Bringing back the classic “netbook remix” interface in Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal”

How to bring back the classic netbook interface of the old “Ubuntu Netbook Remix” (UNR) in the latest version of Ubuntu.

The other day I saw the news that the latest version of Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal” had been released. So, like any self-respecting geek, I updated my netbook (which runs Ubuntu).

The upgrade was smooth and easy, but one thing I noticed right away after rebooting was that nothing looked the same.

The thing is, Ubuntu has committed to using the new “Unity” interface for Ubuntu, and they have also folded the netbook remix stuff into the main “Ubuntu” release. What this means is that, starting with 11.04:

  • Ubuntu uses “Unity” by default, even on netbooks
  • There is no longer a separate “netbook remix” for Ubuntu

Now, don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the “Unity” interface, and I like the idea and the execution of it is pretty great… but I disagree with the idea that this is the perfect interface for netbooks.

First off, the “Unity” interface is rather graphically intensive – it has some neat 3-D effects as you mouse over the bar – and this just really kind of bogs down a netbook. Now, maybe newer netbooks have more powerful graphics cards, but I always think of Linux as being great for older computers too, and the “Unity” interface just doesn’t cut it on older hardware.

Now, you can always switch back to the Ubuntu Classic UI (by using the Logon Screen app, or by just choosing at the login screen itself), but even that is a bit of a compromise, especially for netbooks. The netbook UI was optimized for small screens, where every inch of screen space was valuable.

ubuntu classic desktop
The "Classic" desktop isn't that great for small netbook screens

So, I set about trying to find how to bring back that classic “netbook” look that previous versions of Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) had. After some experimentation with a virtual machine (and, in the extreme, trying out some other Linux distros to see if they were more netbook-friendly) I found the way to do it.

Before we begin, I suggest that you switch to the classic UI before beginning – that way you won’t need to worry about fiddling with the “Unity” launcher bar thing.

There are 4 packages you need to have before you begin, so fire up the Synaptic package manager (or a terminal if that’s your thing) and make sure these packages are installed:

These 4 packages are what basically make up the older “Netbook Remix” edition of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu package manager - showing "netbook-launcher-efl" package
Selecting the "netbook-launcher-efl" package for installation

The first thing to do is to go to your startup applications in Ubuntu and add netbook-launcher-efl and maximus to your startup applications.

Ubuntu preferences menu - startup applications
Selecting the "Starup Applications" app from the "Preferences" menu
ubuntu startup program - add netbook-launcher-efl
Adding the Netbook Launcher to startup
ubuntu startup program - add maximus
Adding Maximus to startup
Ubuntu Startup Applications Preferences
Startup Applications

Next, add the window-picker-applet and go-home-applet to the top panel in Ubuntu. You may also want to remove some of the other panel items that are up there currently, and then re-size and re-position the panels so they look like the old netbook remix. If you have a panel at the bottom of the screen, remove that as well.

ubuntu - add to panel
Adding an applet to the panel
ubuntu - delete this panel
Deleting the lower panel

Finally, reboot the system and voilà! The look of the old Ubuntu Netbook Remix is back!

ubuntu - netbook look and feel
Ubuntu Netbook Look and Feel Restored!
ubuntu - netbook look - with windows open
Maximus and the window picker app keep things organized on small screens

I really like the netbook interface – I think it’s the best fit for netbooks, especially not-very-powerful ones like mine. The maximus package keeps windows from having a title bar (it gets merged into the panel at the top, where the window-picker-applet takes care of showing you the app’s name and giving you a close button) and of course keeps windows maximized all the time (which is the only way you’d ever want them to be on a netbook’s small screen). Plus, the netbook launcher is just great for launching the few programs you use on a netbook. The icons are huge and easy to click when using a little touchpad, and the graphics are smooth but not overdone.

Screenshot of Ubuntu on a Netbook
Ubuntu with these netbook changes on my little netbook

It’s worth mentioning that during my experimentation, I tried out a few other options, including some different distributions that claimed to be good for netbooks. One distribution I found called “EasyPeasy” was based on Ubuntu and was basically the classic “Netbook Remix” that I remember. However, it seems to lag behind Ubuntu in terms of releases – it was still using Firefox 3 for example. Still, if you’re just getting a new netbook, you might want to try EasyPeasy from the start, as it comes “out of the box” with the netbook look & feel.

However, if you want to stick with the Ubuntu you know and love, these steps will bring back that classic Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface, just the way you remember it.

(Update: if you’re using Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot, I’ve got some extra steps for you here that should do the trick.)

Some Completely Pointless Benchmarks

Just for fun, I timed how long it takes to start up my desktop computer and my netbook. Guess which one won?

Just for fun, I decided to time how long it takes to boot my computers – both my main desktop computer and my little netbook (which can boot to either Windows 7 or Ubuntu).

This was done totally unscientifically of course – I just used a stopwatch and started as soon as the BIOS POST test was over. I recorded 2 different times – the time for the desktop to appear and the time for the computer to actually be usable (that is, all startup programs have opened and no hourglass cursor).

Want to know how things turned out? I thought you might, so here’s a handy chart summarizing the results:

Desktop Computer (Windows 7) Netbook (Windows 7) Netbook (Ubuntu)
Desktop Appears: 1:03 0:54 0:36
Computer usable: 2:30 1:30 0:47

It’s probably also worth mentioning that my desktop computer loads a fair number of programs on startup – wallpaper changers, my online backup program, dropbox, etc., which accounts for it’s poor time to “computer usable.”

It’s also probably worth mentioning the specs of the two computers – the desktop is an Intel Core 2 Quad @ 2.66 GHz with 7200 RPM hard drives and 6 GB of RAM, while the netbook is an Intel Atom (single core) @ 1.6 GHz with a 5200 RPM hard drive and 1 GB of RAM.

When comparing Windows 7 startup times, the netbook edges out the desktop by just a few seconds, probably because it has fewer device drivers to initialize (the desktop has literally a dozen USB devices hanging off it, plus dual monitors, plus whatever services are configured to run at startup), but the times are otherwise pretty close.

As I said before, the time to “computer usable” for the desktop is pretty horrific due to all the stuff I load on startup (but then again, I rarely reboot the desktop).

It’s also nice to see such great times for Ubuntu – which is what I use by default on my netbook.

Part of the reason I ran these tests is I’ve been mulling over whether to add an SSD or hybrid drive to these computers.

Certainly, the desktop could use the performance boost of an SSD… but my primary boot drive is 500 GB, and I can’t afford an SSD at that capacity (if one even exists!), and I don’t feel like splitting my boot drive so it can fit on a smaller drive.

I’ve heard some decent things about so-called “hybrid” drives, which are affordable for 500 GB, and which would give me a performance boost, especially for boot-up. But at the same time, I have to consider that I don’t reboot often, and is saving, say, 30 seconds of a 2 minute 30 second boot time really worth the cost and effort? Probably not – at least, not yet, not until SSD or hybrid drive prices come down a bit further.

As for my netbook, it boots pretty darn fast as-is, but an SSD would really make a huge difference. I figure an SSD would let me boot into Ubuntu and be ready to go in probably, oh, 10-15 seconds. That would put my netbook nearly as fast for “ready to use” as a tablet computer (e.g., iPad) for a lot less cost, which would be nice. But again, the netbook has a 160 GB hard drive, and although SSD prices have come down a lot, a 160 GB SSD is still a bit too pricey for me at the moment.

Still, these numbers are interesting to have, and I think it’s clear that as SSD prices continue to fall, my netbook will probably get the first upgrade, followed by a hybrid drive for my desktop later on (or possibly an SSD, if prices fall far enough).

Joining the Dual-Monitor Club

I finally give in and join the dual-monitor club.

After many, many years of dragging my feet, I have finally joined the dual-monitor club:

joining the dual monitor club

My wife’s company was getting rid of some surplus equipment and I managed to grab the 2nd monitor for just $25 – you can’t say no at that price! So I decided to give this dual-monitor thing a try.

I’ve long been… well let’s say ambivalent about the benefits of having dual monitors – despite the fact that most programmers swear by them (heck, dual monitors are item #1 on the Programmer’s Bill of Rights!).

My reluctance was partly due to the cost – especially back in the CRT days, when monitors (decently-sized ones, anyway) were not inexpensive. The other reason for my reluctance was that I’d tried the dual-monitor thing years ago and found it not very useful – the monitor I tried out was an old 15″ CRT, and the desk I was using at the time didn’t really fit a 2nd monitor very effectively. Also, back then there really wasn’t any such thing as a “dual-head” video card, so you had to add a 2nd video card (probably a slower PCI card, since your main video card was probably using up the sole AGP slot on your motherboard).

However, even when LCD monitors became relatively inexpensive and easy to get I still resisted getting a second monitor. The reason for this was that I just could not see how a second monitor would benefit me, given the type of work I do. Oh, I didn’t deny that it would be useful sometimes – but not necessarily enough to justify the cost/space/hassle/etc.

I just kept figuring that I really only “focus” on one thing at a time, so why bother having a second screen if I’m not going to be focusing on it? Plus, I worried about getting cramps in my neck & shoulders from turning to the side to stare at a second monitor for any length of time.

So I rationalized it to myself for a very long time, until this $25 monitor came along, and I just figured I’d give it a try (at worst I could decide I didn’t like it and give it away to a family member or friend who needs a new monitor).

So now that I’ve got it, how is it working out for me? Well, getting used to a second monitor actually takes some time and effort – when you have worked for so long with just one screen, it’s hard to “give up” a window and move it over to the second screen.

Of course, what stuff ends up on the 2nd screen is a tough choice to make. My “desktop” is now effectively twice as wide as it used to be, which means moving the mouse from the left side of the screen to the right side of the other screen takes a while – and again, I don’t like moving the mouse more than I have to (repetitive stress injuries are to programmers what black lung was to coal miners). So whatever went on the 2nd monitor would have to:

  • Only infrequently require mouse input
  • Be something I could glance at out of the corner of my eye, without needing to actually turn my head and stare at the 2nd screen for long periods of time
  • Not be distracting

Interestingly, not a lot falls into this category for me.

A lot of people using dual monitors will say how they love having their email open on the 2nd screen all the time. But I (mostly) follow the “Getting Things Done” philosophy, and I’m also a programmer so interruptions are anathema  to me, so having email always “in my face” is just not necessary. I check email when I’m ready to check email, and my computer will let me know that mail has arrived and I can then read it at my leisure.

Having IM or Twitter open on the second monitor might also seem like it might be useful, and after trying it out, I did actually decide to move my IM program to the 2nd monitor. It helps keep chats with co-workers “on the side” so I can keep working. And Twitter would probably be a good candidate, except I don’t use Twitter often enough for it to be that important to me. Plus, the Twitter client I use (Spaz) has growl-style notifications that let me know when new Tweets happen for the (relatively) few people I follow, so that’s good enough for me.

Another candidate for a 2nd monitor is for debugging – and that would be a good use for a 2nd monitor, depending on the type of debugging you are doing. But I mostly do .NET WinForms development these days, and debugging that is pretty easy on a single monitor. Perhaps when I have some web development to do, or other kinds of development, the second monitor will really come through for me – but right now, it’s just not helpful for the debugging I do.

However, a very good candidate for the 2nd monitor is for remote desktop/virtual machines. Often I have to remote control people’s computers, and putting that on the 2nd monitor allows me to effectively have their desktop right next to mine – it is very handy. Likewise for virtual machines – I will run the virtual machine on the 2nd monitor and I can keep an eye on it while working normally on my 1st monitor.

So that’s where I stand currently in regards to the dual-monitor club. I’m still a new convert, and I’m still getting my sea-legs, so to speak, as far as figuring out how best to use this 2nd screen I have. But I’m getting there.

Another Computer Conundrum: A Computer for MOM

I face another computer conundrum: what sort of computer to get for my mom, a casual user (as opposed to me, the power user).

Once again, I’m facing a computer conundrum. This time, however, it’s a bit trickier to find the “right” answer, because this computer isn’t for me: it’s for my mom.

My conundrum is this: I still have my old computer (Elysion) lying around, and since I love giving old technology a second life, I had planned to clean it up, install Windows 7 on it, and give it to my mom to replace her current computer – a very old Dell with a very slow early generation Pentium 4 CPU.

Now, you might be thinking:  “What’s the conundrum, Keith? Just give you mom your old computer; it’s obviously better than what she has!” And you’d be right – my old computer is better than what she has currently.

But there’s another choice I hadn’t considered originally: getting my mom a nettop computer instead.

To put it into perspective, he’s a handy comparison chart comparing my old computer vs. a new nettop (specifically, an Acer Aspire Revo AR2600 U9022 – gotta love Acer’s insane model numbering!):

My Old Computer (Elysion)
Acer Aspire Revo AR36010 U9022
CPU: Pentium 4 w/HT Intel Atom 330 w/HT
CPU Type:
32-bit 64-bit
CPU Architecture: “Prescott” “Diamondville”
CPU Cores: 1 (2 logical) 2 (4 logical)
L2 Cache: 1 MB 1 MB
Clock Speed: 3.2 GHz 1.6 GHz
Front-side bus: 800 MHz 533 MHz
Thermal Draw: 82W 23W
RAM: 1 GB DDR2 PC4300 + 2 GB DDR2 PC5300 2 GB DDR2 PC2 6400
Hard Drive: 160 GB + 500 GB (7200 RPM) 160 GB (5200 RPM)
Video: ATI Radeon X300 NVIDIA ION integrated graphics
Other Drives: 1x CD/DVD writer, 1x CD/DVD player SD/MMC/MemoryStick/xD memory card reader/writer
Free (+ about $120 for a Windows 7 upgrade) $330 (all inclusive)

The problem I have is that I’m not always very good at picking out technology for other people – especially for people who plan to use technology in a very different way than I would. While my recommendations are still very, very good (the reason why people keep asking for my recommendations in the first place), they are still a little bit… biased.

On the surface, it seems like the Acer nettop is the way to go – although it may be a bit slower in terms of raw clock and front-side bus speed, it is a true dual-core CPU, with all the benefits that go along with that. (Astute readers might also remember that when I upgraded from Elysion I actually took a drop in raw CPU clock speed from 3.2 GHz to 2.6 GHz, and yet my new computer is much faster than my old one.)

On the other hand, there are other aspects of the Acer nettop that would suggest that maybe sticking with a full-fledged desktop PC is the way to go. The nettop is, with a few exceptions, basically a desktop version of my Acer Aspire One netbook. The CPU in my netbook runs at the same clock speed (although it is not dual-core) and has the same size (and same RPM speed) hard drive. And although I love my netbook and think it is a great little computer, it is not exactly “zippy” in terms of performance.

However, again, there are differences between the netbook and the nettop. For one, the nettop has more RAM than my netbook – 2 GB instead of 1. And the nettop has that new ION graphics package – remember, this nettop is often marketed as a great Media Center PC rather than as a desktop computer, and as such it has the necessary graphics power to drive a big HD screen. And my netbook runs Ubuntu Linux for the most part (with the factory-installed Windows XP on a separate partition), not Windows 7, so there may be performance differences there that I’m not aware of. And there’s that whole dual-core vs. single core thing, plus the fact that the nettop’s CPU is 64-bit vs the netbooks 32-bit CPU.

However, my old computer also has the advantage of being, well, free – since I already have it (I just have to pick up a Windows 7 upgrade CD). And in this case, cost is definitely a factor.

Making the decision even harder is that it’s very hard to find performance data that can be used to compare the old Pentium 4 (with Hyper-Threading!) against the very new Atom 330, especially since things like chipsets, graphics card performance, hard drive speed, and so forth can all very significantly affect perceived (and measured) performance.

So I’m just not sure what to do in this case – I think I will have to mull this over for a bit more still before I come to a decision. (Though I invite readers with an opinion one way or the other to chime in on this debate in the comments!) When I do come to a decision, I will post about it here (and update this article), since I think that this sort of computer conundrum is bound to be a common one among techno-savvy people with not-quite-as-tech-savvy family members. But we shall see!

Registry Cleaners: Just Say ‘NO!’

Explaining why so-called “registry cleaners” are not needed anymore (if they ever were needed in the first place).

Today I’m going to give a little warning about programs that claim to “clean” your Windows registry, or people or products that tell you that you “need” to clean your Windows registry.

But first, a little story. The other day I happened to speak to someone who was having some computer problems – some very strange computer problems, in fact.

A little bit of questioning the user revealed the  problem. This person had recently had some so-called “computer experts” come and take a look at his computer. They apparently told him that he “needed” to “clean” his Windows registry, because it was “full of junk” and that was slowing his computer down.

This brings me to the moral of the story, which is basically that all “registry cleaners” are bunk.

Back in the old days (the Windows 9x days), a “registry cleaner” might have made some sense. Back then, you had to keep your registry small due to memory constraints, etc. A “registry cleaner” could remove some invalid entries and basically clean things up a bit to make the registry smaller. If it did this in a very limited manner, it was generally helpful and safe.

However, things have changed a lot since those days.

First off, there’s no longer any real need to worry about the size of your registry, but another thing to keep in mind is that registry cleaners were originally meant to help reduce the size of your registry. Now, how do you think they did that?

That’s right, they just deleted entries from the registry. And more or less, that’s all that registry “cleaners” do to this day – they aren’t really “cleaners” per se, they are “deleters.” And many of these programs don’t even give you the option to backup the entries they are about to delete – they just go ahead and delete them.

This is akin to trying to “clean up” your Windows installation by just going in and randomly deleting files from your Windows directory. Yeah, it’ll “clean it up” in the sense that it’ll take up less disk space – but more than likely you’ll also end up completely boning your Windows installation to the point where it doesn’t work anymore.

Regularly cleaning your Windows registry (which is something that many users of “registry cleaning” software say you have to do) of invalid/unused entries (say, file associations for programs that don’t exist anymore) isn’t going to make your computer any faster. The registry is already optimized for fast loading (that’s the whole reason there is a registry in the first place, instead of slow INI files), and a few extra entries aren’t going to slow anything down.

In fact, regularly cleaning your registry will end up “fragmenting” the files on disk that hold the registry data itself, and as time goes on, those “gaps” that were “cleaned” will be filled with new data, resulting in a registry that’s all out of order (at least on disk). This will actually slow down access to the registry (or, at least, slow down the initial paging of the registry into main memory).

Realistically, if your registry really does need to be “cleaned,” then you are going to have to do it by hand, because no “registry cleaner” program is going to be able to fix it auto-magically. It’s a bit like expecting a gasoline additive for your car to fix the dent in your bumper or your broken radio – it’s just not going to happen.

There’s another reason to be wary of so-called “registry cleaners” as well, and that’s the fact that if you search for a “registry cleaner” program, you are more likely to end up downloading spyware that’s just pretending to be a registry cleaner. Finding a registry cleaner that isn’t actually some sort of spyware/malware in disguise is, to put it simply, really hard, even for an expert.

The bottom line here is that registry “cleaners” actually have no benefit  at best, and at worst can actually slow down or even royally screw up your computer.

So if someone tells you that you need to “run a registry cleaner” or that you should “clean your registry regularly” or you’re about to download a program that claims to “clean” or “optimize” your registry… just say NO!

Colored blocks icon courtesy of the Crystal Icon Set.