Ubuntu Netbook 10.10: Usability vs. Constraints

Your comfort with the Ubuntu Netbook depends on whether your work habits conform to the assumptions built into the design.
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From KDE's Plasma Netbook to EasyPeasy, every Linux desktop for netbooks that I’ve seen are designed with the same assumptions. Each assumes that, because of the smaller screen, the desktop must be simpler than a workstation's, and will be used mainly for light computing in general and social networking in particular.

Released at the same time as the Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick) general version, the latest version of Ubuntu Netbook Edition does not question these assumptions. This conventionality may be questionable to many: workstation versions of GNOME, KDE, and Xfce work perfectly well on the smaller screens of netbooks for anyone with regular vision, and netbooks -- especially the latest generation, with their extra memory -- are capable of more than light computing. In addition, though, Ubuntu Netbook also has some design quirks that can make it less than ideal.

Ubuntu Netbook is available as a Live CD. Alternatively, you can create a Live USB drive, following the instructions on the download page. However, be warned that, like GNOME Shell, Ubuntu Netbook requires 3-D hardware acceleration, which means either using the still relatively few free drivers which meet this requirement or else finding proprietary ones. Unfortunately, this requirement is only mentioned in the final stages of loading, and the Live devices include only a limited set of drivers.

Although this is not a problem on many netbooks, most of which use the Intel Atom processor, it can be a problem if you try to run Ubuntu Netbook on another chipset. A message suggests that you boot with the regular version of Ubuntu, even though it is not included in the disk image.

Once you work around this problem, Ubuntu Netbook opens to reveal a desktop with a panel across the top and a launcher on the left that is a combination Favorites menu and taskbar of open applications.

With the pastel and gray buttons on the launcher and Ubuntu's luminous default, the visual impression is stunning. But is Ubuntu Netbook an effective desktop? That depends on whether your work habits are in keeping with the assumptions built into the design.

The Art of Keeping Things Simple

In interface design, simplicity is usually considered elegance. And, on a netbook, the smaller screen size provides another reason to keep the desktop as simple as possible. Whatever the reason for the drive towards simplicity, the trouble is that it can lead to the removal of choice, which in the past has been a main consideration on the free desktop. Either the choices are removed altogether, or else they are buried so deep in the interface that users can miss them altogether and assume that they are not there.

In some ways, Ubuntu Netbook manages a balance between greater simplicity and functionality. For instance, it keeps unchanged the collection of applets on the right side of the panel, such as the notification tray, the time and date, the MeMenu and the exit menu. This is sensible, since users refer to these icons constantly, and to change their position or components would only confuse.

Ubuntu Netbook does change the position of Ubuntu's second panel to the left of the screen, but this choice seems a sensible redesign that reflects the fact that netbook screens have more horizontal space than vertical.

ubuntu netbook

The Ubuntu netbook desktop

However, depending on how you prefer to use a desktop, you may be frustrated by other simplifications in Ubuntu Netbook. If you prefer desktop or panel icons, you are out of luck, because the desktop is oriented towards using the launcher instead. Moreover, should the application you want not be among the defaults or those recently used, you need several more clicks than on a standard desktop to find it under the Applications buttons. In other words, the simplification in appearance can create inconvenience.

That is especially true of customization of appearance or keyboard shortcuts. Admittedly, most users do not continually customize, so that designers might conclude that such things do not need to be available. But many free desktop users will customize almost immediately. And, because the tools are buried so deeply, they can easily jump to the conclusion that what they are looking for simply isn't there, and that they are stuck with the defaults.

Next Page: Ubuntu Netbook: Social Networking vs. Productivity Computing

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Tags: Ubuntu, Linux downloads, open source tools, netbooks, netbook

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