I read lifehacker’s Five Best Netbook Operating Systems today and couldn’t help but be a little bit disappointed. Netbook operating systems have come a very long way in the past year and I felt like they left out a lot of the more interesting options that are out there now. I’m not saying that any of these will be the best OS, and for some it will definitely depend on what you are expecting out of your netbook. I take the approach that a netbook is not designed to be a full desktop (simply because I have a full computer that fills that role, and the netbook is for light use and travel). That being said I generally like to run some of my more useful applications on my netbook. I’ve done a whole lot of experimenting with the current crop of netbook-centric OSes and these are the few that have kept me coming back because they were intruiging and fun.
1) Moblin. This was really the first time that I realized what a netbook could be; something that looked great and functioned well. Things have developed a lot for moblin in the past year. Clutter has become very mature and all the apps rolled into clutter’s interface are performing at expected levels. Moblin’s default browser is now up at a useable level and with the 2.1 release support for wireless networks is right up there with the UNR (at least in my experience). Add in the fact that Bluetooth and 3G connections are supported as well there isn’t much connectivity that you can’t get to work. I can’t say much on how 3G is working since I don’t have any 3G connections, but feel free to comment on your experience. Moblin is a big game changer in how a minimal interface can make a huge difference on your netbook. For those looking for a desktop replacement Moblin’s repos are somewhat limited.
2) Chromium OS. Here’s something that I’ve only recently started playing with and have been heartily satisfied with. Obviously Google’s foray into the thin client or more cloud oriented OS is still pretty rough but I got my wireless working fine out of the box and there is a great compatibility chart for the current builds by Hexxeh. Chromium was booting faster than Moblin did and it was off my USB drive to boot. If you’re looking for something quick this might be your stop. The new release by Hexxeh, titled Flow, will be hitting here in the next couple of days and for anyone that wants a simple device to browse the internet and not much else I would heartily recommend trying out Chromium OS. The interface is familiar to those that are running Chrome/Chromium on their desktop and it works better than I thought it would. I had almost no slowdowns on just 512MB of ram. Those that are looking for a more traditional desktop you might want to skip this. There is supposed to be a way to enable the ubuntu repositories but this is a pretty cautionary area of the system. There is no guarantee that they will work or that you won’t break your system. Still at an image size of about 800MB it’s a compelling look at what could be (and might be worth a shot on your USB stick, or as a secondary “instant on” OS)
3) Android. Yes I’m including Android on the list of things you should try out. I ended up getting it installed a few times but never ended up sticking around with it mostly because the included browser didn’t play very well with my campus wireless security system at the time. I was able to log in with a G1 just fine though, so I no longer have an excuse to not try it out. Android is fast becoming a go-to for OEMs looking for something without a licensing fee to get on ARM architecture so more android smartbooks will be popping up as time goes on as well as in the tablet space. The x86 ports seem to be running alright for most functionality. It may not be at production level yet but if you’re looking for something to mix up the Desktop paradigm Android might fit the bill. There seems to be a few different builds for x86 android and I’ve not really looked into the differences. In my experience I could never get a live android build running off a USB drive so if you’re looking to try before you install I would suggest trying to install it completely onto an SD card (booting in with a USB and picking the SD as the drive to install on). x86 android will continue to mature so at least keep an eye on it.
4) Jolicloud. There isn’t a way to mention Netbook OSes without hitting Jolicloud at some point. It’s based on Ubuntu but takes the idea of the cloud a lot further. Jolicloud has it’s own application front and it is smooth to use. Also installing Jolicloud is designed to be very easy from within any operating system. Jolicloud has a lot of polish on the parts that the Jolicloud team is developing but unfortunately suffers a bit on the basic UI. For those looking for a more full Desktop Jolicloud connects and supports all of the Ubuntu repositories and integrates apps installed by either apt-get or the app store together seamlessly. Jolicloud is a solid choice if you want to try out a linux based distro without a lot of the fear involved.
5) Kubuntu Netbook Remix. It’s currently just a developer preview but plasmoids are definitely something fun to play with. It’s obviously still a bit rough but to see where KDE can go on netbooks it is a good idea to check it out. It looks very smooth back when I installed it and most things that I wanted to use worked well. If you are a big fan of KDE but want something a bit lighter for the netbook this might be a good place to test the waters.
Anyway, that’s just my experience with something a bit different to try running on a netbook. The UNR is a rock solid choice if you want something more stable. Crunchbang is excellent if you want a more traditional desktop with optimizations for lighter hardware. Netbooks should be something fun to use and all of these alternatives put a bit more fun into what you’re using. If you’ve got a full HDD in your netbook I would definitely suggest looking into getting an “instant on” OS in addition to whatever full OS meets your fancy. There are some newer additions to the instant on OS that haven’t really become available yet but it’s a part of the market that intruiges me. When I’m looking at my netbook I want something quick and useful. Lightweight but still a good bit of power behind it.