As you're probably aware, the Google Chromebook has been released. This is a small laptop computer which can boot up and be online in 8 seconds. Impressive!
But I already have a netbook and I felt sure that installing an "instant on" version of Linux would produce a similar computing experience.
I also like the idea of saving money by buying a netbook and having both the flexibility that comes with Windows being on it, and also having an 'instant on' option for speedy access to the web.
Below is a list - and quick overview - of the instant on Linux systems I looked at (click on each for more information).
BrowserLinux - basic but it does the jobSplashtop - way too basicgOS - pretty interface but it has a lot of issuesEasyPeasy - bursting with apps and looks goodPresto - works reasonably but it's not freeMeeGo - Saving the best for last...
You can read my conclusion here.
BrowserLinux comes as a 90mb ISO file download. It's quick to burn the ISO to USB disk and BrowserLinux boots fairly quickly from USB. For me, it took just under a minute to go from switch on to browsing the web.
One of the impressive things about BrowserLinux is that it worked on each of the different computers I tried it with. As I was to discover, this is a fairly unique achievement for these instant on Linux systems.
As an operating system BrowserLinux is very basic. But it never claims to be anything else. It's a cut down version of Linux that boots fast and allows you to get on the web quickly. I guess their philosophy is that if you want more, and have the time, then boot into a full operating system.
Ah, Splashtop. You download the install exe file, double-click it from within Windows, and then stare at a message which reads "Download will now begin" and wonder if the download will actually ever begin.
I tried the installer on three different computers: a laptop, a netbook and a nettop and had the same problem on each of them. How did I overcome it?
I tried again and again. Open the install file, wait for download to begin, it doesn't, quit the installer. 10 attempts later, the download actually started, and I got a health 250kb/sec download speed.
I wish I could have just downloaded everything necessary in one go, rather than a 2mb exe install file which isn't very good at getting the rest of the files it needs.
The other problem with the OS coming as a Windows install file is that it, of course, requires Windows. So it's of no use if you get a new PC which comes without an OS. Or if you only run Linux. It does make it easy to install though.
This also means you must dual-boot with Windows. There is no way of wiping everything and having Splashtop as the sole instant on Linux OS. Personally, I like to dual boot. But it's nice to have the option to do either.
As an OS, Splashtop is a bit like BrowserLinux in that it's basic. Actually, that's a bit unfair to BrowserLinux, which at least has a few useful apps such as a music player and a calculator. Splashtop is VERY BASIC. It's literally just a web browser.
Given that it's just a web browser, I would have hoped for faster boot times. Approx. 50 seconds seems quite a lot.
gOS looks really impressive but it also seems to be riddled with problems. First off, it would only boot from one of the several computers I tried to run it off. The second problem came with installation.
Once you're running the live environment from the USB disk, there is an option to install the system to your hard disk. If you try to install it, you'll get the usual options about where on the hard disk the system should live.
Like most people, I wanted to keep my Windows installation, so I opted to resize my Windows partition and install gOS onto the new space that became available. I selected the amount of space gOS should have and whacked the "Forward" button to make the changes. Queue a "busy" cursor icon and nothing happened.
I rebooted into Windows and checked out my partitions. No changes had been made. So I used a Windows partitioning tool to resize the NTFS disk, thereby creating 10 GB of unformatted space.
Back in the gOS installer, I now selected the "manual" option when it came to partitioning, expecting to be able to select the unused space. Instead, the mouse cursor switched to its "busy" icon and that was that.
So, for me, gOS looks great and it works OK from USB disk - on some PCs - but apart from that it had far too many problems. Not least for me was that on the one PC it booted from - a Samsung NC10 - it didn't recognise the Wi-Fi card, so I had to use an Ethernet cable to surf the web.
In terms of boot time from USB, it took about a minute and a half. This would be quicker if I had been able to install the system onto the hard disk of course. But as it stands, I'd have been better to boot Windows XP which, on this machine, also takes 90 seconds to load but at least the Wi-Fi works.
In spite of my reservations, gOS already looks like a good instant on Linux OS. So if hardware support can be ramped up, and installation issues ironed out, it could be one to watch.
EasyPeasy is essentially the original version of Ubuntu Linux's "netbook remix" which has since been discontinued in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach. That's a shame because I really liked the netbook remix effort from Ubuntu. So it's nice to see it live on with some modern tweaks.
Given that EasyPeasy currently comes as an 840mb ISO file, I felt some assurance that it would contain enough drivers to work on any of the PCs I threw at it. And that was the case. Amongst other PCs I tried it with, I booted EasyPeasy from USB using my Samsung NC10 and was quickly up and running.
Installation to hard disk was easy enough. Boot from the USB and then follow the install wizard. I was a bit miffed, however, by the partition tool. You get options to install EasyPeasy:
Alongside WindowsAs sole operating systemOr make manual changes
I used the manual option and left my Windows partitions in place. I then chose to install EasyPeasy onto some unpartitioned disk space I had that was sitting unused.
Although EasyPeasy installed itself to the part of the hard disk I had specified, when I booted up I was only ever given the choice to load Ubuntu. There was no option to boot Windows. Not good.
Upon booting EasyPeasy from the hard disk for the first time, I was subjected to a disk check which lasted about an hour. That's not ideal, given that I was booting it up so that I could review its potential as an instant on Linux OS.
However, when it finally got going, I found EasyPeasy would boot in about 30 seconds and to get onto the web it took another few seconds. So from startup to surfing you're looking at about 35 seconds.
What's great about EasyPeasy is that, in spite of only taking 30 seconds to load, it's rammed full of apps.
Presto is the only system I looked at which isn't free (it costs $19.95). You can run it fully without parting with cash, though, if you don't mind cancelling an occasional "Buy Presto" prompt.
Like Splashtop, you install Presto from within Windows by running an exe file. When that's completed you can reboot and jump straight into Presto, which takes about 30 seconds.
Presto comes with a web browser, some apps such as a media player, plus Skype which is a nice touch. And that's about it.
One of the things I expect you're paying for is decent hardware support. I'm yet to see a computer that Presto hasn't worked on. But since gOS, EasyPeasy and MeeGo offer more in the way of apps and functionality - and they're free - you might want to try those first.
First, the annoying bit. Yet again there were problems trying to dual boot with Windows. During installation, I chose to shrink my Windows partition and a popup asked what size I'd like to reduce the NTFS partition to. It suggested "1mb" which is crazy. But it wouldn't accept any other size. Neither would it let me close the resize disk window.
The only option that allowed me to install the system was the one where my hard disk was wiped clean (goodbye Windows) and MeeGo installed itself as the sole operating system.
Sometime later I was able to get dual-boot working. To do this, I re-sized my (restored) Windows NTFS partition, thereby gaining about 50 Gb of free space. Back in the MeeGo installer I manually set up the following partitions:
350 MB /boot (ext 3)40 GB /home (ext 3)5500 MB / (btrfs)2000 MB (swap)
Some good MeeGo dual boot instructions can be found here.
What a system! This is the only offering I've seen so far to compete with Google's Chrome OS. It really is a Chrome OS alternative worth looking at.
MeeGo boots fully in about 40 seconds, it looks great, and it runs fast. But more importantly, it's like no operating system I've used before.
Instead of it feeling like a simple platform to launch programs, it's more like a personal organiser. Appointments, tasks and my Facebook news feed greet me when I log in. At my fingertips are my MSN contacts. And, of course, I can surf the web.
MeeGo is exactly what I was looking for when I set out to find a Chrome OS alternative, or something that could make a regular netbook become like a Chromebook.
Yes it's speedy, but it's also built with the Internet, email and social networking at it's heart. It understands the fact that the web is now an integral part of our lives. In my opinion, MeeGo is the OS to look out for if you want a Google Chrome OS alternative.
The one thing that MeeGo MUST improve on is how it handles partitioning when you install it. Systems such as Ubuntu have had an "Install alongside Windows" option for years.
Many people will feel uncomfortable dropping Windows altogether without getting used to a new system first. So it must become easier to dual boot Windows with MeeGo if they are to attract the numbers of users this system deserves to serve.
When I first heard about Chromebooks, I was skeptical about the point of them. But the more I thought about them the more sense they made. If you buy a netbook, all you want to do on it is surf the web. So why not optimise the entire operating system around this idea?
Why put up with the now ancient Windows XP - or why run Windows 7 Starter Edition (where you can't even change the desktop background) - when you don't have to?
I was sure that a whole bunch of instant on Linux operating systems must already be available that could give Chrome OS a run for its money. But, with the exception of MeeGo, that certainly isn't the case at the moment.
The benefit of buying a Chromebook is that you get an operating system that has been built around - and optimised for - the specific hardware it runs on. So it's quick. And subsequent updates of Google Chrome OS will no doubt shave even more time off boot up.
The problem with instant on Linux systems is that they have to be able to run on any hardware you throw at it. That's no easy task since there's an unlimited combination of hardware you can try it with. So the system has to be slim enough to be ridiculously quick - yet contain enough device drivers to work on most computers.
The compromise is to contain enough generic drivers to get most people up and running. This means some people will have no problems, while others will have one problem after another.
Therefore, if you want almost instant web access that works flawlessly, and you don't mind living exclusively in Google's world, Chromebooks now look pretty good to me.
But if you're concerned about needing an Internet connection just to access your documents, and you still want to run Windows, definitely check out instant on Linux software such as MeeGo. In fact, check out MeeGo no matter what. If nothing else, put it on an old computer and breathe new life into it.