Why Is the Ubuntu-based Dell Mini 9 Unfinished?

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I recently caved in to my inner geek and bought a Mini 9. This is the cheap netbook from Dell that runs Ubuntu (although WinXP is an option). It took Dell a month to get it to me, and although the price dropped significantly during that time they refused to give me a refund. So when the Mini 9 eventually arrived I was grumpy, and not inclined to see it in a good light. But I'll be damned if the little thing hasn't stolen my heart. It's everything you might expect from a miniature notebook. You've probably read the various Mini 9 reviews by now, and there's not much I can add (apart from pointing out that the Mini 9 is surprisingly sluggish -- it's a 1.6GHz processor in name only, and feels like it's running at half that speed).

A special Dell remix of Ubuntu came installed on the model I ordered. I had fun playing around with this, but it was a painful experience at times. I initially categorized the problems I experienced as bugs, but that's incorrect. It's more that the operating system is unfinished. Don't get me wrong. It works OK. It's functional. You can web browse, and IM, and word process just fine. But there was no final polish before the car left the showroom.

Here are a couple of examples: I tend to set screen brightness low, while the default Ubuntu setting is higher. This would be fine were it not for the fact that Ubuntu keeps forgetting my setting. When the screen dims after a period of inactivity, the brightness leaps back to default when I use the computer again. I'm left squinting and fumbling for the brightness hotkeys. (On occasion the brightness hotkeys just stopped working completely.)

Then there's the trackpad. I'm typing this blog entry on the Mini and, as I do so, the mouse cursor is leaping all over the screen because my fingers and palm keep touching the touchpad. This is inevitable because of the small size of the Mini versus the comparatively large size of my hands. The touchpad can be set to deactivate for a split second after each key is pressed, which helps avoid this, but this feature hasn't been activated. I'm fairly sure it would be if I'd ordered a Windows notebook from Dell. If I ordered a MacBook it certainly would. So why not Ubuntu?

And what about the time it takes Wi-Fi to get back online after waking from suspend? The entire computer comes back to life in seconds, but I have to sit and stare at the Network Manager icon for at least 30 seconds as it goes through the motions of reconnecting. During this time I'm sitting on my hands and unable to do anything apart from play Solitaire, or maybe fetch a cup of tea.

There are many other small irritations like this. I'm not sure if the Ubuntu/Dell developers actually used the system for more than a few minutes when testing, but if they had, they would have stumbled across these irritations themselves. I honestly don't know how they could miss them.

Right now, millions of experienced Ubuntu users all over the planet are on the brink of sending me an email. These mails will take several forms, as follows:

1. Pointing out how to fix the problems I've experienced (or pointing me to an Ubuntuforums.org posting where the solution is detailed);

2. Telling me to switch to a different distro because "UBUNTU SUCKS!!!!";

3. Telling me to file a bug report, and/or code my own improvements -- after all, this is open source, and I should either put-up or STFU.

The trouble is that these suggestions aren't really acceptable. Not any longer, anyway. This is because preinstalling Ubuntu on retail computers turns it into a consumer product. As soon as this happened, Ubuntu stopped being a geeky Linux toy that could reasonably demand a degree of tweaking from its users. It started to have obligations. There are standards and expectations it has to meet. It had to get everything out of the box, or as near as dammit.

This is nothing new for Ubuntu, which has always considered itself to have obligations to its end users. This is why it's so successful, and this is certainly why I love it so much. As I mentioned in my last blog posting, Ubuntu is one of the few community versions of Linux where the end-user is king, and not subordinate to a group of enthusiastic developers. For users of Windows or OS X it might sound insane that somebody other than the user of the OS might be considered most important in the scheme of things. But that's just how it is with Linux.

I'm also aware that the Mini 9 was Ubuntu's first ride-out on a netbook, so things were probably going to be a bit shaky (and, yeah, I know about Ubuntu Netbook Remix, and how it's evolved Dell's Ubuntu rendition quite significantly).

However, I expected my experience of Ubuntu on the Mini 9 to be better -- to be tighter, more integrated, more professional. I've managed to hack my system into shape, of course. To me, that's actually a fun thing to do. But to the ubiquitous newbie who's heard great things about Ubuntu and wants to give it a shot, that's asking a lot (and, trust me, there are a lot of Ubuntu newbies -- my own free Ubuntu guide has been downloaded over 500,000 times, and I recently learned that Ubuntuforums.org gets around 700 new memberships every day). If I'm to buy another netbook in future, and should it be running Linux, it would be great if all these little irritations were taken care of so that, after booting for the first time, all I have to do is set my favorite wallpaper and just start working. After all, I wouldn't expect anything less from a Windows or Mac OS X computer. Why should a commercially-purchased computer running Linux be an exception?

Keir Thomas is the award-winning author of several books on Ubuntu, including Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.

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