For those who read this and don't know: Ubuntu 11.04, AKA Natty Narwhal is a Linux Based, totally free/open sourced operating system for desktops, laptops and netbooks. Earlier last week I went ahead and loaded it up on my Netbook I lovingly call "Samus Aran". For reference Samus is an Asus 1015PEM-PU17 upgraded with 2GB of RAM.
I'm writing this primarily for folks who are currently running a Microsoft Windows product on an aging laptop or netbook and wondering if there are any option out there. If you already use Linux, skip this review and head to Ars Technica for a more comprehensive review of Natty Narwhal's features. On a related note, Microsoft says it will end support for Windows XP in 2014. Anyone running that OS should probably buy a supported copy of the Windows OS or seek another option like Linux before that happens. Thinking about jumping ship early? Keep reading.
Ease of Use
Learning to use a new operating system is exciting for me. I'm in the minority though, and most folks would prefer to just stick with what they know. Fortunately, Ubuntu doesn't depart from the basics of the cursor driven operating system that most people know as Windows or Mac OSX. Most people familiar with either will pick up Ubuntu in a few minutes and be able to access most of the basic services they expect from their computer.
The stock configuration includes a dock along the left side with a global menu bar along the top that changes when you switch applications. In the dock you will find the Ubuntu Software Center application that allows one to download and install more programs. There is no "Start Menu", but there is an Applications button on the Dock that you can click and use to search all the loaded applications.
If you want something to stay in the dock, loaded it up, right click it in the dock and select "Keep in Launcher". Left click and hold to move a particular program up or down on the dock. If the number of icons is longer than you dock, the bottom shrinks up accordion style to give you a partial display. When hovering over the dock you can use the mouse wheel to scroll up or down or just move the cursor toward the top or the bottom to navigate.
This dock, called "Unity" is pretty slick and intuitive. I think casual users will figure it out pretty quickly. I think the Workspace Switcher would probably be confusing at first. Most folks will figure out that clicking the program icon in the dock will take you to the application regardless of which workspace it is in.
Clicking the Ubuntu icon opens a search window.
If you spend the majority of your time playing games on your Windows machine, Linux is not for you. While a few really nice titles have reached out to Linux (Spiral Knights!), your selection will be severely limited otherwise. For me, I'm endlessly entertained by DosBox, but your average power gamer will not be so easily amused.
If you use your computer to browse the Internet, check email, chat, Skype, create documents and similar you'll find that Natty Narwhal performs all these tasks. If you use Microsoft Office extensively I'd head to the LibreOffice site and make sure it will do all you need it to. If you need something to organize contacts, a calendar, recipes, photos and similar there are a number of applications for the Linux platform that will do the job.
Most are pre-loaded as part of the installation.
Because the programs on the Linux platform are free, they often aren't as nice looking or have as many features as something you pay for on the Windows or Mac OSX platforms. That being said, it's hard to beat free. Even being used to Photoshop, I could use the GIMP Image Editor in a pinch, especially if I was on a budget.
None to speak of. You can try Ubuntu 11.04 without even loading it to your machine. All you need is a thumb drive and the ability to follow simple instructions. You've really nothing to lose by trying it. Go here to check it out.
My mom uses a Toshiba laptop that's old enough to come from an era when Toshiba made a really nice machine. It will likely last her into 2014 and beyond, it is a seemingly unstoppable tank. However, her copy of Windows XP running on it won't. Sometime before then, I will have to do something so she has a functional and secure OS running, hence my investigating Linux.
Given what I've seen Ubuntu 11.04 will run best with 2GB of RAM and you need a Video Card capable of 3D graphics for the Unity Interface. Worst case scenario, it'll prompt you to run something called "Gnome" instead which is more like a start menu/taskbar interface and just as easy to figure out. Almost any machine manufactured in the last 6-8 years should run Ubuntu like a champ.
Installation is easy. The Ubuntu site pretty much holds your hand through the process with clear instructions. That being said, anyone that has a Windows Recovery Partition on their hard drive should take special care not to delete those partitions on accident. When I wiped my Netbook, I killed all the partitions because I had no desire to use Windows 7 Starter... ever. This may not be true for someone trying Linux for the first time.
For the most part, my Samus netbook runs Ubuntu 11.04 like a champ juggling multiple applications and similar. On slower machines Ubuntu gives no indication that what you've just asked the computer to do is actually happening. Be patient and don't mindlessly click an icon just because the first click didn't make anything happen at first. Click once, and wait a moment or two.
Samus gets well over 8 hours of battery life running Linux at default screen brightness. This is short of the 13 hours it allegedly gets running proprietary software with the Windows OS. For me, 8.5 hours of battery life is plenty. Also, the battery life displayed by Ubuntu seems to be very accurate.
My only complaint is that the trackpad doesn't shut off while I'm typing even though there is an option in the settings for this. For heavy typing you'll probably want an external mouse and to turn the trackpad off. Yes, the majority of the FN buttons along the top of the keyboard work fine in linux including Screen Brightness, Volume, WiFi On/Off, etcetera. I wasn't so fortunate with previous distributions of Linux even though they ran a little smoother.