When the cheap laptops known as netbooks first came out over a year ago, computer makers were able to offer them at low prices in part by shipping them with the free Linux open-source operating system, rather than Microsoft’s Windows. Since then, Windows netbooks have taken over most of the market after Microsoft began pushing Windows XP aggressively to netbook makers and consumers realized Linux netbooks didn’t work well with some popular applications and devices.
Linux on netbooks isn’t going away though. In fact, software and hardware companies have been making big investments to improve Linux netbooks. For the past week, I’ve been using several flavors of Linux running on netbooks — Ubuntu, Hewlett-Packard’s Mi (which is based on Ubuntu) and Moblin, created largely by Intel and not yet available commercially. In all cases, the Linux netbooks failed at some basic functions that any laptop, no matter how tiny and inexpensive, should be able to handle, like working with printers. At the same time, Mi and Moblin have impressive graphical user interfaces well-suited to the habits of typical netbook users, like checking email and accessing social-networking sites, as well as the small screens and low horsepower of tiny laptops. In addition to Linux, all of the computers shared the standard features, or lack thereof, common among netbooks, including compact keyboards and no DVD drives.
The most polished of the products was H-P’s Mini 110 Mi Edition, a new model with a 10.1-inch screen that H-P will begin selling on its Web site for $279.99 on June 10. That’s nearly $50 less than what H-P will charge for the Mini 110 running Windows XP, which will come with a 160-gigabyte hard drive instead of the 8-gigabyte solid-state drive that will come with the Mi edition.
The striking thing about this netbook is the slick graphical user interface created by H-P that runs on top of Ubuntu and first began appearing on H-P netbooks early this year. Instead of a traditional desktop like that found in Windows and the Mac, Mi (pronounced “me”) arranges commonly used applications and content on a screen called the “dashboard,” which looks like a personalized Web page and lists recently received emails, fresh thumbnail images of favorite Web sites, and a Web-search toolbar.
The Mi home screen is a clever way to make the computer seem alive with on- and off-line content, which is fitting since netbooks are designed for on-the-go Internet activities. It’s also tailor-made for the small screen size of netbooks.
A more eye-catching iteration of Linux is Moblin, which I tried out in test form on an Acer netbook; it is expected to ship on netbooks by the end of the year. Moblin has a menu of icons at the top of the screen, the most interesting of which leads to the M-Zone, a home screen that displays calendar appointments and favorite applications alongside snapshots of recently visited sites and a continuous feed from the user’s Twitter network.
An icon called “People” leads to a list of instant-messaging buddies, while another, called “Zones,” let me organize all the applications I had launched into different virtual workspaces, which is useful for hopping between various tasks on a small-screen device like a netbook.
The look and feel of the standard Ubuntu system, without the Mi interface, is more commonplace. I tried out a Dell Mini 10 with a 10.1-inch display and 160-gigabyte hard drive that sells for $349 on Dell’s Web site. The Mini 10 ships with version 8.04 of Ubuntu, which resembles Windows XP, with its desktop, taskbar and pop-up menu system. Ubuntu, in some cases, seemed to overestimate the size of the Dell Mini’s display: A window for configuring wireless-networking capabilities was so large it bled off the screen, and I couldn’t access all the buttons on it. I also installed on the Dell a new version of Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which works better on small screens. Since a Windows XP version of the Dell Mini 10 sells for the same price as the Ubuntu, I can’t see a compelling reason to choose the Ubuntu option.
All the netbooks I tried had compatibility problems with other external devices. The netbooks couldn’t load the software drivers to let me print to my Canon and Dell printers. I couldn’t load pictures over a USB cable from my Canon PowerShot SD750 digital camera. I was able to get my pictures on the machines by plugging a storage card from my camera directly into the netbooks.
Canonical, the London company that oversees development work on Ubuntu, says it is improving the system’s compatibility with various devices. Intel says it is unfair to judge Moblin until it is commercially available.
Some key applications currently don’t run on Linux, like Apple’s iTunes, which makes it difficult to load music files onto iPods from the netbooks. While the Linux laptops didn’t run Microsoft Office, they came with OpenOffice, a free package of word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications that allowed me to open and modify basic Word and Excel files.
The companies behind Linux netbooks have made great strides in improving user interfaces, but until they can achieve similar breakthroughs in how the machines work with other devices, Windows netbooks are still a better deal.
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