Linux on Netbooks - with PICTURES!

As this is the holiday season, and things are slow, I have finally taken the time to follow up on some very good advice that Jake gave me, and learn to produce blog entries with pictures. Of course, there is no better way to start than with the specific subject that Jake (and others) said they would like to see pictures of, so here is a quick review of some of the most common Netbook-centric Linux distributions.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor on

As this is the holiday season, and things are slow, I have finally taken the time to follow up on some very good advice that Jake gave me, and learn to produce blog entries with pictures. Of course, there is no better way to start than with the specific subject that Jake (and others) said they would like to see pictures of, so here is a quick review of some of the most common Netbook-centric Linux distributions.

First up, probably the best known of the group, the Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala) Netbook Remix (UNR):

UNR 9.10

I find this to be significantly more pleasant than the previous UNR releases, simply because they have removed the large "Places" column from the right side of the screen, which makes it look much less cluttered and confusing.

When you start an application, such as Firefox, it is automatically made full-screen, and with the modified UNR task bar, it can be difficult to see how to start and use other applications at the same time. It looks like this:

UNR 9.10

If you notice the icons at the top left of the screen, you can click each of them to minimize/maximize (iconify/restore) the associated window, or if you want to work with multiple windows on the desktop, you can right-click on the icon and choose "Unmaximize". Depending on the actual size and resolution of your netbook display, this may or may not be an interesting or useful thing to do, but I certainly can't work with UNR without doing this.

Next up is Kubuntu 9.10, with the preliminary KDE Netbook desktop, which is still very much under development. In fact, even though I have kept the Kubuntu patched up to date, I haven't seen any changes or updates to the KDE Netbook Desktop come through since I first installed it at the end of October, so I assume by this time it is well out of date with whatever the KDE development team is doing. But I think it still provides a good look at the direction they are going, so I'm including it here.

KDE Netbook

The upper bar is initially empty after installation, and you can add whatever your commonly used applications there as you see fit. When you select a folder from the lower bar, the "Home" folder gets moved off to the side, and the contents of the new folder are shown in the lower bar, like this:

KDE Netbook

Here I have selected the "System" folder.

The KDE Netbook desktop does something similar to the UNR desktop, in trying to show only one application/window at a time on the presumably small netbook screen. That means, for example, if you have Firefox open, and you then open Thunderbird (or even just click on the desktop background), the Firefox window disappears completely! I found this rather surprising and confusing at first, but clicking on the "X running apps" icon/text at the top left of the screen brings up a selection of the active windows, and I can then select whichever one I want, like this:

KDE Netbook

An even more impressive selection of active windows shows up if you press Alt-Tab (Windows users should even be happy with that combination), and you get each of the active windows presented to you on a "wheel", where each successive press of "Tab" (keep holding "Alt") moves to the next item on the wheel. It looks like this:

KDE Netbook

Overall I am quite impressed with the KDE Netbook desktop, and I am anxious to see how its development continues. The last I heard it was scheduled for an initial release in early 2010, so I will be watching for that.

Next is not really an official "Netbook Release", it is just my own little project to make the Xfce desktop optimally usable on my netbooks. I started from the standard Xubuntu 9.10 distribution, and I simply removed the desktop icons, added Panels, rearranged things between the panels, and then made all the Panels auto-hide. What I ended up with, showing all the panels, is this:

Xubuntu Xfce

The idea here is that the "task bar", where icons for open windows and such will show up, is at the bottom of the screen, along with any other items which have text in them, such as the menus and digital clock. The Notifier is at the left side of the screen, with things like network and battery status, and Bluetooth and volume controls. At the right side of the screen are the application selection icons - you can add whatever you typically use here - and the Shutdown controls. I like having things grouped by functionality this way, and once I activate Autohide on all three panels, it looks like this:

Xubuntu Xfce

That's not quite as boring of an empty screen as it may first appear; if you look carefully, you can just see the lines where you need to move the mouse in order to bring up each of the panels (or maybe not). This is just what I want for a default desktop - empty, open, available space! When I start an application, it doesn't automatically expand to fill the entire screen, and when I have multiple applications running, they all co-exist on the desktop in exactly the way they always have. Of course, I realize that this is probably not what an "inexperienced" netbook user might want, but for those with experience I think it makes for a very usable netbook desktop.

Last, and in this case certainly "least", here is the default Moblin 2.1 desktop:

Moblin 2.1

Now, if this desktop looks nice to you, or makes sense to you, or looks like something you might want to use... well... more power to you. After numerous attempts, I still can't make heads or tails of it, and I find it to be not only confusing, but also virtually impossible to customize or even adjust in any significant way. Maybe that's the idea behind it, that "casual" or "inexperienced" netbook users don't want or need the ability to adjust (break?) their desktop. But the fact that I can't even change the time or date format, or get some sort of rational text shown instead of, or at least underneath, those inscrutable hieroglyphics, really puts me off. Yes, I know that if I move the mouse cursor over each of them, I will get a pop-up text for them, but that is tedious, at best, and in some cases the text still doesn't tell me much. The juvenile background doesn't help, either.

Search as I might, I have still not succeeded in finding "Shutdown", "Reboot" or "Logout" options. I have to assume that Moblin is made for a computer which will only ever be used by one person, never shared with anyone else, and the only thing that person will ever do is turn that computer on and off by pushing the Power button. Is it really that limited?

I hate to write absolutely nothing but bad things about something that has obviously had a lot of work put into it, so here is one thing that I found rather nice. Click that diagonal line of dots (can someone please tell me how that is supposed to represent "network"?), and you get the "Networks" page.

Moblin 2.1

The layout is clear and simple, available wireless networks are shown in the largest area of the screen, and some very simple controls for the various types of network connections are shown on the right side. I particularly like the "Offline Mode" toggle, because I have learned from experience that not every netbook has a WiFi on/off switch, and even if it does that doesn't necessarily mean you can cut off all outside connections by switching it off. But if I click "Off" on the Offline Mode control, both wired and wireless networking immediately switch to "Off" as well. I like that.

Now, if it would just show the "3G" connection as being available when I plug in either my Huawei USB dongle or the Option Express Card, I would be a lot more happy. But alas, it stays on "Unavailable" when either of those is present - and both of them work just fine with Ubuntu, UNR, Xubuntu and Fedora. Sigh.

So, there you have it, a quick overview of the major (and minor) netbook desktops for various Linux distributions. I hope that some will find this useful, and the associated pictures enlightening. It has certainly been entertaining and instructional to get it all done.

Happy New Year!

jw 30/12/2009

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