The Great Open Source Netbook Interface Race

An overview of the top open source choices for netbook users.
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Linux may no longer have the largest share of the netbook market, the way it did a couple of years ago. But you could still say that if the community isn't dominating in sales, it's taking the lead in interface choices.

Recently, everybody seems focused on the netbook market. The communities that develop lightweight desktops like Xfce and LXDE or nimble distributions like Slax are promoting their work as ideal for netbooks. Debian has a project focused on tweaking the distribution for netbooks, while Mandriva offers Sugar and Moblin as netbook interfaces. The race is so competitive that some choices are already dropped out of the running, such as the HP Mi Edition, which a year ago was receiving rave reviews.

Who will win, place, or show in the netbook race is still anybody's guess. Currently, however, there are four main competitors: the Plasma Netbook Interface, Easy Peasy, Chrome OS, and Moblin.

The first two are KDE and GNOME with new interfaces, and the last two are still in development, but these four are the ones that receiving the most attention right now. Each draws on different sources of inspiration. But, taken together, they illustrate the assumptions that are being made about how netbooks are being used -- assumptions that I suspect may be misguided.

KDE's Plasma Netbook Interface

Scheduled for official release at the end of this month, the Plasma Netbook Interface (PNI) is being developed concurrently with the standard KDE Desktop. However, it is already well-known, thanks to some stable beta releases.

PNI offers a somewhat different experience from the standard KDE desktop. However, there are some obvious analogies. The panel is little changed in PNI, and the button on the upper right is functionally similar to standard KDE's desktop tool kit. Even the floating favorites and menu bars in the top middle of the screen are less of an innovation than they first appear, since they recall KRunner, the floating command center that many advanced KDE users prefer to the menu.

The main difference is that the panel's task bar does not display running applications, but containments -- workspaces with customized arrangements of widgets. In other words, PNI shares the same back-end as standard KDE, differing only in the details of the interface.

Like the other contenders, PNI is designed with the assumption that, given the relatively small size of a netbook's screen, users will usually be using only one application at a time. However, besides the similarity to standard KDE, PNI's strengths are an economical use of screen space, and the minimal number of clicks needed to switch from one application to another. These strengths make PNI a strong contender for both veteran KDE users and newcomers.

open source netbook interfaces

Easy Peasy: A Mobile Face on GNOME

Formerly known as Ubuntu Eee and the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Easy Peasy is based on the GNOME desktop. However, you have to go into the Preferences or Administration menu to see this resemblance, because the changes from the GNOME desktop are far greater than PNI's changes from standard KDE.

Essentially, Easy Peasy has taken the menus in the GNOME panel and expanded them to fill the default desktop. On the left is the list of applications, on the right a list of places on the hard drive, such as your home and download directories for documents, graphics, videos, and music. Also on the right, at the bottom, is an exit icon. In the middle is the currently selected sub-menu.

open source netbook interfaces

When you open an application, an icon opens in the taskbar and the application runs in a full-screen tab. To open another application, you click on its taskbar icon, while to return to the default view, you click the Easy Peasy button on the left side of the taskbar.

This workflow makes Easy Peasy seem more of an interface for a music player or phone than a desktop. This resemblance should help Easy Peasy live up to its name for many users. However, if you are more familiar with a desktop than mobile devices, you might question whether a menu should take over the entire screen or whether the icons for switching between applications should be so small.

Next Page: Two more open source netbook choices

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