Maximum PC Primer: Lightweight Netbook Computing with Linux

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These days, netbooks have become a very popular alternative to conventional notebooks for mobile computing. Netbooks are lightweight, have great battery life, and are relatively inexpensive compared to full-sized notebooks. This makes them ideal for students or people on a budget. Of course, the lower cost and extended battery life does not come without a trade-off—many netbooks have lower system specs as well, which means that they are not designed for heavy-computing applications.

Although many netbooks now run Windows XP because of Microsoft's hurried entry into that market, many earlier models were built to run Linux. (For instance, the Asus Eee 700 Series ran Xandros, and the current models are offered with either Linux or Windows) And although most current netbooks are x86-based (running the Intel Atom CPU), the usage of ARM-based CPU chips is likely to increase in the future since ARM offers far superior energy efficiency over x86 and battery life has always been a major factor in mobile computing. ARM chips have been used successfully for some time in smartphones and music players, including the newest Zune HD. Since ARM is a different CPU architecture than x86 , Windows will not work on ARM. Earlier this year, Microsoft's Steve Guggenheim said that the company currently has no plans to port Windows 7 to the ARM architecture. Therefore, any new wave of ARM-based netbooks will run Linux once again. Unlike Windows, most Linux distros can be compiled for ARM if you have the requisite skills for doing so.

Linux is an ideal choice for netbooks for multiple reasons in addition to CPU architecture. Netbooks generally have lower specs than most full-size notebooks (not to mention desktops) so they are ideal for lightweight applications like web browsing, document preparation, etc. Linux does these tasks very well without the bloat that Windows systems have to deal with from anti-malware utilities. This primer will help you set up and optimize Linux for your netbook.

The Operating System

While any Linux distro will work for your netbook with some degree of success, it is better to use one that is explicitly designed for that purpose. Many specialized distros (optimized for a specific hardware configuration) have sprung up for models like the Acer Aspire One, The Asus Eee, and several others while more generalized distros exist for all netbooks. Most netbook distros are based on Ubuntu , since Ubuntu is very well developed and has enjoyed unparalleled success on more conventional systems.

The first distro we should address is Ubuntu Netbook Remix , which is a trimmed-down variant of Ubuntu designed for netbooks. It is compatible with most netbooks makes and models on both x86 and ARM architecture. (mainline Ubuntu support for ARM is coming soon)

Easy Peasy is another Ubuntu-derived distro that ships with a few proprietary applications. ( Skype instead of Ekiga )

Crunchbang is a scaled-down variant of Ubuntu that is especially good since it packs in plenty of software and has a very small memory footprint compared to standard Ubuntu. Crunchbang uses the OpenBox window manager; like on Fluxbox , most activity is done through right-clicking.

Eeebuntu is an Ubuntu derivative that has been designed specifically for the Asus EEE. Unlike Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Easy Peasy, CrunchBang, and Eeebuntu only support x86 at this time.

Standard Xubuntu is also a good choice for low-spec systems, including netbooks.

If you prefer a lightweight distro that is not based on Ubuntu, Slax is also an excellent choice to use on a netbook due to its small footprint; memory usage is seldom over 256 MB at any given time, so you will experience minimal swapping. (in fact, you can run Slax entirely in RAM—just watch your memory usage while doing so!) Based on conventional Slackware , Slax offers a nice slimmed-down KDE 3.5 and a nice modular package management design if you need to add more stuff.

Instead of the heavy OpenOffice.org office suite, Slax includes parts of the Koffice suite: Kword (not to be confused with kwrite , a lightweight text editor) Kspread, and Kpresent. These are excellent lightweight alternatives to OpenOffice.org, but are not practical for most lightweight netbook distros since you have to install most of KDE to make them work. However, they work quite well in this situation since KDE is already included in the distro.

Media is also handled quite well with Juk and Kplayer handling audio and video, respectively. However, you may want to add a more powerful player like VLC that can do both. This is not as painful as it sounds, since you can easily custom-build your own Slax remix by using a rather unique tool before you even download it. If you choose to build your own Slax, just keep your netbook's limitations in mind and don't get too carried away with adding packages since having more applications create a heavier system.

Although Slax is designed as a pure LiveCD distro like Knoppix , it is possible to install it. The process involves copying the Slax files to your netbook's hard drive and running the bootinst.sh script in Slax's /boot folder. If you run into snags while installing Slax, there are online guides that can help you get things sorted out. Once you install Slax, you may have to do some tinkering (installing firmware or ndiswrapper) to make certain wireless devices and webcams work properly. Also, you may need to make sure that your bootloader is configured correctly.

If you really want to go lightweight, you should check out Damn Small Linux . This miniature 50MB operating system packs in a full Linux experience in a footprint that is about as tiny as a full-featured Linux distro can get these days. DSL is a Live CD distro but can also be installed in accordance with the same precautions as Slax. In both cases, preparing Slax and DSL for netbook use is best left to more experienced users rather than beginners.

Conventional full-size distros like Debian and Mandriva have been known to work well on Netbooks as well. If you go that route, try to keep a small installation and memory footprint to minimize the burden on your system.

Regardless of the operating system you use, a major priority should be to reduce disk activity, especially swapping. (swap is the Linux equivalent to the Windows paging file) On solid state disks, swapping is actually detrimental; SSDs have a finite number of “writes” before they begin to lose data integrity and swapping is a very write-intensive process. The number of write cycles may range anywhere between 100,000 to five million writes. This may sound like a lot, (especially on USB flash drives that don't get written to very often) but it really isn't if you use your netbook on a regular basis. Therefore, it is imperative that you minimize swapping as much as possible to avoid artificially shortening the life of your SSD. If you disable swapping altogether, your system will spontaneously crash if you run out of memory, so it is best to set aside only a small permanent buffer of swap space to keep this from happening. (additional swap can be added at a moment’s notice through swap files) With that said, you can also use Linux successfully without any type of swap at all if you keep a vigilant eye on your RAM usage at all times.

This situation does not apply to the few netbooks that use conventional hard drives; since there is no finite number of writes with that technology, you are able to swap normally to your heart's content. However, excessive disk activity can drain the battery rather quickly whereas RAM usage does not, so it still pays to run as much of the system in memory as possible.

Preparing the Operating System

Since many netbooks lack optical drives, the usual method of downloading an ISO of your favorite distro and burning it to a CD/DVD to create the installation medium will not work. Instead, the best choice is to use a USB flash drive as your installation media. Since the ISO can't be “burned” to a USB stick the same way it can be burned to a disk, you will need to convert it.

UNetbootin is a nice utility for Windows and Linux that can take a conventional ISO image and install it to a USB flash drive. Alternatively, it can download and prepare a distro for you automatically. Once this has been done, you will be able to boot from the flash drive and install the operating system as you normally would. Using a flash drive has the added bonus of being more efficient; since you can overwrite the contents of the flash drive as needed, you won't eventually end up with a big pile of obsolete installation discs.

Lightweight Starter Software

Since the best course of action is to stay within the confines of your netbook's physical memory regardless of the type of disk you are using, it is best to use lightweight applications that have a smaller disk and memory footprint. Regardless of the hard drive type used, most netbooks have a fairly low amount of disk space compared to full-size notebooks or desktops. For instance, most models have an 8GB or 16GB SSD or a 160GB hard drive, which isn't very big compared to the 500 GB and 1TB (or larger) drives found on today's desktops and some high-end notebooks. Likewise, many netbooks have only 512 MB to 1GB memory. Therefore, it is best to regard your netbook as simply being a low-power system, much like an older computer. Because of this, it is often essential to use lightweight software that works well on such systems.

Choosing the right desktop environment can be a huge factor in the performance of your netbook. Conventional desktops like GNOME or KDE may overtax the system (unless they have been modified to be more lightweight than the standard build) and leave little free memory left for other applications. Most of the Ubuntu-based netbook operating systems like Easy Peasy, Ubuntu Netbook Remix, and Eeebuntu have a simplified launcher system that is easier to read and navigate on small compact screens. This special launcher has large icons and a tabbed interface system that turns the entire desktop into a program selection menu. The rationale behind this design is that display space is a premium on small netbook displays and it is pointless to waste most of the desktop space on a wallpaper image while forcing the user to navigate small menus.

If you prefer a more conventional interface, lightweight desktop environments like XFCE (used by Xubuntu) and LXDE (used by Knoppix 6 and one variant of EeeBuntu) are ideal for netbook systems and low-spec systems in general. Fluxbox and similar window managers also fit the netbook niche very well.

Smaller, lighter applications can often get the job done just as well as heavier ones. Since netbooks are frequently used as a companion to more powerful computers, you should load them with only as much software as you really need on a regular basis. For instance, many people only need a word processor and perhaps a spreadsheet for day-to-day use. Therefore, it makes sense to install only a word processor and spreadsheet as standalone programs if you only need those things instead of carrying around a full office suite that has things you may not need regularly (like presentation, drawing, and database software).

Abiword is an ideal lightweight word processor that supports OpenDocument Text, Word 2007, “classic” Microsoft Word DOC format, and much more. Its interface greatly resembles that of OpenOffice Writer or pre-2007 MS Word, so users familiar with those programs should not have a difficult time using Abiword. Abiword has passive (red underline) and active spellcheck. In addition to that, Abiword has a passive grammar check option, (suspected grammar errors are underlined in green) a feature that Writer lacks altogether. GNUmeric is a standalone spreadsheet that has some resemblance to Excel. It can import/write many different spreadsheet formats and even has support for graphs.

For more information on running Linux and lightweight computing, refer to our previous guides on the topic .

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