Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

Summary: Ubuntu may not make the netbook sexy again, but it can certainly make it a more viable choice for student computing with lower long-term costs than other solutions might entail. System76 just happens to be one OEM that makes it easy to jump into Ubuntu (on netbooks and elsewhere).

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Netbooks still matter in education, especially K12. They're cheap (almost to the point of being disposable) and fit well into small hands. They can often last through a school day and generally give students lots of what they need with few of the bells and whistles they don't. With all the talk of tablets, netbooks remain the easiest, cheapest way to get kids connected to the Internet and taking advantage of ubiquitous computer access at home and at school.

That being said, netbooks aren't sexy or inspiring. Give the average teacher a choice between netbooks for his or her students and iPads all around and, chances are, the iPads are going to win out, even if the teacher can't describe the relative merits of either platform. It's not that the iPads are a bad idea for students, by the way. It's simply that there are times when netbooks (or full-sized laptops, for that matter) will lend themselves better to classroom use than iPads. Like when a student needs to type. Or use a Flash application.

I've been thinking a lot about netbooks recently because System76 sent me two of their units to test. System76 only manufactures and sells Ubuntu-based laptops, servers, and desktops, including two netbooks (the Starling Netbook and the Starling Edubook). Neither represents anything especially revolutionary in the netbook space. The Starling Netbook features a dual-core Atom processor and a very nicely textured exterior, but nothing in terms of hardware that can't be found elsewhere. The Edubook is their spin on Intel's Clamshell Classmate.

And yet my youngest son immediately left his Convertible Classmate (the touchscreen, convertible tablet version of Intel's educational netbook reference design) and began using the Edubook. For three weeks, he hasn't touched (no pun intended) the more sophisticated Windows 7-based ruggedized tablet and long after the novelty of one of my usual new test units should have worn off, he's still using the Edubook exclusively.

Why? Because he likes the software better. It's running Ubuntu Netbook Remix (version 10.04 since System76 wasn't convinced that Ubuntu's new Unity UI featured for the first time in Version 10.10 was ready for prime time, especially with their educational customers) and has everything he needs in a computer. It boots quickly, he likes the way the programs are organized, and if there is a game that he wants, then it's only a couple of clicks away. No need to buy anything, no need to ask me for help or a credit card, no searching for dubious downloads. Just a simple interface for adding the programs that he wants. And, of course, Firefox is front and center so he can play Cityville (he took over my account for me) and even do some occasional school work.

Ubuntu, and System76 by their choice in OS, has the power to make netbooks just a little bit cooler and quite a bit more powerful. Obviously Windows-based netbooks have the advantage of running mainstream educational software, but Windows does a miserable job with small screens and the allure of thousands of free applications (from Clonezilla for reimaging machines to LOGO programming tools) is undeniable.

Dell, among other OEMs, is shipping some netbooks with Ubuntu Light, as well, designed to be a dual-boot OS alongside Windows that boots very quickly and is largely designed to simply provide Net access faster than Windows can. That Net access is why these devices were called netbooks in the first place and in a classroom, immediate access to information (or even to Google Docs) is essential. There simply isn't time to waste and the faster kids are online and beginning their assignments, the better.

Ubuntu isn't going to make netbooks suddenly take off again with the explosive growth we saw when they were introduced, nor will it help them replace tablets as the device du jour of every 1:1 implementation. However, System76 makes a compelling case for netbooks (in education and elsewhere) by pre-installing Ubuntu and ensuring that everything "just works" out of the box. For students, the experience is seamless, trouble-free, and largely malware-resistant. For teachers, there is little in the way of software needs that can't be quickly satisfied with utter ease. And for system administrators and bean counters alike, the abundance of free software (both for management and for student learning) is quite compelling from a TCO perspective.

If you're on the fence about netbooks for your students or teachers, Ubuntu might make the platform a more viable choice. System76 should also be on your short list of vendors to evaluate as their netbooks with Ubuntu pre-installed will save you expensive upgrades to Windows 7 Professional on major-OEM netbooks to ensure manageability. Ubuntu, after all, can join a Windows domain. Windows 7 Starter Edition? Not so much.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility, Open Source

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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73 comments
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  • My take

    Ubuntu on a netbook has a little better performance than Windows 7 including the boot time. However, considering how most people put their laptops to sleep instead of shutting them down completely, boot time is irrelevant. I have Ubuntu installed on my 2005 15" laptop (that has the specs of a modern-day netbook) and it works much better than Windows XP that came preinstalled on it, but I still can?t use the sleep function since the laptop will just never wake up. This bug is most likely a non-issue on an OEM netbook, but bugs like the one I just described are a serious obstacle to Ubuntu adoption.

    Now when it comes to Ubuntu games, its gaming collection is mediocre at best. The reason I say this is because Ubuntu has a few good games that don?t require a lot of resources (remember, this is netbook we are talking about), but most games I have installed are either hard on system resources or have bugs. Some don?t even come with documentation! Now I use Ubuntu daily, but I am one of those people that prefers running Eclipse instead of games on it.
    statuskwo5
    • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

      @statuskwo5
      depending on which release of Ubuntu you're using, a simple manual kernel update may solve the problem of standby (and also may cause other problems, if you have some proprietary drivers on your system that will then have to be manually reinstalled...) just add the kernel ppa and pick a kernel package that looks friendly...
      enkh855
  • Answer: NO

    I would love to say yes ... but Ubuntu is not good enough for the general public ... even if all they do is surf the web.
    wackoae
    • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

      @wackoae It's definitely better than other Linux distros, but I do agree that it's still not ready for mainstream adoption.
      statuskwo5
      • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

        @statuskwo5 I have really used Ubuntu?
        xfactorx
      • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

        @statuskwo5 It doesn't matter if the netbook has Ubuntu or Windows, it's all about the technology. Old Netbooks (1GB Ram, Single core Atom, 160GB hard disk) are dead. 2011 will welcome the 2nd wave of mini laptops, but they should be called net beasts. Some of them already appeared in 2010 (Dell Inspiron Duo, which is a hybrid device with tablet mode and laptop mode) Intel new generation of low cost SSD drives will arrive at the same time, 2 core CPUs, USB 3.0 and 3GB of DDR3 RAM will power this second wave of tiny hybrid devices. I'm sure, the tablets or the smartphones won't have the success that Intel is preparing for 2011!
        Gabriel Hernandez
      • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

        @Zogg
        The registry editor can be complicated, but it is a GUI and does not require any familiarity with cryptic CLI syntax or finding where the stupid config file you need is actually located. Even if the Linux community could settle on keeping config files and utilities in consolidated places it would really help a lot. On one distro it is /etc/samba.d on another - well... where is it???

        One better would be to standardise on a unified configuration database and store all the system settings in it instead, produce a simple GUI interface which lists the configuration items in groups and.... hold on, isn't that the Windows Registry???

        The registry is for people that know what they are doing, that is for sure, but it is a world of difference.
        12312332123
    • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

      @wackoae
      Ubuntu works just fine for surfing the web.
      daikon
      • Unfortunately, you won't get many people to agree

        People are stuck in the old train of thought that Linux is horrible and hard to use. I doubt a majority of them have used it lately.
        Michael Alan Goff
      • Most won't agree because Linux IS horrible to use:

        @goff256

        I have used it lately, today in fact.. and a couple of other times this week. It still sucks... really. If I find one more reply to a problem that starts with "open a terminal", I will hunt down the offender and strangle him with his own intestine... or CLI... whichever I can get hold of first.
        DigitalAtheist
      • "It still sucks"

        Elaborate, please.
        Michael Alan Goff
      • Do you respond equally violently to instructions that start...

        @DigitalAtheist "Launch regedit..."?
        Zogg
      • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

        @goff256
        Let me start by saying that after trying 10's of distros, for all the problems and frustrations, I really do like Ubuntu and more specifically, I prefer the Linux MINT distro of it. I certainly appreciate having an alternative to play with and the scale of the work that has gone into opensource over the years....

        BUT, I still find it VERY easy to break. For example: I once uninstalled Yahoo IM and Synaptic uninstalled Network Manager for me (which was nice). This left me with the problem that since Ubuntu doesn't know to use its install CD as a source, I could not replace the missing packages through synaptic. I eventually couldn't be bothered fixing it properly and simplay reinstalled another distro. Its also next to impossible to map a network drive (in the user profile specific sense). Network shares do not connect the first, second, oh wait, on the third time - yup we're in. Thats just unacceptable for a mainstream desktop OS. In a corporate environment its just not going to be usable. I have noticed that a problem has crept in with the newer distros (Fedora 14, MINT 10) where the network manager requires you to automatically connect your ethernet, which is just bizarre!

        I could list further issues, but I will desist. Let's just say that this experience leaves me a little hesistant to do what I want with my system. I REALLY want to remove Firefox, but I'm sure MINT/Ubuntu will have other dependencies in there and I'm just tired of chasing my tail over such things.

        For me - this is playtime and occasionally a pain . For your average home user, its a disaster!
        12312332123
    • From that point of view....

      @wackoae

      Windows isn't good enough for the general public. It's unreliable, you have to use the Command Line to do a lot of important things (think regedit.exe), and really, Windows should only be used by trained personal.

      I'd rather give an inexperienced user Ubuntu. It's a lot harder for them to mess up the system.

      Wayne
      The Mad Hatter
      • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

        @The Mad Hatter
        Yep... all a Ubuntu/Kubuntu/AdNaseumbuntu user has to do to mess it up is to down load and install the recommended updates... or wait 6 months for the next OS upgrade :D
        DigitalAtheist
      • Wait.. what?

        -Has it happened that updates have messed an OS up? Yes, it has happened to everyone. Does it happen often? No.
        -You do realize that you don't have to update every 6 months, right? Every year, there is a LTS release. These have 3 years worth of support on the desktop, and five on the server. Essentially, you'd have to update to a new OS every three years if you want to keep up with security updates.

        Windows has better support, but you actually pay for Windows. You can order a free CD with Ubuntu on it. You don't even have to pay for shipping. It's better than OS X, though, as they "encourage" you to upgrade around once every couple of years.

        I suppose if you go into the settings and sign up for beta updates, you might have a point. If you sign up to be a beta tester, though, you're asking for it.

        Why don't you do even a little research before you say something?
        Michael Alan Goff
      • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

        @golf256

        I've done research... it's called actually installing and trying to use the OS. Over the years, from Win-98-Win7 I've not had any problems. As for Linux, at least Ubuntu versions, I've fooled with it since about 7.10. 8.04 was the last time it even pretended to let me have wi-fi on my laptop, and every upgrade from *.* to *.*+1 has caused data lose, or total OS failure. 10.4 and 10.10 have both resulted in borked OS's with recommended updates more than once. Are you saying I shouldn't update my OS? Are you saying that I shouldn't try to download and install security patches? Maybe you should ditch the "WorksForMe(TM)" attitude and realize that it DOESN'T work for everyone. There IS a reason that Linux only has a -1% usage rate amongst desktop users.

        p.s. for more info on WorksForMe(TM) please see:
        http://tmrepository.com/trademarks/worksforme/
        DigitalAtheist
      • Something must be wrong with your laptop

        "As for Linux, at least Ubuntu versions, I've fooled with it since about 7.10. 8.04 was the last time it even pretended to let me have wi-fi on my laptop, and every upgrade from *.* to *.*"

        Unless you haven't used it within the last year, I think your computer is borked. 10.04, 10.10, and 11.04 have all been doing well with my WiFi.

        "10.4 and 10.10 have both resulted in borked OS's with recommended updates more than once"

        That's bad luck for you, but it doesn't happen to the majority. The same thing has happened to people using Windows.

        " Are you saying I shouldn't update my OS?"

        I suggest that you stop upgrading your OS version if it works.

        "Are you saying that I shouldn't try to download and install security patches?"

        I suggest you do, since 99% of them are good. Same with Windows.

        "Maybe you should ditch the "WorksForMe(TM)" attitude and realize that it DOESN'T work for everyone."

        Maybe you should ditch the attitude that you can use rather poor anecdotal evidence to say that everyone has your experience.

        "There IS a reason that Linux only has a -1% usage rate amongst desktop users."

        -1%? They have less than zero? Is that possible? Also, would you like to know the reason why Linux has a 1% in marketshare? Marketing. They don't market it to the consumers, to the people who make the computers, or anyone else. Linux has far too apathetic of an attitude when it comes to trying to get people to use it.

        Then again, they don't make money from it. Why should they care about having a large marketshare.
        Michael Alan Goff
  • Direct manipulation

    Children respond far more to direct manipulation. The iPad offers that, this itself is a game changer. You want to know why iPads are considered "sexy"? This is the reason, the "reach out and touch" interface resonates with the child within us all.

    So no the argument isn't logical, because there is an human aspect to this. Having done testing on this recall is enhanced, concentration is better.

    There is a second group who really benefit from another aspect of the iPad design. Children with autism. While we're still a little unclear as to why, it is my belief that it is a combination of the afore mentioned "direct manipulation" and also the iPad lack of UI persistence. On most other systems, when you start an application parts of the display don't change, other applications are visible, other parts of the UI (such as the launcher) are visible. These visual cues act as a distraction, especially with autism, constantly reminding the user that other possibilities exist, other activities are going on. The iPad doesn't do that, when you run an application it "becomes" that application, nothing of the UI remains. If you run book application, the system "becomes a book" or if you run a musical instrument application the system "becomes a musical instrument". This in concert with the direct manipulation aspect, this is a potent combination for autistic children.
    jeremychappell
    • RE: Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

      @jeremychappell

      I won't argue the second point as A, I don;t have much experience in that domain, and B, it makes a lot of sense. the first point however, is flat out wrong. Do you want a logical reason to pick a ubuntu netbook over an ipad? how about $200 per unit. An ipad is minimum $500. You can get netbooks for $300. Software you don;t need to buy is also a plus. $250 for Office? Why when most of the basic stuff will work fine in OpenOffice, (I said most, not all, I am aware of the drawbacks of OO). I'm sorry, I don't need my education device to be 'sexy' for students who are using it to learn on. All it needs to be is educational and fun, and I don;t need "reach out and touch" to make something fun.
      KBot