If netbook computers have done nothing else, they have increased the choices of desktops for Linux software users. Some existing desktops have found a new niche in netbooks, while the last couple of years have seen new ones designed specifically for the restraints of memory and screen size imposed by netbooks.
Of course, assuming that your vision is somewhere near the statistical norm, you might be perfectly satisfied with GNOME or KDE on a netbook. The classic desktop metaphor is roomy even on a ten-inch screen, and the most you may need to do is increase the font sizes.
However, if you’re looking for an alternative, here are nine that you might want to try:
Developed by Google, Chrome OS is currently available as a release candidate, with general release expected early in 2011. Although according to Wikipedia, Chrome OS will not be available as a download, but shipped pre-installed on computers, a download is still available on lie.
Chrome is the most extreme example yet of an operating system designed for use with online applications. It installs with little more than the Chrome browser and a panel with a few basic utilities on it, and almost all the available apps are online.
Whether Chrome is worth investigating depends on what you think of Web-based applications. If online applications will handle the work you do, then Chrome is a potential netbook interface for you. If you prefer local apps, either because of their full feature sets or because of general concerns about privacy and availability, then Chrome is unlikely to be worth considering for your netbook.
Designed specifically for netbooks, the EasyPeasy distribution emphasizes online applications and social media. A modification of GNOME and Ubuntu, its interface, like many for netbooks, consists of a top panel, a left hand pane for the main menu, and menu items on the desktop. The main difference is that the menu is wider than in similar desktops like Unity, making it easier to read.
Stressing convenience rather than software freedom, EasyPeasy also installs with a number or proprietary applications, including Skype and Flash. For some, its inclusion of Mono applications like Banshee may be a concern.
EasyPeasy performs about as well as GNOME does on the same computer, but its version of what is becoming the standard netbook layout is more legible than most on a netbook screen, and worth considering mainly for that reason.
Jolicloud is a distribution designed for use with online applications. The default installation includes few standard productivity applications, and, although you can install them if you prefer, the obvious assumption is that you will be using tools like Google Docs rather than local applications.
The Jolicloud interface consists of two panels: the top one for first level items, and one below that for second level items. Third level items display as icons, with online and local applications mixed.
Jolicloud is not quite as wholeheartedly dedicated to online applications as Chrome OS, but the difference is small. Offering more local apps than Chrome, Jolicloud retains more of the desktop metaphor that Chrome OS does, which reduces the desktop to a browser launcher. That makes Jolicloud seem more familiar, but less radical than Chrome, even though the orientation of the two interfaces is general similar.
Originally designed for workstations, LXDE is enjoying new popularity, in part because of the rise of netbooks. The project members seem to pride themselves on their UNIX and free software roots, remaining true to them by borrowing from existing projects, such as GTK+ and using existing window managers such as Openbox, instead of writing their own.
If you are a GNOME or KDE user, LXDE may strike you as sparse, and less user-friendly than what you are used to, especially in its configuration options. However, what LXDE does include is carefully selected, and what it does include should be sufficient for most people, especially if their priority is a fast-responding interface.
MeeGo is a project to develop a series of interfaces for mobile devices. A merge of the Moblin Maemo projects, MeeGo is now hosted by the Linux Foundation, and includes such corporate members as Novell and Intel.
Like its other interfaces, MeeGo for netbooks is characterized by icons that have been described as either cartoonish or minimalist, depending on the speakers’ opinion. Either way, they are often so simple that they are often impossible to decipher.
The Meego desktop is dominated by a toolbar across the top, with icons for different activities, or zones. The main zone, called MyZone, is a kind of control center, with a summary of tasks, feeds, email notifications, and application launchers. Other zones are oriented towards tasks, mainly online ones, such as email, web browsing, or chat. The applications used for these tasks are standard ones, such as the Chrome browser or the Evolution email reader.
Despite being designed for netbooks, MeeGo’s interface does not seem to use the limited screen space efficiently. Its icons and title bars seem needlessly large, and the arrangement of icons makes the interface seem cluttered. However, part of the reason for this impression may be because MeeGo’s interface is very different from most of the others for netbooks. Possibly, it might improve on further acquaintance.
For some reason, you don’t hear much about KDE’s Plasma Netbook. Yet, in many ways, it’s one of the best of the netbook interfaces.
Strictly speaking, Plasma Netbook is not a separate desktop, but two “containments” or views of KDE. Underneath, its code is the same as ordinary KDE, which makes for easier code maintenance.
The newspaper containment fills the desktop with a two-column view of widgets for news, weather, feeds, and other widgets that you might want when first logging in. The exact widgets can be customized to suit, but, on the whole, it is less powerful — and less useful — than MeeGo’s MyZone.
In the more standard Applications containment, you get a panel much like that in standard KDE, minus the menu. The menu — or its top level, at least — as well as the task bar, is transferred to the desktop. This arrangement makes for a readable, easy to use design.
The drawbacks to Plasma Netbook are those of most netbook desktops: a design that encourages the use of one application at a time, and a lack of detailed configuration options. But if your preference is for an interface that is reminiscent of the classic desktop but simpler, then you will probably prefer Plasma Netbook over any of the alternatives.
Originally designed by One Laptop Per Child, Sugar is now an independent project of Sugar Labs. As the full name implies, Sugar is not intended only as an interface for launching applications, but also as an educational aid that encourages users to reflect upon their experiences and record them. One result of this intention is that Sugar talks about activities rather than applications. Another is that Sugar includes one view that helps you find other users nearby who are also using Sugar.
Sugar opens on a menu in which activities are arranged along the perimeter of a circle. Since this menu can quickly become crowded, the opening view also includes a panel with a search field and a favorites and list view.
Sugar’s activities are often modified versions of existing free software — for instance, its Write activity is based upon AbiWord. Clicking an activity opens it on a new screen, and, upon exiting, you may be encouraged to write a reflection upon what you have just done, depending on the activity.
Sugar is sufficiently different from the classical desktop that you might take a few minutes to acclimatize. Some adults, too, might find its simplicity too child-like for their comfort. However, if you are involved in teaching elementary school, need an interface for a child, or have basic computer needs, then you should consider Sugar as a possible alternative.
Unity is designed by Canonical, and is scheduled to become Ubuntu’s default interface in the next release.
Just as Plasma Netbook is an alternative view of KDE, so Unity is a new front end for GNOME. Consequently, although designed with netbook’s reduced screen size in mind, it is not particularly lightweight.
Unity reduces the panel to a minimum of applets, and places the menu on the left side of the screen in a launcher that also doubles as a taskbar and a navigator for the home directory. Top-level menu items are also displayed on the desktop. The arrangement of icons on both the panel and the launcher shows an emphasis on light, modern computing, emphasizing such activities as social networking listening to music.
Unity is still in development. Currently, however, one of its main weaknesses is a lack of organization in the launcher, which perhaps is required to do too many things. Another is a tendency to bury customization options so far down in the interface that many users are apt to miss them. At this stage, though, it is hard to make any recommendations about Unity, since its design is apparently still in flux.
The developers will probably not thank me for the description, but I always think of Xfce as what GNOME would be if designed with traditional Unix principles in mind, and kept light and efficient.Or, to put it another way, Xfce manages to balance ease of use with speed and a small footprint compared to GNOME or KDE.
This balance makes Xfce ideal for netbooks, particularly older ones with less than a megabyte of RAM, or new ones in which hard drive space is scarce. Another advantage is that, unlike some of the recent netbook-specific designs, Xfce’s interface is standard enough to be instantly familiar. In fact, you might consider running it on your workstation as well.
Linux Netbooks: Something for Everyone
If these interfaces are not enough for you, another alternative is to fall back on the window managers that were GNU/Linux’s first interfaces. Window managers such as FVWM, Enlightenment, and Fluxbox are still popular, especially among more advanced users, and may be all you need for your netbook. The larger distributions will include most of them, and some smaller ones will use them as the main interfaces, so they are easy to experiment with. You could even choose a tiled window manager such as Ratpoison, although I would not recommend one for anybody except an advanced user.
Exactly which interface you choose will depend on your priorities and preferences. Personally, I prefer Plasma Netbook — but, then, I am mainly a workstation user. If you value speed, LXDE might be the choice for you, while if you use net applications, than Chrome OS might be ideal. But, whatever you are looking for in a netbook interface, the chances are that the free software alternatives will include at least one that will satisfy your needs.