That shiny new netbook is light and portable, plays music and movies, and cost less than an iPhone (with service). Problem is: you might be ready to chuck it off a bridge. Running the Intel Atom processor at only 1.60GHz, netbooks are a bit on the clunky side when it comes to actual data processing. No one is going to play World of Warcraft on one of these thin machines, but it sure would be great if OpenOffice, a music player, and Mozilla Firefox could run a little faster.
The answer to the netbook dilemma is: find an alternative operating system. Of course, this is a time-consuming proposition, considering you have to download the OS, burn it to a CD or USB key, load the OS, and then configure it. To find out which OS will actually add pep to your Sony P – or any number of low-cost, Atom-based netbooks – we loaded six different options on the same machine and performed a series of tests – looking at the interface, networking features, the browser and built-in apps, and how much customization you can do and ended up picking a clear winner.
For testing, we used the Acer Aspire One AOD250. It uses the Atom N270 processor running at 1.60GHz, has a 533MHz front side bus, and a 512KB L2 cache. The unit ships with Windows XP, which made our baseline testing a hair easier. It has a 10.1-inch 1020x600 screen, runs on the Intel 945GSE graphics chipset, has 1GB of DDR2 533MHz DRAM, a 160GB 5400RPM hard disk, built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi, three USB ports, and a slim form factor – all for about $298. We picked it because it is so common, but also because it supported the most operating systems. We also did a sanity check on the Lenovo S10, HP Mini 1100, and the Asus Eee 1000HE with each OS. In a few cases (e.g., with Moblin on the Lenovo S10), the OS just did not load right. We had the best success with the Acer.
For the test criteria, we wanted to cover a wide gamut. We first tested install time and boot time. Those are important for saving time initially (hey, maybe you are not going to like the new OS) but also for every single time you power on the machine. We also tested the interface and for extra features, software support, customization and personalization, RAM usage, and speed. Since there are no benchmarks we know of that work with all of the OSes we tested, the speed test was a manual grunt test – we timed browser load speed, how quickly a photo opens, PDF load time, and document load time. We also just used the system as we normally would and formed an overall impression.
The operating system options are expanding all of the time. The latest and greatest alternative to Windows XP is Moblin (www.moblin.org), which shows a lot of promise but is a bit rough around the edges. We also tried Slax, a Linux distro that is light and fast. We used Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix, and also tested Windows 7 – which was surprisingly nimble but not our first choice.
Our baseline test was with Windows XP. Everyone has their own opinion about this age-old OS, but we have to state first off that using it feels like a time warp back to 2003. One way you can get around the time-warp factor of Windows XP is to run a cloud-based OS such as iCloud or EyeOS, which at least seem aware of the trends in computing related to social networking and Twitter. Windows XP is a solid OS that works reliably, but our main problem with it is that we are just bored by the interface, and the idea of using an OS that thinks you still have a floppy disk drive installed is just wrong. The latest service packs take care of most networking issues (such as support for 802.11n), but Windows XP is just showing its age and is not exactly inspiring in terms of computing in 2009.
One of the main complaints about both Windows XP and Windows Vista is that they take quite some time to install. On the Acer Aspire One, the install time was compounded by the fact that the machine we used for testing would not even let us install Windows XP Professional from a non-OEM DVD disc at first. The model we used came with Windows XP running already, so to do the installation we had to use a different DVD (actually, the one that came with the Asus Eee 1000HE) and performed a restore. This loads the OS install files onto the hard disk so you can run the installer. We used a Plextor PX-610U USB drive, and the total install time was 22 minutes including the restore time. That's the longest of any of the OSes we tested, including Windows 7, and one clear reason to avoid XP.
This is one issue that netbook users will face – there are no models we've found that provide a built-in DVD drive, so the assumption is that you will live with the installed OS. Fortunately, most Linux distros let you install from a USB key. Boot time for Windows XP was 35 seconds, which is one of the longer boot times we experienced compared to the other operating systems.
Windows XP is a known quantity, so we won't dwell on any specifics here other than to say that the OS now seems excruciatingly dull and woefully out of touch with modern computing. There are no signs of being able to update your Twitter status from within the OS (as you can from Moblin).
The familiar control panel in Windows XP is yawn-inducing but functional.
The built-in software options included with Windows XP are actually quite limited when you consider that Linux distros typically come with a productivity suite (usually OpenOffice), a full featured mail client (Evolution is most common), and a modern browser (such as Mozilla Firefox). Adding all of these components just adds to the total installation time. The Asus installer we used for Windows XP does add some handy extras, and that's typical with most netbooks and notebooks. For example, we were able to open PDF files and Internet Explorer support Flash out of the box.
Our install of Windows XP supported Adobe Flash in IE without having to do an extra install
Thanks to the OEM version of Win XP we used, the OS supported PDF out of the box
Windows XP is fairly easy to customize, and supports a bevy of extra utilities such as Unsanity WindowShade X and many other tools. The main issue with Windows XP themes, color treatments, and desktop wallpapers is that we have seen them for so many years they just seem outdated. For power users who run a single-color background, turn off the screensaver, and live with the basic blue colors of Windows XP, this is not a major problem, but it is still a detriment.
Windows XP is easy to personalize, even if it seems as though you are taking a time warp.
Windows XP falls somewhere between a light OS such as Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix or Moblin, and a memory hog like Windows Vista. Using the Performance Monitor in Windows XP, we noted that RAM usage stayed right around 30% with a browser and a few small apps running. However, when we ran Windows Live Mail, StarOffice Writer (included with the Asus OEM version of Windows XP) plus IE and other small apps, memory usage spiked to 100% frequently. This meant the Aspire One would slow down whenever we started a new app, using up all of the 1GB of RAM. However, once the apps were running, Windows XPO felt nimble enough, although we never tried a more performance-hungry app such as Adobe Photoshop, which is not really intended for a netbook.
RAM usage -- shown here in yellow – spiked repeatedly when we started new apps.
Okay, the rubber meets the road. Windows XP runs fast on netbooks, which is why it is the OS of choice for companies like Asus, Acer, and Lenovo. See the graph for all of the details on speed testing all of the alternative operating systems, but Windows XP took 8 seconds to open an MSN page, two seconds to open a large word processing document, and 10 seconds to open a PDF. That's a few seconds faster, in total, than Windows 7, but still slower than the Slax distro.
MSN.com loaded in 8 seconds, which is just a hair faster than Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix.
A long document opened quickly – just two seconds – in Wordpad.
This 5MB photo loaded incredibly fast in the Windows XP preview app – just two seconds.
We ended up viewing Windows XP as a “live with it, not like it” OS for netbooks, something you use if you can't stand any of the other more updated OSes, such as Ubuntu or Moblin. It's just not that exciting to think you will go back in time and use an OS that has worn out its welcome.
Ask Microsoft about their view on Windows 7 running on a netbook and their first answer will be: what is a netbook? The company has gone on record saying they view the category as “mini notebooks” instead of a distinct segment worth a specific OS version. Still, we had to find out if Windows 7 RC would run adequately on the Acer Aspire One. The short answer is that: it runs okay.
The boot time was a rather disappointing 57 seconds, despite how Microsoft has stated that boot times will be lightening fast (apparently, not on a netbook running a slow processor). To double-check our results with Windows 7, we tried installing the OS on an Asus Eee 1000HE, and it would not boot up at all after the installation. And, there were other problems: no Flash support, no PDF support, and mediocre games meant more time installing those add-ons after the install.
Windows 7 took 20 minutes to install on the Acer Aspire One netbook – only Windows XP took longer to install. Boot up time was 57 seconds, which is much longer than we expected. Windows 7 has this annoying tendency to look like it has crashed during install, but if you look closely, you can see tiny dots moving from left to right as the OS copies files over. These annoyances might be fixed for the final release when Windows 7 ships some time this fall.
Windows 7 is essentially a root level fix for Vista, solving some of the most common complaints. On a netbook, it is more power than anyone would likely need for a machine that is intended for the 30-minutes-of-use window (compared to 3 hours for a notebook and 3 minutes for a smartphone). Still, at least Windows 7 has features designed for the current era of computing. There's a built-in search that actually works – it finds documents quickly and accurately, for example. The games are not exactly stellar, a mild improvement over Windows Vista and XP. (Someday, Microsoft will decide to include a real shooter with every copy of Windows just to showcase the OS gaming power.) Moblin is much better when it comes to social networking features – such as updating Twitter form within the OS.
There are no built-in features for updating your Twitter status, which makes it a bit outdated.
Windows 7 found all of our network-attached storage drives easily enough.
Searching in Windows 7 actually works fast and reliably – unlike Windows Vista search
Games in Windows 7 are similar to what you find in Windows Vista – nothing too special.
Windows 7 RC is just the barebones OS – when it debuts on systems this fall, the OEM version will likely include PDF and Flash support. As it stands now, the RC does not support PDF files or Flash, so you have to install those extras yourself. Or, not. We were not able to find an Adobe Flash that works with Windows 7. We did find a version of Adobe Reader for Windows 7.
Windows 7 is a functional, practical release this time around – it is meant to address the problems in Windows Vista such as User Account Control and boot-up speed. That said, the customizations options are similar to what you find in Vista. We prefer the more modern UI design in Moblin and Jolicloud. At the smaller 1200x600 screen size of the Acer Aspire One, Windows 7 felt a little bulky with its larger buttons and large-footprint windows for selecting Wi-Fi networks and browsing files.
Windows 7 offers quite a few options for adjusting colors and themes, but they lack the OS does not have the pizzazz of Moblin or Jolicloud.
While we can't say Windows 7 is a memory hog (in fact, it was quite snappy with just one or two apps running), it is overkill for a netbook because the OS is designed to support robust apps such as Adobe Photoshop or music production software such as ProTools. It's a multi-tasking behemoth that taps in quiet well to the processing power of the Intel dual-core line of processors, and is far from a light OS. In tests during several days with Windows 7, memory problems became a serious problem, – consuming 100% of the 1GB RAM repeatedly when we ran IE, a photo browser, and just one or two other apps. One of the benefits of using a light OS such as Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix is that the OS and the apps are light – the Evolution mail client barely takes up any RAM in Ubuntu.
RAM usage -- shown here in yellow – spiked repeatedly when we started new apps.
Windows 7 is not as fast as Windows XP, but we already knew that. In the photo load test, Windows 7 took 10 seconds to open a 5MB file, over twice as long as Windows XP. Windows 7 took 5 seconds to load our multi-page document and 6 seconds to load MSN.com in IE8. Overall, Windows 7 did feel sluggish compared to Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix and Slax when we ran multiple apps, while other OSes breathed life into the Acer Aspire One and made it a more usable system.
MSN.com took a couple seconds longer to load than Windows XP, taking ten seconds.
Windows 7 loaded our test document in 6 seconds, the same speedy result as the Slax OS.
We can't explain why, but this 5MB photo took a full ten seconds to open in Win 7.
We didn't really expect Windows 7 to run fast on the Aspire One, but Microsoft may still surprise everyone and release a stripped-down version that runs faster on netbooks. In the end, we were not impressed with the boot time, long install process, and sluggish behavior with multiple apps running.
The testing results heated up when we started testing Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix, which has a new UI design and runs without some of the overhead of the big brother Ubuntu 9.04, such as extra security protocols and built-in apps meant more for the desktop than mobile use. Ubuntu for Netbooks ended up being our top pick, a nimble OS that made the Aspire One snappy and more useful.
It all starts with a relatively fast install time – about 14 minutes, compared to 20 minutes for Windows 7 and even longer for Windows XP. It means you can get up and running with your netbook and move on to configuring the system and adding extra software faster. Ubuntu is a great match for netbooks, even for those who do not normally use Linux or understand how it works, because you likely won't need to add your normal stable of apps (just keep using them on your Windows notebook), probably won't use the netbook as a gaming machine, and will likely just use it for e-mail and writing the occasional OpenOffice doc. Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix also had a quick 30-second boot time, a hair slower than Moblin (at 25 seconds) and Slax (at 20 seconds) but still much faster than Windows.
Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix is remarkably easy to use. The main interface places all common functions and tools on one screen, a stark departure from the blank desktop of Ubuntu 9 and Windows (or a Mac, for that matter). We prefer how Moblin provides easier access to social networks and instant messaging, but the downside with that OS is that it is buggy (in an early beta) and runs slower.
Ubuntu for Netbooks places all the configuration tools in one window.
Ubuntu for Netbooks found all of the attached network drives easily.
Not as fast as the search in Windows 7, but the search results were accurate.
Ubuntu had a problem with an uncompressed MP3 audio file, but otherwise has built-in options for listening to Internet radio, Last.fm (an online radio service), and local music.
Ubuntu for Netbooks provides a few tools for communicating with Internet pals, such as this instant messaging client.
Like any good Linux distro, Ubuntu for Netbooks provides a wealth of color options to change the look of the interface, themes to make quick widespread changes, and a few wallpapers.
Ubuntu for Netbooks recognized the correct size for the Acer Aspire One display, which is a common problem with some distros that do not work with irregularly shaped notebook screens.
Quick theme adjustments mean you don't have to adjust specific colors for the OS and can get a fresh look without spending any extra time. Still, the UI is not quite as slick as Moblin.
Memory usage stayed right at about 25% running most apps alone, and jumped only a small amount – to 50% or so – when running multiple apps. Ubuntu for Netbooks did the best job of managing apps – there were rarely any slowdowns like there was with Moblin, and apps started up quickly without the lag you might experience with Windows 7 on a netbook.
Ubuntu for Netbooks handles memory chores easily enough, even with only 1GB of RAM.
We were impressed with Ubuntu for Netbooks and its ability to manage memory and run all open apps smoothly. The slight surprise is that it was not the fastest of all the OSes we tested. The MSN.com test took 11 seconds, opening the 5MB photo took 5 seconds, and the word processing test took 13 seconds (the highest of score on any OS). Still, Ubuntu is faster than Moblin over (which had problems loading Web sites quickly). We also ran a PDF test with a very large document that was about 2MB and Ubuntu for Netbooks opened the file in just two seconds – the fastest score of all the OSes.
It took only two seconds to open this large data sheet from Seagate.
We picked Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix because it runs the fastest with multiple apps open, had some of the best UI features (such as a main screen intended for those unfamiliar with Linux), loaded and booted quickly, and just looks the best compared to all of the other OSes.
Moblin is the new netbook operating system developed originally by Intel and now part of the Linux Foundation. The main claim to fame with Moblin is that it is designed to make it easier to access Web 2.0 sites such as Last.fm and Twitter (with built-ion controls right on the taskbar). The OS uses a zone concept where you can place apps in their own zone and then switch quickly between them. During our test period using the build dated June 16, we had a lot of problems getting the distro to work correctly – it crashed when we went to the browser, when we added a Twitter account, etc. Crashes do not freeze the entire system, though, and pop up a dialog box where you can send in the feedback.
We installed Moblin in 13 minutes, besting the Ubuntu for Netboosk install time by one minutes. (Slax installed in only 10 minutes, however.) the boot time for the OS is 25 seconds, so not quite as fast as Slax but still faster than every other OS. The install process is straightforward enough that you do not need to know anything about Linux to use it and asks only for a username and other info.
What you sacrifice with Moblin is that it is not equipped as a full distro that includes all the tools you might expect, such as a full word processor. Instead, it is designed to install with a basic set of apps and let you get on with your work. As an early beta, Moblin has a raft of problems, including lack of USB keydrive support (we tried about six of them) and problems playing even basic MP3 files.
The interface is slick and trendy, but requires some learning. The toolbar drops down from the top of the screen, and there are icons for browser, statsus update, zones, applications, and IM. What is refreshing – and unusual – is that Moblin doesn't really look like an OS, and mimics the look and feel of a Web site instead. The extra features for Twitter updates and IM are great, and there are plenty of extra apps such as calculators, schedulers, and a media player, but there are no full word processing apps – and no clear way to add them. (In our tests, the Moblin library for adding apps did not let us install OpenOffice.)
Moblin offers a way to sync your data on the netbook with a service such as Funambol
An unusual feature, you can add your Twitter account and update your status right form the OS toolbar.
We liked the search functions in Moblin, and they worked perfectly, although – if you look closely – you can see that they look almost exactly the same as they do in Ubuntu.
The UI paradigm for holding apps in zones is a common Linux construct, but one that will seem unusual to users who have decided to ditch Windows XP on their netbook.
Moblin had trouble playing even the built-in music files, let alone the uncompressed MP3 we added by sending an e-mail to our own Gmail account (since USB keys did not work).
Moblin found our wireless network just fine, but could not find any network drives.
Moblin supported both Flash and PDF without having to install any extra software, which saves time in hunting those tools down and installing them. It's a little surprising, given the fact that the OS does not come with any superfluous software. It meant Moblin was a pick-up-and-go OS that worked without a lot of extra customization, and means you could install it and start using it without extra effort.
Flash support on a Linux netbook is hit or miss, but with Moblin it worked out of the box.
You can open PDF documents as well, using a built-in doc reader that loaded files quickly.
Moblin does not pretend to be a full-featured OS, but that is also what makes it attractive to netbook owners who crave speed and not necessarily extra features. As such, the customization options are quite slim – you can change wallpapers and themes, but there's not the depth of color adjustments and interface tweaks that you will find in Windows or Ubuntu.
You can change themes but not adjust too many colors for the UI.
Like any good Linux distro, there's a way to change default fonts for the OS layer.
We did not find a utility for testing RAM usage on Moblin, but we can tell you that – as long as you only run one or two apps, the OS is speedy enough. At times, Moblin did seem like it was trying to catch up with our mouse clicks, but we presume that is due to the beta code.
Moblin either worked extremely fast or had problems with even basic tests. For example, in our MSN test loading the built-in browser, which is essentially a re-designed Firefox, MSN.com loaded in 17 seconds, the slowest of all of our tests. Yet, the 5MB photo loade din just four seconds, and a PDF file appeared in the doc viewer in just two seconds. We couldn't test the document load tiem, since Moblin does not provide a full word processing app and only read our test doc as a TXT file.
Our doc file did not format correctly using this built-in text editor.
MSN loaded in 17 seconds – time enough to visit three site son other netbook OSes.
This photo loaded in four seconds, a hair faster than Ubuntu for Netbooks.
We're big fans of Moblin, it just needs work before it is ready to take up disk space as our netbook OS of choice. Ubuntu for Netbooks has the leg up here, but we do prefer the Moblin look and feel, quick access to Twitter, and the fact that it runs reasonably fast (with occasional stall-outs).
The main story with Slax (www.slax.org) is that it's a light Linux distro that makes sense for netbooks, with a few weak spots that need to be ironed out before we can fully recommend it.
The only install we could find was a Live version that loads partially onto the hard disk. As such, the install comparison is not really fair (Slax took 10 minutes to configure in total for the Live version) and there is no comparison for boot time, since each time you use it, the installer kicks in from the CD. That made Slax less flexible, and required that we bring an external DVD drive with us at all times. (We also could not find a USB version of the distro.) Once loaded, Slax ran quickly on the Aspire One.
Slax looks like the older Linux distros we have used for years, and it uses the KDE desktop environment – which is also not our favorite UI. Slax had several problems running on the Acer Aspire: the music player did not play movies or music at all, and the hardware buttons on the netbook did not work right. For example, while the volume buttons on the netbook worked with the other OSes we tested, it did not work with Slax. We also could not get the Wi-Fi connection to work. Oddly, Slax could find our Netgear router and connect to it, but could not get an IP address. We tried setting it manually, and could still not get the Internet to work on the device. There is probably some trick, but a new user to the distro would likely not know those tricks – it should be easier.
Slax presents the typical offerings for adjusting your desktop settings and configuring a network.
The included games were the least compelling of the OSes we tested.
You can set up instant messaging –we had to use a wired connection – but there are no functions that help you update your status or access social networks quickly.
The search functions work as stated, even if there was a lag in finding documents.
Slax did not play any MP3 files we tested, including this uncompressed audio file.
Slax did not support PDF or Flash, a sign that the OS has fallen behind other distros in supporting the latest tools for Web browsing. However, there are plenty of apps included with the distro, including OpenOffice tools and the Evolution mail client.
Slax provides only a few options for personalization – even though there is a theme manager, and the ability to change colors, most of the work involved with customizing the UI falls to the end-user, who has to wade through a lot of options to get the right look and feel. We prefer the fastest theme controls in Windows 7 and in Moblin. In many ways, the controls for personalization in Slax are more like the Linux distros form the last few years and are not as slick or user-friendly as those in, say, Moblin.
There are only two background wallpapers included with Slax.
If you take the time to adjust colors, you can get your own custom look.
Slax actually used a healthy amount of RAM, about 40% of the 1GB available, which was a lot compared to the roughly 25% usage in other OSes.
Slax uses a lot of RAM for a light distro, more than Ubuntu or Windows 7 in fact.
Where Slax did shine, though, was with application speed. In fact, the OS scored the best results in our tests. The 5MB photo we used loaded in just five seconds, the document loaded in six seconds, and the PDF file loaded in three seconds (after we installed a PDF viewer). We decided not to include test results for MSN.com in the browser over a wired connection since we tested over Wi-Fi for the other operating systems. (The site actually loaded in four seconds over an Ethernet connection.)
Kword loaded the test document in just six seconds, twice as fast as Ubuntu for Netbooks.
Near-instant photo loading is one perk of using the light Linux OS, Slax.
So, if Slax performed so well in our tests, you might wonder why we did not pick it as the best choice for netbooks. Speed is important, and a main goal was to make the Aspire One run faster. However, we just were not as impressed with the OS overall, especially in terms of customization options, software support, and options for how you install it. You might be able to find a USB install and get Slax running well on a netbook, but one criterion we had was that the download and install process be easy and the OS work well without a lot of tweaking, and Slax falls short.
One other option for netbooks is called Jolicloud, a hybrid OS from the creator of the Netvibes.com Web aggregator. Based on the Ubuntu for Netbooks Remix distro, the OS offers some truly innovative features, but for the most part works almost exactly like Ubuntu.
The major new feature is that the OS lets you install software using the same paradigm that you might already known from the iPhone and Google Android. Apps are listed in a dashboard -- which also reports on the latest Jolicloud news and support forum info – with an Install button. When you click Install, a small progress bar appears. The idea is that you can click this option and then perform other tasks, although in the beta we tested, as soon as we left the dashboard, the install would stop. Still, it is a novel idea because it means new users don't have to figure out the relatively complex process of installing applications – a gating factor for new Linux users.
Jolicloud also lets you install links to common Web services, such as Facebook and Twitter. This feature is less interesting because you are really just adding an icon that takes you to the browser and loads the Web site. It would have been much more impressive if Jolicloud actually loaded a custom app for the sites – similar to what you find on the iPhone, the T-Mobile G1, or the Palm Pre. These apps would save time, even if they were truncated versions of the full site, if all you want to do is post your status or view the latest moronic thread about the news topic of the day. It is possible that Jolicloud users will create these apps in the future instead of just relying on links.
Otherwise, once you close the Jolicloud dashboard, the OS operates exactly the same as Ubuntu – there are no discernible differences in terms of the interface, speed results, or apps you can load. Jolicloud shows promise, but for now the actual benefits to netbook users is questionable.