Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Operating Systems on the AAO

Recently, I came into the possession of an Acer Aspire One (AOA150, ZG5). It's a modest netbook with a 160GB IDE, two card readers, 3 USB ports, 1GB of RAM, an Intel Atom N270 CPU, and a really awful touchpad layout. The system came to me with Windows XP Home Edition installed on it, which wasn't really to my liking. This started some massive Linux distribution hopping and operating system hopping. I was trying to find one OS that would be responsive, stable, energy conservative, and one that would support all of the AAOs hardware. The following were my results:

Windows XP Home Edition:
XP Home was the pre-installed operating system. While all of the hardware was well supported, I noticed some severe lag when doing simple tasks. The system would darn near come to a halt when doing something as simple as moving files from one medium to another. This was unacceptable to me. The one thing that was nice with XP Home was batter life. I was able to get nearly 4 hours out of the machine with sound muted, wifi off, camera off, and no USB or SD devices plugged in. With everything kicked up, I got about 2 hours which is still acceptable imo.

Windows 7 Ultimate (x86):
Windows 7 was laggy just like XP Home. Battery life was also very comparable (you have to turn off indexing though, the constant hard drive spin-up will kill you). I did enjoy a few of the new features included in Windows 7. The over-hyped snap feature was very useful considering the limited screen real-estate and widescreen aspect ratio on the AAO. Also, the ability to enlarge text throughout the OS, while keeping the resolution at 1024x768, was great for visibility on the tiny little screen. I was also surprised to see that the integrated Intel video GPU was able to support Aero (and without any lag). Perhaps the best part of Windows 7 on the AAO was the ability to play some rather new games, such as Red Alert 3, Unreal, and some Steam games (though gaming and Aero drained the battery life rather quickly).

Linux Netbook Manglement:
Ubuntu Netbook Remix and Moblin were very responsive, offered great battery life (about 2 hours with everything kicked on, and no noticeable draining of the battery unless viewing video or something similar), were insanely stable, and supported all of the hardware out-of-the-box. My issue with Moblin was in the interface, and the same with UNR. I felt a little bit nerfed on these systems, and both seemed geared toward single tasking.

Haiku OS (an open source BeOS clone):
This was surprising. Haiku ran so well on the AAO that I really didn't want to get rid of it. I had working wireless, sound, video, and USB. The card readers didn't work, and I didn't test the webcam. Speed and stability were the best points. I never waited more than 15 to 20 seconds to be up and running, and I got about 3 hours out of my battery. The desktop layout was also beneficial when dealing with such a small screen. If Alpha 2 can offer some card reader support and webcam support, I will be going back to Haiku. The only real downsides to Haiku were: no wireless encryption (yet {though there is limited support for WEP}), and no card readers. Both are features I can live without, but for the purposes I want to put this netbook to... they were deal breakers.

Ubuntu 10.04 and Solaris:
Once again, the Ubuntu distro put up a darn good fight for my affection. All hardware was working out-of-the-box. Like Windows 7, desktop effects were working also. The desktop layout was annoying, but a quick change to single bar in GNOME fixed that problem. My issue with Ubuntu was actually that of RAM usage (perhaps using Xubuntu would have solved this problem). The machine would use swap quite a bit when simply browsing the web or editing a document. While that may not seem like a really big issue, spinning up the hard drive can drain battery life rather quickly, yielding only 1 hour of battery life. Solaris was actually quite similar on almost all points. The major difference here was the support for the webcam and wireless, both of which were a bit finicky.

Slax (live Slackware):
As with Haiku, I was very pleasantly surprised. Slax hasn't been updated in quite some time, and normally this makes me steer clear of the distribution. Hardware support is notoriously awful with Slax. With that said, it did support everything on my AAO. It was also insanely speedy. It was on par with Haiku in all fields of testing. Even the lack of support for wireless encryption (it does support WEP, does not support WPA without alot of hassle). What it did support that Haiku did not was the card reader. I didn't test the webcam. Another bonus with Slax was that I got to enjoy the awesomeness that was KDE 3.5 :)

*BSD and OSX:
With NetBSD and FreeBSD, most hardware was supported. The notable exception was graphics acceleration, and wireless was a bit quirky (randomly dropping signals, and not always detecting networks that were known to be present). OSX was similar in many ways. While it supported everything except for video acceleration in 10.5, 10.6 had no wireless, and no card readers. In both cases, I was impressed by the things that were supported, as well as by the speed of the systems. OSX failed in one more category: screen use. Having the finder bar at the top, and the dock at the bottom limited my ability to make the most of the screen. iWork drained battery life quickly as well.

Gentoo or LFS:
If you have time to kill, you can try Gentoo. With the latest kernel sources, all of the hardware in the AAO is supported, and if you trim your kernel config you'll be surprised at how swift the AAO can be. Another point here, is that I chose a tiling window manager and mostly CLI applications. With PowerTop and a few other Intel optimizations, I was able to get quite a bit of battery life. It's worth it (LFS not so much, but the same result can be achieved).

The Verdict:
I would highly recommend the following: Haiku, Slax, Gentoo. If you do not mind occasional hic-ups, XP Pro or Home will work nicely as well. With Ubuntu, the battery life is a deal breaker. With Windows 7, if you do not turn off indexing you will be sorely disappointed when you step out for a cigarette, and find that you only have 10 minutes left. BSD, OSX, and the netbook distributions rank in at the bottom of the list. Hardware support for the AAO is lacking with the BSDs, and more so with OSX. The netbook distributions make my AAO feel too much like a phone for my tastes, but if you're into that you'll love them. It should also be noted that I am not too much a fan of the BSDs, and as such didn't take the time to fiddle with them. I am sure that could be made to function beautifully on the AAO.


jvin248 said...

I'd suggest taking another look at Ubuntu Netbook Remix (look on the net you can tweak it easy to enable windowing).

I have the same netbook specs (HP though) and with UNR I added virtualbox and then put a couple of other special purpose machines in there, one being full Windows XP running a massive CAD workstation program. I expected such a software stack would choke the thing, but it's still surprisingly responsive (like I can run Firefox in the base UNR).

ercolinux said...

Nice test.
If you mind, give a try to openmamba too ( Openmamba is a young independent italian distro with kde4.
If you try it use the milestone2 (even if is only in prerelease is stable for everyday use).

saiftynet said...

Nice useful review and an unbiased one. Though I would never have thought of Haiku as having the same app base as the others you mention. You even managed to get OSX on it, wow! These sort of reviews that evenly point out pros and cons without taking ideological sides are more useful than most others. There is a choice, the choice is up to the user, so thanks for making this a review rather than a soapbox.

לדניא said...

I use crunchbang with some costumization to openbox so it will run everything full screen.

Another config I run now is Ubuntu Netbook Edition with gnome (not netbook interface) with maximus and gnome global menu bar.
Both distros has great batterylife and great performance.

Erno said...

There is very little mention of Jolicloud on the net these days, even though it is built with netbooks in mind. I tried Arch, Ubuntu, and others on my first generation AAO, until I found Jolicloud. It boots fast, everything works out of the box, battery life is roughly 2.5 hrs. and the UI is simple, well designed and not limiting. Even though I still distro hop on my other machines, I haven't even considered messing with Jolicloud on AAO. Might want to give it a try.

Ford said...

Jolicloud simply didn't look like my cup o' tea so I didn't try it. If you wouldn't mind writing up a decent review on it, I will add it to the list above.

Dinos said...

One of my major issues is the camera and in particular using Skype or some other similar program. Can anyone share their experience in Linux distributions as far as the response of the web camera? My experience so has been very jerky video which I would like to change to smooth video. If anyone has the details on how to do this (with any Linux distribution) please share.

Xyzzy said...

I'm using an old laptop that isn't far off from what most netbooks have, and I'm getting much better speed & hardware handling out of the box with SimplyMEPIS than I did in 2 years using Ubuntu. I'm far from the only one seeing substantial differences after moving from Ubuntu... It might be worth it to try (or at least interesting for us to read about) results using distros that aren't Ubuntu or respins.

Dinos said...

My top distro choices are: in alphabetical order

Mint and

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