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Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04 on Dell Mini 10v Review

Written by: NetworkError, on 10-08-2009 13:27
Last update: 10-08-2009 14:44
Published in: Public, Technical Wootness
Views: 6030

I recently acquired a Dell Mini 10v and thought I’d give Ubuntu Netbook Remix a whirl on it. Here’s a quick rundown of my first week’s experience.

Installation:
Installation was a breeze. I made a bootable thumb-drive with the Ubuntu Netbook Remix image, booted off it, and I was off and running.

The installer was even kind enough to walk me through resizing my Windows XP partition. (It's been a while since I've done a dual-boot setup and this is by far the easiest dual-boot I have ever set up.) The installer even imported some of my settings from my Windows account. (Wallpaper and such...)

All my hardware was recognized and setup without any intervention from me. (It even picked up my built-in bluetooth receiver.) X runs great out-of-the-box on the GMA 950 video chip the Mini 10vs come with. (Note: Mini 10s come with the GMA 500. Support is less than stellar for those.)

The Home Screen:
The home-screen is very cool. It really makes use of the limited screen real-estate, and the menu animations are a nice touch.

Maximus:
(Nearly) every window you open is automatically maximized and tabbed into the dock at the top of the screen. Most of the time, this is very slick. For some applications (like VLC), it's just annoying. There is not an easy way to get Maximus to ignore applications, but I'm sure that's forthcoming. And you can still un-maximize windows.

Classic Desktop:
This is where things started to get shaky. You can easily switch from the Netbook Remix desktop to a more classic desktop with a few clicks. However, Maximus keeps running. (As you can imagine, this is really annoying.) Furthermore, when I logged out and back in with the classic desktop, my window manager didn't load. I think there are a few kinks to be worked out here.

Application Support:
Once things were installed, I ran a quick apt-get update && apt-get upgrade, then went to work installing stuff. As always, most of the stuff I wanted was available via apt so it was easy to get 95% of my applications setup.

Next, I went out looking for stuff that isn't in the apt sources. This is where things got a tiny bit dissapointing.

Stuff I could find:

  • Skype (can't get audio to work... may be a bad setting)
  • Flash
Stuff I couldn't find:
  • Google talk video chat plugin (don't need it if I can get Skype working)
  • Netflix client (Moonlight doesn't support DRM stack. Come on, Netflix, get on it!)

Dual Monitor Support:
This was also a bit disappointing. If you connect a monitor, you cannot change the size of your "virtual desktop" without a password. Once you change it, you have to log out and back in for the changes to take effect. Hackish...

It gets better, though. The Netbook Remix home screen is anchored to the top of your virtual desktop. So if your monitor is configured so the top edge is higher than your native screen, your home screen slips off the top of your native screen and into the ether.

Network Support:
When you save a wireless network connection, it only saves for your account, by default. If the connection is encrypted, it requires a password to connect by default. Both these settings are flexible. At first I thought the wireless network key management was overly obtrusive, but I quickly realized the reality is that Windows's wireless network management is deficient in comparison.

Now I'm a fan of the Linux way over the Windows way.

Folder Bookmarks:
There are handy bookmarks to commonly used folders on the right side of the Netbook Remix home screen. My only complaint is that you can't manage these by clicking/right-clicking them. You have to use the file manager's bookmark manager. (Nautilus) That's a little rough...

Mounting the Windows Partition:
The Netbook Remix is nice enough to auto-mount your Windows partition on demand... Most of the time... I found that if you manually create a mount point in /media whose name exactly matches the Windows volume name ("OS" is the default for the Dell Mini 10v), and add an entry to /etc/fstab to mount the windows partition on startup, this basically removes the "load on demand" functionality from the Windows partition link on your file menu. For me, having my Windows partition always loaded is perfect.

Touchpad Sensitivity:
This is a little thing, but it's one of my biggest complaints. You can easily manage a few of your touchpad's configurable options from the GUI. However, I have not found a way to configure:

  • The "scroll wheel" area
  • Touch sensitivity
The sensitivity is currently set to it's default of "hair trigger". If I even look at my touch pad, my mouse pointer goes zipping away. This is particularly aggravating since the Mini 10v has the mouse-button/touch-pad combo. (You actually click the touch pad.)

One of the first things I configured in Windows was my touch pad sensitivity. In Windows, my touch pad is very intuitive and easy-to-use. In Ubuntu, it's taken a few days to get used to, and it's still a bit of a pain.

Final Thoughts:
Ubuntu Netbook Remix is almost an excellent netbook OS. For most things, I like it as much as or more than my Windows install. But there are still a few hangups and rough edges that need to be worked out before it can trump Windows or Mac, IMHO.

I'll keep my install up-to-date and see what develops as those hard-working Linux developers push this product tirelessly to the top. Looking at how far things have come in the last few years, I think it's safe to say "it will get there", and probably soon.

Dell Mini 10v Horsepower:
I got the 1.6Ghz atom processor in my Dell, and I'm very happy with this little guy. It's worth noting that Atom-based netbooks like this are not workhorses. For browsing the web, working with office applications, and doing some medium-weight work, these are great machines. In fact, I'm impressed by just how much horsepower they've packed into these little monsters. However, there are some limits...

If you want to watch standard definition movies (off the hard drive or internet - no optical drive on these machines), that will work fine. I would bet they could do DVD playback just fine with a USB DVD drive. (That's just a guess.) However, if you want to play high-def video, you're going to be pushing your luck.

You can probably get your high-def files to play consistently with an efficient codec like CoreAVC, but higher-bitrate files will likely stutter a bit (or worse) using free codecs or VLC. (I was able to play a medium-bitrate 720p file through VLC in Windows pretty well. It only stuttered about 1% - 2% of the time. I haven't really tested it under Ubuntu yet.)

If you want to stream high-def from youtube or hulu, remember that they rely on software rendering a lot more than native movie files and may require DRM decryption to boot. (Read: It's probably not going to work very well.) High-def youtube has been very skippy for me so far.

As for activities like gaming, you could probably eek out a decent frame rate on some less-demanding games, but these aren't geared to be great gaming rigs.

Again... They're pretty powerful for their size, and I'm not trying to diss on them. They're just not muscle machines.

Battery Life:
I got the 6 cell battery upgrade. This thing runs for hours on end without complaint, and it doesn't even heat up that much. (My full-sized laptop is a furnace in comparison.) The netbook is on much of the day. We typically just charge it up when it's convenient or at night when we're done with it. We have only run it out of juice once, and that took a lot of use. (Under normal load, we get 5 to 6 hours out of this Dell.)

Keyboard and Touchpad:
I give the keyboard 5 stars. Seriously, it's great. The keys are a little smaller than a full-sized, but I hardly notice. I can type as effectively on this little keyboard as I can on a regular laptop keyboard. And it doesn't have any half-sized punctuation keys like some other brands.

The touchpad gets 4 stars. I'm not a fan of the clicky touch pad (where the mouse button is part of the touch pad and you click the entire unit). However, once I configured it to my liking (in Windows), I liked it. It's not great, but it's good.

Screen Size and Resolution:
If you have bad eye sight, you may want to avoid the 10 inch netbooks. My mother has trouble using mine.

The screen resolution is about as small as it could be and still be useful. Some dialogs get cut off. I had to make title bars and menus as small as I could to maximize my limited screen real-estate. I also browse in full-screen mode too. In spite of that, 1024x600 is surprisingly adequate. If you have the bling for a higher resolution netbook, I suggest looking into it. However, I wouldn't call the lower resolution a deal-breaker.

As for picture quality, movies look very crispy on this little screen. :) And the low heat output and light weight make it pleasant for extended watching on the couch or on the bus.

Also, it can drive an external monitor at very high resolutions. Hook up a keyboard, mouse, and LCD, and you have yourself a medium-duty desktop machine.

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