Netbook Smackdown: XP, Windows 7, and Ubuntu Face Off

By Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

February 19, 2009

What’s the best OS for use on the new ultra-portable netbook systems? We used a Samsung NC10 netbook and three operating systems to find out.

What’s the best OS for use on the new ultra-portable netbook systems? I used a Samsung NC10 netbook and three operating systems to try to find out the answer.

The Samsung NC10 is a pretty standard netbook--1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, 1GB RAM, 160GB hard drive, and a really nice 10.2-inch WSVGA screen. The NC10 comes with Windows XP Home as the preinstalled OS.

As you’d expect, Windows XP runs really nicely on the NC10. Despite having what many consider to be a lowly specification, a netbook is a very capable system. Given that Windows XP is now more than seven years old, the inevitability of Moore’s Law has meant that budget hardware can deliver a fantastic computing experience. The biggest problem with XP, especially for anyone who has used a more modern OS, is that it looks and feels long in the tooth.

However, no matter how tired that Windows XP looks and feels, it works very well on the NC10, and everything on the netbook is designed with XP in mind.

So, how will the little Samsung netbook feel with a different OS loaded onto it?

The two operating systems that I tried were Ubuntu 8.10 “Intrepid Ibex” and Windows 7 beta build 7000, both of which in their 32-bit flavors. (I didn’t see any point to loading a 64-bit OS onto a system with only 1GB of RAM).

Important note:

The first point to make is that Windows 7 is a BETA. That means things can go wrong and if they do, you are very much on your own. Don’t expect your OEM to help you out, and don’t expect much in the way of support from Microsoft.

The second point to note is that when changing the default OS on any system it’s possible to run into trouble. Unless you are comfortable with installing, reinstalling, backing up, finding and installing drivers and general troubleshooting then you should stick with whatever OS came installed on your system.

The final point worth making is that I made sure that the BIOS firmware was the very latest code before attempting to install either of the new OSes.

The method I used for installing the operating systems was a simple one--I dug out my USB external CD/DVD drive and hooked that to a USB port. This seemed far simpler than messing about with USB flash drives.

Ubuntu 8.10

First off I installed Ubuntu 8.10. Overall the installation process was quick and simple – something that I’ve come to expect of this particular Linux distro – and I ended up with a snappy OS.

Problem was, a lot of things seemed flaky. The most obvious of these was the fact that the trackpad seemed to behave very oddly and the Wi-Fi just wouldn’t work. I later also discovered that the special Fn (function) keys weren’t working, something that I was expecting.

These issues aren’t deal-breakers by any means, and solutions are at hand. A good source of information was Ubuntu’s own help site, which provided me with solutions to most of the issues I’d noticed. It also informed me about a few issues that I hadn’t noticed relating to the speaker sounds not cutting out when headphones are used.

At best, when running Ubuntu 8.10 on the Samsung NC10 you end up with most of the Fn keys not working (brightness does, but all others, such as monitor switching and sleep, are dead), a non-functioning Wi-Fi on/off switch and no trackpad multi-touch.

For me, while having features that I couldn’t use might bug me occasionally, I don’t think that they would be deal-breakers, although the inability to switch off Wi-Fi could be a pain at times.

From a performance perspective, the netbook has no problems handling the full desktop OS. While it’s hard to be sure, I’d say that Ubuntu is faster and snappier than XP, and applications such as Firefox and OpenOffice.org are quite functional. If you can live with a few non-functional Fn keys, and are up for a little problem solving, Ubuntu is overall an improvement over the pre-installed XP OS.

Windows 7 Beta

Next up, Windows 7 beta. The leap from XP to Windows 7 meant that there was no chance of upgrading the system. However, for a system I was going to put into daily use I wouldn’t take that shortcut because the best way to install Windows is always to carry out a clean install.

As someone who primarily uses Windows (although I do have systems running both Mac and Linux too) I like Windows 7, like it a lot. To begin with, 7 is a pleasure to install.

The time gap between popping the DVD in the drive and being at the desktop actually working is around 20 minutes, and small things such as not making the Windows Experience Index test mandatory during the first run (something which can take quite a bit of time on slower systems) represent a huge improvement over Vista.

Note: In case you’re wondering, the NC10 scores a respectable 2.1 on the Windows Experience Index rating, making it an ideal general-purpose PC.

I’d expected Windows 7 to be a dog on a netbook. After all, the bloated system requirements of Vista make it a no-go right from the start. To my surprise it wasn’t, and I’d installed the Ultimate “all-bells-and-whistles” rather than the more frugal Starter or Premium editions.

In fact, once again the performance was better than that of the original OS. Other than from a cost point of view, I can see no reason to run the cut-down Starter edition of Windows 7 on netbooks. That lowly 1.6GHz Atom CPU and 1GB of RAM is happy powering the OS as well as running multiple applications simultaneously.

Installing Windows 7 wasn’t without issues, though. But things were made easier by the fact that Samsung has Vista versions of the proprietary Easy Battery manager and Easy Display manager software that are loaded on the NC10 (it’s not specifically for the NC10, but instead aimed at Q1 users). This works fine under Windows 7.

Oddly enough, while the Wi-Fi adaptor worked great under 7, the wired LAN adaptor initially wouldn’t work. Turns out that the Marvell Yukon drivers for the 88E8040 network adaptor had to be installed manually. Another issue related to sound not working after resuming from sleep. This was resolved by installing the Vista drivers for the Realtek HD Audio.

So, which OS is best?

So, which OS is best suited to netbooks? That’s a tougher question that it seems. All three work on the netbook and my take is that the one that suits you best depends on your circumstances.

If you’re after performance then you’re not going to get the best out of your netbook if it’s running on XP. The choice of whether to go with Ubuntu or Windows 7 really depends on whether you’re going to be using the netbook as a stand-alone device or whether you’re integrating it into an existing Windows or Linux-based ecosystem.

It also depends on how comfortable you feel experimenting. If you’re after a quiet life, just stick with the OS that came pre-installed with the system. That way there’s no hassles and no surprises.

Bottom line, though, is this--current netbooks are very capable devices and when it comes to running the very latest desktop OSes they seem to be quite future-proof.

While many Linux-based netbooks ship with distros that have been customized for netbooks (such as Linpus Linux Lite that ships on the Acer Aspire One), you can deploy a full desktop Linux solution onto a netbook without any real performance loss.

Equally, if you’ve bought one running XP and feel that it might become obsolete once Windows 7 is out, there’s no need to fear as the hardware is capable of handling the new OS (in fact, by the time Windows 7 is released it should be even easier to install it onto netbooks as the driver issues should be sorted out fully by then).

It’s reassuring to know that a netbook you buy now (or bought over the past few months) won’t be obsolete once Windows 7 is out. (Or, for that matter, the next incarnation of Ubuntu, which also runs well on netbooks.)

Which do I prefer?

Which OS would I choose? Well, I’ll be honest with you and say upfront that I don’t get along very well with netbooks because of my giant Shrek-like hands. So I prefer something that’s a little bigger.

But having had face time with the three operating systems, my choice would be Windows 7. However, my worry when it comes to Windows 7 is that OEMs will push the Starter edition of the OS in users to save money. The drawback of this edition is that it has a built-in “three applications running at any one time” limit and netbooks would really be held back by this artificial limit.

If I was inclined to work on a Linux-powered netbook then there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d forget about all the cut-down versions and install a proper, full-blown desktop flavor.

Article courtesy of Datamation.



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