Linux on Netbooks

I’ve been following a thread on LinkedIn about what the best Linux Distro to run on a netbook is; ideally something lightweight that doesn’t hog lots of CPU and RAM, which tends to be at a premium on less powerful devices.  This is of particular interest for me as am typing this blog post on an Asus Eee PC as a way to distract me from the job I’m supposed to be doing of rearranging Miskatonic University’s Library filing cards into some sort of sensible order.

There’s been a lot of enthusiastic comments, some giving one particular Linux distribution their blessing, while others have given two or three – or more – alternatives. So, here’s a run-down of what’s turned up in alphabetical order along with  some potted notes; assume only one vote for each unless otherwise stated.

  • antiX – comes with the Fluxbox and IceWM window managers.
  • Arch [8 votes] (with FVWM or OpenBox) – minimalist default install; further system customization and expansion (adding a window manager , desktop environment, etc.) must be done manually.
  • Aurora – created for SPARC architecture; Fedora based.
  • BackTrack [2 votes] – used extensively for wireless troubleshooting and penetration testing
  • Bodhi
  • centOS
  • ChromeOS
  • CrunchBang [2 votes]
  • Crux
  • Debian [14 votes]
  • DSL (Damn Small Linux, abandoned project)
  • Easy Peasy [2 votes]
  • Fedora [14 votes] – steps on how to do a netbook install here.
  • Fuduntu
  • Gentoo [3 votes]
  • JoliCloud [3 votes] – one click installation.
  • Kubuntu [3 votes]
  • Leenux [2 votes]
  • Lubuntu [18 votes] – a variant of Canonical’s Ubuntu operating system and uses the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE) desktop interface.
  • Mageia – forked from Mandriva.
  • Mandriva
  • MeeGo
  • Mint [14 votes]
  • Papug
  • PC Linux [2 votes]
  • Peppermint – based on Lubuntu
  • Puppy Linux [7 votes]
  • openSUSE [7 votes]
  • OpenXange
  • SalixOS [5 votes] (LXDE edition)
  • Slackware
  • Tiny Core Linux
  • Ubuntu [23 votes, incl 8 specific suggestions for Ubuntu Netbook Edition/Netbook Remix, which have been rolled into the main version now]
  • VectorLinux (Light, poss standard) [3 votes]
  • Xubuntu [6 votes] – uses  the Xfce desktop environment.
  • Zorin – has a Windows-like graphical user interface and many programs similar to those found in Windows.

Those in the IT know are already well aware of Linux in a variety of forms, some of which are already prevalent in Enterprise sectors, while others are more familiar to personal users but are heading towards becoming common work tools.  Probably the best first point of call to know more about any of these is to  go look at the Distrowatch website; you can find out what each distribution is based upon, what hardware architecture it supports, whether it’s active or not and any useful links to home pages, mailing lists, download sites and so on.

It’s not surprising that Ubuntu and Ubuntu-based distros get the lion’s share of the suggestions; their repositories and the Synaptic Package Manager tool give easy and immediate access to a huge range of software.  In  fact, Ubuntu and Mint (based on Ubuntu) are the two most popular distros going by hits on Distrowatch and Wikimedia statistics.

One commenter said that “I generally find the Ubuntu based distros to be more resource intensive.”  I’m not sure just how true that assertion is or not, but it is very much the perception amongst many Linux users.  Whilst more fully featured Desktop Environments (DEs)  increase ease of use, that comes at the price of using a relatively higher amount of processor, memory and hard disk resources, which can be at a premium in small netbooks and older hardware.  Having never used Canonical’s new Unity shell, which is now the default desktop shell instead of GNOME Shell, as of Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal), I’ve no idea if it makes any greater or lesser demands on the system.

There are a range of lightweight DEs and Windows Managers (WMs) available to Linux users: FVMW, LXDE, XFCE, OpenBox and FluxBox being the main contenders.  Anecdotally, quite a few Linux users seem to have moved away from Ubuntu to lighter weight distros such as Lubuntu, Linux Mint, Puppy Linux or CrunchBang, as the minimum system requirements for Ubuntu increase and also (at least in part) as a rejection of Gnome3 or Unity.  The Enlightenment DE is also a popular and lightweight, as used by the Bhodi and PCLinuxOS distros.  If you want to know much memory is being used on your Linux system, you can find out via the command line, using the cat /proc/meminfo command.

Another comment was that “Ubuntu’s graphics stack is not frequently updated, so Fedora would probably be a better choice.”  I’m not sure how true this is, nor how much effect having a less frequently updated graphics stack would have on the overall performance of any system.  Perhaps someone with more knowledge of Linux and how its graphics stacks are handled could give a better insight into this assertion?

I’m surprised no-one suggested LFS – Linux From Scratch.  Admittedly, there is a lot of work involved in building your own distro that way, to put it mildly.  There’s certainly other tweak-it-as-you-like distros that got mentioned like Puppy Linux and Slackware; the latter is more like UNIX than Linux, which may be too steep a learning curve for some less experienced users.

If you’re looking for something that starts up rapidly, then here’s a review of the 5 fastest booting Linux distros; I must admit I was surprised to find Ubuntu 11.10 on the list, although it specifically discounted distros like ChromeOS that aren’t “full” desktop installations.

Personally, how fast my netbook boots up is nowhere near as important as how well it performs running applications.  If you’re of a similar mindset, then a lightweight Linux distro is the better option, possibly one that runs from RAM help to reduce the time taken to read/write data, although choosing the latter option limits the number you can pick from.  All I can say for certain is that there’s a lot of different opinions about what distros work well on netbooks and just as many (if not more) options available to try out.  I can see myself trying more than a few new distros out as live CD ISOs burned onto flash drives in the next few weeks.

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