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11/24/2008
10:17 PM
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(Not So) Stupid Linux Netbook Tricks

Having trouble with a netbook running a locked down -- and perhaps dumbed down -- Linux distro? Check out a series of articles the show you how to unleash the hidden power of your pint-sized PC hardware.

Having trouble with a netbook running a locked down -- and perhaps dumbed down -- Linux distro? Check out a series of articles the show you how to unleash the hidden power of your pint-sized PC hardware.Register Hardware's "Netbook Newbie's Guide To Linux" launched its first episode a few weeks ago. Here is how series author Chris Bidmead sums up the series so far in his intro to Episode Three of his series, which posted earlier today: "Yes, from the hardened hacker's point of view, the various Linux distros on netbooks like the MSI Wind, the Acer Aspire One and the Asus Eee PC are dumbed down, and the real hacker solution is to take the supplied OS off altogether and start again with a fresh full distribution like Ubuntu - this would be a prime candidate. But that's not the thrust of this series, and there's much that can be done without taking that drastic step." Here is the issue in a nutshell: Many netbook vendors try to make Linux more usable by presenting a simplified look and feel that hides -- or tries to lock down -- many of the administrative tools and utilities you'll find on any standard desktop Linux distro.

In a perfect world, this approach gives non-technical netbook users a nice, clean, interface that allows them to focus on getting their work done. In the real world, it creates a real problem when more experienced users or system administrators need to fix a problem -- and find that they tools they need appear to be either missing or locked down.

As Bidmead notes, for example, the customized version of Xandros Linux on an Asus Eee PC works just fine with Windows workgroups named . . . (surprise!) "WORKGROUP." It seems, however, that Eee users who need to connect to a workgroup using a non-default name may have trouble -- and the Eee's networking GUI doesn't offer any obvious way to address this problem.

Another popular netbook, the Asus Aspire One, aspires to simplicity by combining an almost appliance-like GUI with no apparent way to get root access -- a prerequisite for many administrative tasks on any system running Linux.

Bidmead's guide addresses these and other quirks unique to certain netbook models; he shows, for example, how to use a security hole -- perhaps left there deliberately, perhaps not -- to get root access on an Aspire One. Just as important, however, he explains, clearly and concisely, how to handle important networking, software update/management, and other key tasks that many netbook users (or netbook admins) will need to tackle at some point.

Bear in mind that while the guide is designed to be understandable to Linux newbies, its use of command-line utilities is bound to be a bit less intimidating to folks with at least some Linux experience. In fact, the guide is most useful for anyone who knows a bit about desktop Linux but who finds themselves stumped dealing with the custom Linux distros that so many netbook makers like to install on their products.

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