Intel and Nokia joined forces earlier this year when they combined their mobile Linux operating systems to create MeeGo, an open source platform designed to support multiple hardware architectures and a wide range of form factors. ‘mobile and embedded devices. The project officially kicked off last month when the source code and the initial installable disk images became available.
The MeeGo Project took another big step forward this week with the release of MeeGo 1.0 and the launch of the MeeGo Netbook User Experience Project, which aims to provide a MeeGo-based computing environment designed for optimal performance and usability on netbooks. . The Netbook user experience, which is largely inspired by Intel’s Moblin project, offers a rich user interface shell that is built with the open source Clutter framework. This is a vastly improved version of the Moblin UI that we explored last year and reviewed on the Dell Mini 10v.
We performed extensive user experience testing of the MeeGo 1.0 netbook on the same Mini 10v to see how it compares to its predecessor Moblin. The underlying design philosophy is largely unchanged, but a number of significant differences are apparent in the application stack. In the move from Moblin to MeeGo, Intel seems to have significantly curbed its ambitions by making a number of pragmatic compromises. Several Moblin components that were built largely from scratch have been dropped in MeeGo in favor of existing Linux software.
A particularly notable example of such an exchange is the web browser. Moblin 2 had its own custom web browser that brought together a unique user interface based on Clutter and Mozilla’s Gecko HTML rendering engine. It was a very compelling idea as it opened the door to a browsing experience with rich visual effects and smoother platform integration. Although the concept is intriguing in theory, it was very difficult for Intel to execute. The custom browser was incomplete and somewhat dysfunctional when we reviewed Moblin last year. Intel ditched the custom browser and chose to adopt Google Chrome for MeeGo.
Chrome is robust, more and more mature, and is starting to attract a huge following. The Ubuntu development community has also adopted Google’s browser and recently chose to adopt it as the default for the next major release of Ubuntu Netbook Edition. Placement in MeeGo, Ubuntu, and Chrome OS could potentially make Chrome the dominant web browser on the next generation of Linux-based netbooks. It’s a good choice for MeeGo, but the downside is that it will never have the kind of seamless integration that was possible with a custom browser.
Another area where the trade-off is obvious is the email client. Moblin’s Anjal messaging tool, a specialized interface to GNOME’s Evolution messaging client, has been discontinued in favor of Evolution Express, a new, more conventional interface. We praised Anjal in our Moblin 2 review because it offered a new approach to improving the messaging experience on small screens. Evolution Express, by comparison, is little more than a progressively scaled-down variation of Evolution’s standard desktop user interface.
Although it is less innovative, Evolution Express is more robust and complete. It benefits from the maturity of the existing Evolution code base and is easier to maintain upstream. In a detailed blog entry, Novell’s Michael Meeks recently described how Evolution Express was developed and explains the logic behind the change in leadership.
Despite the cuts, there is still a lot of innovation to be found in MeeGo 1.0 for netbooks. The Moblin shell, which is developed with the open source Clutter framework and provides easy access to key platform features, is still present in MeeGo and features a number of interesting improvements. It is now possible to configure the order of the tabs and to select the tabs to display. MeeGo also inherited Moblin’s brilliant Zones system, an intuitive, self-managed variant of virtual desktops.
Novell’s excellent Banshee media player was adopted for inclusion in the MeeGo project and is tightly integrated with the platform. The multimedia tab of the MeeGo shell provides quick access to your Banshee music library and also has built-in controls for playback. Clicking on the Banshee icon in the media tab will launch a special version of Banshee that has been customized for small screens and conforms to MeeGo’s visual style.
Banshee is a good choice for MeeGo because it is highly modular, easy to extend with plugins, and has a rich feature set. Banshee developer Aaron Bockover wrote a blog entry this week that discusses Banshee’s MeeGo integration and some of the relevant technical details.
In our testing of MeeGo 1.0, we found that any MP3 files placed in the Music folder of the user’s home directory will automatically be added to Banshee’s library, making music instantly accessible through the media tab of the MeeGo shell. .
MeeGo has benefited from many upstream enhancements that have landed over the past year in several of the included desktop apps. The Empathy instant messaging client, for example, has matured considerably. Empathy is very well integrated in MeeGo, much like in Moblin. The People tab displays the user’s friends list, provides easy access to active conversations, and also has a handy combo box to set your status. In our testing, we connected it to Facebook Chat and found it to work fine.
Look and feel
MeeGo’s appearance builds on Moblin’s styling, but there are some notable differences. There are a lot more gradients, which gives the widgets a slightly stronger sense of depth. Bright colors are used for highlighting throughout the user interface. There’s a lot of padding all over the place, especially in the huge window title bars. The collection of silhouette and tile icons, used in the shell and in applications, is much more comprehensive and consistent.
Moblin looked really great, but there were places where the styling was broken, not fully applied, or just inconsistent. A lot of these things have been fixed in MeeGo, giving a more complete view of the aesthetic vision of the designers. It looks gorgeous, modern, and distinctive. The overall feel of the thing is very reminiscent of a device, which is a very positive feature for a netbook user interface.
A number of UI styles are done very well, but the brightly colored highlights are a bit too much in some places, especially the rainbow icons in the shell tabs. It should be noted that styling is still a work in progress. While a number of small issues have been fixed, there are still a handful of things that are visibly broken, like progress bars where the fill is leaking out of the border.
Riddles in the dark
It is really important to understand that the versions of MeeGo 1.0 Netbook made available by the MeeGo project are not a production ready Linux distribution. The images include a basic MeeGo environment, but it lacks a lot of things you would need for practical use on conventional netbook hardware. When we tested it on the 10v, we had to plug in an Ethernet cable because it did not support the device’s WiFi hardware. It also lacked the proper configuration for the 10v touchpad and the media player could not play MP3 files due to the lack of codec support.
These types of limitations are not defects of MeeGo per se; they just reflect the fact that this is not a complete Linux distribution. The provision of hardware drivers and codecs is at the discretion of the hardware vendors who will provide MeeGo on their devices. Unfortunately, the downside is that regular end users who want to start playing with MeeGo today cannot simply install it on their personal netbooks in the hope that it will work fine.
It is possible that a mainstream Linux distributor fills this gap and offers a version of MeeGo in addition to a full conventional Linux distribution with appropriate hardware support and all other necessary features. Novell is the most likely candidate, as the company has worked closely with Intel to develop many features of MeeGo. The company also had an openSUSE Moblin variant dubbed Goblin. One of the designers of the company jokingly offers the awesome name “Smeegol” (SUSE MeeGo Linux) for a possible openSUSE version of MeeGo, but it’s still not clear if such a thing will be released.
While we’re a little disappointed that the MeeGo netbook environment isn’t able to tap the full potential of Moblin at launch, tradeoffs make a lot of sense and are necessary to ensure that the product performs well and meets the needs. users. users. The whole environment is decidedly less ambitious and innovative than Moblin, but the cuts aren’t deep enough to undermine the basic vision. In this sense, the compromises that developers have made to market MeeGo on netbooks are wise. The user experience is good, the software works well, and the appearance is excellent.
Users who want to download it themselves can get the disk image from the MeeGo website. For more details, see the official release announcement and release notes.