The Acer Aspire One, in my view wholly unsuitable for XP, great for Linux!

Around June 2009 I purchased a Linux Acer Aspire One (Linpus Linux) and a pay as you go broadband dongle.  The idea was, whilst I was away on holiday I could keep my net presence, conduct a little blogging and have something to do on the quiet evenings.

It was lucky that I tested the machine before going away as the dongle and Linux did not play nicely together (despite claims to the contrary by store staff).  To cut a long story short, I ended up returning the machine and exchanging it for a Windows XP version.

To be fair to Microsoft, the dongle worked fine.  That would be expected though since it came pre-loaded with Windows software which monitored your usage (to enable you to pay-as-you-go).   I have to say though, from first boot, performance was appalling and I thought at first I may have a defective unit. After speaking with other Acer Aspire owners it transpired that the performance I was achieving was perfectly “normal” and apparently acceptable.

My Linux use told me that this wasn’t normal or acceptable, however it worked and I was leaving for holiday the following day.

After the holiday, that netbook pretty much sat in a drawer.  Later I would get an Android Smart Phone which was more than acceptable for surfing on the go (albeit on a small screen) and in fact when I was away this year, I published articles & chatted in IRC with no problems.

For Xmas this year we will be staying with relatives, since my Android phone is quite happy to tether (note to the few WP7 users out there) or make itself a wi-fi hotspot, I would like to continue my net presence with a screen of a more comfortable size and a real keyboard.  The purpose of this article is to take a look at a few Aspire One “friendly” distro’s and then make a decision as to the best one for my Xmas break and the netbook itself.  It is wholly unacceptable to me to wait around 4 minutes for Windows XP to finish booting and loading ….whatever it is loading, I also refuse to wait nearly 2 minutes for Windows XP to shut down and it’s certainly unacceptable having to spend time worrying about securing, scanning, monitoring Windows XP because unlike Linux, Windows is the target (and victim) of so many malicious attacks/pieces of software.

So where to begin?  I’ll briefly list the specs for the Aspire One (which in my view from previous experience is not suitable for XP) : Intel Atom N270 1.6 GHz, 1gb DDR2 RAM, 16 GB HD (SSD), Intel GMA 954GSE Graphics.

During this review, Ive looked at Kuki 2.8 (399mb download) , Jolicloud 1.1 (696mb download), #!CBL 10 (644mb download), Puppy 5.11 (129mb download), Salix 13.1 (670mb download), Peppermint Ice (latest Spin 429mb download).  But the first question I had was – I wonder who’s idea it was to think that this machine loaded with XP is viable?  If we believe Microsoft hype, Windows 7 is shipping on everything today and allegedly its suitable for “everything” but if XP (which was released around 2001) strains the specs of a piece of hardware released about 6 years later, then I shudder to consider the performance Windows 7 will give on even more recent netbooks.

What am I looking for?

For the purposes of this “experiment” I’m looking for the distro to offer me the following:

1. Fast boot time / shut down

2. Punchy performance (although compared to XP, a ZX81 would perform like a high-end machine)

3. Quick, out of the box set-up.

4. Completely stable.

5. A varied and relevant selection of software defaultly packaged.

So which distro will meet these requirements? Which distro will I settle on? Read on to find out!

Installing Linux on an SSD device?

This is simple stuff, so many of you can skip this part.

Installing Linux distro on an SSD device (with no DVD/CD drive) is rather simple.  For the purposes of this article I used UnetBootin, which is available for both the Linux and Windows platforms.  If you are a Linux user then you should find it in your repo’s, but if not then following the link above will take you to the homepage and the latest version.

Making a LiveUSB is easy with UNetbootin - You should be able to find this in your repo's.

Firstly you need to ensure your USB stick in plugged in and mounted (for Linux users).  Once that is done, it’s merely a case of downloading the liveCD .iso of your choice or using Unetbootin’s built in feature of allowing you to choose a Linux distro from its list (a net connection is obviously required)  In the case of this article we have the .iso so its merely a matter of clicking the box “disk image”, then selecting your .iso file of choice.  Once you click ok, after a short while your USB stick will be a fully functioning “liveUSB”.

The Acer Aspire One allows you to choose your boot preference when powering up by pressing F12 then simply selecting your USB stick.

Your Linux distro will now boot and give you the option to play around with it in a live environment or install onto your SSD.

It really is that easy and using the USB stick in this way allows you to try numerous distro’s without risk of hosing your system.

Conclusions – Who wins and why?

I’ll start with Salix 13.1.2, I’ve used this previously (and deployed it to others) finding it to be a speedy, solid distro.   Xfce is the desktop environment and has certainly been one receiving my praise time and time again.  Unfortunately for the Acer Aspire One, Salix doesn’t work, freezing up the keyboard and mouse on boot.  This may well be a fixable issue, but since this article is based on the premise that I need something “out of the box” and quickly, then Salix had to be left behind.   It’s a shame since Salix is a distro I’ve been impressed with on many occasions.  It should be worth noting though that it may very well perform superbly with another netbook, but as far as my Acer is concerned, lets move on.

Jolicloud 1.1 has been met with much praise.  There have been references to the ChromeOS and how Google should be worried, there are many people saying great things about Jolicloud.  Lets look past the worries and implications of some about trusting your data to the cloud and merely concentrate on what Jolicloud delivers: A desktop environment based mainly in the cloud.

Jolicloud installed and ran out of the box perfectly.  I cannot fault anything here.  For me, it has a very Ubuntu/Android feel to it and performance wise its up there with best of them.  Cloud based services are integrated well within this distro and there’s the option to install a plethora of locally based apps if you like.  I did love the web-based Invaders game which I count as the highpoint to this distro, because I didn’t like it.

So why in the midst of all the praise Jolicloud recieves did it not suit me?  Why when it performs well and installs perfectly did I not instantly fall in love with it?

Crunchbang linux in action, punchy and "out of the box" - Image Source:

The first thing that annoyed me with Jolicloud was I was forced to register.  I could use a Facebook login if I wished, but since I don’t use Facebook I had to create an account and give away my email address just to try the thing.

Once logged on, the desktop displays the apps with large icons, nicely arranged and ready to use.  Chrome booted quickly but then this is where I started to find more things which I disliked.  It appears (and please someone correct me if I’m wrong) that Chrome in JoliCloud does not allow me to have my bookmarks bar at the top of its screen like I have on my desktop.  It appears I have to go into the bookmark manager separately.  Now I did try to confirm this by booting the liveUSB again whilst writing this article and I still can’t find a way to do it.  I would ask anyone who does use Jolicloud to enlighten me here, but since its not the main issue I have with Jolicloud, I’ll move on for the moment. NOTE: This has now been resolved.  The option (which I obviously haven’t needed to enable for a while) was not obvious in the Chromium menus.

The main issue I have with Jolicloud comes out of a matter of personal preference.  When surfing or working online with my Android I am very happy with the UI.  I don’t expect a desktop experience on a phone with a screen the size of a packet of cigarettes.  On the netbook though, I intend that to be a “computer home” away from home.  I like it to not only vaguely resemble my desktop, but also give me the flexibility and control too.   I did not get that feeling with Jolicloud, apps defaultly maximize and appear as an icon in the top left corner of the screen.  There does not seem an obvious way to resize windows and maybe have the option of having a few apps on the same screen.  I did not attempt to look at usage of system resources since it was obvious to me that I wouldn’t be considering it.

I’m sure there is a massive market for the Ubuntu derived Jolicloud, for me though it was far too much smart-phone and no feeling of real control – Maybe that’s my hangup though.  I’d love to hear your views and I should say I did like the way Jolicloud presents different desktop wallpaper to you, a sort of scrollable slide show towards the bottom of the screen, it was a nice touch.  There are quite a few “nice touches” with Jolicloud that probably make it very appealing to some users.  Unfortunately, Im not one of them.  Had I spent more time with Jolicloud, I may have grown to like it (and resolve some of my irritations with it).

Puppy 5.11 was always on the cards to be tested.  I have always been impressed with both Puppy and Puppy Arcade on the desktop, covering this issue many times on OpenBytes.  As was expected Puppy had excellent boot times and in answer to a question posed to me on the TechBytes show – Yes it does bark!  Everything was detected pretty much out of the box, although with Puppy it does seem to take a more “around the houses” approach to setting up my WIFI with various options, install scripts for doing it.  Maybe that’s just me though and it has to be said Puppy has no issues with any of the hardware involved.  Packaged with Midori as default is a “no-no” for me.  I don’t find page rendering as quick as other packages on the same hardware and comparing like for like I found Chromium (unscientifically) flies past Midori.

After playing with the Puppy for a while, this would certainly be a contender for the distro of choice and I found with a browser, an IRC client and a few other utils running, only 16% of the CPU was being used and about 1/3 of the memory.

Next up was Crunchbang Linux, which uses Openbox DE.  Great stuff here.  It flew, as much as Puppy did and whilst I’ve made no attempts at exact timing, they would both blow XP out of the water on boot times.  A plethora of applications available on install and performance being very fast, #!CBL detected my hardware without issue and was ready to operate.   I can’t really fault #!CBL on the Aspire at all.

Kuki 2.8 was next on the list.  An Ubuntu based distro which in the developers words aims to be a replacement for Linpus.  Sadly it doesn’t seem to have received much of an update since around February 2010.  As was stated by the site it was pretty much ready to go out of the box and being yet another Ubuntu derived distro, you can almost guarantee success.  Being packaged with Midori as default, again this was something I would seek to replace quickly and certainly any claimed advantages are not obvious to this Aspire user in the face of Chromium.

Finally, I took a look at Peppermint ICE (September 2010 spin).  Regular readers to this site may recall I’ve covered Peppermint quite heavily, with this being the Chromium based outing complete with Openbox DE.  Peppermint receives high praise on Openbytes not only for its punchy performance (and a trusted Ubuntu basis) but because of its subtle cloud integration which allows users to experience as much or as little of it, without “throwing all your eggs into one basket”.  The result of this is a solid platform with the scope to be anything you want it to be.  Whats unique about Peppermint ICE is the SSB written to integrate cloud based services and apps into your desktop.   We experienced Peppermint One’s uniqueness with Prism and here Kendall Weaver has developed a SSB with Chromium.  Boot and shut down times are good (around the 40 second mark for boot up and 3 seconds for shut-down), everything was detected without fault and there is of course the knowledge that its derived from the solid Ubuntu.

I think its obvious that I am going to choose Peppermint ICE as my recommendation for the Acer Aspire One.  For me it was a combination of performance, cloud integration (in a non-committal way) and also aesthetically pleasing.  It is also rather festive that the distro I settle on during the Xmas break is one with ICE in the title!

During the course of this article I had many suggestions – thank you to everyone who contacted me, I wish I had the time time to try them all.

Goblin – /

You can also contact me on Skype: tim.openbytes

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