Review: 3 free Linux alternatives for your netbook

If you feel Windows 7 Starter is too limited, here are three Linux distros that may suit you better.

If you're buying a new netbook for this holiday season, odds are that it will be loaded with Windows 7 Starter Edition. While many users will be happy with Microsoft's new OS, others might balk at the limitations that this version includes -- for example, you won't be able to change your desktop background, and it doesn't include Windows Media Center. And it may even add a bit to the cost of the device.

So what are your alternatives?

Well, you can ask your vendor to install old, faithful Windows XP. You can wait to see what OS Google eventually comes up with. Or, if you want to bypass the major vendors, there are several operating systems built upon Linux you can download now for free and install on your netbook.

In this round-up, I take a look at three alternative netbook operating systems: Ubuntu Netbook Remix (from Canonical Ltd.), Moblin (from The Linux Foundation) and Jolicloud (an upcoming spin-off of UNR which, as of this writing, has yet to be officially released). I evaluate their ease of installation, usefulness, and whether they might breathe new life into your netbook.

Three things to note right off that apply to all three of these netbook OSes:

1. These OSes are downloaded as large files (up to 1GB) and installed onto a USB flash drive. You then insert the USB drive into your netbook, and boot from it to start the installation process. One of them, Jolicloud, is also available as a disc image file; you burn the file to a CD-R, connect an external USB CD-ROM drive to your netbook, and boot your computer from the drive to start installing the OS.

2. There may be compatibility issues when it comes to playing media (audio and video) files on the newly installed OS, because the developers of these netbook OSes usually do not have the licenses to legally distribute the proprietary code that's needed to play some media formats. (This is an issue with most Linux-based OS distributions, regardless of whether they are designed for a netbook, notebook or desktop.)

3. The developers behind these OSes aim for compatibility with many, but not all, of the latest netbook models. Assuming your netbook is an Atom-based machine with 1GB RAM (which is pretty much the system specification standard in the netbook market now), these alternative OSes should be able to run.

A note for those still using some of the first netbooks: You probably won't have much success if you attempt to install one of these OSes on, for example, the pioneering but now-legacy Asus Eee PC 701. If in doubt, check the official sites of these OSes for compatibility lists, or search user forums to read what kind of results others might have achieved running the OS on your netbook model.

For this round-up, I tested each of these Linux-based alternative OSes on an Asus Eee PC 1005HA, which came with a 1.66GHz Atom N280 CPU, 1GB RAM, a 160GB hard drive, and a version of Windows XP Home Edition optimized for netbooks.

I've listed the three OSes in the order of their evolutionary development: First came Ubuntu Netbook Remix (released June 2008), followed by the current version of Moblin (released October 2009) and lastly, the currently-in-alpha Jolicloud.

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