Ubuntu 9.10 (karmic Koala) on Netbooks - Part 1 (Overview)

I have promised several people that I would take a look at Ubuntu 9.10 and several of its derivatives on netbook hardware.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I have promised several people that I would take a look at Ubuntu 9.10 and several of its derivatives on netbook hardware. My intention is to consider the following:

- Ubuntu (plain vanilla, Gnome desktop) - Ubuntu Netbook Remix - Kubuntu (KDE desktop, both with and without KDE netbook) - Xubuntu (Xfce desktop)

I will be trying each of these on my ASUS N10J netbook, which I believe is very typical of netbook hardware configuration - Intel Atom 270 CPU, Intel 945 GME graphic controller, 10.2" 1024x600 screen, wired and wireless network connection, and bluetooth. The one thing that makes the N10J unique is that it also has an nVidia GeForce 9300 graphic controller which can be switched on and off.

First up, before diving into the Ubuntu derivatives, is the standard distribution. The basic installation, and the standard Gnome desktop, work just fine on the N10J. All of the devices are recognized and supported with no trouble. There are several things that you can change in the standard Ubuntu desktop to make it more netbook-friendly. One of the first things I always do (and not only on netbooks, but it is particularly important here), is right-click on each of the panels, choose Properties, and enable the Autohide attribute. That helps squeeze every last bit of usable space out of the small screen. In that same Properties panel, on netbooks I have recently been disabling the Expand attribute. That lets the panels be only as wide as necessary for their current content, rather than always spanning the entire screen. That sometimes helps by not obscuring parts of windows, but I think it also helps by simply making the screen appear less "full". I am also of the opinion that space on netbook displays is more critical in the vertical direction than the horizontal (as they are typically 1024x600 or even 1024x576), so I also change the Orientation of the Bottom panel to one of the sides (choose whichever you are more comfortable with).

Another useful area to adjust on netbooks is Power Management. You can get there either by right-clicking on the battery icon in the top panel, if it is visible, or by going to System/Preferences/Power Management. In addition to power saving adjustments, you can choose what action to take on various events; I want my netbooks to continue running when I close the lid to carry them around the house, so I set that attribute to Blank Screen rather than Suspend. Also on the subject of Power Management, both the Suspend and Hibernate operations work properly on my N10J. It's worth knowing, though, that when awakening from Hibernation, it will initially look as if the netbook is going through a new boot, but as it comes up it will notice the hibernation image and will then resume the state it was in when it hibernated.

The Fn- keys work for hardware control as they should, which has not always been the case with previous releases. I am able to adjust screen brightness, audio volume and mute, turn the wireless receiver on and off, and Suspend the N10J.

One slightly fun note. Most netbooks that are based on the Intel Atom CPU also have the Intel 945/950 graphic controller. The driver for that is good enough to support Extra Visual Effects. Some people like those, some hate them, and some say they feel sick when they watch the squiggly windows. You can turn them on by going to System/Preferences/Appearance, then the Visual Effects tab. Try it, and see if you like it. It's easy enough to turn off again.

If your netbook includes Bluetooth support, it will be detected and activated automatically when Ubuntu is installed. To use a Bluetooth mouse, just click the icon in the top Panel, choose Set up new device, and then press the Connecct button on the mouse. Once a mouse is configured, it will continue to work after rebooting the netbook. I have also used Bluetooth connection to transfer pictures from my mobile phone to the netbook. Bluetooth support is even better in 9.10 than it has been in previous releases. For one thing, Bluetooth printers are automatically detected by the Printing Configuration process, which makes getting them connected much easier than it was previously. Connecting my HP Officejet h470 printer was a breeze this time, and as with mice, once it has been connected, it will automatically reconnect when Ubuntu restarts. By the way, if you don't intend to use any Bluetooth devices, you can save a tiny bit of screen space by right-clicking on the Bluetooth icon, choose Preferences, and un-check the Show Icon box.

When you install Ubuntu, during the user definition you can specify if you want the user to be automatically logged in on boot. If you change your mind about this setting after installation, you can change it by going to System/Administration/Login Screen.

So, with these changes I have ended up with what I consider to be a very usable netbook desktop for the standard Ubuntu distribution. I think it is good for experienced users, who know their way around and don't need to have everything spread open in front of them all the time. Next up, I'll take a look at the Karmic Netbook Remix, and see what has been done to make Ubuntu even more user friendly on netbooks.

jw 4/11/2009

Editorial standards