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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.