Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04 hands-on
In episode 6 of our podcast we asked the question, "should netbook manufacturers standardise on a single distro?" Well, as netbook manufactuers continue to find ever more obscure distros to fit onto their systems, Canonical has stepped into the fray wielding a mighty cluestick: Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR).
When we interviewed Mark Shuttleworth a few weeks ago, he agreed that Ubuntu was late into the netbook arena. But the arrival of Jaunty Jackalope means that UNR has finally seen an official release, so there are lots of questions that need answering: how is it different from normal Ubuntu? How well does it work on average netbooks? And, most importantly, is it any good?
If you've already read our group test of netbook distros and want to know what Ubuntu can do to pull ahead ahead of the pack, you can read our full review of Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix below. Read on!
Lots of people loved it, just as many hated it, but few can doubt that Asus changed the computing world with the original Eee PC. Suddenly you can could get the functionality of A Real PC out of a laptop you could slip into your bag and still have room for lunch and a good book. Sure, it might have looked like something Toys 'R' Us would produce, but the Eee PC 701 has been followed by dozens of other devices that add more style, more power and more refinement.
But, despite having an early lead, Linux managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and Windows XP has managed to forge a home for itself on netbook devices. In fact, at the computer store nearest to TuxRadar HQ, nearly all the netbooks ship with Windows as standard, and most of them don't have a Linux option.
Part of the problem people were facing with Linux was that it simply wasn't Windows - they wanted their Start menu, they wanted My Computer and they wanted Microsoft Office. OpenOffice.org, good as it is, just doesn't cut it if someone is looking for the ribbon toolbar from Office 2007. Another problem was that some of the netbooks were ridiculously oversold. The Eee PC 701, for example, was marketed as being a great laptop for photographers on the move, which is remarkable given that it came with nothing more than mtPaint.
But by far the biggest problem with Linux netbooks was that too much stuff just didn't work out of the box. People don't know what codecs are and they don't care. What they want is to be able to double-click on an MP3 and have it play. They want to watch kitten videos on YouTube. Someone called us once because they were having trouble installing Skype on their Acer Aspire One - they were double clicking a setup.exe file and, unsurprisingly, nothing was happening.
Thanks to its aggressive marketing, we all know that Ubuntu is "Linux for human beings", but can the Wizards of Polish really take the bruised and fragmented Linux market and make it work? Yes, they can.
Perfect out of the box
One of the major advantages Apple has in the market is that it controls the hardware and the software, which means it can test things on very limited hardware configurations and be sure it works for everyone. With netbooks, Ubuntu has the same happy situation: the vast majority use Intel's Atom CPU, have 1GB of RAM, onboard graphics and a fairly standard wireless network card. As a result, UNR does something desktop Linux rarely manages: it looks great out of the box.
We don't mean it has nicer colours, prettier icons or nicer widgets. Instead, we mean if you hover icons they grow a little larger. When you click one, it spins around to show it has been activated. Menus fade in and out, and real alpha transparency is there as standard. You don't get wobbly windows or other Compiz frippery - instead, the effects are subtle and easy on the eye, constantly reminding you that just because the laptop is cheap it doesn't mean it's no good.
Ubuntu Netbook Remix strips desktop clutter back to its absolute minimum, making the most of limited screen space.
But UNR doesn't stop there. Canonical recommends that netbook manufacturers purchase Windows Media Audio and Video codecs before shipping devices to customers, and makes it easy to purchase licences for MPEG4 (H.263), MP3 and AAC as well. Adobe Flash, Acrobat Reader, Java and Skype are all also easily installed.
All this may make hardcore Free Software advocates gnash their teeth, but ultimately it means that more users have more positive experiences with their new Linux netbooks, and that's crucial to helping spread the word that Linux isn't scary/broken/rubbish.
And, of course, it comes with Ubuntu's now ubiquitous brown, albeit the darkest shade yet.
What's special about Ubuntu Netbook Remix
Following the trend set by Asus and Xandros back with the Eee PC 701, UNR makes it very easy to run programs by listing all the available applications directly on your desktop. But where the Eee split programs up into categories such as Work, Learn and Play, UNR sticks with Gnome's standard category breakdown of Accessories, Graphics, Sound & Video and more. But it breaks with style in three important ways:
- It has a Favourites menu with the most commonly run apps - you can also drop things in there for later access.
- Preferences and Administration are easily accessible, being placed beneath the other menu items.
- Regardless of which menu category you view, common folders from your filesystem are always visible on the right.
Even though the menus are presented as flat tabs, they still use the standard menu format so you can edit them using Alacarte, and any software you add using Synaptic or apt-get is automatically added.
But the real surprise comes when you launch any program, because they nearly all launch automatically maximised and with their window decoration (the brown bar at the top) removed. This behaviour - powered by a background daemon called Maximus - is a simple and pragmatic attempt to save screen estate, because the most common screen resolution on netbooks is 1024x600 so the screen real estate is very limited.
Instead of window decorations, UNR launches programs as if they were browser tabs. Every app that's running is shown in a small icon along the top left of the screen, whereas the currently activated window takes up the remainder of the space and is clearly highlighted. Losing the window decoration in this way clearly only saves 25 pixels or so, but part of the magic of UNR is that work has been put in to save pixels everywhere and eventually all those savings add up: you really do get more data on your screen with UNR.
Maximus in action: only the active program occupies much space in the top panel, with the others appearing as small icons.
Not every app benefits from being maximised using Maximus - Gtk's system of making widgets fit their allocated space makes some apps look distorted and hard to use. Fortunately, none of these ship with UNR as standard, which means that users coming to Linux the first time won't have any problems. But if you're a more advanced user and decide that Cheese, F-Spot and OOo Draw don't cut it in the Graphics category, you may find that some of the more obscure packages in Synaptic don't look quite right.
We should point out that Update Manager does not get automatically maximised, so it's clear that there are workarounds in place. Earlier test versions of UNR had each palette in The Gimp being maximised, but that small flaw has been fixed now.
Continuing to follow Asus's lead, UNR doesn't have virtual desktop enabled by default. On the one hand we can absolutely understand that virtual desktops would confuse newbies (although Apple managed to make it digestible by giving it the catchy name "Spaces"), but on such a small screen virtual desktops must surely be more of an advantage than ever.
What sucks about Ubuntu Netbook Remix
Even though it's head and shoulders above most other netbook distros, UNR still needs more work. Yes, we know it's only the first official release, but every distro has some litte niggles in that can be improved. And with UNR the biggest problem really does come back to Maximus - we love the idea, and on the whole it works just fine. But when you run a program that wasn't really designed to be run in full screen and Maximus hasn't been told to leave it alone, it doesn't look too good.
A small mitigation to this is that you can right-click on any window tab and tell Maximus to Unmaximise it, but the next time you ran that same program it would be maximised as before. If Maximus were smart enough to remember that you didn't want that app maximised previously, this wouldn't be a problem.
When Maximus gets it wrong: this is actually the preferences window for the tabbed window applet, but Maximus stretches everything to make it full screen and it just doesn't look good.
Another problem with Maximus is that it makes some day-to-day operations a bit clumsy - drag and drop, for example, is done by picking up files, hovering approximately over the 32x32-pixel icon for the tab you want to drop it onto (which is neatly obscured because the thing you're dragging is over it), then waiting a second for the tab to automatically change. It's precarious at best, but could easily be fixed by making dragging icons partly transparent so you can aim more precisely.
The only other problem - also minor - is Gnome's viciously slow code for reading icons, which is compounded by the fact that UNR won't change tabs until the icons for that tab have been loaded. Although SSDs ought to leave hard drives in their dust, lower-end netbooks appear to come with SSDs that have been dipped in treacle - OpenOffice.org Writer loads in a respectable 12 seconds on our Aspire One, but changing tabs for the first time can take up to two seconds. And installing a couple of hundred megs of system updates? It's almost slow enough that you're tempted to run older, broken apps than sit through the process.
To be fair, these aren't Ubuntu's problems. Yes, having a holding throbber in place while loading icons would help, but slow SSDs will act as a speedbump for any distro.
Your software selection
Content in the knowledge that most netbooks ship with at least 4GB of space, Ubuntu Netbook Remix weighs in at a rather rotund 2.1GB for its default install. This will of course be hugely irritating to people with 2GB Eee PCs, but with many netbooks now packing 160GB hard drives clearly the first-gen netbooks are in the minority.
Thanks to blithely ignoring the 2GB limit, UNR comes with OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Evolution, Pidgin, Totem and lots of other Gnome mainstays. And, yes, that includes Mono: Tomboy and F-Spot are both present and correct. In fact, the only noticeable absence was The Gimp, perhaps because few people are likely to want to do any serious art production on a netbook. That said, it's an apt-get away, so anyone who wants it isn't being held back. Cheese, the Gnome webcam app, worked perfectly out of the box on our Acer Aspire One, again contributing to the slick user experience that is the standard in UNR.
UNR comes with Gnome's webcam app, Cheese, as standard, and it works out of the box.
Behind the scenes, Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04 is just like any other Jaunty Jackalope release, which means it comes with the stylish new notification dialogs that pop up in the top-right corner when something important happens. But it also means you can switch back to the standard Ubuntu desktop if you want to, with the panels along the top and bottom as you would normally expect in Gnome. One tip, though: make sure you close any windows before changing back to the netbook view, because they can easily get hidden!
Get Ubuntu Netbook Remix from normal desktop Ubuntu
The transformation from Netbook Remix to standard Ubuntu isn't one way: if you're running the standard desktop edition of Ubuntu 9.04 you can switch to a netbook interface quite easily, but be warned: it might take a little effort to return your desktop to the way it was!
Warning: if you're using Compiz (aka "desktop effects") please turn it off now. UNR doesn't need them, and in fact it may collide with its own deskop effects system.
First, bring up a terminal window and run this command:
sudo apt-get install go-home-applet human-netbook-theme maximus netbook-launcher window-picker-applet
When you enter your password, that command will pull in various dependencies required to make UNR work. Now reboot your PC, and you should come back to a desktop that has the two largest parts of UNR working - the netbook-launcher app (the thing that now owns your desktop) and maximus, the window maximiser. But this is only the beginning of the transformation - to get the full effect, you should do the following:
- Remove from the top panel the Ubuntu menu (Applications/Places/System) from the left and the switch user applet from the right, plus any app launchers you don't want. Just right-click on things and choose Remove From Panel to get rid of them.
- Right-click on the top panel, choose Add to Panel, then add Go Home and Window Picker, moving them to the left and centre of the panel respectively.
- Remove the bottom panel entirely - right-click and choose Delete This Panel.
- Now go to System > Preferences > Appearance and choose the Human-Netbook theme.
So... what do we think?
We've explained how it works, we've told you what it includes, and we've even shown you how you can try it today without installing a new distro. But this still leaves the question "is it any good?" And here's the answer: yes. We're really grateful to Asus for kicking off the netbook market, and its simplified user interface isn't totally disconnected from UNR's.
But what we like about UNR is that Canonical has managed to totally rethink the way screen real estate is used while also building upon established Linux standards. The window tab system isn't a hack; it's just an applet for Gnome panel. The application quick launcher doesn't store its own database; it just reads the same .desktop files as any other menu system.
And yet these are the sorts of features most people won't notice - at least not directly. Instead, when added to the visual gloss that's enabled as standard, Ubuntu Netbook Remix just feels good to use because you know a lot of thought has gone into its design, and a lot of polish has gone into its production.
The only truly scary thing is that this is Canonical's first foray into the netbook world, and already it's kicked competitors into touch. Sure, Ubuntu haters won't go near it, but everyone else with a netbook needs to give UNR a try because we think you won't be disappointed.
Nautilus is used for all file management, and it works as well as ever. Note, though, the small gap left at the bottom by Maximus - presumably this is Nautilus expecting a bottom panel to exist.