Choosing a GF friendly Linux for netbooks

My SO’s netbook is choking. I’m hoping it’s just caused by a flakey and poorly maintained Ubuntu install and not the symptoms of a netbook on its last legs.

While she’s back home for a week in .fi I have a chance to reinstall the OS. I thought I’d take the opportunity to install a more netbook friendly flavour of Linux. Now I don’t mean to imply that Ubuntu in itself is unfriendly to netbooks due to unity or such as I think the likes of unity is a perfect desktop paradigm for netbooks/tablets/touchscreen devices, more so than  Microsoft’s next gen effort, however its somewhat bloated for a Dell Mini 10.

The alternatives I’ve looked into are; the Debian-based MATE and Cinnamon flavours of Linux Mint, Crunchbang Linux and Bodhi Linux. Mint and Crunchbang are both Debian based, while Bodhi (like the original version of Mint) is Ubuntu based but uses the lighter Enlightenment window-manager rather than Unity.

The GF has some requirements however; she wants to run and use her apps without having to worry about dependencies, installing repositories or having to do console kung-fu. She’s also got quite used to the paradigm of pressing the “Windows” key or <Super> key to get a menu up and immediately start typing a command or searching her files. Ubuntu Unity has spoiled her but I feel that ability works very well and should be a default on Desktop Linuxes.



Crunchbang login screen
Crunchbang login screen

Crunchbang I’ve always had a soft spot for. It’s light and perfect for netbooks, and is a local product having been developed by a nice chap called Phil from Lincoln. However its mainly aimed at geeks like myself who use keystrokes and terminal windows for everything.

Crunchbang desktop
Crunchbang desktop

What does pressing the <Super> key do: Nothing. Apparently. However in combination with other keys it provides a variety of common functions from opening a run dialogue to firing up your web browser. The default keystrokes are all nicely presented in an overlay on the desktop. These can also be customised to suit the user however it’s not an operation easily accessible to the casual user and if I installed Crunchbang on her netbook I would foresee me doing a lot of tinkering.

Still an option, but I’ll look at the others…

Bodhi Linux

Bodhi Linux login screen
Bodhi Linux login screen

Bodhi is based on Ubuntu but uses the recently returned Enlightenment window manager. Enlightenment was the talked about window manager back when I first started using Linux about a decade ago. People talked about it but no one actually used it. At least no-one I knew. It was weird, minimal and flashy. It looked futuristic but in practice was clumsy, buggy and felt just weird. Its still been in development for years and recently re-established itself in the public consciousness with version 17. Known as E17 for short. Which of course reminds everyone of that obnoxious boy-band of the early 90s (they were like a tough alternative to Take That for kids from the inner cities).

Bodhi Linux desktop
Bodhi Linux desktop

What does pressing the <Super> key do: Nothing. And there is no obvious keyboard shortcuts either. The OS seems designed to be navigated with the mouse/trackpad. Of course you can open a shell and start apps that way or bring up a run dialogue, but otherwise you are expected to navigate using the popup menu you can access by the top-bar or by left-clicking on the desktop. Yes. Left-clicking. Already that will irritate anyone used to…well, any other PC operating system. There is also no apparent wifi drivers installed, or at least I couldn’t scan for wifi networks or hotspots. I could probably get that sorted but, as with Crunchbang, I’d forsee me having to do a lot of maintenance on this. It’s also kind of ugly. I tried all the built-in themes and they all looked quite ugly.

Apparently E17 was 12 years in development. That time could have been better spent as I don’t honestly see a point in this window manager It was a bit of a novelty back in 2000 or whatever, but now it just looks dated.

Linux Mint MATE/Cinnamon (Debian-based)

Linux Mint MATE/Cinnamon login page

Mint, in its original flavour, seemed to carve a niche for itself as a more conservative version of Ubuntu. It eschewed the customized Widgets and… overall organic browness of Ubuntu for more standard Gnome project gibbets. As Ubuntu got more distanced from its original incarnation as a more user-friendly version of Debian into its own identity Mint distanced itself more and more from Ubuntu until it eventually released a version based off Debian itself. However as a Debian had embraced the controversial Gnome 3 shell, Mint established itself with those Debian and Ubuntu users who had rejected the touchscreen panel aesthetic and kept the established Gnome 2 WIMP system. Recently the Gnome 2 reboot became two separate projects; MATE (named after the popular Argentine herbal tea of the same name) and Cinnamon.

From what I can Garner from a quick look, MATE seems to be more akin to traditional Gnome 2 while Cinnamon takes on more of the Widgets and styles from Gnome 3. However both use the same apps and once you have selected the software you wish to run they both start to look pretty similar. In fact I’m not really sure, so far, why these are two separate distributions. It looks like they could have been a setup choice on the installer with a simple description of the two.

Side by side Linux Mint desktop comparison
Side by side Linux Mint desktop comparison

What does pressing the <Super> key do: Brings up the main menu, as it should. Prompt placed usefully in the search box. Searching for an app brings up the icon which will run when pressing enter. So far so good. The OS itself is minimal and fairly unobtrusive. It’s not quite as user friendly as Ubuntu but fairly close. I can see how Mint has become the distro of choice for those who forsook Ubuntu after the Unity window manager was implemented.

However, just like Bodhi Linux, it contains no proprietary wifi drivers so I couldn’t get online. Sticking an Ethernet cable in the back temporarily will let me get some closed-source drivers, but already it belies it’s leanings towards 100% free software. That’s all well and good for the hardcore FOSS geek but my target audience here is my girlfriend who has no special interest in the free software movement and merely wants stuff to work. If I’m going to have to repeatedly SSH in to add repositories and install non-free software so she can do basic stuff like open MS Office files or play media files then this will get just as tedious as the above offerings. With the added issue of this being slightly more bloated than Bodhi or Crunchbang.

Jury is still out.

The Aftermath

The lack of wifi drivers on the basic installs were easily negated by tethering thru the USB on my cellular.

Crunchbang ruled itself out early. After installing the applications she required I found none of them appeared in  the menu. Appartently it doesn’t automatically populate and has to be edited manually, via conf files. I then tried to reboot and it hung on the reboot or halt prompt. She would have thrown it out the window at this point. I did the usual of bringing up a TTY and sending an sudo init 6, but she’s not going to want to do that. Very much a distro aimed at me, not her.


5 thoughts on “Choosing a GF friendly Linux for netbooks”

  1. How about a slightly less sexist: “Choosing a netbook-friendly Linux for GF”?

    Or if that fails: “Choosing a Linux-friendly GF for netbook”?

    Just sayin’.

  2. Hah, I like the title. I actually found this page by searching for “user friendly netbook linux”.. but yep, I’m looking for something that my non-techy girlfriend will get on with on her netbook! Swinging towards Mint at the moment, I used to use that and it was pretty nice. Not sure about the MATE/Cinnamon choice yet though.. Did you settle on something that she’s now using, praest?

    • Erm, we caved and installed Ubuntu 13.04. She was still working through her dissertation at the time and the prospect of learning a new layout was just a bit much. Will resume the search later as it still feels a bit sluggish.

  3. Most Linux distributions don’t include proprietary codecs and drivers by default because legally they cannot include them. It has nothing to do with being “hardcore FOSS”.


    If Apple and Windows stopping paying codec licensing fees, it would be the same situation for them. And even then, after a fresh Windows install you have to also install hardware drivers with a CD, the drivers aren’t included in the operating system (unless it is an OEM made specifically for your machine). You also have to install flash, silverlight and java as those do not come installed by default.

    If you want a distro that is lightweight with a nice GUI package manger, I would suggest Mint LXDE edition, or perhaps even XFCE, which is slightly heavier but with more features.

    ps: I agree with LIYANG HU about the title, it makes it sound like all women are tech noobs, which is really not the case. :P


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