Forget Moblin! Ubuntu Netbook Remix rocks on the Classmate

Last week I fired up the latest beta of Moblin, the open source netbook/MID/nettop operating system originally spearheaded by Intel, but now shepherded by the Linux Foundation.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Last week I fired up the latest beta of Moblin, the open source netbook/MID/nettop operating system originally spearheaded by Intel, but now shepherded by the Linux Foundation. I've already discussed my first impressions of the OS running on a Convertible Classmate PC, but the most important take home messages were:

  1. It's fast
  2. It makes great use of the small screen of a netbook

A few inquiries on Twitter, an email to the Moblin mailing list, and some questions to Intel left me with some homework to get the touch interface and the wireless working, but I was willing to do some tweaking to take advantage of the optimizations in Moblin. Then Intel sent me their Classmate PC image of Ubuntu Netbook Remix (NBR) and it took me very little time to abandon the Moblin ship.

Why would I bother tweaking, fiddling with drivers, and otherwise goofing around with Moblin when Intel's NBR image:

  1. Is fast
  2. Made great use of the small screen of the Classmate (sounding familiar yet?)
  3. Worked with the touch screen, wireless, and all hardware out of the box
  4. Came with software for taking notes with the stylus, handwriting recognition, and the same palm rejection that makes it so easy to write on the Windows version of the tablet
  5. Came with Ubuntu's familiarity and extensive software library
  6. Is easily switchable back to a standard Gnome desktop interface

The Intel image had a few key pieces of software buried; I launched Synaptic from the command line so that I could enable non-Classmate repositories. For the average classroom deployment, this is actually a good thing, but for administrators who want to, for example, install Wine, it meant a bit of digging. The e-book reader software was in the Office area, and so on. However, a bit of exploring sorted everything out quickly.

Installing Wine also allowed me to install our Windows-based RTI software without difficulties; it will be up to my 6-year old to try and find any problems with that piece of the pie tonight, but all looks well on the legacy/Windows application front.

I only have two niggles about the Intel NBR image. The first is that the Intel image for the Classmate is running Ubuntu 8.04. While this is completely understandable, given that 8.04 was Canonical's long-term support iteration, providing maximum stability for vendors and "ecosystem partners," as Intel calls them, 9.04 has seen some substantial upgrades and ease-of-use improvements.

The second is the absence of Art Rage 2, a piece of Windows-only software included with the Windows XP Classmate image that absolutely crushes the KolourPaint software included with Ubuntu image. I'll have to do some digging to see what I can find in FOSS-land that might compete with Art Rage.

On the upside, the Xournal note-taking software works brilliantly and seeing it in action inspired one of our administrators to order 6 Classmates today with the last dregs of a grant.

What initially appealed to me about Moblin is the same thing that appeals to me the most about NBR on the Classmate. It's a different layout from Windows (and the standard Gnome or KDE desktops) that plays to a netbook's strengths and minimizes its weaknesses. It doesn't try to be Windows-like; it tries (and succeeds) to be a great interface to a netbook.

Given the potential cost savings over Windows ($45-$100, depending on vendor and whether you have XP Home or Pro installed) and the outstanding interface, I have to say that Ubuntu Netbook Remix makes the Classmate an even more attractive proposition. Moblin, interesting as it might be, seems less relevant every hour I spend using NBR.

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