DIY Netbook Linux

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There are a variety of netbook distros out there, but you can have a little fun creating your own. Here are some software packages and tips worth considering:

Choosing a distro

You can chose any distro but my favorite is, of course, Ubuntu. The 9.04 release is particularly well-suited to netbooks because it not only works well on most of them, but includes the ultra-quick boot-up technology that will probably mean the desktop appears in about 25 seconds of powering-up. This removes the need to hibernate or suspend the computer each time you've finished with it, which also removes the need for a large swap partition because this is where the hibernate file is stored (my Dell Mini 9 only has a 4GB SD disk, for example, and has 2GB of RAM, so a swap partition is simply impossible).

Creating a swap file

By selecting to manually partition during installation, you can avoid setting-up a swap partition and simply create one large root partition. This is extremely useful if your netbook has a small hard disk (i.e. 4GB or less). Ubuntu will warn you this is a potentially bad thing, but will let you continue. When you boot into your new installation, you can create a single swap file, just like with Windows. This will live in the root partition. Using a swap file in preference to a swap partition won't allow your computer to hibernate, but it will otherwise act just like a standard swap partition.

The following instructions, taken from my book Ubuntu Kung Fu, explain how to create a 1GB swap partition--alter the numbers for a smaller swap partition:

1. Open a terminal window, and create an empty file in the root of the file system using the dd command, as follows (this creates a 1GB file--you should ideally adjust the count= figure to at least match the size of your memory, bearing in mind that there are 1,024MB in 1GB):

sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=/swapfile bs=1M count=1024

2. Now we need to format it as a swap file:

sudo mkswap /swapfile

3. The final step is to make Ubuntu mount it at boot, which is done by editing /etc/fstab:

gksu gedit /etc/fstab

Then make a new line at the bottom of the file, and add the following:

/swapfile none swap sw 0 0

You can align the entries on the line under the column headings in fstab, like the other entries in the file, but it doesn’t matter so long as there is at least one space between each entry on the line. Once done, save the file, and reboot your computer. You can test to see if your new swap file is operational by typing the following:

cat /proc/meminfo|grep Swap

Mac-like menus

A netbook screen is so small that conserving every inch of real estate can be useful. One useful trick is to install Gnome Global Menu. This removes the menu from the top of every program window, and displays it on the top panel, a little like a Mac. Because each program window doesn't have a menu, a smidgin of space is freed-up for the window contents.

To install Gnome Global Menu, open Software Sources (under System, Administration) and click the Third Party Software tab. Click the Add button and, in the dialog box that appears, type (or cut and paste) the following:

deb jaunty main

Click the Close button and refresh the repository list when prompted. Then use Synaptic to install the gnome-globalmenu package.

Once installed, close any open applications, right-click on a blank spot on the top panel, and select Add to Panel. In the list, select Global Menu Panel Applet. But wait! There's a little more to do before it will work. Right-click the new applet and select Preferences. Then put a check alongside Enable Global Menu for GTK Applications, and also the Icon checkbox.

Then open an application, like Nautilus. You should find the menu now appears on the top panel.

Sadly, Gnome Global Menu only works with 100% Gnome applications. It doesn't work with Firefox or, both of which use tricks to pretend to be GTK applications, and as such are unable to share their menus. It also won't work with any KDE applications you might use.

To overcome the Firefox issue, you might try switching to Epiphany or Galeon browsers. Both are effectively Firefox under the hood. Epiphany in particular is very useful, and allows you to add bookmark icons to the main toolbar, which can also help save space.

Or you can opt for an alternative browser, as follows.

Choose an alternative browser

Although the forthcoming release of Firefox 3.5 is said to be speedy, the fact is that Firefox runs very slowly under Linux. In my experience it's borderline unusable on some netbooks. On my Dell Mini 9, this manifests itself as a general lag throughout the program. The highlight selection trails behind the mouse pointer as I run it up and down menus, for example, and some Javascript-heavy sites barely work at all. It feels as if the program has been given a sleeping pill, and is slow to respond to everything!

I've had some success using the alpha of Google Chromium, which is simply much faster. Although an alpha release, it's actually pretty stable if you can ignore the ugly font rendering and lack of some preference options. It's a work in progress, however, so will continue to get better and better. To install it, follow the same instructions as described above for adding a new software repository, but this time add the following address:

deb jaunty main

Once the repositories have been refreshed, use Synaptic to install the chromium-browser package. You should find a new version of the package is available every day, but there's no real need to update Chromium every time. I update weekly.

Another interesting alternative is Fennec, which is a Mozilla-based browser designed for handheld devices. You can download a binary beta release for Linux from here. Once the archive has downloaded, unpack it and simply double-click the “fennec” executable within the folder.

The trick to using Fennec is to click and drag within the display area using the mouse cursor. To the left and right of the main browser area are bookmarks and tools, and to the top of the program window is the URL bar. Double-clicking on a paragraph of text will zoom-in (double-clicking again will zoom-out too). I find this particularly useful considering the small screensize of most netbooks. Bear in mind that the scroll wheel/pad will zoom in and out of the text, rather than scroll the page.

Fennec is also a work in progress, and isn't without bugs, but again should be usable enough for everyday use.

Of course, you could simply install a prerelease of Firefox 3.5. If you're using Ubuntu 9.04, you'll find it there in the repositories. Just install the firefox-3.5 package. Once installed, it will appear under the Applications > Internet menu as Shiretoko (its testing codename). Give it a minute to start up for the first time, because it needs to recreate your profile and nothing will seem to happen. You may find that some of your plugins aren't yet available for 3.5, but I found that some of my favorites worked fine (FlashBlock, in particular). The stability seemed excellent in my tests.

On my Dell Mini 9 netbook, Firefox 3.5 showed a significant speed boost over older releases.

Free-up disk space

If you have a netbook you'll no doubt keep an anxious eye on the free disk space at all times (the command to do this at the command-prompt is df -h).

You'll probably be able to free-up a lot of disk space in one fell swoop by clearing out the package cache. Whenever you install a new piece of software, or update the system, Ubuntu stores the original package files in case they're needed later. They probably won't be, however. You can simply download them afresh if they're needed anyway.

The command to clear the cache is as follows:

sudo apt-get clean
sudo apt-get autoremove

The latter of the commands will remove any unused dependency packages too. This can also free-up some space.

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

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