I’ve been using Linux for 10 years now. I have successfully installed many distributions on a wide variety of computer systems. Well, desktop boxes, to be specific. More recently, you may have heard of a new class of machines gaining popularity: the so-called subnotebook, a.k.a. netbook. I have an early Asus Eee PC specimen. I like it, but it could be better. You might think that it would be easily tweakable to fit my exact tastes. Let’s break that down a bit.
Things that the Eee PC’s default Xandros-influenced installation does very well:
- drive the Eee PC’s 7-inch 800×480 display
- drivers for its wifi
- drivers for its ethernet
- automounting of SD card
- automounting of optical discs via external USB drive
- drivers for its audio output
- hooks for all of the Eee’s special function keys (volume, muting, wifi toggle, screen settings)
- unobtrusive application to monitor battery level
- proper suspend support (not that it’s really necessary since the unit boots and shuts down so quickly)
Things that the default installation does not do well:
- package management (I think the latest Firefox available is 188.8.131.52 and forget about Firefox 3 series since the system doesn’t have a recent enough version of GTK); the default install has a selection of common software but it becomes difficult to deviate at all
It’s possible to add more URLs to the Debian-style package manager. But every time I do that, I eventually end up with a complete mess of conflicting software.
So there’s the possibility of installing your own OS. However, you run the very real risk of losing all of the benefits enumerated above. Many distros are trying to step up to the challenge, though. One of the first I heard about was eeebuntu, a customized version of the popular Ubuntu distribution. I tried it. It didn’t boot on my Eee 701. There is an eeedora distribution, based on the Fedora distro, that claims to have its act together and is a possible candidate. Then there’s Gentoo, which can certainly do anything that Linux is advertised to do. A favorite hacker’s distribution; a little searching turns up some easy 76-step (or so) guides to getting Gentoo to run on the Eee with some fraction of the above features eventually functional.
I was about to acquiesce and revert back to the stock Eee-Xandros when I learned about Ubuntu-Eee today, which is different than eeebuntu. Bottom line: Very nice. It’s based on Ubuntu 8.04.1 and has the solid package management that you would expect. The screen works at the proper resolution. The wireless works out of the box (not sure if the ethernet works). Automounting of sdcard is there. I was worried about lack of a battery meter until I unplugged the power– that’s when the battery meter showed up, along with a dialog that the power was disconnected. The brightness function keys even work. Not all the special function keys work correctly, though. The wireless toggle signals the wireless to be shut down but does not actually turn off the wireless as indicated by the Eee’s LED. And I can’t fix the wireless state without a reboot. And the volume up/down/mute keys are useless– audio is always on. Not even the volume slider on the panel UI does anything.
Still, this is better than I expected. I may still be able to get some use out of this Eee PC yet.
Very promising stuff, all around. There are also rumblings that Mandriva wants to work with netbook manufacturers to provide netbook-tailored distributions. This sounds like a good plan since most evidence seems to indicate that the manufacturers are good at hardware and not software, and are pushing these units out the door as fast as possible with little regard to end user experience. It would be nice if they would collaborate better with the people who know software. Otherwise, we will continue to read stories like the current crop making the rounds stating that few customers seem to be happy with the default Linux netbook experience.