Best netbook Linux distros

20th Mar 2011 | 08:00

Best netbook Linux distros

Dual or triple boot your netbook with the best Linux distros

There are now some fantastic varieties of Linux that make ideal replacements for the operating system that's currently installed on your netbook.

The latest version of Ubuntu UNR, for example, features brilliant hardware support alongside the expanding Unity interface, which Canonical is pinning its hopes on as a Gnome replacement for the next mainstream Ubuntu release.

Moblin and Maemo have also combined to create a new netbook operating system, known as MeeGo, and version 1.1 is a great choice if you particularly enjoy social networking through a streamlined interface.

Then there's Jolicloud to consider - a connected Linux-based operating system that blends local applications and storage seamlessly with those offered by the cloud. It's had some fantastic reviews and has been updated very recently.

Any one of these would make a great replacement for an older netbook distribution, such as Xandros or Linpus, and can even make better sense than a Windows installation if you can do without the compatibility offered by Microsoft's OS.

New Linux netbook distributions have the advantages of active community support and development, but the best thing about this list of distros is that they can all be installed on your machine at the same time. The only trick here is knowing how to do it.

1. Install USB stick

step 1

Most netbook Linux distributions use a custom utility that turns a downloaded ISO of the distribution into a USB-bootable installation. This is because most netbooks don't have an optical drive and will default to booting from a USB device if one is detected.

You'll need to go through this process for every distribution you want to install, but start with UNR.

Like Ubuntu, it first boots to a live desktop mode that you can then use to prepare your netbook's hard drive for as many distributions as you want to install on it. Before you get to that point, though, get hold of the UNR ISO and place the file on your desktop.

From an Ubuntu desktop, open the Administration menu and click 'Startup Disk Creator'. In the utility that appears, select the 'Other' button and use the file requester to find the UNR ISO.

Back in the main window, insert your USB stick and make sure it's detected in the 'Disk to use' list. You should also erase whatever files you may happen to have on the device before clicking the 'Make startup disk' button.

A few minutes later, you should see the 'Installation complete' message. It's now time to move the USB stick to your netbook.

2. Partitioning

step 2

Your netbook should automatically boot from your USB stick if you start the system with the stick installed. Booting UNR should take a few moments more, and when the main desktop appears, you can choose between 'Try Ubuntu netbook' and 'Install Ubuntu netbook'.

Because we want to use a graphical tool to repartition the internal drive first, you need to choose the first option. This will drop you onto a proper live desktop without stepping through the installation.

The tool we now need to open is the partition manager, which can be accessed by clicking the 'Applications' icon in the left border toolbar, followed by 'GParted' in the list. This should be familiar if you've ever done some partition tinkering.

Each partition is visualised within a block representing your drive, and you can click and drag on this to delete or resize your current configuration, or create a new one. You'll get the best possible results by removing all existing partitions and creating a new one for each operating system you want to install.

Make sure you select 'ext4' as the filesystem for each, and that you add a 2GB swap partition to the end of the drive. You'll obviously lose all data currently on the drive, so make sure none of it is left behind.

If you've already got Windows on the machine, it's also possible to resize its partition to make space for new ones, but you should still back up your Windows data. When you've finished making changes, click the 'Apply' icon.

3. Installing UNR

step 3

With the partitions created, click the 'Install Ubuntu Netbook' button in the top of the left panel toolbar. This will launch the same installer you might have seen when installing the desktop model of Ubuntu. The new version will even install updates in the background while you answer the simple questions asked by the installer.

The only way in which it differs from a default installation is that you need to make sure you select 'Specify partitions manually' from the second step. This ensures UNR will use the partition you've already created for it, and that it doesn't try to create its own new partition table.

From the 'Allocate drive space' window that appears, select the partition you want UNR to use, click 'Change', select 'ext4' from the Use As menu and give it a mount point of '/', which means the root partition. Now click 'Install now' to enable the installer to continue with its mission.

When it comes to installing any other distribution you want alongside UNR, you'll need to make sure you use its equivalent to the manual partition mode so that you can choose a new partition and apply a mount point for the new distribution. If you don't, there's a good chance your distribution will try to use your entire hard drive.

UNR

However, the boot menu for each distribution should be modified automatically. When the UNR installer has finished, you should find that you can restart your machine, select 'Ubuntu' from the boot menu and use your new Linux desktop. You should now attempt to set up a second distribution.

4. Installing Jolicloud 1.1

step 4

The Jolicloud ISO needs to be installed into your USB stick using another utility specific to the distribution. There are versions for Linux, Windows and OS X, and these can be found at http://help.jolicloud.com.

The Linux USB creator is a script, and after you've downloaded it you'll need to open a command line terminal, cd, to the directory where the script is located. Then type chmod +x followed by the script name to make it executable.

You need to make sure you've got the 'python-qt4' package installed, since this is used by the script to provide a GUI. Then you can run the script by typing ./scriptname within the directory containing it. This will open the application.

Then use the 'Browse' button to navigate to your Jolicloud ISO, found in your home directory, and to make sure your USB stick is correctly identified. Click 'Create' to start the process. Also ensure that the USB stick is unmounted (ejected) from the desktop.

With the ISO safely on the USB stick, you can now restart your netbook with the USB device inserted. You should see the Jolicloud boot menu; from there, select the 'Install' option. Jolicloud is based on an older version of Ubuntu - 10.04 - and as a result, you should find the installer familiar.

You'll need to choose the manual partitioning option and select another unused partition from those you created earlier, in exactly the same way you did for the UNR installation. When the process is complete, reboot your machine.

Jolicloud should now be available as another option from the boot menu.

5. Installing MeeGo

step 5

MeeGo is the product of a collaboration between Nokia and Intel, and the netbook version is closely related to the Moblin operating system. As a result, its install process is slightly different to the usual Ubuntu way of doing things.

You'll still need to boot the system from a live USB stick, but getting the installer onto that stick in the first place involves a little command line trickery. This is because MeeGo is supplied as an IMG file rather than an ISO file, so it just needs to be written, byte-for-byte, to the USB stick.

The command for doing this is dd, but there are a couple of important considerations to bear in mind.

Firstly, you'll need to know the device name of your USB stick. If you get this wrong and select something else by mistake, data will be lost. Secondly, your USB stick will also be wiped and repartitioned as part of the process. To restore it to its original capacity for future use, you'll need to use the same partition tool we used on the hard drive.

After you've grabbed the IMG file, switch to the command line and insert your USB stick. Next, type dmesg. This will print the system's log to the screen, and you'll need to look for the last few lines of output. This is where the system will have detected the USB stick you've just inserted and reported which device node it's connected to.

Meego

The output should look something like 'sdb: sdb1'. You now need to unmount this device using the unmount command, before executing dd if=meego.img of=/dev/your_ device bs=1m.

If you've hit the correct device, you should see the access LED on your stick flashing. This process may take as long as 50 minutes, depending on the speed of your USB port. After it's completed, you'll be able to remove the USB stick and switch it to your netbook for booting.

Choose the 'Install only' option when you reach the USB boot menu. The partition settings are configured on the third step of the installer, and you need to select 'Create custom layout' from the dropdown menu to be able to specify the partitions you need manually.

On the following page, select the partition you want and click 'Edit'. Now choose 'ext3' for the 'Format as' option, and '/' as the mount point. Click 'OK'.

You'll also need to select the swap partition and format this as 'swap', but this should affect your other distributions.

When you press the 'Forward' arrow to progress, you'll be warned about choosing 'ext3' over 'btrfs', but you can safely ignore this message.

The next step involves the boot loader installer, which will replace the one we installed with UNR. As a result, you need to add entries for both UNR and Jolicloud, if they're both installed. Click 'Add', choose the partition that's hosting the operating system and give the menu option a label.

Clicking the 'Forward' arrow will now install MeeGo. Twenty minutes later you should have a dual-or triple-booting netbook with the very latest operating systems Linux can offer.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 305

Liked this? Then check out Hands on: MeeGo netbook review

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