Chrome OS vs Ubuntu Netbook Remix

How does Chrome OS fare against the Linux netbook leader?

As a respin of its standard desktop distro, Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) is fairly hardware agnostic – it prefers to have an Atom CPU and an SSD, but neither of those are required.

In fact, largely thanks to the appeal of the Ubuntu brand name, UNR has probably received more widespread testing than any other netbook distro and so works well on virtually everything out there. There are even special versions of UNR available for Dell Mini netbooks, but generally you can run it on whatever you like.

Boot speed

While UNR is more lightweight than standard Ubuntu, it's also nothing like as streamlined as Chrome OS or even Moblin. That means slower boot speeds: 30 seconds is normal at the moment, although work is under way to make Ubuntu 10.04 boot much faster.

If you want to try the faster boot speed now and don't mind risking a little system instability, run these three commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa
ubuntu-boot/ppa sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

User interface

Although UNR's interface is far from a standard KDE or Gnome desktop, it does use the same menu structure – Accessories, Games, Graphics, Internet etc. But rather than have these hidden away under a conventional edge-aligned menu structure, they're all visible from the home screen of UNR – just select the section you want and its icons take up most of the screen on the right.

Ubuntu ui

So, the UI is nice and simple to find your way around, but it's not perfect: most apps are forced to run in full-screen, with exceptions made for things like Gimp or calculators that rely on fixed UI sizes.

Unlike web pages, many desktop Linux programs just don't look so good at high resolutions, so even though UNR is able to run on any Intel-compatible device you please, don't expect it to shine on a 20-inch monitor.

Programs

UNR is Ubuntu, albeit with a fancy front-end. As a result, you can open up the Software Centre (introduced in Ubuntu 9.10) and install just about anything you can think of, courtesy of Debian's software repository.

Ubuntu is toying with the idea of Ubuntu on ARM; Karmic is the second Ubuntu release to ship with an ARM version available. That said, it's designed for specific ARM hardware that few people own.

Over time, we think this ARM port will mature into a full product, front-ended by UNR. If you do find yourself using UNR on ARM, note that the software selection is more limited than for the traditional Intel architecture.

Storage

UNR is designed like any other traditional Linux distro – when you use OOo, your files are saved on your local storage device. Many netbooks ship with hard drives, since they offer the most bang for your buck; don't be surprised if you see UNR shipping on netbooks with 160GB hard disk space!

The exception to this (new in UNR Karmic) is Ubuntu One, a service from Canonical that enables you to sync files online then share them with others. Don't get your hopes up, though: Ubuntu One is still under construction, and we're not sure how well it works under heavy load.

Future

No matter how fast Chrome OS might be, it'll never be more than just a web browser unless Google executes a gigantic U-turn. This leaves the way wide open for full-fat (albeit with glossy front-end) distros that make your netbook into a true desktop replacement, and that's where UNR shines.

It's also enormously beneficial that Chrome OS is based on Ubuntu, because it means that the Ubuntu team can backport any patches from Google as they need to.

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First published in Linux Format Issue 128

Liked this? Then check out Hands on: Google Chrome OS review

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