3 February 2010

Moblin for the Masses?

While the rest of the world is going iPad crazy and producing all sorts of humourus comparisons, I've actually taken advantage of the fact that netbooks have plummeted in value to the point where I can now pick up a 1.6 GHz atom powered machine with 160GB hard drive for little more than the very first Asus Eee's were when they first appeared. Am I that far behind the times? Not really but my employer bought some of the first Eee's which were already outdated by the time we got them (it seems that anything you order in the public sector costs at least 10% more than it should and takes an eternity to arrive due to all the bureaucracy).

Anyway after reviewing the market I finally decided that prices had now stabilised enough so that there is very little difference between the various netbooks which are available. They would seem to be more powerful than an iPad and with Windows installed these days it means I can make use of Tucows, 5 star shareware, Major Geeks, Cnet-downloads and all the others (one app store is Soooo last decade don't you think?). It also means that if Apple does sort out the lack of published material in the UK ebook market then I can always install iTunes to take advantage of the fact.

So what did I go for? After much researching and late night review-reading, I finally opted for the Samsung NC10. One of the things which pushed me towards this decision was the fact that it was known to run Moblin, which I have wanted to try out since I saw the first demo video of it around this time last year. What is Moblin I hear you ask?

Moblin (or MOBile LINux) is a linux distribution targetted at netbooks and Medium-sized Internet Devices (or MIDS). The Moblin interface is quite simplistic but at the same time has some very neat features. It also has some limitations which I hope will be tackled in future revisions because I really want to be using Moblin as my main operating system in future years.

First the good points. Moblin has a sort of start page called Myzone which keeps track of your task list, recent web-sites and media files which you've accessed and even your twitter feed. These are shown as medium sized icons which are very easy to tell at a glance, just which content they represent. Also as you browse to web-pages a similar process occurs. By clicking on the internet icon you are taken to a page filled with thumbnails of recently accessed pages. I may have cheated a bit by picking hardware which I knew would run the wireless networking, but connecting Moblin to my home WPA-secured wi-fi network was as simple as entering the password (once I'd figured out where the network icon was). So my initial view was this is a fantastic system with a brilliantly intuitive interface. As I'd already freed up some drive space during set-up I took the plunge of installing it to hard-disk as bizarrely it didn't seem to store things when running from a USB stick. I'm glad to say that it does once it's properly installed and it didn't trash my Windows XP home installation in the process (although you need to be quick at the menu to get back to it).

Now the bad and I hate to say there are bad points about something which looks so good but here goes. First of all the Twitter page took a while to accept my settings. There was no visible feedback on that page that my username and password were correct and you have to go back to Myzone to see the feed. Not very intuitive. Then there's the display theme. It's too bright at night and too dark in my office. There doesn't seem to be any way to change the theme. It also doesn't display the day on the clock (some days I'm just so busy that it's nice to be reminded ok). It also struggled with my test media, giving me an error message about gstreamer codecs? when I tried to play my mp3 files. I also got this message when trying to play avi and mov files. Yet it will play formats I don't have content for (.ogg for music and .ogv for video). The most successful content test was with some PDF ebook files I have. The PDF viewer is awesome and very user friendly. It's just a shame that the display was so harsh in a dimly lit room that I really didn't feel like using it as an ebook reader. Eventually I managed to get mp3's playing with an add-on to the Firefox browser.

Shared file storage is also an issue as unlike other distributions (like Puppy for example), Moblin doesn't seem to want to know about NTFS partitions, not even opening them as read only to get at the content. So my 20GB's of media storage space is not accessible - not a good thing really.

So to conclude, Moblin is very good, but equally bad. It would be great for someone who had never used a computer before; someone who has never used Windows or downloaded an mp3 or had no idea that you can usually customise a desktop to suit your preferences. For the rest of us, it's a sacrifice too great at the moment. I would need to have time to understand how to re-write parts and learn to tweek it to suit my needs. For now I will continue to play with Moblin, at least until I figure out how to remove it cleanly. I will then probably try to install Puppy into that partition and then try to find the apps that will make Puppy look like Moblin. It's user interface is so sweet but it's not currently backed up with usability in my oppinion. A real shame as if it did everything Puppy does, I would even be able to contemplate ditching Windows (at least on my new netbook).