Chrome OS vs Ubuntu Netbook Remix
18th Feb 2010 | 13:00
How does Chrome OS fare against the Linux netbook leader?
Although Chrome OS is based on Ubuntu, Google has no intention right now of targeting the mass market.
Instead, Chrome OS will be certified to run on specific hardware, which at the very least will need either an x86 or ARM CPU and a solid-state drive (SSD) for storage.
Most SSDs are faster than hard drives, which enables Google to squeeze the boot time as low as possible. SSDs are also much more expensive, but that's mitigated by the fact that Chrome OS is designed to operate in as little storage space as possible – we think you might be able to buy a Chrome OS netbook with just 1GB of storage.
Chrome OS is the fastest-booting Linux distro around, excluding ones that fire up the kernel and nothing else. Even the super-light xPUD is slower. Part of this is due to its focus on netbooks, which don't have optical drives or older hardware such as serial ports. Chrome OS doesn't bother checking if the majority of devices exist.
Another key to its speed is that Google has written its own BIOS, which is the part of the system you see before Linux loads. BIOSes have been obsolete for some years now, but the need for backwards compatibility keeps them in place.
Google has no interest in this, so a Chrome OS device is geared towards getting control to Linux as soon as possible.
We don't like having to type the "OS" in Chrome OS every time, but it's necessary because Google's web browser is just called Chrome, and it's set the web browser world on fire with its incredible speed, powerful features and slimline design. Chrome already has more than 40 million users worldwide, and that's growing fast.
Chrome OS is little more than a full-screen version of the Chrome browser. Everything you interact with is done via a tab in that web browser, so there's no way to move windows around, no way to maximise or minimise stuff, no (obvious) way to install more software and, crucially, no way to break things through customisation.
The reason we put "obvious" in there is simple: Linux is Linux and a determined user can find their way to a command line and thus to freedom, but by default Chrome OS is locked-down tighter than tight.
Chrome OS comes with a wide range of Linux programs, but only the ones that work out of sight and are needed to make the system run. There's no Firefox, no OpenOffice.org, no Gnome, KDE, Gimp or any of the other Linux software we're used to.
Instead, there's the Chrome web browser and Google's online services. Want to type documents? Use Google Documents in Chrome. Email? Gmail. Chat with friends? Google Talk. Share photos? Watch videos? Organise your diary? Picasa Web, YouTube and Google Calendar.
Google wants you to do everything online using your browser and using its services.
The problem of working with everything online is that internet access isn't as pervasive as some might need, and no one wants to find their files are hard to reach or, worse, unavailable.
Google is tackling this using its Gears technology. This enables web apps to run offline in a local database, then automatically be resynchronised with the online version when the connection resumes.
Data is cached locally in case the user needs to do something without the internet – and everything is also stored online so that if the user breaks their netbook, they can get another one, sign in to Google and pick up where they left off.
Chrome OS is about a year away from release, so what we have today is likely to change a lot. But we don't think we'll see too many alterations in the user interface area – Chrome evolves independently of Chrome OS, and the rest of the UI experience is what Google has now in Gmail and more. So, why is Chrome OS not launching now?
Google wants to certify hardware, which means it needs its partners to be ready or the roll-out will be messy. We think it'll focus on pushing down boot speed even further, then polishing the boot experience so it's as smooth as possible.
After the initial release late next year, we expect to see work going into bringing Chrome OS and Google Android closer together.
As a respin of its standard desktop distro, Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) is fairly hardware agnostic – it prefers to have an Atom CPU and an SSD, but neither of those are required.
In fact, largely thanks to the appeal of the Ubuntu brand name, UNR has probably received more widespread testing than any other netbook distro and so works well on virtually everything out there. There are even special versions of UNR available for Dell Mini netbooks, but generally you can run it on whatever you like.
While UNR is more lightweight than standard Ubuntu, it's also nothing like as streamlined as Chrome OS or even Moblin. That means slower boot speeds: 30 seconds is normal at the moment, although work is under way to make Ubuntu 10.04 boot much faster.
If you want to try the faster boot speed now and don't mind risking a little system instability, run these three commands:
sudo add-apt-repository ppa
ubuntu-boot/ppa sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
Although UNR's interface is far from a standard KDE or Gnome desktop, it does use the same menu structure – Accessories, Games, Graphics, Internet etc. But rather than have these hidden away under a conventional edge-aligned menu structure, they're all visible from the home screen of UNR – just select the section you want and its icons take up most of the screen on the right.
So, the UI is nice and simple to find your way around, but it's not perfect: most apps are forced to run in full-screen, with exceptions made for things like Gimp or calculators that rely on fixed UI sizes.
Unlike web pages, many desktop Linux programs just don't look so good at high resolutions, so even though UNR is able to run on any Intel-compatible device you please, don't expect it to shine on a 20-inch monitor.
UNR is Ubuntu, albeit with a fancy front-end. As a result, you can open up the Software Centre (introduced in Ubuntu 9.10) and install just about anything you can think of, courtesy of Debian's software repository.
Ubuntu is toying with the idea of Ubuntu on ARM; Karmic is the second Ubuntu release to ship with an ARM version available. That said, it's designed for specific ARM hardware that few people own.
Over time, we think this ARM port will mature into a full product, front-ended by UNR. If you do find yourself using UNR on ARM, note that the software selection is more limited than for the traditional Intel architecture.
UNR is designed like any other traditional Linux distro – when you use OOo, your files are saved on your local storage device. Many netbooks ship with hard drives, since they offer the most bang for your buck; don't be surprised if you see UNR shipping on netbooks with 160GB hard disk space!
The exception to this (new in UNR Karmic) is Ubuntu One, a service from Canonical that enables you to sync files online then share them with others. Don't get your hopes up, though: Ubuntu One is still under construction, and we're not sure how well it works under heavy load.
No matter how fast Chrome OS might be, it'll never be more than just a web browser unless Google executes a gigantic U-turn. This leaves the way wide open for full-fat (albeit with glossy front-end) distros that make your netbook into a true desktop replacement, and that's where UNR shines.
It's also enormously beneficial that Chrome OS is based on Ubuntu, because it means that the Ubuntu team can backport any patches from Google as they need to.
First published in Linux Format Issue 128
Liked this? Then check out Hands on: Google Chrome OS review
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