Ubuntu Netbook Remix - An Acid Test

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.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

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 ever 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.

jw 23/6/2009

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