How to Install and Use Ubuntu Netbook Remix

As time goes on, netbooks are getting more and more popular. These small, cheap, portable computers are gaining popularity in situations where you want the flexibility of a laptop, but don’t need the raw power or price tag of a high-end machine. Some come with Windows, some come with Linux. Unfortunately, the pre-installed Linux on some netbooks can be lacking in quality and features. For those who aren’t satisfied with the default OS on their netbook, Ubuntu has created Ubuntu Netbook Remix.

As the name implies, it’s Ubuntu with some tweaks to make the size and speed of the OS more appropriate to the hardware you’ll find in your average netbook. The most noticable difference is that they’ve completely re-skinned the standard Gnome desktop into something more closely resembling Gnome Shell than the Gnome you’re used to.

UNR-main-big

Preparing USB Media

Since many netbooks have no CD/DVD drives, you’ll need a USB thumb drive (1GB minimum) to perform the installation. The second thing you’ll need is the image file that we’ll be putting on the thumb drive, which can be downloaded here. The requirements for UNR list an Intel Atom processor for CPU, however I am writing this from UNR running on a Core 2 Duo so it seems the Atom is the “minimum” CPU, not necessarily the only supported type.

Installation will proceed in 2 steps. First, we put the live image on the USB stick (using Linux, Windows, or Mac) then we insert the USB stick into the netbook and install to the netbook’s hard drive. The USB stick is the temporary storage, replacing the CDROM in a typical Linux install.

Linux – Ubuntu

If you’re copying the image file to the USB drive from an Ubuntu system, you need the usb-imagewriter package. Ubuntu users can install it from the repositories with apt-get/aptitude/synaptic like any other package. With apt-get, it would look like:

sudo apt-get install usb-imagewriter

or simply click here to install it in your computer.

Once installed run the program from Applications -> Accessories -> Image Writer.

UNR-ub-imagewriter
Choose the image file downloaded earlier, and the device it’ll write to (your USB drive). THIS WILL WIPE ANY DATA CURRENTLY ON THE USB DRIVE. Click Write when ready. Once it’s done, you’re ready to plug the thumb drive into the netbook and proceed to the Installation section.

Details for writing the image from other operating systems can be found at the Ubuntu Netbook Remix website.

Booting UNR

Once the image file has been written to the drive, it’s time to take it to your netbook. Shut down the netbook, plug in our newly formatted drive, and turn it back on. On some netbooks, you may need to manually specify that you want to boot from the USB drive instead of the netbook’s internal storage. If this is the case, you can normally set the boot order in the netbook’s BIOS settings. Some even have a option when first started, that says something like “Press F12 for boot menu”.

Running UNR

Here’s what we’ve all been waiting for. Once booted, you won’t see the normal Gnome desktop. Instead, you’ll get a custom desktop menu system devised specifically for UNR. Regular MakeTechEasier readers will immediately notice the resemblance between UNR’s menu system and that of Gnome Shell.

UNR-main-big

Your normal panel on top has been replaced by a black bar containing some of the items normally seen in Gnome’s panel, such as the Network Manager, clock, and power management applet.

When you run any app from the new menu system, it will automatically be maximized to fill the entire screen. Instead of having a box for each running application filling up the panel, UNR gives each app an icon next to the menu button, and the rest of the screen space is used for the title bar of the currently active (maximized) window. Here, for example, is my top bar while running Firefox, Rhythmbox, and The Gimp.

UNR-panel

Some whitespace in the titlebar was removed to avoid shrinking the image and losing clarity.

You may also notice in the full screenshot that all my storage devices were detected and are listed along with Home, Music, Documents, etc on the right hand section of the menu screen. This is roughly the equivalent of the Places menu on a normal Gnome installation. At the bottom of that last is the Quit/Shutdown button which is normally found in the top-right corner of a typical Ubuntu system.

A nice feature of UNR is the very first menu section, Favorites. As the name implies, this holds your most frequently used applications. As someone who despises the traditional hierarchical menu system, I appreciate anything that speeds up and simplifies the act of finding and running my favorite apps. The only thing I found lacking in the left pane’s menu setup is a Run box, allowing me to type in the name of my preferred command instead of hunting through menus.

Installing UNR to Netbook Hard Drive

UNR uses the standard Ubuntu installer, which can be found in the Favorites menu. The process for installing from USB to hard drive should be no different than any other Ubuntu installation, which we’ve covered here before. You do not need to install UNR to the hard drive in order to use it, you can simply boot from the USB stick any time you like if you want to run UNR, however there are a few drawbacks to this. For one, any changes you make are not persistent. Next time you reboot, any changes made the the files on the USB drive will be reverted back to their original state. This means no (useful) software upgrades, and no persistent settings and preferences. Each boot on to your USB drive will be like the first.

Caveats

I had a few complaints about the UNR menu-driven interface. For starters is the auto-maximization of pretty much any application. I can see how, in theory, the small screen on your average netbook would mean you’d only want one app on screen at a time, however that’s not always the case in practice. You still have the option of right-clicking the titlebar and choosing “Unmaximize” to drop a window into normal mode, but then you have a semi-transparent version of the menu sitting behind all your apps, giving it a cluttered look.

The biggest drawback, to me, was the lack of multiple workspaces. I use these “virtual desktops” extensively, and so far I haven’t found a way to enable them on UNR. I suppose the idea behind UNR’s interface is that people will generally only be running a few full screen apps like web browser and email, due to the low power of your average netbook. That’s another thing that sounds fine in theory, but has caused me frustrations when attempting to use UNR as a desktop system.

Finally, there’s the issue with multi-windowed apps, such as The Gimp. I briefly mentioned above that whenever an app is NOT maximized, you can see a semi-transparent menu floating on your desktop. While not a real problem, I find this very annoying as it makes my workspace feel cluttered and disorganized.

UNR-non-maximized

Conclusion

As far as the real guts of the system, UNR is roughly the same as any Ubuntu installation, with approximately the same set of software and whatever pros and cons they provide. Regarding the interface, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Some of the design choices seem good at first, but over time have caused me some frustrations. I suppose, though, that if you’re using UNR exactly as intended (light use, small amount of full-screen apps) it could provide a cozy, simple setup that sure beats some of the pre-installed operating systems many manufacturers provide (I’m looking at you, Xandros). Perhaps in the next iteration of UNR, some kinks will be better worked out and the UNR interface will more closely match the clever design we’ve seen in projects like Gnome Shell.