You don’t have to settle for an OS that’s a bad fit for your netbook — there are numerous alternatives, some of which can provide a near-laptop experience. Jack Wallen runs through the pros and cons of 10 viable Linux distributions.

If you’ve purchased a netbook, you’re most likely looking at either Xandros Linux or some version of Windows. Although the Xandros operating system is a serviceable operating system, it always seems you are using an operating system hindered by hardware. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of flavors of Linux out there that can be installed on your netbook that will give you a similar (if not identical) experience to that of your standard laptop.

Some of these will be “remixes” of popular distributions make specifically for the netbook hardware. Some of them are just the run-of-the-mill distribution that happens to run perfectly on the netbook. I will say that the installation of these distributions is made very simple with the help of Unetbootin. With the help of Unetbootin, you can place any of these distributions on a USB drive for easy installation.

One word of caution: You can put any distribution on your netbook, but it’s not advised. Why? Because of the nature of the netbook, you need to avoid too many writes to the RAM drive and you don’t need a swap partition. So you’ll want to favor distributions that offer a version specifically for the netbook. You can use a regular distribution, especially if your netbook uses a standard hard drive — but you may have some problems down the road.

Let’s take a look at what is available.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Eeebuntu

This Eee PC-focused distribution might well be the best Linux for the netbook. As you might assume, Eeebuntu is based on Ubuntu. This makes perfect sense for netbook users, as Ubuntu is one of the most user-friendly Linux distributions. The developers of Eeebuntu offer three varieties for your netbooking pleasure:

Standard: This is the full-blown version of Linux. With this installed, you will feel just like you are using a regular laptop (minus the regular-size keyboard and screen, of course.)
NBR: The Netbook Remix is a version of Eeebuntu with a special desktop that provides much easier access to applications. With this flavor, you will find using the keypad much more efficient because applications are set up in tabs. This is somewhat like the Xandros Linux for the netbook but done much more elegantly.
Base: This version of Eeebuntu is the smallest, most lightweight of the three. You will find GNOME, Firefox, configuration tools, and not much more. This is best for netbooks with little storage space or for those that need to be nothing more than tiny Web browsing tools.

2: OpenGeeeU

Another Eee PC-centric distribution, OpenGeeeU is based on the Enlightenment-based OpenGUE operating system. This means you’re dealing with the Enlightenment desktop, which makes perfect sense for a netbook. Why? It’s lightweight yet highly functional. This distribution offers a touch of eye candy to a piece of hardware not usually associated with eye candy, and it will seem like a full-blown Linux installation. You won’t feel shorted on features. Because of this, you will want to have a minimum of 4GB of on-board storage space for the operating system.

3: Mandriva

Mandriva is one of the standard distributions that does run well on netbooks. In fact, Mandriva has partnered with a new company, Gdium, which will be producing a netbook with a special version of Mandriva installed. This version will have a fast boot process; a customized, lightweight desktop; and a full line of codecs for playing all types of media. If you’re running an Acer Aspire One, you’ll need to make a few modifications. The first modification is to the /etc/modprob.conf. Add this line:

options snd-hda-intel model=acer-aspire

This will make sure the netbook speakers turn off when headphones are plugged in. The next modification is to add the following line to your /etc/rc.d/rc.local file:

/sbin/modprobe pciehp pciehp_force=1

This will make sure the card reader sees a card when inserted. On an Eee PC, Mandriva Spring 2009 will work out of the box.

4: Puppy Linux

Puppy Linux is one of the lightest Linux distributions to begin with. Not only is it light, it’s fast, and it offers everything you would need for a netbook. Once installed, the speed of Puppy Linux will make you glad you made the switch. But this speed does not betray the usability of the system. Puppy has a browser/e-mail client, thanks to Seamonkey, an editor, thanks to Abiword, Xara for graphics editing, and plenty of other outstanding solutions for mobile computing needs. Puppy Linux will require some setup upon installation. Most important will be the wireless. Out of the box, Puppy supports the wireless features in the Eee PC, but you do have to configure the connection. There’s no need to load a module or add any other packages. For new users, however, Puppy might not be the best solution simply because of the setup.

5: OpenSuSE 11

OpenSuSE 11 is another main distribution that works great out of the box, except for a little tweaking necessary to get wireless working for some netbooks. On the Eee PC 900, you’ll need to add the rpms for:


so that wireless will work. Put those on a USB key to transfer them to the machine so they can be installed.

There might also be xorg.conf configurations to get the proper resolution and 3D support going. As you can see, this list keeps growing — which should help you to draw the same conclusion I did: Although OpenSuSE is a rock solid entry for the netbook market, it is not for the faint of heart or those new to Linux. The installation alone would send the new user back to Xandros. If you are dying to get a flavor of SuSE on a netbook, you could always opt to purchase an HP Mini Notbook 2140, which comes preinstalled with SuSE Enterprise 11. Yes, Enterprise!

6: gOS Cloud

gOS Cloud is an operating system created specifically for netbooks. The idea behind this distribution is that it turns your computer into nothing more than a Web browser. This might seem highly limiting, but if you think of the overall purpose of the netbook, you’ll realize that nearly all of the work done is via a browser. If you’ve ever used gOS gears, you know how well this concept can be put to use. This version of gOS lets you surf the Web, e-mail, and chat. If you combine this with a service such as Google Documents, you can expand it to handle documents and such. Unfortunately, gOS Cloud is not yet out for public consumption, although it will be released soon. Versions will be released for specific netbooks, so installation will be simple.

7: CrunchEee

CrunchEee is an Eee PC-specific edition of Crunchbang (#!) Linux. Crunchbang Linux is a spin-off of Ubuntu, and its Eee PC variant boasts a sleek OpenBox desktop. CrunchEee ships with Firefox, VLC, Skype, Flash, and plenty of other handy applications. You will find another, very useful, application called Eee-control, which is a control application for anything Eee PC related. Like Eeebuntu, CrunchEee uses the Array kernel. So this distribution will work perfectly, out of the box, on Eee PCs. It will give you the lightweight feeling of Puppy Linux with the ease of use of Eeebuntu.

8: Slax

Slax is based on Slackware and offers a unique experience, in that you can customize your distribution even before you download it. By using Build Slax, you can add whatever you need to make your Slax fit perfectly. Slax is based on the KDE desktop and is actually meant to be run from a flash drive, although it can be installed permanently on your netbook. If you decide you want to install Slax onto your drive, you can use the Slax Installer from the KDE menu.

9: Debian

Debian is always one of the best distributions for nearly any purpose. It is stable, reliable, secure, and has TONS of available packages (more than 20,000) to install. Debian can be installed on most netbooks. You might run into issues with the resolution, but you should be able to correct them by editing the xorg.conf file. Most likely, however, you’ll have to start out with an Ethernet connection, because the wireless will need to be tweaked to get it to run. To do this, you’ll have to install a non-free version of the madwifi driver. The easiest way to do this (with your netbook attached to an Ethernet connection) is to install the module assistant like so:

apt-get update

apt-get install module-assistant

m-a prepare

m-a auto-install madwifi

Reboot your netbook, and wireless should be supported.

10: Fedora

Fedora on a netbook can be a good experience — depending upon your hardware. On the Eee PC 70x series, no problem. On the Eee PC 9x/1000 series, there are some issues. On the Acer Aspire, no problem (even the Webcam.) One of the major downfalls of using Fedora on any netbook is boot times. Of all of the distributions above, Fedora will have the slowest startup times. Once running, however, you will find the experience solid.

Other choices?

Not all of these distributions is perfect, but they will all serve the purpose of the netbook: Be online and handle network-related tasks. Have you tried any of the above? Or have you tried one not on this list? If so, what was your experience?

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