Computers are getting more and more powerful, with capabilities expanding to allow funky 3D graphics, realistic gaming and even HD video editing. On the other hand, netbooks are small, lightweight, and usually cheap—perfect for getting simple tasks done quickly.
Netbooks are so successful because people need to break free of wires and take care of ordinary, everyday work which includes editing simple documents, sending and receiving email, surfing the Web, and chatting with friends. None of these things need the latest or greatest hardware, and so specialized components like Intel’s Atom processors were developed. However, most netbooks still use operating systems and software designed for desktops nearly a decade ago.
If your netbook is a secondary machine which you use while traveling or lounging around, you most probably don’t want it to look and feel like a desktop or laptop. You just want to flip it open, scan through a website or check a message, and put it aside. In such cases it makes very little sense to wait four or five minutes while Windows boots up, wait for a browser to load, then sign into your various accounts. You’d rather have something designed to power up instantly, and show you your information front and center within seconds.
An OS designed specifically for netbooks will have text and icons optimized for smaller screens, and will run smoothly on limited hardware resources. It’s also safe to assume that most netbooks will be used in places where they have access to a broadband wireless Internet connection, so OSes can pull down information and interact with online services without the traditional constraints that desktop OSes have been created around.
There are quite a few options for those who want to make their netbooks more than just shrunken Windows machines. XP is still the most common option, with 7 starting to make an appearance on recent models, but there are alternatives out there. Most netbook-optimized OSes are based on Linux and emphasize online Web-based applications. Here are the most popular ones:
Ubuntu Netbook Remix
Also known as Ubuntu Netbook Edition, this is one of the earliest and best known netbook-optimized OSes. UNR basically contains optimizations for Intel Atom processors which are used in most netbooks today, as well as a new application launcher and other tweaks that make it easier to use on small screens. However it’s still very recognizable as a full Linux OS and nothing is stripped out, as opposed to other oversimplified PDA-style interfaces with icons for programs and nothing deeper.
You can install Ubuntu Netbook Remix from a USB flash drive or DVD drive, or find it preinstalled on certain netbook models from Dell and Toshiba. UNR includes all the familiar Ubuntu standards including Firefox for browsing, Evolution for email, Rhythmbox for media playback, and OpenOffice.org for general productivity. Keep in mind that if you want any proprietary format support (including MP3), you’ll have to install additional components, as per Ubuntu’s longstanding philosophy.
The Netbook Remix interface is fairly simplistic, only allowing one program on screen at a time, most of them occupying all available space. You can see notifications in the upper right corner.
While also based on Ubuntu, EasyPeasy differs from UNR in one major way. Ubuntu’s philosophy is to provide only open source, non-proprietary applications along with the base OS, while EasyPeasy is happy to pack in whatever it is that users prefer, since most users want their familiar applications and have no idea what software licensing is all about anyway. In that way, users get to play MP3 files and watch Adobe Flash videos out of the box, as well as use software including Skype and Picasa.
EasyPeasy has its own customized version of the Netbook Remix interface, and you can still get to the full Linux environment underneath it whenever you like. The website also has a detailed Wiki with articles explaining how to get the most out of EasyPeasy in complete detail.
More netbook OSes on the next page.