Tired of Windows 7 Starter Edition? Ready to boot XP off the netbook? Linux runs particularly well on Netbooks, but it might be hard to choose which flavor is best for you right now. Not sure what's out there? We've lined up the five best Linux netbook OSes for your mobile computing pleasure.
What makes a distro one of the best choices for netbooks? It has to be easy to install, support netbook hardware relatively well, and should offer an interface that's well-suited for netbooks. Not every distro will support all hardware out of the box, but some distros are better than others at handling a wide range of hardware. Also, it has to be free to download and easy to get.
Some notable efforts didn't make the cut because they're not far enough along just yet. For example, I would have liked to pick a Moblin-based project like the openSUSE Goblin effort — but it's not quite ready for widespread release. When it's ready I think it will be fantastic, but it's not there yet and probably wouldn't be a lot of fun for all but the most experienced users to try to get running. And, I would have liked to have included an Android-based netbook distribution but couldn't find any community projects.
Ubuntu Netbook Remix
Right now the Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) is my netbook distribution of choice. It's easy to install, easy to use, and the interface is well-suited to small screens.
It also has really good hardware support, at least on the hardware I've tried it on so far. I'm running it on an Asus 10" Eee PC and everything just works, and even with only 1GB of RAM it seems fairly speedy. Under the hood, it's still Ubuntu, so you have the goodies that you're accustomed to on the desktop as well. You'll find an enormous selection of packages in the Ubuntu repositories; you have the Ubuntu One file sync and music store, and so on. For Ubuntu users, UNR is a no-brainer.
Kubuntu Netbook Edition
For the KDE fans in the house, there's the Kubuntu Netbook Edition (KNR). With the 10.04 Ubuntu release at the end of April, the KNR release officially supports the KDE Plasma Netbook Shell that's especially designed for small screens.
If you use Kubuntu on the desktop and like a KDE-flavor for your computing experience, then the Plasma Netbook shell is going to be much more fun. You'll find an experimental release for ARM machines as well, so if your netbook happens to have an ARM processor, it's one of the few options you'll find.
Note that Fedora is also providing a preview of the Plasma netbook interface with Fedora 13, but it's only at a preview stage and Fedora 13 is not yet released. I'm pretty sure openSUSE will also feature the Plasma Netbook Shell as an option with openSUSE 11.3, so if you prefer those distros stick around! They'll be along shortly.
I have an 11" Acer One netbook that, unfortunately, doesn't play really well with Linux. The problem is the Intel chipset for the machine that is one of the few chipsets unsupported on Linux. Jolicloud is the only current release that runs well on this machine.
That's not all Jolicloud has going for it, though. It has a custom netbook interface and is, as the name suggests, designed for working with cloud services. I like Jolicloud's app directory and "social stream" for working with services like Twitter.
Want to keep Windows on your device? Try Jolicloud Express install that co-exists happily with Windows. Me? I wiped Windows right off the netbook as soon as I had the chance, but if you want or need Windows, Jolicloud makes it very easy to dual-boot.
And now for something completely different... if you're only using your computer for cloud services and Web apps, why not go all the way with gOS. This little distro is developed around Google gadgets and services, with Google Desktop search thrown in, and OpenOffice for those of us not ready for all the data to live in the cloud.
You have the desktop apps you've come to know and love with gOS, but also widgets and a netbook-friendly interface that's not a major departure from a standard desktop. Mac fans will enjoy the dock interface as well. Until ChromeOS ships, gOS is a good alternative.
Puppy Linux is not a netbook distro per se, but I wanted to recommend it for more adventurous users who want a really lightweight Linux distribution on their netbook.
One of the primary reasons I recommend Puppy for netbooks is that it's been well-tested for USB installs for quite some time, and it's tiny. Puppy Linux is less than 100MB. You can run the entire distribution in RAM if you want, even on resource-constrained systems like the average netbook. While 1GB of RAM is not a lot for a distribution like Ubuntu, it's more than enough for Puppy.
Puppy is an old-school distro. You won't find OpenOffice.org, or Compiz, or many heavy-weight applications at all. However you will find usable alternatives like Gnumeric and AbiWord. It is not for everybody, but if you want a fast and lightweight Linux distro on the go, Puppy is worth a shot.
Choosing Netbook Hardware
If you haven't purchased a netbook yet, you do want to give some thought to the hardware before you buy it. If at all possible, buy a netbook that already has Linux on it, like the System 76 EduBook or Dell Mini netbooks with Linux.
It also helps to do a bit of research on the hardware to make sure that everything works with Linux well. Many Netbooks feature Intel chipsets with Linux-friendly graphics, wireless and sound cards. Some, however, have been shipped with hardware that only works with proprietary drivers that may not be available for Linux. So before you buy, Google the system and see if it passes muster with Linux. Even if the Linux distro on the netbook doesn't fit your tastes, you can at least be reasonably assured that the system will work with a Linux distro more to your liking.
Linux is pretty powerful on netbooks now, but the next year should be even more exciting with MeeGo making progress and ChromeOS devices on the way. But if you're looking for something today, one of these distros will surely fit the bill.