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Linux Netbooks: What's on the Menu?

By Jack M. Germain LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Jan 2, 2009 4:00 AM PT

I recently carried out a personal quest for a netbook computer. Relying on a bit of insider snobbery since I write about computer technology almost daily, I was not expecting a big problem in making a selection.

Linux Netbooks: What's on the Menu?

It's not that I really needed another computer. My home office is well stocked with two desktops running Windows XP and a third former Windows box now running Ubuntu Linux. My HP Pavilion laptop with Windows XP and its very large wide-screen display serves me well as a desktop replacement and a mobile office with all the bells and whistles. A smaller Acer notebook running Windows Vista gives me back-up on the go.

I found that Ubuntu -- my Linux flavor of choice -- does not play well with either laptop model due to wireless connectivity issues. And decently configured notebooks with Linux pre-installed are not so easy to locate. So when I'm on the road and I want some Linux diversity, I run Puppy Linux in system RAM on either portable after booting from a CD. Even though Puppy Linux is fun to use and is fast as a race horse, I had a hankering to take Ubuntu with me.

The netbook notion started making sense to me for both personal and professional reasons. Why lug either of my larger notebook computers around to run slapped-on Linux? All I really need most times when I'm out of the office is the ability to hop online to update e-mail and connect to several business-related Web sites. I use OpenOffice and Firefox regardless of the OS at hand.

But the netbook I selected had to run Ubuntu Linux unless I found a different distro with a more appealing configuration. That's where my insider snobbery turned into consumer quandary.

Too Many Options

I had no idea how many choices there are to consider. Netbooks have taken consumer-level Linux a long way in a short time.

If I wanted Windows XP in a netbook, my only considerations would be storage capacity and processor type. Without any Linux distro preference, the options of available Linux distros on netbooks could become a nightmare for consumers.

I found that selecting a Linux netbook is much like buying a family automobile. The same car dealership offers multiple makes and models. Throw in various engine sizes, feature packages and colors, and selecting easily turns into settling. Do most car buyers know that much about the specific differences in the choices they have?

I suspect that typical consumers do not as much about the Linux distro they get in the netbook they buy as much as they care about actual functionality.

My Hit List

As part of my purchasing preparation, I compiled a list of available products. While my goal was the Ubuntu Linux distro, I also wanted to see if I could find a better alternative configuration.

My shopping list is not ranked in order or priority. Just about all netbook models look like they come with wireless 802.11g and Ethernet 10/100 Mbit connectivity. Most also have at least two USB ports, and some have a VGA port, so attaching external devices such as keyboards, monitors, etc. are fairly standard model to model.

I whittled down the options to a set of useful comparisons. My primary concerns were onboard storage and memory. I was somewhat dubious about a configuration that substituted hard drive storage with flash drive technology. That seemed too limiting. Most of the units came with 512MB of RAM installed. I preferred twice that amount without a noticeable add-on price.

My only other qualifying factor was price. I would not buy a netbook that costs more than US$500.

For just about any laptop small enough to be considered a netbook, forget about the pros and cons of the keyboard. They all are horrendous. Long-time typing ease is not an issue with netbooks. For sustained typing comfort, add an external keyboard. The finger spread and key layout are dysfunctional for all but two-fingered typing on any netbook model.

The Rundown

Acer Aspire One ($399.99)

Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Acer offers just one Linux configuration in its Aspire One line. The Aspire One has an 8.9-inch LED backlit screen, a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, 512 MB RAM, 8 GB of flash-based solid state storage, and a 3-cell battery. It runs on the Linpus Lite Linux distribution based on Fedora 8.

Asus Eee PC ($445.97 to $549.99)

AsusTek has a hefty line of netbooks running the Debian-based Xandros distro with a modified version of the KDE graphic user interface (GUI).

The ASUS Eee PC 2G Surf ($445.97) sports a 7-inch TFT LCD screen with a maximum resolution of 800 by 480 pixels (WXGA). It is powered by an Intel Celeron M 353/571 MHz processor with 512 MB RAM.

The ASUS Eee PC 900 ($549.99) has an 8.9-inch screen, a 1.3 megapixel webcam and has 20 GB of storage capacity. It is powered by an Intel Celeron M 900 MHz processor.

The ASUS Eee PC 901 ($449) comes with an 8.9-inch screen, a 1.3 megapixel webcam and is powered by a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor. It also has 20 GB of storage.

ASUS Eee PC 1000 ($499) has a 10-inch display, a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 Processor, 1 GB DDR2 RAM and a total of 40 GB in storage capacity. The storage is shared by an 8 GB Solid State Drive and a 32 GB SDHC card. Plus, it has a 1.3 megapixel webcam and a six-cell battery for up to 7.5 hours of life. This is one of the longest-lasting run times available.

CTL E09L 2goPC ($499)

The CTL E09L 2goPC offers water-resistant, drop-resistent construction powered by Intel Celeron M mobile 915GMS processor. It comes with a 9-inch LCD display plus 512MB RAM and a 40 GB hard drive. It runs on the Mandriva Linux distro.

Dell Inspiron Mini 9 (starts at $349)

The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 comes with up to 32 GB in SSD storage. It is equipped with an Intel Atom Processor N270 1.6 GHz, 1 GB DDR2 at 533MHz and a glossy 8.9-inch backlit LED display, an integrated 0.3 megapixel webcam, and an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 950. It runs Ubuntu Linux.

HP 2133 Mini-Note ($499)

HP's 2133 Mini-Note is powered with a VIA C7-M ULV processor and has an 8.9-inch WXGA display. It uses a 4 GB flash drive for storage and runs Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10.

MSI Wind ($399)

Micro-Star International's Wind has a 10-inch LCD screen with a maximum resolution of 1024 by 600 pixels. It has 512 MB RAM, an 80 GB hard drive and an Intel Atom 45-nm processor running at 1.6 GHz. WIND is an acronym for "WiFi network device." It runs Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10.

RazorBook 400 ($249)

The 3K RazorBook 400 ($249) has a 7-inch WVGA Active Matrix TFT screen and is powered with an Ingenic 32-Bit single core mobile processor running at a clock rate of 400 MHz. It is configured with 512MB of DDR2 memory and a 4 GB solid state drive. It runs its own distribution of the Genuine CE Linux operating system. Its bundled open source package is nontypical in that it includes the AbiWord office suite and GNUMeric for spreadsheets.

Sylvania G Netbook Meso ($369.99)

The Sylvania G Netbook Meso is equipped with Intel's new Atom processor running at 1.6 GHz and is configured with 1 GB of RAM and an 80 GB hard drive. It also has an integrated webcam and an 8.9-inch matte display. It runs the new Ubuntu Netbook Remix OS.


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