Linux on netbooks : distribution question

Linux on netbooks is becoming a hot subject recently.  There are more and more netbooks sold, and more and more of them are coming with Linux.  Or are being used to try Linux out.  Netbooks are small and often cheap devices which makes them affordable and even … expendable.  So a lot of people are getting them just to play around.  And those of them who want to try Linux out often end up asking the question: Which distribution should I chose?

This question has been asked many times before.  Everyone who tried using Linux asks this question sooner or later.  And the answer is – it’s pretty much doesn’t matter.  The truth is no matter which distribution you will chose, you’ll have a whole lot of questions.  Which applications to use, how to configure things, how to do specific things that you are used to doing in your current operating system, etc.  With all these questions you’ll go to Google, forums, and other people.  So, choose the distribution which you can find the answers for easier.  If someone is introducing you into the world of Linux, choose the same distribution that person is using.  That simple.

But aren’t netbooks different?, you might ask.  Yes and no.  Netbooks are in the class of their own because it’s very easy to classify them.  They are smaller than laptops, often cheaper than laptops, and often have weaker hardware (less powerful CPU and less RAM specifically).  But they are still as normal a computer as any other desktop or laptop.  And while there are quite a few Linux distributions for netbooks, you can still use practically any desktop-oriented or generic Linux distribution on the netbook.

How come?  Well, the differences between Linux distributions are in:

  • how the kernel is compiled
  • which software is packaged
  • default configuration options

All three of these items are quite easy to change.  You can compile your own kernel.  You can remove installed software and install additional software.  You can change configuration options.  Involving yourself in any of these activities is not something I’d recommend to a novice user, but the important bit is that it can be done.

Consider for example, a recent example in my blog post about Fedora 12 installation on my netbook.  It went like a charm and the only issue I came across with was that wireless wasn’t working.  Which could be fixed either by installing an additional package or re-compiling the kernel and enabling the device driver.

What I am trying to say is that trying different distributions is fun, but you shouldn’t be basing your choice of the distribution just on the fact that you are using a netbook.  Consider the purpose of the distribution, software that you will be using, and people that you will be consulting with before choosing the Linux distribution for your netbook.

10 thoughts on “Linux on netbooks : distribution question”

  1. Netbooks don’t have so much powerhouses as ordinary laptops. That’s why they run specific distribution adopted for that. Fedora 12 was tuned for that. That’s why you don’t have a problem with it. But even more are you sure that you don’t have a problems with battery life or performance? If it doesn’t matter what distribution install on netbook why there are special distributions for them – Eeebuntu, Ubuntu Netbook Remix etc? Generally, of course, it doesn’t matter Fedora, Ubuntu or something else will be installed on netbook. But how reliable system will be – that the question IMHO.

  2. Michael,

    yes, netbooks have less power than laptops. But. That power is still more than enough to run any Linux. For example, a netbook that I have has a 1.6 GHz CPU and 1 GB of RAM. That’s WAY beyond any recommended hardware for any Linux distribution that I know.

    Software-wise, these netbooks are not a separate platform. They are your usual i386 / i686 machines. Linux supports that platform for a really long time now.

    As I said, there are only three things that differ between distributions – how kernel is compiled, which software is packaged, and what are configuration defaults.

    Specialized Linux distributions exists to minimize the work the user needs to do. For example, to provide a compiled kernel with drivers for devices which are often used in netbooks (wireless network cards, touchpads, etc) and without drivers for stuff that never goes into netbooks (RAID controllers, etc). Also, to package software which is most likely be used on netbook (browsers, utils, etc instead of heavy and specialized applications). Also, to provide default configurations suitable for smaller screen resolutions, etc.

    While all these things are useful, they are not necessarily enough to switch to another distribution. Fedora, Suse, and pretty much any other generic distribution will work as good. Especially if you are willing to tweak a thing or two. :)

  3. I agree, the 1.6 GHz CPU and 1 GB of RAM are enough to run any kind of Linux. But does that system give you the best performance and long battery life – is a big question. The fact that you install and run Fedora 12 on IntelliBook doesn’t mean that 1) it’s the best option for it and 2) it can be easily installed to ANY netbook.

  4. Michael,

    first of all, there is no such thing as “best option”. Ever. :)

    For the battery life, optimizing battery life on laptop is exactly the same process as optimizing battery life for netbook.

    For the optimization, as I said, that’s either a i386 or an i686 platform. :)

  5. Michael,

    just because something was built for netbook, does not automatically mean it is a “better” option. Distributions like Red Hat / Fedora, Suse, Mandriva, etc existed ages before netbooks were around. They’ve collected quite a bit of knowledge on how to do and not do things, how things work with each other, which problems are complex and which are not, what people need, and how they go about solving their problems, etc.

    All of that comes rather handy in a Linux distribution. All I’m saying is that knowledge is quite worth considering when choosing a distribution.

  6. IMHO, the battery life is not a big deal any more. There are plenty of mechanisms in every distro to see if the hardware it runs on has a battery and if yes – optimize the performance (by CPU scaling, screen brightness adjustments and so on). The only practical difference a user of netbook/laptop will see compared to desktop is a power management tool running somewhere in notification area and adjusting things depending on the state of AC adaptor and others.

    In addition, it came more to the hardware side to deal with battery consumption. For instance ATOM family of Intel CPUs, WiFi cards with lower ranges, better batteries and flash drives – all of this makes the major difference, not the distro by itself.

    From the point of view of the processsing power and other specs – I don’t remember when I was complaining about insufficient resources on my laptops/PCs last time. The technology went quite far in that. Modern CPUs are powerful enough not to think on how many GHz they have. 4GB of RAM which comes (or can be installed in anything these days) is probably more than enough even for running VMs on top of the original distro without any problems (I do run VMs on mine and have no complains on performance). HDD size are just huge for normal work (not talking about storing all my stuff like movies, for this there are bigger external drives/strages, but having something like 200GB drive is really enough).

    So I completely agree with Leo that the only difference in distros is habits on how to configure it, what it initially offers, how things are done in it and alike.

  7. How you explain this:

    Compared to an alpha version released in August, the Fedora 12 beta offers no significant new features, says the project. However, the beta should be faster due to compiling the release for i686 x86 architectures instead of the previous i586. The release also offers performance optimizations for the Intel Atom CPU, typically used on netbooks, as well as adding the netbook-focused Moblin v2.0 GUI and applications.

  8. Michael,

    these are options for C compiler and such. While they do help to make things faster, in practice, I doubt that you’ll really notice the difference. Benchmark-wise – yes, user experience-wise – no, not much.

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