'Acid test' for Ubuntu on a netbook

'Acid test' for Ubuntu on a netbook

Summary: A friend asked me to configure her netbook to my WiFi system so I decided it was time to replace the outdated operating system with a new Ubuntu Netbook Remix.

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At the end of last week I got the opportunity to start an "Acid Test" of the latest Ubuntu Netbook Remix.

One of my neighbors had seen my HP Mini-Note, and said that she thought something like that would be good for her. I was planning to talk with her about it in detail, to be sure that she knew what she would be getting, the advantages and limitations of such a netbook. However, before I had the time to do that, someone gave her an ASUS Eee PC! She came to me with it last Thursday, asking if I could configure it so that she could connect to my WiFi network.

It seems to be one of the original 701 models, the label on the bottom says "Eee PC 4G". It has very small screen (something like 7"), an equally small (Swiss German) keyboard, and a touchpad with NO buttons (!). It was loaded with a rather dated version of Linux, in German, some sort of Debian or Debian derivative, I didn't take the time to try to identify exactly what version it was. All of this might sound routine to those who have experience with the ASUS Eee PC, but this was the first one that I had every actually worked on.

I decided to reload Linux from scratch, for several reasons - primarily because I couldn't get it to connect, perhaps because it didn't have WPA2 encryption, and I thought that if I was going to have to go to the trouble to update such an old Linux, I might as well reload it with something much newer anyway; also, the owner is not a native German speaker, and would prefer to have the system in English anyway; also, and not least, I had been looking for an opportunity to try UNR on a very average computer user, and both she and the netbook fit the bill.

I initially booted it using UNR on a USB stick, and it came up beautifully. The excitement and satisfaction on her face when she saw how much nicer it looked (and that it was in English) made the effort really worthwhile. After confirming that all the important bits worked properly, I went ahead and installed from the USB drive to the built-in 4GB SSD. As we had no interest in preserving the existing operating system, and I wanted to keep things as simple as possible for her, I simply let it overwrite the entire disk with the new UNR installation. It created a 3.5GB ext3 root partition, and used the remaining bit of the disk for swap. Everything went smoothly, and it was installed and running in well under an hour.

The "Acid Test" part came about because I did all of this on Thursday evening, and I was leaving for the weekend on Friday morning. So she was going to be on her own with it for the critical first few days. I don't like to do that sort of thing, but in this case I didn't have much choice, and she had a desktop system to fall back to in case it didn't work, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

When I returned Sunday evening, she said that she had been using it very happily. Startup and connection to the web via my WiFi had worked just fine, and general web browsing had been good. The only significant problem she had was that she wanted to watch some videos in Firefox, and I had not installed the Adobe Flash Plugin. What she told me was that when she tried to watch videos, it said a bunch of stuff that she didn't understand and which she found quite intimidating, so she didn't go any further on that. That confirms my skepticism about those who say Ubuntu (and others) "make it easy" to install Flash (and other packages) when necessary - I have always thought that many, or most, ordinary users would be afraid to try, even it if looked trivial to us "experts", and would most likely then retreat to Windows and say Linux was "too complicated" or didn't have everything they needed. I wish there was a "Mint Netbook Remix"... sigh.

Anyway, I installed the flash plugin packages, and of course then her videos played in Firefox just fine. She said that the sound was a bit odd - well, no surprise, considering the Mickey-Mouse speakers built into the Eee PC. I gave her a headset to plug into the audio jacks, and that solved that problem. (Hint: in this case, I avoid using a USB headset, because I don't want to confuse the Linux audio configuration even more.) I also gave her a USB mouse, so that she didn't have to fight with tapping on the touchpad.

So, now she has been using it for a couple more days, and she is as happy as a clam. She had no problem understanding and using the UNR desktop (which I still find unpleasant), so I suppose that means they have done a reasonable job of creating something for ordinary users, not experienced Linux administrators. I consider it to be a rather old, under-powered and limited capacity system, but she thinks it is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and could hardly be happier with it. I think that shows that what ordinary users are interested in is solutions, not the absolute latest, flashiest, fastest hardware.

She has now brought it back and asked me to install Skype on it. Again, despite my personal reservations (objections) about Skype, it is what it is and she makes good use of it to communicate with her friends and family in the U.S., so I have now installed that. The text and audio functions seem to work, but the video doesn't work yet - I suspect that the drivers for the built-in camera aren't loaded yet. If anyone has experience with this old Eee PC and can offer some tips on that, I would appreciate it. I will return it to her this evening, and I will advise her to use the free communications for Skype, but NOT to risk one cent of her money with them.

So, all things considered I would say UNR passed this initial Acid Test with flying colors. I'm sure that I will hear plenty more from her about it, and I will be watching to see how she gets along with it.

This article was originally posted on ZDNet UK.

Topics: Software, Collaboration, Hardware, Linux, Mobility, Open Source, Operating Systems, Social Enterprise

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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Talkback

89 comments
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  • I thought Ubuntu

    Had packaged installers?
    Or has skype not been approved by the Ubuntu Community?
    jdbukis@...
    • It's in there

      Perhaps the author thought the package installer would go over his friend's head.
      Michael Kelly
    • Packaged installer

      I downloaded the package for Ubuntu from Skype. I don't know if it has been "approved" by the Ubuntu Community, but it certainly hasn't been by me. However, the wishes of the owner of the system override my personal biases.
      j.a.watson@...
  • Try opening Cheese

    Cheese is the native UNR webcam application (used for quick pictures and videos). If that program works then the drivers are okay and it's a Skype problem. If it's not okay then it's a driver problem.
    Michael Kelly
    • Tried that...

      I tried cheese, and it also detected no camera. That was why I assumed it is a driver issue. I have gotten a comment on ZDNet UK indicating that the problem might be that the camera is disabled in the BIOS, apparently many of the original 701's were shipped that way, or this one might have been specifically disabled by the previous owner (donor). I'll check that as soon as I can get my hands on the netbook again. The current owner seems to have an odd preference for actually using the netbook, rather than having me playing with it all the time.
      j.a.watson@...
      • owner's use

        So then, seems to me the acid test is passed :)
        The owner is happy with the system and is using it rather than having it played with more.
        Not saying the system is perfect the way it is - but that can be said of just about anything if you like tinkering. But if it works the way a non-tech user is happy with then surely job done
        roelmann
        • Exactly Right

          Thus far, at least, I agree it has been a success. She is using it, and she is happy with it.
          j.a.watson@...
  • I have NBR downloading right now to try on my Aspire One! 54 minutes to go.

    Though I got everything to work with XUbuntu 8.10, I am
    ready for a change.
    DonnieBoy
    • Installed UNR last night, and it all works great!

      Performs better and boots faster than XUbuntu 8.10
      did, and no fussing with any drivers like before.
      Chrome also works great!!
      DonnieBoy
      • Good News

        I'm really pleased to hear this. Good luck, and enjoy.
        j.a.watson@...
  • RE: 'Acid test' for Ubuntu on a netbook

    Install Cheese and then in preferences select /dev/video0

    regards
    renatobovo@...
    • Been there, done that...

      Cheese is installed by default in UNR, and is even included in the Favorites screen by default (quite a difference from "standard" Ubuntu). There is no /device/video*, which is another reason that I assumed it is a driver problem, but perhaps it is just that the camera is disabled.
      j.a.watson@...
  • RE: 'Acid test' for Ubuntu on a netbook

    I would have removed linux then replaced it with a better alternative. How come this story left out the good parts like how it takes hours to recompile software on linux? Or how she has to download the source code first and use the terminal window to extract it? I know I know, you conveniently left out the part that linux will only play one sound at a time as well. Wait until this woman comes back to you asking why she can't install the apps she normally uses. This is going to be hilarious to watch. Then this guy can explain its using linux and it has a return rate of 4x higher than other operating systems.
    Loverock Davidson
    • Please recompile your brain

      You have a segmentation fault in your cerebral cortex, or least what's supposed to be a cerebral cortex...
      T1Oracle
      • Man

        it must really hurt you when someone points out the many fallacies of linux
        Loverock Davidson
        • Just go away fool!

          And don't be a fool, or I'll bust you up, <b>FOOL</b>!
          InAction Man
        • I agree so heartily with your statement

          Everything you said was a fallacy of linux.

          By the way, loved your post:
          http://talkback.zdnet.com/5208-11423-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=14648&messageID=293734
          Viva la crank dodo
          • I'm flattered

            that you took the time to do a search for me :) I hope you used Bing to find me! Tell all your friends about me too. Its amazing, I never dreamed of having this kind of following, but when your good your good.
            Loverock Davidson
          • Don't! That's just a repost of that same old very informative link

            Now go read it again. It sure tells a lot
            http://talkback.zdnet.com/5208-11423-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=14648&messageID=293734
            InAction Man
          • Actually,

            The article came up in ZDnet front page the other day and I looked in to it. I never realized until checking it after your comment that it was so old.

            But what can I say, I am a fan of your satire.
            Viva la crank dodo