Yesterday we looked at Jolicloud as an option for netbook owners keen on using the net's cloud computing potential. Today, we look at the big name in Linux: Ubuntu.
The latest version of Ubuntu "Lucid Lynx" -- 10.4 -- comes in a netbook-optimised version that is designed for computer makers to deploy on new netbooks, but it is also available for public download. It's a great operating system choice for netbook users.
One of the more noticeable features of the netbook is the design choices for small screens. It is here that Ubuntu Netbook Edition shines. Using the Gnome Desktop Manager as its base, the user interface is crisp, clean and very functional. The menu system takes the whole left hand side of the screen. Instead of small icons and menu choices like on a normal windows and Linux start menus, Ubuntu Desktop Edition uses big icons that take over the desktop. This is a welcome choice, as it reduces the chance of miss hitting the wrong icon. I quickly found I preferred this system to the normal Gnome/Ubuntu desktop.
Running multiple applications is also well managed. Instead of a paper system, where applications are stacked on top of each other like paper on a desk, Ubuntu Netbook Edition only allows one application to dominate the screen. All running applications are shown as an icon on the top left corner of the desktop (in the traditional spot for the Gnome menus), and clicking the icon swaps the old application off the screen and replaces it with the chosen application. This is an elegant solution, that allows a user to know what programs are running and to swap and change quickly on the fly.
Above: The System Menu for Ubuntu Netbook Edition
While this is a version of Ubuntu optimised for notebooks, it is still Ubuntu. Installation is almost identical to the normal Ubuntu install, and every Ubuntu program available with its software library ( Ubuntu Software Centre) and with the synaptic / apt-get programs, and the most Gnome based programs should install without issue under Ubuntu Netbook Edition.
In its default installation, Ubuntu Netbook Editon actually does more than either Windows or Mac OS X in the same state. You can edit photographs and office documents, use social networks like Twitter and Instant Messaging, play games, videos and music and even allow programming. One of the problems that Ubuntu, and Linux in general compared to Mac and Windows is shipping proprietary software and codes at installation (for example MPEG codecs, programs like Skype and plugins like Flash). Ubuntu will quickly identify when you open a web page or media file and download the required codec/plugin. If there is a Linux version of Acrobat or Skype, it should work inside Ubuntu Netbook Edition, and you can even run some Windows programs under WINE or Virtual Box -- though these two will run very slowly on a netbook.
Above: The Ubuntu Software Centre for Ubuntu Netbook Edition
One thing the Ubuntu has strived with the 10.04 release is better integration with devices. iPhone/iPod interfaces cleanly with the audio program Rhythmbox. Networking by Wi-Fi, 3G and Ethernet is (mostly) built in and Web-cams should also work out of the box, depending on the device (some newer devices, or devices where the manufacturer withholds information about drivers may require further downloads or not work at all, a common Linux issue).
I installed Ubuntu Netbook Edition, and found that after the install and security update, the whole system was a touch under 3GB hard disk space. It also ran reasonably well under 512MB memory. With today's netbooks shipping with 1GB memory, Ubuntu Netbook Editions should run snappily indeed.
Above: The main screen when you start Ubuntu Netbook Edition
One of the strong elements of the whole Ubuntu range in 10.04, and especially useful the netbook variant, is Ubuntu One. This is a cloud based service that allows a shared cloud based storage system, contact syncing with iPhones, Android phones and other computers (via a local program or a web based service), a music store, even shared notes. The service is free with a 2GB file storage limit, or US$10 a month for 50GB -- the same pricing as the popular Dropbox service. The music store is rather weak at the moment, as the curse of music licensing preventing major label music to be available to Australia, but this will hopefully change in the future. If you choose, you can avoid Ubuntu One, as other services like DropBox also work well with Ubuntu Netbook Edition.
Given a 4GB USB key, you could even keep a fully capable cloud based operating system that can be carried in your pocket. You can actually create a bootable USB key using the Startup Disk Creator program that comes installed.
I personally prefer the Netbook Edition over the vanilla Desktop version. The user interface is very intuitive, and the resources footprint is smaller than the normal Ubuntu system. For most netbooks, you will be surprised with the power that Ubuntu Netbook Edition has in a fresh install, and the Ubuntu/Debian software installation system is one of the best on any platform, so installing the software to suit most user needs is rather easy and quick (or even the operating system itself for that matter).