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Best Netbook OS: Ubuntu vs. XP vs. Windows 7

Each of the operating systems has its strengths and weaknesses, but which does best given the limits of a netbook?
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What’s the best OS for use on the new ultra-portable netbook systems? I used a Samsung NC10 netbook and three operating systems to try to find out the answer.

The Samsung NC10 is a pretty standard netbook –1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, 1GB RAM, 160GB hard drive, and a really nice 10.2-inch WSVGA screen. The NC10 comes with Windows XP Home as the preinstalled OS.

As you’d expect, Windows XP runs really nicely on the NC10. Despite having what many consider to be a lowly specification, a netbook is a very capable system. Given that Windows XP is now more than seven years old, the inevitability of Moore’s Law has meant that budget hardware can deliver a fantastic computing experience. The biggest problem with XP, especially for anyone who has used a more modern OS, is that it looks and feels long in the tooth.

However, no matter how tired that Windows XP looks and feels, it works very well on the NC10, and everything on the netbook is designed with XP in mind.

So, how will the little Samsung netbook feel with a different OS loaded onto it?

The two operating systems that I tried were Ubuntu 8.10 “Intrepid Ibex” and Windows 7 beta build 7000, both of which in their 32-bit flavors. (I didn’t see any point to loading a 64-bit OS onto a system with only 1GB of RAM).

Important note:

The first point to make is that Windows 7 is a BETA. That means things can go wrong and if they do, you are very much on your own. Don’t expect your OEM to help you out, and don’t expect much in the way of support from Microsoft.

The second point to note is that when changing the default OS on any system it’s possible to run into trouble. Unless you are comfortable with installing, reinstalling, backing up, finding and installing drivers and general troubleshooting then you should stick with whatever OS came installed on your system.

The final point worth making is that I made sure that the BIOS firmware was the very latest code before attempting to install either of the new OSes.

The method I used for installing the operating systems was a simple one – I dug out my USB external CD/DVD drive and hooked that to a USB port. This seemed far simpler than messing about with USB flash drives.

Ubuntu 8.10

First off I installed Ubuntu 8.10. Overall the installation process was quick and simple – something that I’ve come to expect of this particular Linux distro – and I ended up with a snappy OS.

Problem was, a lot of things seemed flaky. The most obvious of these was the fact that the trackpad seemed to behave very oddly and the Wi-Fi just wouldn’t work. I later also discovered that the special Fn (function) keys weren’t working, something which I was expecting.

These issues aren’t deal-breakers by any means, and solutions are at hand. A good source of information was Ubuntu’s own help site, which provided me with solutions to most of the issues I’d noticed. It also informed me about a few issues that I hadn’t noticed relating to the speaker sounds not cutting out when headphones are used.

At best, when running Ubuntu 8.10 on the Samsung NC10 you end up with most of the Fn keys not working (brightness does, but all others, such as monitor switching and sleep, are dead), a non-functioning Wi-Fi on/off switch and no trackpad multi-touch.

For me, while having features that I couldn’t use might bug me occasionally, I don’t think that they would be deal-breakers, although the inability to switch off Wi-Fi could be a pain at times.

From a performance perspective, the netbook has no problems handling the full desktop OS. While it’s hard to be sure, I’d say that Ubuntu is faster and snappier than XP, and applications such as Firefox and OpenOffice.org are quite functional. If you can live with a few non-functional Fn keys, and are up for a little problem solving, Ubuntu is overall an improvement over the pre-installed XP OS.

Windows 7 Beta

Next up, Windows 7 beta. The leap from XP to Windows 7 meant that there was no chance of upgrading the system. However, for a system I was going to put into daily use I wouldn’t take that shortcut because the best way to install Windows is always to carry out a clean install.

As someone who primarily uses Windows (although I do have systems running both Mac and Linux too) I like Windows 7, like it a lot. To begin with, 7 is a pleasure to install.

The time gap between popping the DVD in the drive and being at the desktop actually working is around 20 minutes, and small things such as not making the Windows Experience Index test mandatory during the first run (something which can take quite a bit of time on slower systems) represent a huge improvement over Vista.

Note:

In case you’re wondering, the NC10 scores a respectable 2.1 on the Windows Experience Index rating, making it an ideal general-purpose PC.

Next Page: Which OS is ultimately best on an Netbook?


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Tags: Linux, Ubuntu, Windows 7, netbooks, XP


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