For some reason, I’m not really quite sure why, I’ve recently had the desire to have more of a play with Linux (in the form of Ubuntu) as a normal workstation type system. Rather than just jump ship wholesale on my home desktop system, I decided to use my netbook (a Samsung NC10) as a testbed as I had been thinking of sprucing it up with a reinstall anyway. It has been running Windows 7 Home Premium, and running it well, with the system still feeling very responsive with Aero enabled and multiple apps started.

 

Last night I downloaded Ubuntu Netbook 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat), created a USB boot disk and went through the install process. It was all very straight forward, and since then I’ve been having a look around the installed system to see what’s what, and to make sure that I can do everything I need to do. Clearly web browsing and basic word processing are not going to be a problem, and when using Linux in the past I have had pain points when doing more taxing tasks like video chat in MSN and Skype. So my immediate tasks were – get it installed, get the basics setup up, make sure I can do what I need, and generally see what I thought.

 

The most surprising first impression that I experienced was that it feels slow. I don’t expect blistering speed from a netbook, and I had expected Ubuntu Netbook, with the Unity interface which is “Designed specifically for the smaller screen and for computing on the move” to feel at least as responsive as it had under Windows 7, if not better. So far though it has felt worse, much worse. Everything just feels a little bit laggy, from seeing something happen when I click an icon to moving things around the screen. Sure – I can have multiple apps open and playing streaming video was fine (more on that later) but the normal feel of the OS is sluggish compared to Windows7 on the same system.

Responsiveness aside, the most important thing of all is whether it will be able to do what I need, which isn’t actually all that much. As I said earlier, the basics I’m not worried about, and media playback using VLC player should be fine too. The only areas I was concerned about were Skype, MSN and Sopcast P2P media streams. I know there are clients for all three and the question is how good are they.

I managed to get Skype working, with video as well, quite easily. The interface for the app leaves a lot to be desired when you are used to the Windows client, but the main thing was that it worked, although Ubuntu defaulting the built-in mic to be being muted and that not being reflected in the Skype app caused a brief delay while I figured it out.

Empathy seems to be the default IM client at the moment and it was fairly straight forward to get my MSN account configured. That said, the interface again leaves a lot to be desired – for example, when my friendly tester initiated a voice chat, there didn’t seem to be an easy way to accept. This might have been a ‘quirk’ and if so in these enlightened times it would be an unacceptable one. I also managed to close down the main window and lose the icon from the system tray, but then discovered I was still ‘logged in’ to MSN when I had thought I had quit. I eventually managed to get the right window back and hit log out. Anyway, I wasn’t hugely impressed with the MSN Video chat capability – my tester could see and hear me while I could not hear them, and had a big green splodge where their image was supposed to be. Seeing as Skype has previously worked I’m assuming it was some Empathy hose. Not a  success by any means.

I was surprised that I managed to get Sopcast working with no trouble, although the final user experience is not one I really want to have to use regularly. On Windows I click a link in the web browser, it automatically fires up the Sopcast client and plays the stream linked to. With Ubuntu I have to note the channel number from the URL link in the browser, start a terminal window, run the Sopcast client by hand, using the channel number and a couple of port numbers. Then I can start VLC player, and point it (manually) to one of the ports I just specified using a url, and then it will play the Sopcast stream. It worked pretty well, but that’s not really the most friendly of experiences.

There are a few other minor niggles – the fixed launcher is OK, but it is annoying in a couple of respects. Firstly you cannot add just any app to it. For example I can’t figure out how to get the VLC player added. The Skype client I could add by starting it, which causes an icon to pop on the Launcher a la Windows 7, and you then right click on the icon and click ‘keep in launcher’ – that option is not available for VLC for some reason. It also seems that you can’t tell it to open a new instance of an application – I often have multiple browser windows open on Windows 7 (even on my netbook) but clicking the icon always brings up the open window, and there is no way to tell it to open a new one. Being blunt, the launcher is frankly a ‘Harry Halfjob’ implementation of the Windows 7 task bar.

I haven’t yet figured out if there is a ‘GUI’ way to view shares on my Samba server, where a lot of my media is stored, and if there is it’s certainly not easy or intuitive to find or use. Failing that I’d want to access the media via the DLNA server I have running, but I can’t figure out how to do that either as yet. My two year old PS3 and even my Android phone manages to just detect it and play media from it without any real effort from me, but the Meerkat demands a bit more input.

I’m sure it’s doable, and it’s not as straightforward as it should be. The icing on that cake is that all of the ‘soft keys’ for the NC10 work – I can adjust the volume, brightness and so on using the custom Fn key, all except for controlling the wireless device. As it happened, wireless had been disabled before I installed Meerkat, and so wasn’t detected, which meant a trip to the BIOS to enable it so it could be installed, and now I have to control it via the Ubuntu ‘enable’ option, which is not half as convenient.

In summary, I can say that everything I need from Ubuntu Netbook edition does, pretty much, work on my NC10, and I could continue to use it and gradually work out all the kinks. I don’t think I’m going to though. While the kinks aren’t major, they are still kinks, and they are kinks that I don’t have when using Windows 7. I have other things that I’d rather spend my time on than working out kinks that someone else has worked out already, so for now at least, I think I’m reverting back to Windows after my brief safari with the Meerkat.