Thursday, July 29, 2010

A first look at Ubuntu Netbook Edition 10.04

I had Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) installed on my Eee PC soon after I purchased it in 2008. Netbooks had just started appearing in the marketplace and Asus was a pioneer with the Eee 701 and then with the Eee 901. At that point Hardy Heron was not designed to be used on netbooks and I had a constant struggle between feature limitations of Linux vs the lack of responsiveness in Windows XP. There was talk of a netbook version of Linux and several vendors (Canonical, Intel) were various stages of development.

Cut to April 2010, Ubuntu is finally out with its 10.04 netbook edition. My frustration with my XP on my Eee PC is mounting on a daily basis and I use it primarily to remote to my Windows 7 HTPC box so that I can use it in my study. Watching Flash videos on Windows is a nightmare and multitasking is next to impossible. I am afraid to update Ubuntu 8.04 as the WiFi drivers break every time a major update is made. Having some spare time, I finally decided to make the switch to the new version of Ubuntu.

Try it before you buy use it!
One of my favorite things about Linux is the ability to try it without having to install it on your system. Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) has made it much easier to download the image to a Live CD / flash drive with complete instructions on their website. My first impressions with the Live CD were really good. The OS booted up in less than a minute. WiFi worked right out of the box and I was able to play around with some of the pre-installed applications.

One of the first things you will notice in the Netbook Edition is the menu bar which makes it very easy to navigate around to different sections of the OS. The mouse is a little difficult to use on the menu screen with a single click on a icon automatically opening up the application instead of highlighting it. All open applications are shown as icons in the top pane and the abundance of keyboard shortcuts makes it very easy to switch around between applications and the main menu.

Wifi Drivers
One big pain with the prior versions of Ubuntu was the lack of default WiFi drivers. Once Linux was installed you would have to manually download and install the drivers over an Ethernet connection. Though the MadWifi drivers worked quite well they would get uninstalled with every major update. The 10.04 drivers now work right out of the box as I mentioned before and I was easily able to connect to my WPA enabled router. Updates did not break the wireless drivers either.

Move over Firefox, Chrome is here
The default Firefox browser was one of my biggest gripes with Hardy Heron (and with 10.04). It was a great replacement for IE when it first came out in 2002/03 but over the years has turned slow and clunky consuming a lot of memory. I tried installing Google Chrome on 8.04 but the lack of latest updates which I refused to install because of the WiFi issue (see above) would result in Chrome crashing as soon as it started. Although Firefox is the default browser in Ubuntu, users can easily download Google Chrome and it works wonderfully in 10.04.

Chat, Mail & Social Networking
An integrated communication icon now allows users to setup new mail, chat and social networking accounts. Evolution is still carried over from previous versions of Linux but has a much easier setup procedure and I was able to quickly connect to my Gmail account via IMAP and synchronize my email. Empathy IM, the default messenger application, has a much slicker interface compared to Pidgin which I was using in 8.04 and supports Google Talk, Yahoo!, MSN and Facebook Messenger.

Skype – choppy sound?
Although I did not get a full chance to test Skype on 10.04, the sound quality was choppy while making a test call and I could not see the video of the other person although they could see me. Something to investigate and I believe should be fixable.

Steve Jobs is right about this one. Although it revolutionized Web content delivery for desktops, Flash is not meant for meant for small Internet devices. Flash is optional to install on Ubuntu but the responsiveness while watching Youtube videos on my netbook was much better than Windows, where I would have to wait until the whole video loaded before I could watch it.

Productivity Software
Since Oracle took over Sun, Openoffice has undergone quite a revolution. Openoffice 3.2 starts much faster, has a consistent look and feel and I believe will be a smoother transition for existing Windows users. Note: Much of this review was written on OpenOffice Writer.

Bridging the Geek / Novice Gap
One of the great things about Ubuntu is what it has done to bridge the geek / novice gap for Linux. Their design philosophy has made it much simpler for beginners to start using Linux and provided a much needed alternative to Windows. Personally, I believe the three major items that are needed to get Linux to mainstream are:
  • OS / Applications working right out of the box
  • OS does not need technical expertise to use
  • Large software ecosystem that is easy to get and use.
Ubuntu addresses the first point quite well. I have not had a chance to use it in different hardware but the advent of open source drivers has made it compatible across multiple platforms. The adoption of version numbers as opposed to code names (Gutsy Gibbon, Lucid Lynx) has given Ubuntu a more mainstream feel with users. On point two, Linux as a whole is still generally behind the curve. Ubuntu has made great strides on making Linux simpler to use but simple things like different terminology and the lack of “familiar” use and feel keeps new users away from it. Also the lack of pre-packaged applications due to the various flavors of Linux results in having to download the source and install it - which doesn’t sit well with novice users.

Other thoughts
If you need to connect to a Windows machine, rdesktop works quite well although I have not been able to get a working GUI version of it. Ubuntu 10.04 does not support Netflix either - or should it be the other way around? Overall, the new version is really usable and I would definitely recommend it for netbook users who want to make a switch.