How To: Become a Linux Netbook Power User

Alex Castle

So, the season of giving has just come and gone, and you’ve received a Linux-based netbook—the popular new class of ultra-cheap, ultra-portable computer. By definition, netbooks are very limited in what they can do; they’re primary meant for accessing the web as well as some moderate office and multimedia use. Their low-speed processor and minimal memory means that they’re just not suited for more intensive applications like gaming or video editing.

However, there are things you can do to get the most out of your little machine. For instance, you can swap out the limited OS that comes packaged with most Linux-based netbooks for a much more versatile distro like Ubuntu, which can be customized specifically for netbooks. It’s a somewhat complicated process, but in this guide we’ll walk you through it, step by step, and then we’ll show you how to get around in Ubuntu.

Installing Ubuntu

Before we get started, there’re two things you’re going to need to have. First, you’ll need a copy of the Ubuntu 8.10 live CD ISO, which can be found here . It’s about 700 MB, so the download might take a little while, depending on your connection. Second, you’ll need a USB thumb drive with at least 2 GB of space. This drive must be configured to use the FAT32 file system. To change the file system of the USB drive, you just need to right-click on the drive icon in the My Computer screen and select “Format.” Of course, reformatting your drive means nuking any data on it, so save whatever you need.

Note: If you’re using an Asus EeePC, you can save yourself a lot of headache by using the Eeebuntu distribution instead, which is preconfigured to solve a lot of hardware problems that EeePCs face when using Ubuntu. You can get either the regular Eeebuntu (which is nearly identical to Ubuntu) or the Eeebuntu Netbook Remix, which is preloaded with the Netbook Remix packages. In either case, follow the instructions below, substituting the Eeebuntu ISO for the Ubuntu ISO. If you use the Eeebuntu Netbook Remix ISO, you can skip the part about how to set up the Netbook Remix packages.

Additional Note: The Samsung NC10 has some major issues with Ubuntu. You can run the OS from a thumbdrive, so there’s no real harm in trying it out, but consider yourself warned.

Once you’ve got the ISO downloaded and your thumb drive configured properly, you’ve got two options for how to create the bootable drive. The first is easier, but involves burning a CD. If you think you might have use for an Ubuntu Live CD, or if you’ve already made one for some other purpose or just have a ton of extra blank CDs, this is probably the way to go for you.

Creating an Ubuntu Thumb Drive From a Live CD

Simply burn the ISO disk image onto a CD using your burning software of choice (if you need a free burner, we recommend CDBurnerXP), then boot to Ubuntu off the CD. Recent versions of Ubuntu, such as 8.10, come preloaded with an app that allows you to create a bootable thumb drive from a live CD, such as the one you’re running off of. To access this app, simply click on System->Administration->Create a USB startup Disk . This tool is about as easy as it gets—just select your CD drive, your USB drive, and click Make Startup Disk .

Creating an Ubuntu Thumb Drive Manually

If you don’t want to (or can’t) burn a CD, there’s still a way to manually create an Ubuntu live thumb drive. You’ll need to download the Syslinux boot loader, which you can download here , and you’ll also need a program capable of opening ISO files, such as 7-Zip .

Once you’ve downloaded Syslinux, unzip it to a directory on your desktop called Syslinux . Insert your thumb drive, and make note of its drive letter. Then, open a command prompt and navigate to the directory that contains the Windows Syslinux executable. If you’ve been following along, this directory should be C:\Documents and Settings\[your user name]\Desktop\Syslinux\win32 . Install the boot loader on the thumb drive by entering the command syslinux –ma e: where e: is the drive letter of the thumb drive. If your drive has a different letter, use that instead.

Now that the thumb drive has the Syslinux boot loader installed, it’s time to copy over the Ubuntu files. Start by extracting the files from the Ubuntu live ISO to the thumb drive. There will now be a folder called isolinux on the drive. Move the contents of this folder to the root of the thumb drive. Finally, rename the files isolinux.bin and isolinux.cfg to syslinux.bin and syslinux.cfg , respectively, and you’re ready to roll.

All that’s left to do is to insert the now-bootable thumb drive into your netbook and boot from it. How this is done varies from model to model, though the most common method is to press the f12 key while booting. Once you manage to boot off the USB drive, you’ll see the Ubuntu boot screen and you’ll be able to run in live mode. For the time being it’s best to run in live mode (which is to say, off the thumb drive) so you can make sure that you’re able to get everything up and running smoothly and that you like the interface before you commit to a full installation. However, note that any changes you make to Ubuntu in live mode will be temporary, and will be lost when you restart your machine.

Once we’re up and running, we’ll make a few changes to Ubuntu to make it more netbook-friendly. We’ll disable visual effects by going to System->Preference->Appearance , and selecting None from the “Visual Effects” tab.

Next, we’ll turn off virtual desktops by right-clicking on the virtual desktops area in the bottom right-hand corner, selecting properties, and turning the number of desktops down to one.

Now Ubuntu should be running smoothly, but you may notice some problems. Some netbooks have hardware difficulties that need to be worked out before you can use all features of your device in Ubuntu. Eee PCs can work around these problems with aforementioned Eeebuntu distro, and can check this page for additional information. Aspire One users can find workarounds at this site . Other brands don't have as well-documented issues, so you're probably in the clear. If you do run into any problems, a Google search will probably help you find your answer.

Installing Ubuntu Netbook Remix

Once you’ve ironed out any system-specific kinks, we can get to work installing the Netbook Remix, a set of packages for Ubuntu designed to optimize the operating system for the Intel Atom processor and to increase usability on the small netbook screen.

First, we’ll need to add some package repositories to Ubuntu. Click System->Administration->Software Sources . Now, check the box next to “Community-maintained Open Source software (universe)” Next, go to the “Third-Party Software” tab, and click the button marked “Add..” Enter the following:
deb intrepid main
Then click “Add…” again, and enter this:
deb-src intrepid main
Close the window and, when prompted, choose to allow Ubuntu to refresh its list of packages.

What we’ve just done is add new repositories to Ubuntu’s list. A repository is a server that hosts packages for users to download and use. These repositories contain the packages we’ll need for the Netbook Remix, so now we’re ready to install it on Ubuntu.

The easiest way to do this is through the command line. Open a terminal window by clicking Applications->Accessories->Terminal . In the terminal, enter the following:
sudo apt-get install go-home-applet human-netbook-theme maximus netbook-launcher window-picker-applet

Because you, as an informed computer user, probably want to know what exactly it is that you’re doing on your system, let’s take a closer look at that command in the last paragraph. Sudo tells the system to execute the following command as though it were coming from the superuser—the root account with all system privileges. In Ubuntu, you cannot directly login as the superuser; sudo must be used to perform any action that requires root privileges, and is therefore a very common command. Apt-get is the program being executed here. “APT” is short for “Advanced Packaging Tool,” a package retrieval interface, and apt-get is a program which implements that APT interface to retrieve and install packages. “Packages” are (more or less) just programs which include information which allows the package manager to easily install, update and uninstall them. Install is an argument to apt-get which specifies that we want to download and install some number of packages, the names of which come after install. Thus, we’ve simply told the computer to look online, find the specified packages, and install them.

Now that the packages are installed on the system, we’ll need to tell Ubuntu to launch two of those programs on startup. To do this, simply click on System->Preferences->Sessions , then Add . A box will pop up; in the middle field enter /usr/bin/netbook-launcher and enter something descriptive in the name field, like “Netbook-Launcher.” Repeat the process, this time entering usr/bin/maximus in the middle field.

Now, if you log out and back into the system, you should be looking at the Netbook Remix home screen. Pretty snazzy, right? But we’re not done yet. On a small screen like a netbook’s, having a bar at both the top and bottom of the screen takes up a little too much space. We can free up some real estate by getting rid of the bottom panel by right-clicking it and selecting Delete This Panel .

“But how will I see my minimized windows?” we hear you saying. Well, the netbook remix packages we downloaded include ways to shift that functionality up to the top bar. Right click on it and select Add to Panel… You’ll see a list of widgets that you can add to the top panel, as well as the option to make your own launcher button for any app on the system. You can pick whatever you like out of the list, but the Window Picker is definitely worth checking out, as it gives you taskbar-like functionality on the top of your screen. The Go Home applet is also handy, as it allows you to instantly view the Ubuntu Netbook Remix homescreen whenever you want.

Getting Familiar

With operating systems, like pretty much everything else, the best way to get better is with practice. In that spirit, we’ll walk you through the process of installing a couple staple programs. We’ll show you how to install programs using the command line, as well as with the GUI package manager.

First, we’ll install a package that we already know the name of. It’s near impossible to surf the web these days without the flash plugin, so let’s download that now. Suppose you’ve heard from somebody (us, in this case) that the package you’re looking for is called “flashplugin-nonfree.” All you have to do is open a terminal and type sudo apt-get install flashplugin-nonfree and the computer will automatically find, download and install the plugin. It’s as simple as that.

What if you’ve got a good idea what you’re looking for, but want to find out the exact package name? It’s easy to do that from the command line, too. This time, we’ll use a program called “apt-cache,” which allows you to access the system’s cached package list. So say we want to download VLC, a versatile media player. If we type apt-cache search vlc into the command line, it’ll return a list of packages that contain the word “vlc.” We see that there’s a package is called simply “vlc,” which sounds like it’s what we’re looking for. To make sure, we can enter apt-cache show vlc , which returns the details about the package named “vlc.” Sure enough, that’s the one we want, so we’ll enter the usual sudo apt-get install vlc to download and install the package. Note that when using apt-cache we didn’t need to use the sudo command. This is because apt-cache doesn’t actually make any changes to the system, and therefore doesn’t require superuser permissions. There would be no difference if we did use sudo.

Finally, we can also install packages using the included graphical package manager. This is especially useful if you’re unsure of the exact name of the package you’re looking for, and want to be able to quickly browse through many package descriptions. To launch the manager, simply click Applications->Add/Remove . This manager presents you with a search bar, a results window, an info window and a list of categories. It’s all pretty self explanatory; just search for packages, check the box next to the ones you want and press the Apply Changes button. One thing to note: to search for most packages, you’ll need to select “All available applications" from the top drop-down menu.

What’s Next

Complete The Installation

If you’ve decided that Ubuntu Netbook Remix is compatible with you and your netbook, go ahead and perform the full install by selecting the “Install” icon from the Administration menu. A normal installation is as easy as following the instructions on the screen. If you want to try something fancy like dual-booting with Windows XP, you’ll need to create an extra partition, either by inserting the Windows recovery disk and reformatting your drive (which will wipe all your data out) or by following this guide .

Learn to Use the Terminal

We’ve tried to give you a little taste of the terminal in this article, but you’ll have to keep exploring for yourself if you want to become a master. Fortunately, Linux is extensively documented. If you want to know how to use a particular command, just type man followed by that command. This will display the manual page for that command in the terminal. Press h to see instructions for navigating through the text.

Expand Your Functionality

Owing to its open source philosophy, Ubuntu doesn’t come with any applications that rely on non-free software. As such, several very common formats aren’t immediately supported, including mp3, avi, and flash. If you download programs specifically to handle these formats, such as VLC, this won’t be a problem for you. However, if you simply want to enable these formats in Ubuntu’s included media players, you can do so in one fell swoop by installing the package ubuntu-restricted-extras .

There are plenty of other packages you’ll find useful as well. As for what those are exactly, that’s up to you. By playing around with the package manager, and exploring the massive Linux community, you’ll be able to find things you never knew you needed.

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