Google’s new netbook-oriented operating system, Chrome OS, got more than its fair share of press when its source code was released (including a download from our very own Jorge Sierra.) But Google’s not the only major tech company developing a speedy, open-source operating system for netbooks – Intel’s been working on Moblin netbook OS since 2007.
The project’s now operated by the Linux Foundation, but Intel programmers still contribute a fair amount of code and serve on the project’s board.
Moblin netbook OS is meant to be a lot of things: user-friendly, Internet-oriented and based on existing standards, just to name a few. But Moblin’s most significant strength is supposed to be how well it runs on Intel’s Atom processor.
I loaded Moblin 2.1 onto my (beloved) EEE PC 700a to answer one question: is Moblin any good yet? Here’s what I discovered.
Performance & Drivers
The first thing I noticed was the blazing fast boot time. I thought I was seeing a boot screen, but no: the operating system had already booted within seconds. While the importance of fast boot times is sometimes overstated amongst geeks, a netbook is something that should start quickly. In this, the Moblin netbook OS delivers.
All the programs I ran while testing Moblin started noticeably faster than my usual operating system: Ubuntu Netbook Remix. Wireless, sound and video all worked perfectly out of the box. Nice work there, to be sure.
First Impression: “MyZone.”
When Moblin first starts up it automatically displays the “MyZone” page, one of the eight main panels that make up Moblin. MyZone features three main sections: your calendar, your recent history and your friend’s activities on the social networks.
While I personally would prefer the social networks be left off the home page completely, the three elements in combination seem like a logical starting-point for a netbook operating system: synthesising elements of online and offline content. After all, in this age of widely-accessible wireless Internet why should online content be limited to the browser?
That’s not to say MyZone is perfect yet. The calendar displayed is synced with various services, but I was disappointed to learn there’s no default way to sync with my calendar of choice – Google Calendar. Apparently this can be achieved using a subscription-based third party service called Goosync, but I’m hardly looking to pay money to access a free service.
As for compatible social networks, Moblin can currently display content from Twitter and Last.fm. More are presumably on the way, but if Facebook or LinkedIn integration is essential for you you’ll probably find the “MyZone” page less useful than intended for now.
Despite these shortcomings, however, Moblin’s first impression is a good one. MyZone combines elements of your online life – your friend’s comments on social networks, your browsing history and your calendar – with the documents you store and use on your netbook. Online and Offline content are integrated seamlessly.
Rather than opting for the traditional, program-centric toolbar Moblin attempts to create a new paradigm, centred on the computer’s uses rather than on applications.
The toolbar, hidden until the user moves the mouse to the top of the screen, consists of the time and date on the left followed by eight main buttons and four configuration tools. From right to left, the main buttons include MyZone, Status, People, Internet, Media, Pasteboard, Applications and Zones. Configuration buttons, to the right of these, include battery, volume, Bluetooth and network connectivity.
Pressing any of these buttons instantly brings up a system-integrated panel. Click the “Status” button, for example, and you can quickly update your social network status – currently only Twitter. If you’re a avid microblogger this kind of accessibility will doubtless strike you as useful.
Press the “People” button and you’ll see all your email and instant messaging contacts. Double-click one of them and you’ll open a new window to talk to them or an email window to write them. This is a good example of Moblin taking an existing open source program – in this case the instant-messaging application Empathy and the email program Evolution – and integrating them seamlessly into its own user interface.
Pressing the “Internet” button shows a quick panel allowing you to type a web address or click on one of your most commonly accessed web sites. Do so and the Moblin browser will open the page you’re looking for. I was seriously impressed with the browser. A huge improvement over Moblin 2, Moblin 2.1 includes a slick Mozilla-based browser optimized for usage on a netbook screen.
This is the fastest browser I’ve ever run on my netbook””doubtless the result of the browser being optimised for the Intel Atom processor. But that’s not all. Not only is the browser attractive, clean and well-integrated into Moblin – it’s Mozilla based, meaning it’s compatible with Firefox plugins and add-ins. So essential plugins like Adobe Flash, Greasemonkey and Adblock Plus are all compatible with this browser.
One of the many strengths of open source software is the ability of one project to integrate components from another, and Moblin’s browser is a great example of this. Simply put, this is a netbook browser done right. Integrated into the rest of Moblin this gives Chrome OS a run for its money.
Pressing the “Media” button brings up a simple user interface allowing you to quickly browse your videos, music and pictures.
The interface is very intuitive. Insert an SD card with media files and this program will automatically find these files and point them out to you, allowing you to browse your media quickly and even search within it. Videos and pictures are automatically opened full-screen, very sensible for a netbook operating system running on systems with limited screen space.
This panel is simple, but that’s what it needs to be.
To the right of Media is Pasteboard. If you copy text or a picture in any program this is where it ends up. Unlike other operating systems, however, Moblin records a history of your copy-pasting, meaning if you copy over something you can retrieve it here. Simple idea but very useful in context.
Next up is Applications, which shows you a conventional menu where you can load locally-installed programs. Linux users will doubtlessly recognise the programs and games available. Note the contrast to Chrome OS, which does not allow the user to install programs on the local hard drive in favor of net apps. Moblin goes to no lengths to point out the programs, but it does allow users to install additional software and to use it. This is a great compromise between simplicity and customisability.
Longtime Linux users will be pleased to know that “Alt” and “F2″, a favorite shortcut of many, brings up the search button of the Applications panel, allowing users to type the name of their favourite program rather than browsing through the (quite annoying) application menu by mouse.
It’s also possible to install software from the Moblin repositories through a very easy-to-use interface. Currently there aren’t many applications available, but more are sure to come.
The final main panel is Zones. When a program is opened in Moblin it is given its own workspace, or Zone, in which to operate. Clicking the Zone button on the panel will show you all the Zones currently open and allow you to switch between them, as well as moving programs from one Zone to another.
This may sound complicated on paper, but is actually a very elegant way to run multiple programs on a small screen.
Moblin is a very elegant and very fast netbook operating system, taking some of the best things about Linux and transforming it into a system perfect of Netbooks. The result is a very tight, well-thought-out system that combines the best of the offline and online worlds.
Philosophically, Moblin represents what I think is the perfect compromise between Google’s Chrome OS and traditional operating systems such as Windows or Ubuntu. While it’s simple and instantly easy to use in a manner similar to Chrome OS, it’s far easier to customise and extend””not to mention use offline.
But Moblin, for all its virtues, is not done yet. Installing third party applications isn’t easy, meaning installing Skype and Dropbox is out of the reach of most users (unless you’re running the Ubuntu version of Moblin, which is compatible with Ubuntu packages.)
But while Moblin might not be perfect yet, it’s certainly usable – but if it doesn’t yet meet your needs it’s certainly one worth waiting for. With a few tweaks it could easily become my netbook operating system of choice. I’ll be the first to write an article congratulating Intel and the Linux Foundation when it does.
Want to give Moblin a spin? You’ll need to download the image from Moblin, and then make a bootable disk using the image. You can learn how to do this using Moblin’s own detailed instructions, or you can use Unetbootin. I myself used Unetbootin and it worked great. Once you manage to boot from the image you can run Moblin directly from your disk or install it to your hard drive.
Have fun and make sure to leave your opinions about Moblin in the comments.
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