By Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
February 19, 2009
What’s the best operating system to use on new ultra-portable netbook systems? We used a Samsung NC10 netbook and three operating systems to find out.
What’s the best operating system to use on new ultra-portable netbook systems? I used a Samsung NC10 netbook and three operating systems to try to find the answer.
The Samsung NC10 is a fairly standard netbook with a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, 1 GB of RAM, 160 GB of hard drive and a very nice 10.2 inch WSVGA display. The NC10 comes with Windows XP Home as the operating system preinstalled.
As you might expect, Windows XP works great on the NC10. Despite what many consider a modest specification, a netbook is a very capable system. With Windows XP now over seven years old, the inevitability of Moore’s Law means budget hardware can deliver a fantastic computing experience. The biggest problem with XP, especially for anyone who’s used a more modern operating system, is that it looks long in the tooth.
However, no matter how tired Windows XP looks, it performs just fine on the NC10, and everything on the netbook is designed with XP in mind. So how will the little Samsung netbook feel with a different operating system loaded on it?
The two operating systems I tried were Ubuntu 8.10 “Intrepid Ibex” and Windows 7 beta build 7000, both in their 32-bit versions. (I saw no point in loading a 64-bit operating system on a system with only 1 GB of RAM).
The first point to make is that Windows 7 is a BETA. This means things can go wrong and if they do, you are really on your own. Don’t expect your OEM to help you, and don’t expect a lot of support from Microsoft.
The second point to note is that while changing the default operating system on any system, it is possible to run into some issues. Unless you are comfortable with installing, reinstalling, backing up, finding and installing drivers, and general troubleshooting, you should stick to the operating system installed on your system.
The last point to emphasize is that I made sure the BIOS firmware was the very last code before trying to install any of the newer operating systems.
The method I used to install the operating systems was simple: I took out my external USB CD / DVD drive and plugged it into a USB port. It seemed a lot easier than messing around with USB drives.
First of all, I installed Ubuntu 8.10. Overall, the installation process was quick and easy – something I expect from this particular Linux distro – and I ended up with a fast operating system.
The problem was, a lot of things looked blurry. The most obvious of these was the fact that the trackpad seemed to behave very oddly, and the Wi-Fi just wasn’t working. I also later found out that the special Fn (function) keys were not working, which I expected.
These problems are by no means breaches of agreement, and solutions are within reach. A good source of information was the Ubuntu help site, which provided me with solutions to most of the issues I had noticed. He also informed me of a few issues that I hadn’t noticed regarding the speaker sounds not muting when the headphones are in use.
At best, when you run Ubuntu 8.10 on the Samsung NC10, you end up with most of the Fn keys not working (Brightness does, but all others like monitor switching and sleep are dead) , a non-functional Wi-Fi on / switch off and no multi-touch trackpad.
For me, while having features that I couldn’t use might bother me occasionally, I don’t think they would be deal breakers, although not being able to turn off Wi-Fi can sometimes be painful.
From a performance standpoint, the netbook has no problem handling the full desktop operating system. While it’s hard to be sure, I’d say Ubuntu is faster and faster than XP, and apps like Firefox and OpenOffice.org are pretty functional. If you can live with a few non-working Fn keys and you’re ready to fix a little glitch, Ubuntu is overall an improvement over the preinstalled XP operating system.
Windows 7 beta
Then the beta of Windows 7. Switching from XP to Windows 7 meant there was no chance to upgrade the system. However, for a system that I was going to use on a daily basis, I wouldn’t take this shortcut because the best way to install Windows is always to perform a clean install.
As someone who primarily uses Windows (although I have systems that run both Mac and Linux), I really like Windows 7. For starters, 7 is a pleasure to install.
The time interval between inserting the DVD into the drive and actually operating the desktop is about 20 minutes, and small things like not making the Windows Experience Index test mandatory on first run (which may take a bit of time on slower systems) is a huge improvement over Vista.Note: In case you were wondering, the NC10 scores a respectable 2.1 on the Windows Experience Index, making it an ideal all-rounder PC.
I expected Windows 7 to be a dog on a netbook. After all, Vista’s inflated system requirements make it a no-go from the start. To my surprise, it wasn’t, and I had installed the “all-bell-and-whistle” Ultimate rather than the more frugal Starter or Premium editions.
In fact, again, the performance was better than the original OS. Other than from a cost perspective, I see no reason to run Windows 7 Minimized Starter Edition on netbooks. This modest 1.6 GHz Atom processor and 1 GB of RAM powers the operating system and runs multiple applications simultaneously.
The installation of Windows 7 was not without its problems, however. But things have been made easier by the fact that Samsung has Vista versions of the proprietary Easy Battery Manager and Easy Display Manager software loaded onto the NC10 (not specifically for the NC10, but rather aimed at Q1 users). It works great on Windows 7.
Oddly enough, while the Wi-Fi adapter worked fine under 7, the wired LAN adapter initially did not. It turns out that the Marvell Yukon drivers for the 88E8040 network card had to be installed manually. Another problem related to sound not working after waking up from sleep. This was resolved by installing the Vista drivers for Realtek HD Audio.
So which OS is the best?
So which OS is best suited for netbooks? This is a more difficult question than it seems. All three work on the netbook and I think which one is best for you depends on your situation.
If you’re looking for performance, you won’t get the most out of your netbook if it’s running XP. Choosing to use Ubuntu or Windows 7 really depends on whether you’re going to be using the netbook as a stand-alone device or whether you’re integrating it into an existing Windows or Linux ecosystem.
It also depends on how comfortable you feel to experiment. If you are looking for a quiet life, settle for the operating system preinstalled with the system. This way there is no hassle and no surprises.
The bottom line, however, is that today’s netbooks are very capable devices and when it comes to running the very latest desktop operating systems they seem to be quite the test of time.
While many Linux-based netbooks come with distributions that have been customized for netbooks (like Linpus Linux Lite which ships on the Acer Aspire One), you can deploy a full desktop Linux solution on a netbook without an actual one. loss of performance.
Likewise, if you bought one in XP and think it might become obsolete after Windows 7 is released, there is no need to be afraid as the hardware is able to handle the new operating system ( in fact by the time Windows 7 was released it should be even easier to install on netbooks as the driver issues should be completely resolved by then).
It’s reassuring to know that a netbook you buy now (or bought in the last few months) won’t be obsolete once Windows 7 is released. (Or, for that matter, the next incarnation of Ubuntu, which also works well on netbooks.)
Which do I prefer?
Which OS to choose? Well, I’m going to be honest with you and say up front that I don’t get along very well with netbooks because of my giant Shrek hands. So I prefer something a little bigger.
But having had time with all three operating systems, my choice would be Windows 7. However, my concern with Windows 7 is that OEMs are pushing the Starter edition of the operating system to users to save money. money. The downside to this edition is that it has a built-in limit of “three applications running at once” and netbooks would be really hampered by this artificial limit.
If I was inclined to work on a netbook running Linux, there is no doubt in my mind that I would forget about all the downsized versions and install a suitable and full desktop version.