive) on my Dell Mini is my preferred platform.

Application Support

On the netbook, a browser is the key tool. For me, a current Firefox version is preferred, since I’m using Firefox on my home and work computers are synchronize bookmarks across all three. If not Firefox, then Chrome is OK.

I’d also like to be able to use Dropbox (as an application rather than through the web interface), and a simple word processor. Reading e-books from Project Gutenberg is a nice feature, too. Beyond that, my application requirements on the netbook are pretty light.

Stability

The netbook should stay on and connected with minimal fuss. Frequent rebooting, dropped network connections, and sudden bouts of sluggishness are not appreciated. To some extent, stability is a function of things beyond the OS: the actual hardware, and my Internet connection (home wireless network, sharing a USI Wireless connection); but a good OS rolls with the punches.

Performance

I don’t expect blazing speed on the netbook: it’s small, with limited RAM and processor resources. But I expect fast startups (due to its small footprint), quick network connections, and reasonable responsiveness.

Appearance

Looks aren’t everything, but they’re something. I can accept utilitarian functionality for some things, but I appreciate a desktop that is at least pleasing. Eye candy ought not to come at the expense of performance and stability, but the user interface shouldn’t be a mere afterthought.

The things I’m looking for in a netbook OS may not be what most netbook users want; my comfort with the technical details will likely sway my judgment away from ease-of-use toward stability and performance. But if your netbook profile matches mine, you may find this series helpful.

I’ll be looking at Jolicloud, Puppy Linux, and Haiku in the next few installments. Fedora, Mint, and Ubuntu are likely to be covered as well. If you have a favorite OS that you’d like to recommend, let me know in the comments and I’ll gladly give it a spin.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix on the Dell Mini

I’ve been using a Dell Mini netbook for about five months now, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. It’s lightweight and small, making it easy to tote to the library, park, or coffee shop. The battery life is very good (I get about five hours of typical use off the grid), and though the keyboard is small (and annoyingly laid out for a touch typist), I can easily plug in a cheap USB keyboard for those times when I need to do extended typing. When my desktop computer is commandeered for a round of Club Penguin or some hardcore Lego Digital Designer work, I can retreat to the porch and still get work done.

But lately I’ve been plagued by system stability issues. The wireless connection randomly conks out when I’m using Firefox, and the browser crashes regularly. I get weird JavaScript errors (preventing me from sending Facebook “Mafia Wars” energy packs to my wife, which has begun to affect my marriage…), and whenever I try to use the Ubuntu system updater I get strange failures. My Firefox has been out of date, and system upgrades have been difficult to perform. And I wasn’t really thrilled with the stripped-down Dell desktop view, which makes switching between applications or getting to the file manager more tedious than it needs to be.

So I decided that the time had come for a major upgrade: the Ubuntu Netbook Remix for 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope.

The upgrade process itself wasn’t difficult at all, particularly if you follow the instructions. I was burned in my initial attempt by trying to skip a step; don’t be like me …

I did steps 1 through 3 on a Windows XP desktop; you can accomplish the same results on a Mac or Linux machine (indeed, if you’re brave or have small fingers, you can do it on your netbook).

  1. Download the flash image IMG distribution
  2. Perform MD5 checksum (this is what I skipped, and it cost me an hour of aggravation when my initial download turned out to be corrupted)
  3. Use an image-writer tool to transfer the flash image to a USB device
  4. Boot up the netbook with the USB device installed, and hold down the “0″ key for boot options
  5. You can test drive the netbook remix (highly recommended) to verify that it will work with your hardware, running the OS off the USB device
  6. When you’re ready to install, reboot into the boot options and follow the prompts for basic configuration

Note that this will wipe your netbook clean; back up anything you want to save, including your e-mail client settings. (Evolution Mail, the default client, has a nice backup utility that will make a TAR of your mailboxes for easy re-installation.) I’d also recommend installing the Xmarks Firefox plugin and saving your bookmarks to the network: I’ve been using Xmarks (née Foxmarks) since getting the netbook as a way of sharing bookmarks with my desktop, but it’s also a great utility for backing up your browser bookmarks.

So far (albeit after just a morning’s work), Jaunty Jackalope is more stable than the original Dell version of 8.x, and I like the interface a lot better. The things I work with most are right up front on the desktop, and I can easily see what applications are running and switch between them without a lot of ALT+TAB toggling. Most important, though, I was able to send my wife a Mafia Wars energy pack, which I hope will keep me from being capped.