Despite your editor's affection for electronic toys, he has, thus far,
managed to avoid cluttering his desk with a netbook system. Until now. It
seemed like it was past time for a closer look at
, and it further seemed that a
distribution designed for netbooks should be experienced on one. So, it
didn't take long for your editor to come into possession of a Dell
, which ships with the Ubuntu Moblin remix preinstalled. The
10v is a cute little system, but it is, alas, saddled with a
free-software-unfriendly Broadcom chipset. Needless to say, the version of
Ubuntu shipped on the hardware includes the binary driver needed to make
that chipset work.
Much hype has been generated about Moblin's extra-fast booting behavior. A
quick check with the stopwatch shows that this system requires
27 seconds from when the BIOS completes its power-on ablutions until
the login screen appears. That is a definite improvement over a number of
other systems, but it's not quite, yet, the five seconds that the Moblin
folks have been aiming for. Suspend and resume are both quite fast;
opening the lid yields a working system within 2-3 seconds.
The Moblin experience starts at the "MyZone" screen, containing calendar
and "to do" items, icons for a few favorite applications, a set of screens
from recently-run applications, and an area meant to contain communications
from online friends. When an application is running, all of the "MyZone"
stuff goes away, leaving the full screen for whatever the user is working
on at the time. Screen space is generally at a premium on netbooks, so
Moblin goes out of its way to waste as little of it as possible.
A core feature of the Moblin interface is "zones." These are really just
the virtual desktops or workspaces that Linux users have been using since
before Linux existed. On a small screen, though, there is little value in
having more than one application on-screen at a time, so Moblin usually
starts each application in its own zone. Switching between applications
normally requires moving between zones.
There is a task bar which can be obtained by moving the pointer to the top
of the screen. A quick look at this bar is enough to clarify the things that
Moblin's designers think netbook users will want to do. Top-level tasks in
Moblin include adjusting one's online social networking status, connecting
to people, running a web browser, running a media player, and accessing a
"pasteboard." There are icons for battery and networking status, one for
moving between zones, and one
for "applications" which is the path toward any other programs the user
might want to run. Users who buy a netbook to support extensive twitter
activity, watch videos, and view the occasional web page will be more than
pleased with Moblin. Those wanting to do kernel development are likely to
find this environment to be somewhat irritating.
Your editor has been using computers for quite some time; the notion that
one can get a program into a system without punching it onto cards first
still seems novel at times. To your editor's eyes, the Moblin environment
has the feel of a toy. Lots of bright pastel colors assault the eye.
Picture thumbnails dance around each other before lining up in pretty
little rows. Dialog windows bounce on the screen in ways which risk
inducing motion sickness. It's all very cute and joyful and social; Moblin
is clearly not aimed at a typical longtime desktop Linux user.
Another choice which makes it clear that your editor is not in the target
audience: this is the first distribution encountered in years which does
not come with an SSH client. This kind of problem is easily fixed - the
entire Ubuntu repository is accessible to people who dig far enough into
the menus - but it is a bit of a surprise.
This machine arrived with an Ubuntu 9.04-based system running Moblin 2.0.
This distribution, it must be said, has some rough edges. OpenOffice.org
comes up with a dialog whose buttons are below the bottom of the window,
which, in turn, refuses to let the user resize it (see image to the right).
The mail client
features color choices which sometimes render text unreadable. There are
no bookmarks in the web browser; this browser also thinks that users want
their searches to go to Yahoo. Windows vanish abruptly from the screen,
losing whatever work may be in progress. Dell's page notes that the system
is for early adopters; that certainly seems to be the case.
One should note that
9.04 is not the current version of Ubuntu, and 2.0 is not the current
version of Moblin. There is a newer version of the Moblin build, based on
the 9.10 release. The download
page nicely offers a CD image of this release, seemingly unaware of the
fact that a lot of netbooks lack CD drives. Ubuntu has a tool
(usb-creator) which will create a bootable USB device from a CD image; too
bad that its window is much taller than a typical netbook screen, making
the crucial buttons unreachable. Your
editor finally got past that little problem and was able to create a
bootable Ubuntu 9.10 device.
The result was a very sluggish, very brown, but a generally slicker-looking
Moblin installation. The software installation feature has been made more
prominent, and the list of available applications has grown. Moblin 2.1
lacks support for the Broadcom wireless adapter found in this
device, but that is not really Moblin's fault. The web browser still
leaves much to be desired - strange, because Moblin 2.1 has made a
number of improvements in that area. One other thing your editor noticed
with both Ubuntu versions: the power consumption seems high. Running
PowerTop shows a steady state of anywhere between 100 and 350
wakeups/second - not the way to get the most from one's battery. Moblin is
supposed to be better than that.
Your editor decided to go straight to the source: the Moblin.org download page, which
offers an image which works nicely from a USB stick. Some things have not
really improved: it still takes 30 seconds to boot the system (though it
should be noted that the use of a USB stick will slow things somewhat).
But 30 seconds beats the few minutes that USB-based Ubuntu required, and
the system is more responsive thereafter as well. And there are some
improvements to be seen in this version of the distribution.
For example, the web browser (a Mozilla derivative) is indeed improved: it
now has support for
bookmarks, extensions, and a full set of preferences to tweak. This
version of Moblin comes with its own package installer backed by Moblin's
repository; users can install real applications like Thunderbird or
AbiWord, but the package selection is far smaller than found with Ubuntu
9.10. Interestingly, OpenOffice.org is not available for this build - a
surprise, given how many people your editor has seen running presentations
from netbooks over the last year.
The official Moblin build is indeed more power-efficient, though it still
runs at 80-90 wakeups/second, which is too many. All told, Moblin feels a
little bit like an unfinished product, still.
In general, your editor is not really sold on the netbook idea. The screen is too
small to get much serious work done, and the aspect ratio is wrong for any
sort of text-oriented work. The keyboard tends to be just big enough to
tempt the user to try to really type on it. And, frankly, Moblin-like
software just tends to get in the way of a user who is used to the full
Linux desktop experience and who does not spend a lot of time on Twitter.
Chances are good that this particular netbook will eventually find itself running a
more traditional Linux distribution.
But, as has been noted already, your editor is clearly not the market that
these systems are aimed at. Not yet, at least. There are some very
interesting changes happening in the area of consumer-level computers,
where the traditional desktop idea seems to be slowly falling out of
favor. Many experiments are underway to come up with something better; in
the free software world these experiments have names like Android,
Chromium OS, Litl, Maemo,
and Moblin. Free software is trying to break new ground here; this is not
a case of following somebody else's taillights. So, while your editor does
not see Moblin as his system of choice at the moment, he is most interested
in seeing where this project goes in the near future.
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