Ubuntu Netbook Remix on the Asus EEE PC
*** Please note that this post is now out of date. Ubuntu Netbook Remix has been updated and now works on the EEE 701 without the need for the modifications detailed below. See: http://www.greenhughes.com/content/quick-peek-ubuntu-netbook-remix-910-k... ***
I finally took the plunge the other day and decided to wipe the operating system that came with my EEE PC and install Ubuntu Netbook Remix, and I'm very glad I did! I've been using it for a few days now and am really pleased with it, the new interface performs excellently on the small seven inch screen of the EEE and the time and thought the designers have put into how to make the maximum use of screen-size has certainly paid off. A particularly noticeable example is when using Mozilla Thunderbird, on the OS supplied with the EEE was was virtually no room to type a message when starting a new email, the design of the netbook interface means that there is now quite a bit of space. Installing Ubuntu on the EEE was not a straightforward process with a lot of manual adjustments that had to be applied, but there is a lot of good documentation of there that really helps and it seems quite a community of people running Ubuntu on their EEEs.
The operating system supplied with the EEE, Xandros, was very flexible, and did have the advantage of being quick to boot. Ubuntu takes a bit longer to boot, which is a downside, but I have not found this much of a problem in practice. The factor that drove me to move on though was the situation with the UnionFS set up on the EEE. When supplied, the EEEs have a large read only partition on the hard disk, which contains the operating system, there is also a read/write partition which contains user data and user changes to the file-system. While this has the upside that it is possible to quickly restore the system by pressing F9 from the recovery menu, it does have the major downside that space gets wasted. If you download an update to OpenOffice for example, the original package would remain on the file-system, but the operating system would know to use the new version, the old version, thanks to UnionFS would appear to have been replaced, so the original can still be restored. This does lead to the problem though that twice as much space is used then is strictly needed, not a good situation on a small hard disc. On top of that I kept getting problems with the file-system claiming to be out of space when it wasn't (a good fix for that is on the eee user forums). Of course many of these problems might be down to being a developer and pushing the machine's OS beyond the limits it was designed for. I know people who just use it without modification to browse the we, read the email etc and have not had a problem.
Installing Ubuntu Netbook Remix was something that did require a few steps. This started by getting hold of a version of Ubuntu that is targeted at the EEE. I used the version from the Ubuntu EEE project, which aims to optimise Ubuntu for the EEE, not everything is perfect when you install this, it is still a work in progress, but a lot does work, including the wireless networking. I don't have an external CD drive so the first thing I had to do was to create a bootable installer from a USB memory stick. This turned out to get a bit complicated as I run 64bit Ubuntu on my main laptop and the program they suggested to create the installer did not work. However, I got round this by installing the syslinux package on my machine manually and use a script from the EEEbuntu site (found at: ftp://www.eeebuntu.org/../pub/isotostick.sh) to transfer the ISO image I got from the Ubuntu EEE project site onto a USB stick and make it bootable. I got a lot of messages saying things like "failed to preserve ownership" when running the script, but this does not cause any problems, I think this is due to the filesystem on USB sticks not supporting the ownership of files.
Installing Ubuntu took the form of plugging the USB stick into the EEE, pressing ESC as it booted up and selecting the USB to boot from. Install Ubuntu as normal, for the disc partitioning, I choose to have a single partiton in ext2 format (to save the extra write cycles of a journaling file system). Once installed to get a normal Ubuntu desktop (although software defaults are different in this version of Ubuntu, such as Skype being installed as standard), before continuing I updated all packages, installed the very useful ubuntu-restricted-extras package (which makes sure you have things such as Flash and Java set up) and added the Medibuntu repository. When installing lots of packages you might notice a lot of disc space being used up, you can reclaim a lot of this by flushing the packages cache with sudo apt-get clean. To keep booting up time down, I applied pretty much all of the customisations at: http://www.ubuntu-eee.com/index.php5?title=How_to:_optimize_boot_speed.
At this point you will have a working Ubuntu system, but a few things won't be working just yet. The first of these is the shutdown, which can be fixed by following the instructions at: http://www.ubuntu-eee.com/index.php5?title=Fix:_The_shutdown_on_hardy, another one that is easy to fix is the volume control: http://www.ubuntu-eee.com/index.php5?title=Fix:_volume_control. Many of the issues can be fixed by visiting: http://wiki.eeeuser.com/getting_ubuntu_8.04_to_work_perfectly where I used the instructions for the WiFi hotkeys, the important ACPI module (which will allow the camera to work), and the HotKeys. To test out the camera I used Cheese, which is a lot of fun. Two way video also works on Skype as well, which could be an interesting feature. Another very little issue I found was that the disc usage analyser was reporting twice as much space as actually existed, this can be easy solved by going to "Edit" -> "Preferences" and unticking "gvfs-fuse-daemon".
To install Ubuntu Netbook Remix, I followed the instructions at: https://edge.launchpad.net/netbook-remix, once installed you might have to adjust the fonts to they are a little larger, this can be done from the Settings menu though. This process is quite manual at the moment as Netbook Remix is still a work in progress but it is simple enough to set up. The EEEs also have a "home" key which can be made to show the Netbook Remix interface screen by going to "Settings" -> "Keyboard Shortcuts" and "Hide all windows and focus desktop", click on this entry and press the "home" key to map it, it will be listed as "Super-L" but works perfectly.
Being a fan of Flock I decided to round off this new user experience on the EEE by installing the version from getdeb.net. With the standard 512MB of of memory I found that I could run a lot of programs side by side without a problem, even a web server and MySQL. However I decided to upgrade to 2GB to give the OS lots of room to breathe and also because of my bad habit of leaving lots of tabs open in Flock at once which can consume a lot of memory.
Once it is up and running, Ubuntu Netbook Remix on the EEE provides an excellent computing experience. Setting it up is a little involved though, and not something I would recommend to those of you who are brand new to Linux, having someone around who has already installed Ubuntu onto an EEE can help too (thanks Alex!). Hopefully soon it will be available pre-installed on netbook type machines, but after having used it for only a few days I can definitely say it was worth the effort to install it.