Top 8 best Linux netbooks
31st Jul 2009 | 10:20
One ideal machine for every netbook user
Top 8 Linux netbooks: overview
We locked Mike Saunders in a room with eight netbooks, a week's supply of oxygen and one mission: to find the ideal machine for every type of user.
We're not rabid Microsoft-bashers here at TechRadar, but we always have a chuckle recalling Bill Gates's tablet PC prediction at Comdex in 2001.
"Within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America," said the world's most famous IT billionaire - yet he wasn't even close.
Tablets are still largely regarded as novelties and confined to a few niche market segments. What has taken everyone by surprise though is the booming netbook market.
When Asus released the Eee PC 701 most pundits thought it a pointless exercise, but its skimpy hardware proved more than adequate for the tasks that most people do on a regular basis.
Light web browsing, office work, solitaire on the train – the Eee did a good job, especially at its £200 price point, and was soon followed up by models with larger screens and keyboards to mitigate some initial gripes.
Major players such as Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba are now in the game, and while these machines mostly fit into the low-cost (sub-£300) category, choosing the right one is essential while we're all watching our pennies.
Although they're all capable of internet browsing with Wi-Fi and office work, they can vary drastically in key areas as we'll see.
Our test criteria
We've brought together all the netbooks we could get hold of for a comprehensive test. We're looking at:
Performance: All but one of the netbooks are based on the Intel Atom 1.6GHz CPU and 945GME graphics chip.
Because of this other components come into play, especially the storage and the wireless reception strength, so we're putting particular focus on these aspects.
Usability: The most important aspect of a netbook. It doesn't matter if it looks wonderful if the keyboard is far too cramped, or the trackpad is rubbish.
Build quality: You shouldn't need to baby your netbook.
You want to chuck it in your bag, use it everywhere and not worry about it taking a bump or two.
In order to make our benchmarks fair, and because we know that most regular Linux users prefer to install their own distro, we'll install Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix on each machine that supports it. Let's get started then…
Acer Aspire One A110
Acer Aspire One A110
Recommended for: Budget netbook shoppers, internet-only use.
Not recommended for: Gaming, demanding tasks.
Outside of the Asus Eee series, the Acer Aspire One models are the best-known netbooks on the market.
Currently two models of the Aspire One A110 range are available, one featuring flash (SSD) storage and the other a more traditional hard drive.
Here we're looking at the 8GB SSD model, which has recently dropped to an extremely tempting price point – if you look around online you'll find it for a recession-mocking £139.
Read: full Acer Aspire One A110 review (Linux)
Asus Eee PC 1000
Asus Eee PC 1000
Recommended for: People looking for usability close to that of a full-size laptop
Not recommended for: Anyone looking for all-out portability
Here's the big one, in two senses of the word. Not only is Asus the best-known name in the netbook world, with a bewildering range of models on the market, this particular Eee 1000 is also the biggest machines available.
It's almost approaching a regular laptop in size terms, and it's pretty heavy at just under 1.3kg too. So that's the most important thing to consider: if maximum portability is what you're seeking in a netbook, the Eee 1000 isn't for you – have a look at our reviews of the Toshiba NB100-11R and the Dell Mini 9
Read: full Asus Eee PC 1000 review (Linux)
Dell Inspiron Mini 9
Dell Inspiron Mini 9
Recommended for: Portability and silence seekers
Not recommended for: Unretrainable Fx key users
Can a netbook really be silent? Well, the Dell Mini 9 doesn't include a moving-parts hard drive and it's also entirely passively cooled.
This is quite a feat given that it has the same CPU as the Asus Eee 1000, and that laptop is a loud beast at times. Still, the downside to this is that the machine gets quite hot underneath when the CPU is stressed
Read: full Dell Inspiron Mini 9 review (Linux)
Recommended for: Power users, Windows dual-booters
Not recommended for: Anyone who doesn't want to give Microsoft money
Where many of the netbooks currently on the market opt for mean-looking black and blue shades for their keyboards and cases, this LG X110 mixes up soft shades of white and silver.
The lid is very understated: it's almost entirely white, save for a small LG logo on the cover. On the hardware side, it's very clear that the X110 is a rebadged MSI Wind U100, with an almost identical port layout and the same huge air vent on the left-hand side
If you regularly use Microsoft's OS and want to have a dual-booting Linux netbook, it's brilliant – very well designed and a good performer
Read: full LG X110 review (Linux)
Recommended for: Kids, hackers who hate x86
Not recommended for: Anyone else
The Elonex ONEt is unique in this roundup in that it doesn't have an x86-compatible CPU. While all other netbooks are theoretically capable of running any PC OS from Windows 3.1 to Fedora 11, the ONEt and its brethren use a CPU based on the XBurst architecture.
Generic Linux distros and PC operating systems are a no-go on the ONEt then, which may dissuade some buyers. But far more problematic is the processing power.
Read: full Elonex ONEt review (Linux)
Lenovo IdeaPad S10e
Lenovo IdeaPad S10e
Recommended for: Pro users who need an ExpressCard slot
Not recommended for: People working in quiet environments, thanks to the ultra-clicky trackpad buttons!
Lenovo isn't a household name when it comes to computers, but in business circles the company is well respected for its robust line of ThinkPad laptops (previously produced for IBM). Consequently, you won't find Ubuntu or Mandriva on its IdeaPad netbooks – the only option is SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop.
Lenovo shipped our review IdeaPad S10e with Windows XP, but thankfully there was some quality Splashtop action to show the world how much Linux rocks, and straight away we installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix
Read:Lenovo IdeaPad S10e review (Linux)
MSI Wind U100
MSI Wind U100
Recommended for: Power users
Not recommended for: Rough environments
The Wind is one of the few netbooks to include Bluetooth, and Ubuntu Netbook Remix configured straight out of the box. The webcam was not detected, however
Straight away there's one thing clear about the U100's casing: it's a total fingerprint magnet. That's nothing that a quick wipe with some cloth can't fix, but if you like your electronics looking perpetually shiny, you might find it frustrating when the machine catches a certain light and a smothering of smudges appear
Read: full MSI Wind U100 review (Linux)
Recommended for: Business users who need max portability
Not recommended for: Anyone with big fingers
Now with the Toshiba NB100-11R we're getting into tiny territory. When we first got our hands on the original Asus Eee 701 we found the keyboard a bit cramped, though usable for hunt-and-peck typing.
Overall performance felt choppy under Ubuntu Netbook Remix – video files stuttered and there were longer than usual delays in opening programs. It doesn't make the machine unusable, but it can be grating.
Read: full Toshiba NB100-11R review (Linux)
Linux netbooks: benchmarks
Linux netbooks: TechRadar verdict
Almost all of these notebooks are based on the exact same Intel chips, and yet there's such a variety in size, weight, build quality, drive performance and price.
Aside from the Elonex ONEt's low-end CPU and the Aspire One's lethargic SSD, performance doesn't vary enormously between them: all but the ONEt are perfectly capable of web browsing, YouTube, office work and even a spot of on-the-go programming, providing you're not working on an outrageously demanding 3D showcase.
In each review we've looked at the machine from the point of view of the right kind of user for each model, so you've probably already got an idea of what would suit you best.
If you're approaching this solely from a financial perspective, though, here's what we recommend:
The Aspire One. Absolutely. Even if you see the ONEt (or another netbook based on the same internals) for under £99, avoid it. The money you save isn't worth the pain of sluggish web browsing with many sites out of bounds.
£150 to £250
If maximum portability is crucial, go for the Dell Inspiron Mini 9. The keyboard is a stumbling block, but it's a very well designed and constructed machine. If you can tolerate something more bulky and noisy, get the Asus Eee PC 1000 – a great all-round machine.
We really love the LG X110; it's just a shame it's only available with Windows. If you're tempted, keep checking online in case LG expands its options and offers a Linux version, in which case it's a must-buy. Otherwise you should consider the slightly weaker, but still good, MSI Wind.