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5/12/2009
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Linux Distros For Netbooks

Our Linux expert tries out netbook-ready Puppy Linux, Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Xubuntu, gOS, and Moblin, and reports on how they stack up.




Moblin running on our test machine.
(click for image gallery)

Like single hydrogen atoms, netbooks and Linux were destined to come together. With Windows 7 still months away from full release and XP itself headed for limbo at best, it's no surprise attention has turned to Linux as a way to keep the netbook market lean and lively.

When I originally started writing this, the original idea was to single out the distributions best suited for netbooks and profile them. That's what's comes out here, but to be candid, most any Linux distro should have no trouble running as-is on your average netbook. Since most netbooks come with 1GB of RAM and a fair amount of storage, it's generally not a question of the hardware being robust enough.

So what are the real issues? The main one is whether or not the distro has been built with solving netbook-specific problems in mind. Will the visual elements intelligently scale down to fit on that tiny screen? Will I have support for my camera and microphone, which I use to make VOIP calls over wireless? Can I use my cell phone's modem when I don't have a wireless connection?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. I've checked out a number of different distributions that are offered specifically for netbooks or that can be used on them with relatively little configuration, and found that there are two main problems: screen size and connectivity.

The first can usually be adjusted with a little post-install tweaking; the second isn't as easy, and often involves venturing into one of the dread nether regions of Linux: adding driver support for proprietary hardware. To be brutally honest, since you've got your choice of distros, you're best off sticking with one that already supports everything you have right out of the box.

For the sake of testing on my end, I used an Intel Atom-powered Lenovo S10 IdeaPad , which sports a mix of devices that are both widely and narrowly supported. Its Intel 945 video card, for instance, worked right out of the box with everything I threw at it -- but the Broadcom wireless adapter was another story. It required a proprietary driver to work right.

How To Try It All Out

Since most, if not all, netbooks have no internal CD-ROM, installing an OS on a netbook takes some care. If you have a USB-connected optical drive, you can hitch that up to the machine, boot the installation CD from there, and perform the install. Most people typically don't have one of those lying around (I know I don't!), so you'll probably want to use approach #2: copy the installation .ISO file to a USB flash drive and boot that.

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