Though netbooks have waned a bit in favor of tablet devices, there's still a lot of demand for netbooks and netbook-friendly Linux distros in certain circles. Whether you're looking for a brand-new netbook or to keep an older device current, there's plenty of options for the Linux crowd. Let's take a look at the top five netbook Linux distros.
A lot has happened in the last year for netbook distributions, and there have been quite a few changes in our selection for 2011 compared to the 2010 line-up of best Linux netbooks.
What happened? Well, a couple of releases that weren't quite ready for release yet finally hit the shelves. On top of that, a few releases sort of disappeared. The gOS release went offline and is now considered discontinued. Puppy Linux is still going strong, but with the current crop of netbook releases, it didn't look quite as attractive this year as one of the suggestions.
Ready for this year's list? Let's get started with the most likely suspect, Ubuntu.
Ubuntu Still Has It
With the Ubuntu 11.04 release, the project has folded the Netbook Remix into the main desktop release. That means that the project no longer has a current, separate netbook release. Why's that? With 11.04, otherwise known as Natty Narwhal, Ubuntu has made its Unity desktop the default across the board. (Well, the "board" being the main release and the former netbook release — you still have Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and so on with their respective desktop choices, of course.)
The Unity interface is, at least in part, targeted for smaller screens and (eventually) touchscreens and tablets. There's been an effort to reduce the amount of screen space necessary by moving menus up into the top panel rather than in a titlebar for each application.
There are some caveats, though. Unity is still fairly new, and it has some bugs and rough edges to deal with in the 11.04 release. It's most definitely not for everyone. Some users have loved it, other Ubuntu users have found it a bit frustrating. Me? I'm somewhere in the middle. I have my gripes with Unity, and I see some benefits. This is most definitely a matter of taste.
The good thing, though, is that it's free to download and try. So even if you wind up not loving Unity on 11.04, all you need to do is move on to the next distro. No harm, no foul. Also? Be sure to check back with the 11.10 release in October. The Ubuntu folks are working hard on polishing and improving Unity for this release and now that it's had time to shake out and gather public feedback, it's almost certain to be mightily improved by 11.10. If you don't like it now, it might just win you over in October.
If you want to try Ubuntu and can't find the link to its download page, you're just not trying very hard. However, we'll save you a few clicks and point you in the right direction. Note that they have a "show me how" button on the download Ubuntu page for creating a USB stick for netbooks using Macs, Windows, or Linux. Nice touch, Ubunterinos!
Finally making an appearance, we have Google's ChromeOS. Google announced that it would be building ChromeOS (after months of rumors about the company's Linux plans) in July of 2009. It only took almost two years to go from announcement to widely available products.
What's ChromeOS? A Linux-based netbook distribution that has a minimalist browser-only interface. Basically, if you've used the Chrome Web browser on Linux, you've gotten about 90% of the experience already.
So what's to like about ChromeOS? It's an interesting and minimalist approach to using a computer. On a netbook, if you have reliable connectivity, it's a reasonable approach for some users to working. Many of us use little but Web applications anyway — especially when traveling, on the couch, or in the local coffee shop.
The downside to ChromeOS? Well, technically you have to buy a netbook to get it. You can find public images based on the Chromium OS project, but Google isn't releasing official ISOs for ChromeOS — so the only way to get the official goodies is by buying a ChromeOS netbook. That does dampen our enthusiasm a bit for the release. But, for users who want a big name behind the netbook and are ready to adopt the browser-based lifestyle, ChromeOS may be the right option.
What does ChromeOS have that makes it worth ponying up for a new netbook? The current crop of Chromebooks come with long battery life, "instant" on, and bigger screens and roomier keyboards than your typical netbook. If you don't have a netbook already and think that the Web-only lifestyle will fit your needs, ChromeOS may be for you.
Not quite ready to invest in a new netbook just for ChromeOS? You can try out the "vanilla" builds from Hexxeh. You'll find daily images for USB keys, VMware, and VirtualBox that are compiled automatically from ChromiumOS source. Whether a specific build is stable or worth using is iffy, but you can keep trying and follow Hexxeh on Twitter for info about builds. You might also want to check out the Lifehacker piece on setting up a Chromium netbook from Hexxeh builds.
What a difference a year makes! When I compiled the list last year, MeeGo wasn't quite ready to look on netbooks. This year, the MeeGo project has a few releases under its belt and is pretty usable on many netbooks.
MeeGo has a user interface (they like to call it UX) designed from the ground up for netbooks. It also includes applications to integrate with social networks, like Twitter, and has email, calendaring, and a media player custom-designed for the netbook.
There is a word of caution, though. While the MeeGo UX is nifty and generally fine for many users, the MeeGo releases are really meant for developers and reference platforms. The hope is that MeeGo, like ChromeOS, will find its way to commercial products with additional goodies added by the OEMs and downstreams. In other words, the MeeGo experience may not be entirely suitable for inexperienced Linux folks.
Ready to try out MeeGo on your netbook? Head over to the MeeGo Downloads Page and snag one of the MeeGo for Netbooks images. Note that you can grab the stock image or an image that includes the Chrome Web browser (but requires accepting the EULA).
Fedora 15 (and Later)
Fedora doesn't have a specific netbook spin right now, but with the main desktop release, Fedora and GNOME Shell make a pretty nifty netbook OS. Fedora, of course, has all the software you'd expect for a full-blown Linux distro.
I suspect that, like Unity on Ubuntu, Fedora 16 and GNOME 3.2 will be even better for netbooks (and regular desktops). The GNOME folks have been taking plenty of feedback about GNOME Shell, and we should see some improvements, tweaks, and new features coming later this year that really make it sing.
openSUSE with KDE Plasma Netbook
Don't worry — we've got something for the KDE fans, too. Well, we should say, the KDE project has something for the netbook fans. Specifically, there's the KDE Plasma Netbook UI for smaller screens.
Actually, you're not strictly confined to the smaller screens — you can run the Plasma Netbook interface on any size screen you want. Want to use the Plasma Netbook interface on a 27" screen? Knock yourself out.
Looking for a KDE-centric distro to go with that netbook interface? Our first choice for KDE is openSUSE. Head over to the download page for openSUSE 11.4 and grab the Live KDE image. You'll find the instructions for creating a USB stick on the openSUSE wiki.
If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can set up Tumbleweed and go from static releases to a rolling release. This is, in my opinion, what makes openSUSE the best distro for netbooks and KDE. If you want to stay on the leading (but not bleeding) edge of open source software, Tumbleweed is a good way to go.
These days, I spend a lot less time using a netbook than when they were first released. I travel a lot less, and I prefer my 12.1" ThinkPad to 10.1" netbooks. But I still use a netbook for some stuff, and I love the fact that I have a ridiculous number of options. Plus, nobody says you have to stick with a netbook for a netbook distribution — I've found that GNOME Shell and KDE's Plasma Netbook Shell work just fine on smaller laptops as well as genuine netbooks.
Have a different favorite, or Linux on netbook tips? Share them with us in the comments!