Netbook-friendly Linux distributions

DIY Netbook Distro

If none of the existing netbook-friendly distros tickle your fancy, why not take a stock Linux distribution and tweak it to work on your netbook? It's not as difficult as you might think, especially if you want to install an Ubuntu-based distribution on an Eee PC. This only requires you to replace the generic kernel with the Array kernel to enable support for Eee PC hardware and make a couple of tweaks to the system itself.

As an example, I'll look at how to install Xubuntu (an Ubuntu derivative that uses the Xfce graphical desktop environment) on an Eee PC 701. The first order of business is obviously to install the latest Xubuntu 8.10 on your netbook. During the installation, you have to decide whether you want to use a swap partition or not. Eee PC 701 uses a solid-state disk (SSD) that supports a limited number of writes, and adding a swap partition can have a significant effect on the disk's life. On the other hand, without a swap partition, your system will be less functional (e.g., the system won't support suspend and hibernate). A compromise is to create a swap partition and then tweak the system to reduce its swappiness (yes, that's an official term). It's also a good idea to choose the ext2 file system for the root partition. Unlike the more popular ext3 file system, ext2 doesn't use journaling, so it wears less on the SSD.

Once the system is installed, you have to install the Array kernel. Use the wired interface to connect your netbook to the Internet, launch the terminal, and run the following commands:

wget http://www.array.org/ubuntu/array-intrepid.list
sudo mv -v array-intrepid.list /etc/apt/sources.list.d/
wget http://www.array.org/ubuntu/array-apt-key.asc
sudo apt-key add array-apt-key.asc
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install linux-eeepc

Reboot your netbook, and all its hardware should now work.

Next, you have to reduce swappiness to prolong the SSD's life. To do this, launch the terminal, run the sudo mousepad /etc/sysctl.conf command to open the sysctl.conf file for editing, and add the following line to the end of the file:

vm.swappiness=0

Now save the file, and you are done. To reduce the number of writes even further, you might want to force the system to write temporary files and logfiles into RAM instead of the SSD. To do this, run the sudo mousepad /etc/fstab command in the terminal and add the lines in Listing 1 to the fstab file.

Listing 1

Write Files into RAM

01 tmpfs     /var/log       tmpfs     defaults,noatime        0 0
02 tmpfs     /tmp           tmpfs     defaults,noatime        0 0
03 tmpfs     /var/tmp       tmpfs     defaults,noatime        0 0

Your netbook system is now ready to go, but you can make it even more netbook friendly by installing the Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface. Launch the Synaptic package manager and choose Settings | Repository, switch to the Third-Party Software tab, and press the Add button. In the APT line field, enter the repository address:

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/netbook-remix-team/ubuntu intrepid main

Next, press the Add Source button and close Synaptic. In the terminal, run the following command to install the required components:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install go-home-applet human-netbook-theme maximus netbook-launcher window-picker-applet

Finally, choose System | Preferences | Sessions and add Maximus (the maximus command) and Netbook-launcher (the netbook-launcher command) to the Startup Programs section, so they start automatically on boot. Reboot your netbook, and you should see Ubuntu Netbook Remix in all its beauty.

Puppy Linux

Ubuntu is not the only Linux distribution that can be tweaked to run on your netbook. In fact, if you want to turn your netbook into a lean and fast mobile companion, you ought to take a look at Puppy Linux. This tiny Linux distro is blazingly fast and you can make it work on Eee PC and Aspire One with minimum tweaking. All you need to do is to install a few .pet packages to enable support for your netbook's wireless card, sound, and other components (Figure 6). All the required packages can be found in the Extra Drivers for Puppy 4.1 thread [6] in the Puppy Linux forum. If you don't feel like doing all the manual work, you can download ready-to-use Puppy derivatives for Aspire One [7] and Eee PC [8], although the latter is based on the older Puppy Linux 3.0.1 and it doesn't support newer Eee PC models. What makes Puppy Linux a perfect distro for your netbook is its ability to run from an SD card. This allows you to bypass the internal SSD altogether, thus prolonging its life. Better yet, when the disk becomes non-functional, you can still continue using your netbook by running Puppy Linux from the SD card.

Figure 6: Making Puppy Linux run on your Eee PC or Aspire One is a matter of installing the necessary drivers.

Of course, the enterprising Linux community managed to make most mainstream Linux distributions work on both Eee PC and Aspire One, including Debian [9] [10], openSUSE [11] [12], and Arch Linux [13] [14].

Final Word

As you can see, plenty of options are available to you if you want to replace the default system on your netbook. No matter what netbook you are using, you can choose from a few solid netbook-friendly Linux distributions. To find the one that fits your needs best, you might want to try a few of them, and you can even customize a stock Linux distro to run on your netbook.

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