The New Ubuntu Netbook Remix is Totally Karmic: An Early Look

If you've been looking for a lean, sleek, well supported operating system for your netbook then look no further. Due out next month, Karmic Koala Netbook Remix has a cleaner interface, complete hardware support and numerous other improvements. Let's take a look.

There’s an old saying, “What goes around, comes around.” Ubuntu has certainly been busy pouring sweat and hard labor into their official Netbook Remix edition and it’s starting to show. The next release of Ubuntu is 9.10, due next month and dubbed Karmic Koala. It is much improved over the current release.

The netbook remix edition is an official version of Ubuntu which is specifically designed for netbooks (hence the name). It is specifically designed for low resolutions and includes a number of enhancements to maximize the available screen real estate.

Netbooks are designed for life on the go. Users want an easy-to-use interface with their most commonly used applications at their fingertips. Certainly one can use any major desktop, but the advantages of a custom interface mean that users get to make better use of the little machines.

Unlike Moblin, Ubuntu Netbook Remix does not introduce a brand new desktop environment, but rather a new interface which sits on top of GNOME.

Ubuntu has started making a scene in the commercial world of computing with companies like Dell now selling more desktop and laptops with the operating system. Netbook Remix is one more offering which might help them attract more market share, if they can get manufacturers to install it on their products that is.

New Features

The upcoming version of Ubuntu will ship with the 2.6.31 Linux kernel which boasts a range of new features. One improvement is a more “stable” ext4 which is good because it will become the default file system. It will also do away with the hardware abstraction layer (HAL), instead relying on device kit and udev to configure the system’s hardware.

Other improvements include the use of GRUB version 2 as the default boot loader, as well as the usual desktop updates from GNOME and KDE.

The current release has had numerous issues with the Intel graphics driver, which has recently undergone some major changes. Most netbooks use Intel’s integrated graphics and unfortunately this has meant that graphical performance has been rather poor.

The good news is that this should be solved in Karmic as this release will include the latest version of the driver. Kernel-based mode setting will also be enabled by default with this driver, which opens up a new possibility of beautifying the boot process and making it flicker free.

In relation to the netbook remix specifically, the custom interface is becoming more refined making better use of the desktop and small amount of screen real estate. Still along the left hand side is the main program menu (where users browse for various installed packages, broken down by categories) which has received a nice updated look.

The places section on the right hand side from the current edition is now gone, which not only helps to keep the desktop less cluttered but also simplifies the interface immensely.

The whole interface is much more nicely integrated with a consistent non-distracting color scheme for the icons in the notification area. A single bar adorns the top of the screen and the lower section takes up the rest of the screen. Unlike the current version which looks like it’s plunked on top of the desktop, the menu and working areas feels much more a part of the desktop itself.



The Karmic Koala 9.10 release is not due out for another month, however anyone can test the latest development version with relative ease. So how does the netbook remix work on an Asus 1000HE netbook? It’s a standard sort of machine with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB memory and has a good old fashioned hard drive instead of flash.

Well firstly, from the GRUB boot prompt to starting the display took 30 seconds. Another 10 seconds was required to start up the log in screen, GNOME Desktop Manager.

Logging into the desktop then took a further 20 seconds. That’s certainly not as fast as Moblin and other projects boasting boot times of around 5 seconds, but remember that they are highly optimized. Netbook remix is essentially just standard Ubuntu with a different interface and so uses the same packages as a desktop install.

Nevertheless, considering that one year ago this was the sort of boot time we saw on a powerful desktop, it’s not too bad at all! Once the system is up, it also performs quite well. Booting to the log in screen used only 66MB of RAM, which is nice and light. Logging onto the desktop doubled this to 136MB, still very impressive for a fully blown desktop!

On this netbook, everything worked perfectly out of the box. Linux has always been able to suspend, it’s resume that traditionally causes most of the problems, however there were no such issues here. Suspend and resume was not only quick and painless it worked seamlessly with wireless, touchpad, bluetooth, video and even the built in camera all coming back to life as the machine did. Brilliant.

In fact, this version of Ubuntu works so well that using it for every day work is actually very attractive.

The Good

The updated interface looks great and works much better than the old one. The performance not only of the interface itself, but of the system in general, is much improved with Karmic. Everything is much more tightly integrated and the system is starting to look like a complete package rather than a hack on top of GNOME.

There are also lots of under the hood improvements, especially in the area of memory utilization which is good news for lower end netbooks.

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