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Yes, there is still life in that old netbook

By: 29 July 2013 2 Comments

Mint Linux desktop.

Just a few years ago, netbooks were very common, largely because they are dirt cheap. A netbook, of course, is simply a scaled down laptop and the most common configuration appears to be a 10.1″ screen, a 1.6 GHz, single core Intel Atom processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM and a 160-gigabyte hard drive. Most netbooks came bundled with Microsoft Windows XP (not bad in terms of performance) or Windows 7 Starter.

While new netbooks are still available, they’ve been largely replaced by more powerful ultrabooks and tablets like the Apple iPad line and Samsung Galaxy. The problem with netbooks, of course, is that they are very underpowered. Still, they are very useful and a few modifications to the Compaq Mini 110c I got back in 2010 have turned it a great portable laptop. Since I already own one, I figured I’d rather improve its performance rather than simply tossing it in the back of a closet and forgetting about it.

While the Compaq Mini doesn’t hold a candle to the Intel Core i7 laptop I use at work or even the 64-bit Windows 7 laptop I use at home, it’s hard to beat the little Compaq for sheer portability and convenience. All I need is a WiFi connection and I’ve got a great system for getting some work done on the road.

Updating my Compaq Mini cost about $30 and more than a bit of time. The $30 was spent on an upgrade that should be considered crucial for a netbook — more RAM. Most netbooks max out at 2 gigabytes of RAM which is available for cheap on eBay.  The performance boost realized by jumping from 1GB to 2GB is substantial, particularly if you’re the type who has a few applications open and opens browser tabs like crazy while surfing the Internet.

Another way to boost the performance of a netbook is by dumping Windows and switching to Linux. The thing about Linux, however, is that there are so many distros out there that choosing the right one can be a chore. I tested a lot of them and found that three work very well on netbooks as they don’t require a lot of resources — Joli OS, Xubuntu and Linux Mint.

My personal favorite is Linux Mint with the Xcfe desktop as it runs faster than Xubuntu on my Compaq and is less troublesome than Joli OS, but here’s the great thing about Linux — it’s easy to test drive as many distros as you want before settling on one. Like two flavors of Linux? No problem — simply choose to dual boot and run both of them on the same netbook. Want to keep your version of Windows? You can set up a dual-boot system to retain that operating system and boot into Linux when you want.

Test driving various flavors of Linux and setting up a dual-boot is easy enough — simply grab a USB stick, head to and follow the directions. Finding the version that combines speed, compatibility and ease of use is critical and discovering that “perfect” Linux OS is a highly subjective thing — you might hate what works well for somewhere else, so it’s well worth your while to spend some time testing out several before settling on one or two to install on your system.

It’s worth mentioning that I ran Xubuntu for a couple of years before switching to Linux Mint and have very little bad to say about it. The only complaint I have about Xubuntu is that it got slower with every new release and got to the point where doing routine things like opening the built-in apps store or finding and installing updates took a ridiculously long amount of time. While I switched from Xubuntu to Mint prior to getting my 2GB RAM upgrade, the performance boost under Mint on my 1GB system was very noticeable. Still, Xubuntu is packaged with plenty of software that is actually useful, is based on Ubuntu — the most popular Linux distro out there. The only real difference between Ubuntu and Xubuntu is that the latter comes packaged with the lightweight Xfce desktop instead of the more resource demanding Unity. Xcfe looks and acts a lot like Windows XP and is a clean desktop that a netbook can run without breaking a sweat.

If you want something that’s incredibly lightweight, give Joli OS a look. That one will turn your netbook into something that acts very much like a Google Chrome Book — the emphasis is on saving documents to “the cloud” and works very well with online storage accounts such as Google Drive and Dropbox. Navigating around Joli OS takes some getting used to as it’s similar to using a tablet than a notebook and you’ll spend a lot of time in your browser. The only drawback to the OS is that it can be a pain when your WiFi connection is down or running slowly, but you can still get plenty of work done with local apps when you can’t get online. There’s a bit of a learning curve with Joli OS, but it is very fast and an easy way to turn your netbook into a cloud-based machine.

As for Mint, I chose that because it is also based on Ubuntu, runs wicked fast when the version with the Xcfe desktop is installed, has a great apps store and comes with plenty of great programs already installed. The program line up, in fact, is very similar to what Xubuntu offers — Libre Office is there for cranking out documents, spreadsheets and presentations that can be saved in a format compatible with the Microsoft Office suite, The Gimp was included as a viable alternative to Adobe Photoshop and it is very compatible with Ubuntu repositories — if your familiar with installing applications through the terminal in Ubuntu, you’ll feel right at home with Mint.

How fast is Mint? My system boots in less than two minutes and that includes the time it takes to open Dropbox and check for updates. My system monitor tells me the entire OS takes up around 200 megabytes of RAM, leaving plenty open for applications.

The only problem I had with installing Mint is that I’ve got a Broadcom wireless chipset that is proprietary and not bundled with Mint. The only way I was able to connect to my WiFi was to attach my computer to a wired connection, open my settings menu, select the driver manager and then request it to download the Broadcom driver. That wasn’t any trouble, really, but the Broadcom chipset appears to be common so it’s wise to be around a wired connection when installing Mint.

Netbooks may be on their way out, but they’ve still got a lot of life in them. RAM upgrades are cheap and Linux distros are free, so why not experiment a bit on your netbook and see if you can turn it into the great mobile system you wanted when you first bought it?

Click here to learn about a couple of inexpensive, effective hardware mods that will make a netbook even more useful.

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


  • Business Law said:

    Netbooks were a great idea, and something I think I’d give to my children before going full in on a laptop. The upgrade ideas are great too, especially when needing that great mobile device.

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