Trying some 'flashy' netbook distros

I’m a very happy user of Debian “squeeze” on my main computer (a Thinkpad X61s), however, inspired by this identi.ca conversation thread I started thinking that I should run something “flashier” on my EeePC 901 netbook, which might possibly inspire others to try out GNU/Linux and free software.

I want my main computer to just work and I don’t want to mess around with it too much. Hence, Debian. However, my netbook is the computer I mostly travel with and take to meetings — i.e. a lot of people see me using it. So, to give a good (and not so “geeky”) first impression of Linux I might just try something more “cool” on my netbook…

Trisquel Mini 4.0

Trisquel

First up was Trisquel and specifically it’s Mini edition. Trisquel is a relatively new (to me at least) Ubuntu-based distribution that is endorsed by the FSF. The main edition of Trisquel is really nice looking and the Mini edition is not bad either. The Mini is based on LXDE and has replaced many applications with more light-weight alternatives. Trisquel Mini was indeed very fast and snappy on my otherwise somewhat sluggish netbook.

Unfortunately there was one big snag: my Eee PC 901 uses a Ralink 2860-based wifi card which requires some non-free firmware to function. This is not supported by Trisquel (otherwise it wouldn’t be endorsed by FSF). I might get a USB wifi as a replacement, but I haven’t yet found one that would work with fully free drivers and still be very small and compact. This is an issue I will look more carefully into next time I’m buying a new computer.

Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition

Ubuntu Unity interface

Next up was Ubuntu’s recently released netbook edition with the new Unity interface. Being a recent convert from Ubuntu to Debian (for largely the same reasons as Bradley Kuhn) I was somewhat weary going back to Ubuntu, but I was really intrigued by the Unity interface, and it sure would look fancy on my netbook.

Initially I was quite impressed with the Unity interface, and I started configuring my environment, but after a while the interface started being quite slow and some weird user interface bugs annoyed me. Finally the dock on the left side disappeared, or at least the icons did. So, I decided that even if I was looking for something more experimental than Debian this was going a bit too far :-) Unity looks promising but the bugs still need to be ironed out.

MeeGo 1.0 netbook

MeeGo netbook

Finally I decided to go for MeeGo netbook edition. MeeGo is an open-source project created by Nokia and Intel, merging their earlier Moblin and Maemo projects. MeeGo netbook is mostly a continuation of Moblin.

In fact, I had tried MeeGo before and I was really impressed with the boot-up speed but I stopped using it because of an annoying problem which meant that one could not disable tap-to-click on the mouse pad and that the repository of applications is very limited at the moment. Having tried all the other distros above I decided that MeeGo would still be the best choice for me. It looks nice, is reasonably stable and works with my wifi (yes, with non-free firmware unfortunately). I’m confident that the tap-to-click bug will be fixed soon and maybe not having all the applications in the world might enforce some computing “minimalism” on my part :-)

MeeGo comes with the proprietary Adobe Flash plugin pre-installed, which I promptly removed. (A good idea not just for principled reasons, but also because of security concerns — just listen to Security Now and you’ll understand.) I compiled a few essential applications by hand; the newest GNU Emacs (the one in MeeGo’s repos has an old org-mode with different keyboard shortcuts from what I’m used to), KeePassX and gPodder. Most of the required libraries were available in Meego, except for some Python stuff.

So let’s hope that MeeGo with it’s quirky looks and cool UI will attract some new people to GNU/Linux and free software :-)

Posted by Mats Sjöberg.