Dell Mini 9 and the Ubuntu Netbook Remix

Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, have been working on the “Ubuntu Netbook Remix” (UNR) for a little while now, but the recent release of Ubuntu 9.04 has seen it promoted more heavily as a viable replacement for the operating systems that currently ship with netbooks. Ultimately it would appear that Canonical’s aim is for UNR to be pre-installed by manufacturers, presumably for a small royalty fee.

UNR is described as a “remix” because it’s not a whole new version of Ubuntu, but rather a standard desktop version with a few modifications. As such it should follow the normal 6-monthly release cycle of a normal Ubuntu system – one of the limitations of Dell’s own Ubuntu installation. This was the reason behind my decision to try UNR on my Dell Mini 9 – well, this and a healthy dose of curiosity.

One of the defining non-features of a netbook is its optical drive. Netbooks are lean, stripped down machines intended for a world where the internet is always available. They often have small hard drives (or solid state drives) so ripping your CDs is less of a priority. Many of them ship with some sort of Linux distribution with online updates and additional applications just a download away. So an optical drive is not needed on a netbook – unless you count the desire to install Office on a Windows-running machine – and is usually one of the first things to go from the spec.

Although it’s possible to connect a USB CD or DVD drive and install an operating system in the usual way, UNR is designed for netbooks – so the system is downloaded in the form of a disk image to be put onto a bootable USB flash drive. Therein lies the first problem.

I downloaded the disk image and tried using Unetbootin to put it onto a USB flash drive using my Windows machine at work. Admittedly it was an old release of Unetbootin, but I’ve used it many times before to put desktop editions of Ubuntu onto this same USB drive. Suffice to say that it didn’t work. At the time I’m sure that Unetbootin was listed as one of the recommended ways to do this, but it doesn’t seem to get a mention in the current installation instructions. In the end I copied the image onto another Ubuntu box and wrote it to the drive using the venerable “dd” command.

This time when I put the USB drive into the Mini 9 I was able to boot from it successfully. The rest of the installation was straightforward. For extra geek points I chose to manually partition the drive so that I could set it up with no swap space (better for preserving the life of the SSD) and using the ext4 filesystem for a small additional burst of speed. For anyone who care’s about the odd second here or there, boot-up time from pressing the power button is about 23 seconds – roughly the same as with Dell’s Ubuntu distribution.

What’s Good About UNR

As far as netbook launchers go, UNR’s has a slight advantage over Dell’s offering in that it has a “favourites” page which shows up by default. Whereas Dell’s implementation requires you to first select a category then launch an application (two clicks), UNR lets you get straight to your favourite applications with a single click – and still only requires two clicks to access any non-favourite apps.

On the subject of those two clicks, UNR doesn’t have separate user-definable categories as such, instead it inherits its categories from a standard Ubuntu Gnome installation: the categories on the left are made up of the content of the standard “Applications” menu, combined with the “Preferences” and “Administration” sections from the Gnome “System” menu. On the right are the locations from Gnome’s “Places” menu, together with a “Quit…” button for accessing the shutdown, logout, suspend and similar options.

It’s a good way of keeping a clear relationship between the normal Ubuntu menu structure and the launcher categories, but having all those different categories and places exposed at once does lead to a somewhat cluttered appearance. With the default theme the categories and places at the sides aren’t very clearly delineated from the launchers in the middle, which probably adds to the sense of disarray. My choice would be to lose the right-hand bar altogether: a single “Places” entry on the left could expose “launchers” for each of the separate entries from the places menu, and the “Quit…” button could be moved to the left (or to the right of the Gnome panel, as on a normal Ubuntu installation). Set the machine so that closing the lid suspends, but pressing the power button brings up the shutdown/logout/suspend options screen, and there’s little need for a large on-screen button.

What’s Bad About UNR

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: UNR uses a dark theme by default. Now I don’t have anything against dark themes, per se, but they do tend to appear more imposing and techie than a lighter theme. If UNR is really meant for the vast number of non-technical netbook owners out there, perhaps a lighter default theme would be better.

Perhaps related to the dark theme is the desktop image – or more particularly the fact that you can’t see it. Although I’m not a fan of the default 9.04 desktop image, there’s not really any point in replacing it in UNR, because the background transparency of the netbook launcher is so low that it’s barely visible anyway. People like to customise and modify their machine to put their own stamp on them – and changing the desktop image is one of the most common ways of doing that. With Dell’s launcher the desktop is visible initially (apart from the translucent bar with the categories), and even after selecting a category the zoomed-and-blurred image still shows through the launcher app, giving a general impression of the user’s wallpaper. With UNR, even if you only have one icon on your favourites page you still can’t make out the desktop image behind it.

On the subject of customisation, I would suggest not getting any bright ideas about adding applets to the Gnome panel in UNR. Perhaps it’s because of Maximus hijacking a large section of the panel, or perhaps it’s for other reasons, but my efforts to add extra applets to the panel have all ended in problems – most notably an irremovable single pixel wide line which was supposed to be a fast user switcher applet.

Finally the biggest problem: my wifi connection doesn’t work. It worked fine with Dell’s Ubuntu 8.04, but won’t make a connection to the access point with 9.04. I think it’s because my access point uses TKIP for authorisation: 8.04 allowed me to explicitly choose that, whereas 9.04 doesn’t. It seems that I’m not the only person with this problem. Usually I have a wired connection, so it’s not that big a deal for me – but considering that the Mini 9 is supposedly a tier 1 platform for UNR, I find this regression to be a bit disappointing.

Comments (3)

  1. I completely agree on the netbook launcher’s transparency point.

    What I did was go in and edit the files in /usr/share/netbook-launcher/. I edited iconviewbg.png, shortcuthilight.svg, and window.svg, the first in the GIMP (by changing layer opacity) and the latter two in Inkscape by right clicking, going to fill and stroke (iirc), and changing the opacity. I found that changing all these files opacities to around 30% looks pretty good. After doing this you’ll have to restart X via ctrl-alt-delete or restarting (because ctrl-alt-delete does nothing in 9.04 without messing around with the x config.)

    So mine looks like this: http://img156.imageshack.us/img156/66/screenshotpzt.png . i also changed the panel look by making it a solid colour and then editing it to be translucent.

    I think we should be able to change this transparency through some config without messing with files, and also be able to change icon transparency.

    Other than those graphical wishes, I’m really liking Ubuntu Netbook Remix on my Aspire One. I wish the Netbook launcher took less RAM and cpu, and can only hope for better battery life, but other than that I can’t seem to find anything bad with it.

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