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Netbook too slow? Xubuntu may speed it up

By: 26 April 2013 One Comment

xfceRemember a few years ago when netbooks were all the rage? Well, they may not have been all the rage, but they were certainly highly visible starting around 2008 and that’s no surprise — an incredibly portable computer that could be had for around $300 was certainly worth looking at twice.

Ah, but the netbook has steadily declined in popularity over the past couple of year. In 2011, Dell announced it was pulling out of the network market and Toshiba followed suit in 2012. It seems the netbook is in the process of being replaced by ultrabooks — small laptops that cost more than netbooks and boast hardware that puts them on par with “serious” computers.

The problem with the typical netbook was always its hardware limitations. In 2009, netbooks all packed similar stats — a 10.1″ screen, a 160 GB hard drive, 1 GB of RAM and an Intel Atom processor (or AMD equivalent) that was merely adequate on a good day and almost unbearable on a bad one. Initially, Linux distributions served as the primary operating systems for netbooks, but Microsoft XP and Windows 7 Starter became dominant in a hurry.

Here’s the thing, though — netbooks run faster under Linux. I learned that lesson by replacing Windows XP on my Compaq Mini 110c with the Ubuntu Linux distribution and increased the performance of that netbook further by installing Xubuntu (more on that in a bit). If you’ve got a netbook and it has lost its charm, considering putting a Linux distribution on the thing may be worth your while. While it still won’t set any land speed records, a netbook running under the right Linux operating system becomes a lot snappier and more usable as a natural consequence.

But, which flavor of Linux should you choose? Personally, I like Xubuntu as it is merely a derivative of Ubuntu with the XFCE desktop environment instead of the more demanding Unity GUI that is standard with Ubuntu. XFCE was designed to be fast on even aging hardware and, as such, may be just the thing for your netbook. Furthermore, XFCE will look more than a bit familiar to those accustomed to Windows XP and is highly customizable. Here’s something else to consider — the XFCE desktop is very space efficient. You’ve got a task bar at the bottom of the screen you can load applications on and it vanishes when it’s not active. Similarly, the toolbar at the top is used to access applications (think of the Windows “Start” menu and you’ve got the idea) and choose ones that are already running. It, too, can be set to vanish when it’s not active. When you’ve got a 10.1″ screen, having plenty of real estate is important.

The fact that Xubuntu is simply Ubuntu with a different desktop means that it is more or less a subset of the most popular Linux distribution on the planet. That means finding support when you get stuck is as easy as joining a Ubuntu forum and asking some questions. While Ubuntu is easier to use than some Linux distributions out there, you’ll probably have some questions when you get into more advanced tasks. If you’ve run across a problem, the chances are good that someone else has, too, and active members of the Ubuntu community have proven to be very helpful.

Oh, and now Xubuntu is even faster than it has been in the past. The lastest version of Ubuntu, 13.04 or Raging Ringtail, came out on Thursday and the emphasis was on trimming a lot of the fat out of the operating system so it it more efficient. You’ll not notice a huge difference in speed under Xubuntu 13.04, but the difference is noticeable at times.

One more thing — if you’re still running Windows XP, now might be a good time to check into Linux. Microsoft has announced that it is pulling the plug on XP support in April 2014. Yes, XP will still run, but there won’t be any security updates for it in about a year and that is a concern. Considering how there’s no way your netbook will hack Windows 8 and netbooks are sluggish under Windows 7 Starter, now might be the time to look for something else.

Linux, of course, is free and it’s not uncommon for people thinking about the operating systems to try out several and stick with the one that works best for them. You can give Xubuntu a test drive by following the below directions, but bear in mind that you can do essentially the same thing with other Linux distributions. So, play around for awhile and find one that you like:

1. Get a thumb drive that’s at least one gigabyte in size. Format it.

2. Go to PendriveLinux.com and download the Universal USB Installer.

3. Go to Xubuntu.org and download the latest stable release of the operating system (currently 13.04).

4. Run the Universal USB Installer, follow the prompts so you can install Xubuntu as a bootable image on your USB drive.

5. Reboot your computer and make sure you can boot from your USB drive. How do you do that? When the computer starts up, you’ll see a menu that will allow you to edit your BIOS, pull up a disc manager or a number of other things that will allow you to direct the computer to boot first from a USB port. On my Toshiba Satellite, for example, I have to hit the “F12? key to pull up the boot manager.

6. Boot from the USB drive and Xubuntu will give you a few options. You can either install it on your hard drive and wipe out whatever operating system you have on there, install it so it runs alongside your operating system and you can choose which one to use when your computer starts or you can simply leave Xubuntu on the USB drive and try it out before installing it. The last option is probably the one you want if you simply want to see how Xubuntu works before deciding if you want it on your system permanently.

Once you’ve got your preferred version of Linux up and running on your netbook, you’ll find out that you can do most things with it that you could under Windows. While the Microsoft Office suite is not native to Linux, LibreOffice is installed with Xubuntu. That suite is a good substitute for the Microsoft package and can even read and write Office documents. Adobe Photoshop isn’t native to Linux, but The GIMP installs with Xubuntu and is a very good graphics manipulation and photo editing package. If you need to edit audio, open the Ubuntu apps store in your Xubuntu task bar and then search for an install Audacity. That one is a very capable audio editor.

While the chances are good a netbook isn’t your primary computer, there’s no reason to let good hardware go to waste. While my “go to” computer is a Toshiba Satellite running Windows 7, I still find the Compaq Mini to be very convenient for a lot of tasks and installing Xubuntu makes the netbook a lot snappier than it used to be. Besides, it never hurts to learn a new operating system, does it?

The XFCE desktop in all its glory. Simplicity is the name of the game here.

The XFCE desktop in all its glory. Simplicity is the name of the game here.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

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