Tag Archives: netbook

Netbook OS Roundup: Fedora LXDE

Fedora is one of the scions of the Linux world; the first Red Hat release came out in 1994, so there’s a lot of expertise behind the current Fedora builds. There are multiple “spins” of Fedora available, one of which–LXDE–is specifically targeted to low-power, lightweight systems like the Dell Mini netbook.

When I went looking for a Fedora distribution to try out, though, I started with the base Fedora 12 release. This was very much the wrong distribution for a netbook: it comes packed with software and services (everything from OpenOffice to font sets for Tajik script); within a day it had consumed all available space on my drive and no amount of pruning could get it down to size. While a fine approach for a powerful desktop machine, the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink strategy of OS distribution was a recipe for frustration on a low profile machine.

LXDE takes the opposite approach:

XDE is not designed to be powerful and bloated, but to be usable and slim. A main goal of LXDE is to keep computer resource usage low. It is especially designed for computers with low hardware specifications like netbooks, mobile devices (e.g. MIDs) or older computers.

And with a few caveats, it is a successul netbook platform.

Ease of installation

LXDE can be installed from a USB stick, downloaded and built with Fedora’s LiveUSB tool. The wizard installation process is easy to use, and installation is fast (especially compared to the full Fedora installation time….).

Not everything works “out of the box,” though. The Dell Mini uses a Broadcom wireless card, and no free driver is distributed for it. Immediately after installing LXDE, I had to attach my netbook to a wired connection and install the wireless driver (good instructions here). This took a little more time in the console than the casual user would likely want to take; I can understand the reluctance to include proprietary software in an open source distribution, but this is an area where the hardware manufacturers, system builders, and software developers need to find some common ground before an OS like LXDE can gain winder acceptance.

Application support

Because LXDE is so stripped down, there’s room even on the Dell Mini to install some more applications. It comes with Midori, a lightweight and minimalist web browser, and AbiWord, a basic word processor, but not much else. My requirements on the netbook are simple, and AbiWord proved sufficient; Firefox 3.5 installs easily, as does Dropbox, so I was able to restore my bookmarks and plugins.

Stability

Under normal use, LXDE is a stable platform; I haven’t had any unexpected crashes. Power management, though, is a drawback, and that’s a signiicant issue for netbooks, which are typically saddled with a less-than-optimal battery. The idle hibernation options (accessible through the screen saver settings) have never worked for me: I have to manually hibernate a session, or risk returning to a dead netbook if it’s unplugged. And without a native battery monitor, it’s hard to tell when the power will go out. Mint and Ubuntu were much more reliable in this regard.

Performance

LXDE is quick to start and connect; it’s not an instant-on OS, but it’s certainly faster than Windows. Under normal use, it is responsive and smooth within the constraints of the netbook’s limited hardware.

Appearance

Like Mint, LXDE uses the desktop metaphor: an easy transition for Windows and Mac users, but a bit of a real estate waste for the netbook: I still prefer the Moblin UI for small computers, with its compact and space-sensitive layout. LXDE does offer multiple desktops, though, and a useful task bar and application menu, so users who are happy with the Windows interface will find much to like in LXDE.

Overall Assessment

LXDE is a solid OS for netbooks; it’s stable and easy to use, though its lack of native support for the Mini’s wireless card and its poor power management and monitoring make it less than ideal. Though not a groundbreaking approach to mobile computing, it is an easy bridge from Windows to Linux: if you’re looking for a good operating system and want to avoid the Microsoft tax, LXDE is a good fit for small computers.

Netbook OS Roundup: Linux Mint

Linux Mint is another Linux distribution based on the Ubuntu and Debian projects. Unlike Jolicloud, Moblin, and the Ubuntu Netbook Remix distributions, it’s not specifically targeted at the netbook niche; rather, it’s an all-purpose, full-featured consumer operating system, comparable in many ways to the last fifteen years of Windows distributions.

Ease of Installation

Linux Mint has been by far the easiest installation so far, with full support for all of my netbook’s hardware (including that Broadcom wifi card) as soon as I booted up the first time. The wizard-like installation is essentially the same as the one that comes with Ubuntu and Moblin, and includes a partitioning utility (as with all previous installations, I simply allowed the operating system to set up its default partition structure and erase the existing structure; all hail Dropbox and the solid-state memory of netbooks!).

Application Support

Like Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Linux Mint comes with a package manager that lets you easily find and install applications. I found that I didn’t have to use it much, though, because the distribution came with a full suite of administrative tools, a few games, Firefox 3.0, Gimp, OpenOffice, and . Indeed, the distribution was a tad heavy for a netbook; a minimalist approach seems better suited to the limited resources of the smaller platform. There are no options during installation to include or exclude packages, so removing unneeded applications would have to be a post-installation chore.

One of the drawbacks of the package manager system in any of these releases is that the user is limited to the application versions that have been vetted for your OS distribution; newer versions of applications are not typically included, and though they can be installed and run with some success they require more work at the command line than going the package manager route. Firefox 3.6 went gold while I was playing with Mint, and though I was able to easily upgrade on my Windows computers I found the process of upgrading on Mint just a bit daunting to proceed for short-term usage. Making application upgrades faster and easier, especially for applications like browsers that are frequently patched, would go a long way toward making Linux a more viable option for casual users.

Stability

I was very pleased with the stability of Linux Mint; I experienced very few freeze-ups or unexpected shutdowns, and network connectivity stayed alive when in use. Like most of the other platforms I’ve tried on the netbook, recovering from hibernation proved to be a challenge for the wifi, but Linux Mint was much more likely to recover than Moblin or Jolicloud.

Performance

Mint starts up quickly, and establishes wifi soon after booting. Network applications experienced occasional sluggishness, usually under expected conditions: multiple Firefox tabs, pages heavy in Ajax and dynamic presentation, etc. Overall, Mint has been a strong operating system in the areas that matter most.

Appearance

The Linux Mint UI resembles the Windows UI established back in 1995, with a “start” menu, task bar, and desktop on which the user can place frequently-used applications, folders, and files. Overall, the appearance is polished and professional; the green cast to everything can be a bit overwhelming, even around St. Patrick’s Day, but switching colors and backgrounds is as easy as it is on Windows.

The desktop setup is not especially well-geared to the netbook platform, though; the “start” button is a bit small, the desktop seems a bit wasteful of space, and the task bar becomes difficult to read when multiple applications are running. After working with the Moblin and Jolicloud interfaces, which are specifically targeted to the netbook footprint, I felt like I was using a far-too-small screen for a full-sized interface.

Overall Assessment

If I were looking for a Linux distribution to run on a desktop system, Linux Mint would be one of my first choices. Its interface is well-suited to larger displays, and the full suite of applications greatly simplifies the installation process. Mint appears to be a solid operating system for most home and small-office applications, and can certainly hold its own against commercial platforms.

On the netbook, though, it just didn’t feel like as good a fit as Moblin. If there weren’t other interfaces available that are geared to the netbook, though, Mint would be the best distribution I’ve tried out so far.

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: Jolicloud

Jolly Cloud by Todd BarnardLast weekend, I installed Jolicloud, a Linux distribution (built on Ubuntu) that extols the virtues of a minimalist, cloud-based operating system. In a week of using it, I’ve found it to be very similar to Ubuntu in usability and performance, and not a bad fit for how I use the netbook.

Jolicloud markets itself as a dual-boot OS, intended to be installed side by side with an existing Windows installation. They are targeting netbook users with Windows XP or Windows 7, who are looking for a lighter alternative but aren’t quite ready to abandon the Windows platform. It’s also available as a stand-alone OS, though, installed into the primary partition of the netbook, which is the option I chose.

Ease of installation

The download and installation was pretty familiar. The Jolicloud ISO is made available over BitTorrent, which was a bit of a hassle for me: I had to download and install a BitTorrent client, and the ISO download was a little slow. I can understand the decision to use the BitTorrent model–it offloads the downloading costs from the Jolicloud infrastructure–but it did pose an additional hurdle for the casual downloader. After downloading the ISO, I had to download and run the Jolicloud USB creator to make a bootable USB drive.

The actual installation was identical to Ubuntu’s: basic configuration (user name, password, location, language, keyboard, etc.), snappy bootup, and then application installation. Jolicloud recognized my hardware, found my network, and within less than 30 minutes of running the install I had a fully-functional netbook.

Application Support

The Jolicloud application directory is a pleasing graphical environment, with applications organized into categories and represented by an icon and description. The expected tools are here: Dropbox, Wine, OpenOffice, and Gimp are all listed, and installation is quite simple.

Most of the applications in the directory, though, aren’t really stand-alone applications: they’re Mozilla Prism renderings of popular web sites, like Facebook, Twitter, and HootSuite. I installed a few to try them out, but found that they were more disruptive than useful in this format. On the netbook, my primary tool is Firefox, and I find it much easier to manage a collection of Firefox tabs than a collection of application windows. With bookmarks and plug-ins in Firefox, I can treat sites like parts of an interconnected application, which is a very different model than the iPhone-like site-as-application model. This may work for people who are used to the single-threaded iPhone environment, but I found it far less than useful.

Another innovation in the Jolicloud OS is a social network of its very own. When you set up your local account, you also have the option to establish a Jolicloud social account. Within the Jolicloud dashboard, you can find and “follow” other Jolicloud users, even seeing which applications they’ve installed. To be honest, this isn’t a selling point for me; Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn seem more than sufficient for my “social” computing needs, and I’m not sure that anyone should know or care that I’ve just applied the latest patches to Gimp. I can imagine that there are people who would find this to be a selling point, though (probably the same people who would like the Facebook and Twitter “apps” from the Jolicloud directory).

Stability

Jolicloud is comparable to Ubuntu Netbook Remix in the stability department. When in use, it tends to stay up and connected; when waking from hibernation, though, it frequently becomes groggy and needs a hard reboot to recover. My WiFi connection goes through phases–it is usually established soon after rebooting, but occasionally becomes unstable. Recovering the connection is usually automatic, though has required manual intervention and even a reboot in some cases.

Performance

Again, nothing special here; overall good performance, with occasional bouts of sluggishness when in heavy use. The OS boots quickly, usually in under 30 seconds, and Firefox starts up snappily. Some of the Prism applications can be sluggish, but after their novelty wore off (after about half an hour) I never went back to them.

Appearance

Ubuntu users will be right at home: the Jolicloud desktop is basically the Ubuntu desktop, with a few system icons reworked. Application categories are listed on the left, system resources (networks, disks) are listed on the right, and application icons are presented in the middle. There are tools built in for tweaking the desktop, and I suppose one could install a different desktop manager if one felt compelled, but it’s a functional and attractive look out of the box.

Overall Assessment

Jolicloud is a solid netbook operating system. It installs with relative ease, and does the basics that a netbook needs to do.

The “social” aspects don’t appeal to me, though; I don’t need to be “connected” whenever I use my netbook, and don’t need another social profile to maintain. And the Prism applications are largely superfluous; they don’t add anything to the experience that isn’t available in a more seamless, integrated way through a regular browser.

If I had to choose between Ubuntu and Jolicloud, I would probably stick with Ubuntu. If I wanted a Linux OS to run alongisde Windows, I would probably still stick with Ubuntu for its more advanced package manager. But Jolicloud is a good netbook choice, and a little slimmer than Ubuntu.

Fortunately, I don’t have to choose between Ubuntu and Jolicloud; the beauty of the netbook is that my choices are dizzyingly complex. And so now it’s time to wipe the flash drive clean and try something new.

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.

A box in the clouds

Cardboard Box PC (Top) by TimRogersI’m embarking on a little experiment with netbook operating systems; there’s a lot of interesting activity in the lightweight OS world–Ubuntu, Jolicloud, Chrome, Android, etc.–and I’m curious how the different systems stack up. Each weekend from last weekend until I run out of operating systems, patience, or time (or land on the ideal OS paradise and never want to leave), I’ll be installing a new platform on my Dell Mini and rating it on usability, stability, features, and other criteria specific to the netbook space.

One of the things that has kept me from making big OS changes on my netbook in the past is that getting Firefox reconfigured is such a hassle. While I’ve been using the Xmarks plugin for bookmark and password synchronization between home, work, and my netbook since the plugin was called Foxmarks, getting all of the other plugins installed and configured after wiping out the netbook has been a tedious chore. About 90% of what I use the netbook for is browser-based, so this is a relatively big deal for a little computer.

The solution that I’ve landed on is actually pretty simple, and uses two nice utilities in concert.

First, there’s FEBE, the “Firefox Environment Backup Extension,” a nice Firefox plugin. FEBE will create backups of whatever Firefox components you choose–plugins, themes, bookmarks, cookies, etc.–and restore them. You can set it up to do scheduled backups, restore settings into a new profile, and manage selective backup configurations.

And then there’s Dropbox, an online file storage and synchronization service. I’ve been using it to easily synchronize writing projects between my Windows PC and netbook, and it works like a charm: silently synchronizes the files that I place into its directories, and seamlessly integrates with the file systems on both my Windows and Linux computers.

Before I uninstalled Ubuntu on my netbook, I ran a full backup of Firefox from FEBE to a directory under Dropbox’s control. Then when I installed Jolicloud, I added the FEBE plugin and installed Dropbox. In just a few clicks, I had all of my other plugins plus bookmarks, passwords, and other browser settings back in place.

I admit, it was a little disconcerting to be suddenly confronted with more than a dozen Firefox tabs for each installed plugin after the FEBE restore ran. But it was a lot easier to close tabs than it would have been to reinstall all of those plugins.

The same concept could, of course, be used with other combinations of tools. FEBE natively supports Box.net, for example, and there are some other tools for doing Firefox backups (I’ve used MozBackup before, which handles the whole Mozilla suite, but it’s a Windows-only utility and therefore not terribly helpful on my netbook).

When I move on from Jolicloud in a few days, I’ll be going through the same steps again, perhaps with a few refinements. Simple is good.

Putting the “book” in netbook

One of my former co-workers recently sent me Joey deVilla’s article about netbooks and the “zone of suck.” This article makes a good case for why netbooks–those wee computers that are smaller than a breadbox but larger than a McDonald’s apple “pie”–are in a middle zone that is a solution looking for a problem. They’re more portable than a laptop, but less portable than a smart phone; they’re more powerful than a smart phone, but puny compared even to a low-end laptop. In other words, why bother?

And if we’re putting the average netbook (like my Dell mini) up against laptops and smart phones, I think that argument is dead on. But that’s not a game, I would argue, that the netbook should be playing; let the laptop be the portable power platform, and the smart phone be the ubiquitous pocket rocket. For me, the netbook has the potential to be a Kindle-killer.

I’m not a great partisan of the e-book; 16th century technology is fine, thank you, for most of my reading needs, at least when it comes to reading for pleasure. But I can see the value of the e-book in some situations:

  • Out-of-print, public-domain books available through sources like Project Gutenberg
  • “Long tail” books that have a small niche appeal that makes print publication prohibitively expensive
  • “Soft” books with volatile content, like technical manuals or current affairs studies
  • “Disposable” books–“beach reads”–that leave only lingering traces in the reader, and so should leave fewer on the shelves

I could also imagine loading up a thumb drive with vacation reading before a trip. My usual modus operandi is to pack a few books for the road, but inevitably it turns out that one or more of the books I’ve brought along isn’t worth carrying, and I often run out of material at the end of the trip and am at the mercy of the airport newsstand (the horror! If I’ve missed The New Yorker or The Atlantic summer fiction special, I have to choose between The Economist and People).

Most netbooks have pre-installed, or can very easily run, an e-book program capable of reading most standard file formats. FBReader, for example, comes with the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which in addition to reading things like plucker and orb files, also has the handy feature of letting you turn the display 90 degrees so you can read the screen like a page.

At $359, Amazon’s Kindle is a price-point match for the netbook as an e-book reader. And with its slim profile, “electronic ink” interface, and cool-kid factor, the Kindle tromps the netbook as a dedicated e-reader. But the netbook has a few advantages over the Kindle:

  • You don’t have to pay Amazon to subscribe to blogs or read the news.
  • You can do more than read e-books on it. Though the keyboard is cramped, you can do some light typing (like this blog post), work with web applications, and read your e-mail.
  • You’re not bound by the Amazon monoculture. Let it not be forgotten, the Kindle and the DRM-laden format it supports are proprietary creatures of Amazon; the formats supported by e-reader software are open and accessible to any publishing and distribution service.

There are a couple of things that would greatly improve the netbook’s utility in the e-reader space: improvements in design, and improvements in ecology.

The design of most netbooks, for example, is derived from their laptop progenitors; the result is a screen and keyboard that are very much in the “zone of suck,” simply too small to be all they could be without sacrificing portability. As an e-reader device, the screen should be bigger, and the keyboard somehow less obtrusive (folding against the back of the screen for easier handheld reading? sliding out from the screen? virtually popping up on screen?). Clever people, no doubt, are working this out.

To really play against the Kindle, though, netbooks would need to have an infrastructure to support them as an e-book platform. The Kindle, of course, has Amazon, which relentlessly leverages its search and delivery system to make buying and downloading e-books seamless. For the open platform e-book reader, things are much looser: Gutenberg and other services, a few publishers like O’Reilly, and some public libraries make e-book acquisition easy enough, but highly decentralized. What the e-book environment really needs, if it’s going to be a viable platform outside Amazon’s control, is a clearinghouse (or competing clearinghouses) of titles, covering a broad range of topics and easily searched and browsed. No doubt some nascent clearinghouse or consortium (I can’t help but think of the IndieBound model for bookshops) is out there already, just waiting to rise out of the digital morass.

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.