In late 2007 ASUS released the Eee PC, a tiny little laptop that sparked a whole new wave of innovation in the computer world.
It was the first in the family of ultra mobile computing devices that now comprises a wide range of netbooks from all major manufacturers and even paved the way for a more widespread acceptance of the tablet form-factor.
One key aspect of the Eee PC was its operating system. It ran a version of Xandros that did away with the conventional user interface, preferring a device-like UI as opposed to the desktop-oriented UI. This was well suited to the small screens that netbooks generally come with.
Today there are many such Linux-based distributions with new takes on the user interface geared towards small screens. In this article I am going to try and break down and analyse two of them by some of the biggest names in Linux; MeeGo from Intel and Nokia, and Ubuntu Netbook Edition (UNE) from Canonical.
As of now the official installation instructions for MeeGo are for byte-copying the MeeGo .img file to a USB drive using ‘dd’, and that’s about it. The resulting USB drive can be used either as a Live USB stick or to install MeeGo to your hard drive.
The MeeGo installer is very much an OEM installer i.e. the system is installed to disk but general configuration is done only on first boot. Lacking in the installer is the option to choose where the boot loader will be installed or skip installing it altogether. For this reason I did not run Meego installed on bare metal. It is unfortunate that the official documentation makes no mention of this installer.
Here are screenshots from the MeeGo installer. They are pretty much self-explanatory. [Check out the animated Image Gallery]
UNE, on the other hand, is just another flavor of Ubuntu. Hence it comes with Ubuntu’s fabulous installer, Ubiquity. Anyone who has installed an operating system or maybe even more sophisticated applications on Windows will have no problems getting UNE onto their netbooks. The procedure is short, simple and intuitive.
Breaking away from convention has given netbook UI designers the freedom to rethink everything. This was the most interesting part of comparing these two distributions. Like anything new, a learning curve is involved even for veteran Linux users. But I noticed that after a few days of using the interfaces I eventually got used to them even though at first I wondered why anyone would switch to these designs.
Now I can imagine some people preferring either of these over the traditional computer desktop setup. Both UIs try to maximise the use of screen real estate but go about it quite differently.
MeeGo presents the user with a toolbar at the top of the screen. On a netbook this toolbar autohides but at normal screen resolutions it does not. On this toolbar there are panels or zones that define a specific type of activity. Clicking on a zone opens the panel in fullscreen mode or as a drop down drawer. One thing to note is that the artwork is very well done. Icons are cartoon-ey but not childish. The tooltips pop up with a certain pizzazz that is very pleasing to the eye.
The main or front page panel is the ‘Myzone’ panel. Here the user is provided with general information ranging from calender events, task lists, social networking updates, frequented web pages, email notifications and application launchers.
This panel makes perfect sense considering netbooks are on-the-go devices and providing the user with this information immediately and at a glance is useful. The ‘Zones’ panel is basically what the task bar is on a conventional desktop.
The user can see running applications and workspaces. Applications can be closed or rearranged intuitively by simple drag and drop actions. There is an ‘Applications’ panel that contains launchers much like an Android phone or iPhone.
The other panels are more task oriented. They are Status, People, Internet, Media, Devices, Bluetooth, Network, Clock and Battery and they open up the respective applications or configuration tools. MeeGo uses Chromium for web browsing, Empathy for instant messaging, Evolution for email and calender, and Banshee for media.
They are pretty standard desktop applications and they work well. For microblogging MeeGo integrates Twitter and Last.fm with its own application. It is possible to add more panels such as the Gadgets panel. However, I found the available gadgets looking out of place compared to the rest of the interface and many did not work.
One thing I did not like about the MeeGo UI is that some components of the UI seemed way too large for an interface that was meant to save screen space. The biggest culprit here is the window manager.
The titlebars of windows are immense and rather ungainly next to the sleek toolbar. The only reason I can think of for them being so large is to make the UI more touchscreen friendly. But then MeeGo has the tablet edition for touchscreens. Also, the UI theme configuration was limited to the background wallpaper. There are options to change the GTK theme but attempts to install other themes were in vain as the required rendering engines were not available.
UNE’s approach to the netbook interface is called Unity, as you may know. Unity is slated to be the default Ubuntu UI for 11.04 ‘Natty Narwhal’. The dominating feature is the ‘dock-like’ panel on the left edge of the screen.
It contains application launchers that can be pinned to the panel so that they appear there even when the applications are not running. The look and feel of this panel is top notch. Animations are smooth and pretty; from the way icons stack up to the way they wiggle when the application requires attention.
At the top left is the Ubuntu logo that brings up a search interface with a few launchers to start with. It resembles KDE’s ‘Search and Launch’ activity in many ways but the search feature is limited comparatively.
Across the top of the screen is another panel that houses the standard Ubuntu system tray, clock and MeMenu on the right, and window manager buttons and application menu bar on the left. In my experience, this setup is great when applications are run maximized. Having the menu bar at the top when windows are not maximized does take some getting used to.
Inconsistencies with Unity appear in various scenarios. For example, Firefox’s menu bar is in the application window and not the top panel. When you change the GTK theme, the order of the window management buttons changes so that they are one way when maximized and another when not.
It is very disconcerting. When running a Qt application such as Arora, the top panel would occasionally be blank - no buttons, no menu. When a different GTK theme is selected, the Unity panels remain unchanged giving and incoherent look and feel.
My biggest gripe with the Unity interface is the browsing interface for files and applications. As a file browser it is a hindrance, to put it lightly. Simple actions such as copying, pasting, deleting, opening a folder, opening files with a specific application, etc are not possible.
It does not do anything that Nautilus cannot and it falls short in many other areas. If it would at least integrate desktop searching like the KDE ‘Search and Launch’ UI I could understand its inclusion. As it is, I pin Nautilus to the panel and avoid using Unity for file management tasks altogether.
Being created by companies that make the hardware it is meant to run on, MeeGo is very hardware specific in comparison to UNE. Under supported hardware only Intel Atom based machines are included though I am running it on an Intel Dual Core chip. Support for other CPU types is probably possible but not on the official images. The fact that I could not get the MeeGo UI running in a virtual machine should provide some indication of the specificity of hardware requirements. This is part of the performance optimization done in Meego.
UNE supports all i586 processors and newer but faces a problem similar to MeeGo with the compositing effects (using Mutter) in Unity. I couldn’t get Unity working in a virtual machine either.
Apart from these issues, hardware support is somewhat standard for Linux kernel version 2.6.35 on both distros for my Acer Extensa 5630EZ laptop which only uses Open Source drivers. Wireless, bluetooth, graphic acceleration, webcam all worked out of the box.
I can imagine MeeGo having issues on non-Intel hardware. MeeGo also did not recognise my USB 3G modem which is disappointing since with a netbook, mobile connectivity is even more important. UNE detected the same USB modem and connecting was as simple as selecting my ISP and type of data plan from a given list. No further configuration was required. On the other hand, MeeGo provided an option to tether my mobile phone over bluetooth.
As for hardware requirements, on boot from a Live USB stick, Meego uses ~150 MB of RAM while UNE uses ~190 MB. The battery lasted roughly 3 hours 20 minutes on both Meego and UNE. Both times were with the screen set to the lowest brightness, WiFi on but connected to a wired network, bluetooth on, music player playing, web browser running (I tried to avoid Flash websites), and other apps open in the background. For reference, running Arch Linux and full KDE under normal usage, I get 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours out of the battery.
The boot time for MeeGo was faster than UNE. Clearly MeeGo’s hardware specific optimizations are at work here. But in the real world when both boot in under 30 seconds it really makes no difference which boots faster. Where these optimizations do matter is in the normal use of the distros. MeeGo is decidedly snappier than UNE.
Both distributions come with familiar or at least very easy-to-use applications for usual tasks. I could go into detail about each but that is unnecessary. They all work well for the most part. I experienced a few application crashes in MeeGo. The Pasteboard panel and Chromium (while running Flash) crashed. Both left the UI unusable. For the panel crash I had to switch to the virtual terminal (Ctrl+Alt+F1) and kill X while the Chromium crash caused every application, including command line apps to segfault. I suspect it was a disk space issue as I was checking playback support for a variety of file formats and I must have filled up the memory.
I think the most important thing to take away is that these distros break away from that age old paradigm of the computer as the Swiss army knife of digital world and gear more towards one that defines the computer as an appliance. This is even more evident in MeeGo’s zone layout where the focus is not on the application but on the actual task or activity. For example you don’t start the instant messaging client to chat with somebody, instead you go to the People zone and find the person you want to chat to.
There is less knowing how to do something and more knowing where to go when you want to do it, and letting the computer sort out the in-between steps. I can see why many people would prefer this paradigm at least in some cases.
UNE also follows this paradigm to some extent with the MeMenu, applications running in fullscreen and the Unity panel where one can pin often used applications for immediate access. However, the traditional work flow is also preserved striking a good balance between the appliance and desktop feel.
Both distributions sport a few games preinstalled. MeeGo’s selection is little more impressive: AisleRiot Solitaire, Frozen Bubble, Mines, Neverball and Neverputt. UNE has AisleRiot Solitaire, Mahjongg, Quadrapassel and Sudoku. The 3D games work well with my integrated Intel graphics.
MeeGo comes with Flash support and support for open media codecs. But GStreamer’s bad and ugly plugins are not available in the repositories even with the non-OSS source enabled. This severely limits MeeGo’s usefulness in the real world. UNE does not have Flash support or closed codec support out of the box, but adding this is a walk in the park with the system prompting the user to install packages when they are required.
As with any system, there comes a point when you will have to install applications and packages that you require. MeeGo’s package system is RPM-based. The classic Add/Remove Programs is present. It is functional but the package selection is very limited. A glaring omission is OpenOffice (or LibreOffice). I guess in time more packages will be added.
There is also the MeeGo Garage which can be likened to the Ubuntu Software Center. It does not display library packages and the like; only end user applications are listed. In MeeGo’s Applications panel, there are a total of 5 launchers for various aspects of package management, from software sources to update manager. This can be confusing for new users.
UNE uses the superb Ubuntu Software Center which includes the Ubuntu Software Store. This combination has won many accolades from users and rightly so. It is easy to use and the selection of software is vast with much more available via PPAs.
The tools available for system management and configuration are very basic in MeeGo; basic to the point of almost being cosmetic. To dig into the system’s settings one would have to use the terminal. Considering the target audience and use case scenario, this could be viewed as an advantage. UNE’s Unity sits atop a full Gnome DE and so options and settings and plentiful... for anything that is not Unity.
As a side note, Nokia has touted strong integration of the Qt framework in MeeGo. I am not sure if this includes the netbook edition, but there are no Qt applications installed by default. The power of Qt in UI design has been proven by the KDE project and their netbook UI. It would be great to see some of that in MeeGo.
On the whole, if you are looking for a netbook OS today, I would recommend UNE over MeeGo. Both have their strengths and weaknesses but MeeGo seems like it needs some more time to mature.
However, the potential in MeeGo to become a leading distro is evident. Where UNE wins by being a full and well rounded OS with a netbook UI, MeeGo wins by being purpose-built to do a few tasks very well. MeeGo has made me understand the point of netbook UIs. If I could summarize MeeGo in one phrase it would be ‘Your computer as an appliance’. And I like it!