Mobility

Netbook mod performance with Joli OS

TR member dcolbert talks about his experience with Jolicloud's Joli OS mobile platform. Find out where he thinks Joli OS succeeds and where it fails.

In my last post, I talked about the killer features of the most popular mobile consumer electronic devices and wondered, "How can I get long standby time, stellar battery life, and instant-on accessibility on my Lenovo IdeaPad S10 netbook?"

My quest to assemble such a machine included taking my netbook (already modified with a 500 GB magnetic hard drive and 2.5 GB of RAM) and adding a 9 cell aftermarket battery. I also decided that, to make it fair, I should find an OS that was lighter than Win Pro 7. So, I went looking for a FOSS-based, lightweight mobile OS and finally settled on a platform called Joli OS by Jolicloud.

First off, I thought the 9 cell battery would make the device a lot bulkier, and I didn't expect it to last competitively in standby mode when compared to true mobile devices that have their OS in static ROM. But in reality, any notebook with any OS can be put into (and come out of) suspend quickly enough to be considered an "instant-on" device.

With my Lenovo, you literally open or close the LCD to resume or suspend, and that's all your iPad, Xoom, or other mobile device is doing. So, it isn't really fair to compare an iPad that spends all of its time in sleep mode to your notebook that you turn on and off.

The difference between tablets and netbooks isn't really power consumption - it's battery size. For what the iPad is driving, it has a big battery. This is partly why the iPod Touch doesn't get nearly the standby or run-time that the iPad delivers. The answer is physics, not magic. In the simplest terms, the bigger the battery, the longer it will run. The balance is how bulky and awkward it is to deliver a bigger battery.

One complaint I've heard is that extra cell batteries add weight and offset the small size of mobile devices. I suppose this is true to a certain extent, but let me just say that my work notebook is a 12" subnote Lenovo X201 with an extended battery. Even with the extended 9 cell on the S10 netbook, it's still smaller, lighter, and more portable than the X201 - so, take those arguments with a grain of salt. It doesn't add that much bulk, and it actually raises the back of the machine at a slight angle, making the device more ergonomic for typing, in my honest opinion.

As for Joli OS, I can't describe how impressed I am with the execution of this platform. It's very transparent that Linux is the foundation driving the whole thing, but it doesn't suffer from the Linux-isms that I despise. In fact, Joli OS worked exactly how a typical consumer would expect an install to work - setting up everything correctly without preachy disclaimers, additional hoops, or requiring me to acknowledge how I was disappointing the Cheeto-covered, idealist beards of FOSS geeks everywhere by using proprietary drivers. This is the philosophy I've argued the FOSS community must adopt to be truly competitive with the commercial OS platforms, and I think the ease of setting up Joli OS illustrates that I'm right.

However, the problems I experienced were, unfortunately, the fault of Joli OS. It's a really good OS, but it's not quite competitive with iOS or Android - or even WebOS or Windows Mobile 7, for that matter.

One of the disadvantages of Joli OS is that there are very few native apps, partly because it's cloud-centric. For example, the Facebook app redirects to the Facebook web page. Now, for most tasks, having a true web browser with a full keyboard and pointing device is the superior way to navigate Facebook interactively. But for Facebook consumption, a native app on a mobile device is my preferred way to quickly catch up.

Linux savvy users can also install Debian packages on Joli OS. However, I couldn't find an easy way to add icons for "side-loaded" apps to the desktop. In this sense, Joli OS still seems somewhat unfinished and very much a work-in-progress.

In addition, the advanced features of Joil OS are hard to find. For example, [Alt] [F1] brings up a terminal, and from there, you can get to a full Nautilus file manager - but the steps are difficult and poorly documented. From Nautilus, you can browse SMB/CIFS/Windows shares on a LAN, but even that was unnecessarily awkward. On the other hand, it all just worked - it easily browsed, authenticated, and accessed my shared SMB resources, which is something that Ubuntu and other mainstream full *nix distros have struggled with when I've tested similar platforms.

While the Joli OS platform wasn't perfect, it certainly could be a contender. I didn't experience all the little aggravations that were deal breakers with other Linux distros, like F-Key shortcuts for volume, Wi-Fi hardware switches that don't work without crazy hacks, and unrecognized SD slots. And if Joli OS had native app support, some ad-supported versions of killer apps, I could see it being added to the collection of OS platforms that I run.

So, I was able to create a netbook built on a lightweight, Linux-based distribution - but did it compete toe-to-toe with the big boys? When I was testing the Joli OS on my Lenovo, my iPad, and Kyros usage went down about 80%. In fact, both devices completely powered down because I forgot to charge them. Remember, instant-on is instant-on, and once you have a device that can get you online in just a few seconds, it doesn't really matter what it is.

I found that there are significant advantages to the netbook. For example, when I'm consuming Tweets on a tablet, I frequently make notes of a tweet, even re-tweet it as a sort of bookmark, so I can follow a link and explore it later on. With a netbook, I don't take this extra step - instead, I immediately follow the link.

There are also times when a touch-screen tablet format is superior, especially late at night when I'm checking Twitter and Facebook or reading an e-book in bed. With a tablet, I don't need an external light, because the keyboard is self-illuminated. It's also fairly silent - just the sound of my fingertips taping on the glass. When my wife is trying to fall asleep, she greatly appreciates both of these things.

Conceptually, my test was a success. Instant-on and long standby life are really the killer features that the iPad introduced, and those are easy to reproduce. Once you even the score in those two areas, you'll find that on many other issues, the benefits are very close to a draw. The things that are well suited to a clamshell format don't do well on a tablet, and vice versa.

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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