A current netbook is likely to have 150GB of disk, 1 GB RAM, a screen resolution of 1024x800 and a wide range of connectivity options. It can hardly be called a minimal device. It is also double the weight of the original EEPC 701!
The issue really boils down to the problem of a human being able to interact and cope with the enormous range of possible usage scenarios. The screen is relatively small. Overlapping windows more often than not are a mess and confuse users rather than help.
Ubuntu Netbook version is probably the most widely used. I opted for the 10.10 beta version with a new look and feel.
MeeGo, promoted by Intel and Nokia, has been receiving a lot of attention. It boots very fast on an Atom cpu.
A third option I found very exciting was KDE plasma's netbook workspace. It is as simple as changing the theme on a standard desktop and the result is a very different interface.
A common element of all three is that usually an application is opened in the full window mode. Each tries to increase the viewing area by removing the window decorations.
Fig 1: MeeGo screen images showing the top panel area: a. tabbed view,
b. application screen active, c. mouse pushed to the top edge so panel
buttons are shown.
MeeGo organises the screen like a set of tabbed pages, with tab icons appearing in a horizontal bar on the top. The location and meaning of each tab is fixed. For example, the time tab opens a calendar. The applications tab let one choose an application to start. Zones shows the open applications and let's one switch between them. Internet page shows a limited number of favourite web pages. The People page shows the contacts.
An application starts in a full screen mode. The horizontal bar with tabbed options is hidden. Pushing the mouse against the upper edge of the screen displays the tabbed options. The title bar of the application has only one button – 'X' to close the application. Minimise/maximise do not have any relevance.
Usage is pretty simple and uncluttered. Getting used to the interface is not hard at all.
Some applications, like games, did not open in full screen mode. In some cases but not all, F11 would change it to the full screen mode. However, the upper edge of the screen was then no longer active which meant that it was not possible to display the options bar. F11 had to be pressed again in order to bring the display to normal size and resume 'normal' usage. Since the only button available on for controlling the window is 'X' for closing the window, this behaviour was inconsistent and odd.
MeeGo uses rpm packages. A Fedora spin is in progress. Once that is available, the current limitation of the number of easily installable applications will disappear. I expect that the integration between gnome and kde applications and MeeGo window management will improve. It is, without doubt, an exciting interface.
KDE 4.5 Plasma Netbook WorkspaceFig 2: KDE Plasma Netbook images showing the top area: a. Firefox is
active, b. Mouse pushed to the top edge so the panel is visible
I opted for Arch Linux exploring the KDE Plasma netbook option. Kubuntu 10.10 beta is the easier option for exploring it. However, Lenovo S10-3 would not boot with this version. The problem has since been resolved. Details in case anyone is interested are given at http://sethanil.blogspot.com/2010/09/kde-45-on-lenovo-s10-3.html.
There is an activity bar on the top. Aside from the status indicators of the netbook, it has a search and launch button. This button shows us the page for selecting and starting an application. It is just like the KDE's application launcher widget but with a different interface.
When we launch an application, it uses the entire screen. It does not even waste space for a title bar. There are no window control buttons. The activity bar is hidden. As in the case of MeeGo, pressing against the upper edge of the screen displays the activity bar. The right had corner has a 'X' button to close the window. One can choose the search an launch button to choose an alternate application.
Clicking on the icon of the active application on the activity bar displays a list of the running applications and one can switch to any. Usual desktop shortcuts like alt-tab may also be used.
A nice way of switching between running applications was by using active screen edges. It was working on Kubuntu Netbook 9.04; however, I could not get it to work on the current version on Arch Linux. But the plasma netbook interface is evolving. We will wait and see.
The use of the full screen without even the title bar, as seen in the image, appealed to me a lot.
Ubuntu NetbookFig 3: Ubuntu Netbook display showing the difference in the panel: a. Konqueror is active, b. Firefox is active.
Ubuntu's new netbook edition continues to use a panel on the top. In addition, it uses a vertical launcher on the left side. Since the netbooks come in a wide-screen format this is not a bad idea.
The vertical application launcher is for keeping icons of the commonly used applications. It is similar to the dock bar of Mac OSX. When an application is launched, an icon is added to the vertical bar. One can keep it in the dock for future convenience. Clicking on an icon starts the application or brings it to the foreground if it is already running. The icons are large enough that they would be useful with a touch screen.
Usage of the panel on the top is interesting. This is illustrated in the Figure 3. The status information about the machine is retained. Icons for controlling the active window are displayed in the same panel. For the standard gnome and kde applications, the menu bar is also displayed in the panel as the example of Konqueror shows. However, the menu bar of applications like firefox and openoffice is not extracted and displayed in the panel. I am not sure whether this is a current limitation or cannot be avoided. Chrome does not have a menu bar.
I found this interface offered the least surprises to a desktop user.
Each os interface includes searching for an application to start it. Each offers a chance to store commonly used applications for convenient access. And each offers the applications in logically defined groups as well – like a traditional menu.
It is tough to decide. I could use and switch between the three with little difficulty. Ubuntu netbook offers the easiest way to start a 'favourite' application. It is also the simplest for switching between active applications. A Linux desktop user is likely to feel comfortable with Ubuntu netbook edition.
MeeGo interface seems remarkably streamlined. Even the top bar does not overwhelm a use with tightly packed information. It is difficult of imagine even a novice user getting confused by it (except if games do not use all the available screen space).
Unlike Ubuntu and KDE, MeeGo shows the title bar of an application. I found the missing title bar disconcerting in the beginning on KDE in particular but got used to it quickly. However, I can imagine a user having difficulty when selecting an application window from a list.
KDE's plasma netbook packs the power of KDE applications. The interface is sleek, simple and attractive. The wealth of KDE addons are available and 'live' applications can be pinned to 'Page One'. Personally, I may not use any of the addons. But I am likely to use KDE netbook interface as the default. I find that the full screen for an application minimises distractions, especially when reading or viewing media. I have always liked the full screen interface of Sugar (OLPC).
Switching between application windows was the hardest with KDE. It would be nice if it is made as easy as on Sugar – press of a function key.
Currently I expect to keep each of the three installed and keep them updated. May be, after a year, may be one will become the definite favourite.
Written: Sep 2010.