Updated: August 7, 2009
Mark my words. In 2015, two out of every three netbooks will be running Moblin. Computer users worldwide will be able to enjoy a free, super-fast, super-beautiful, lightweight, secure operating system that will cater to their simple joyful needs, focusing around media, Internet and social life online. Best of all? They will not even know they're running Linux.
I have spent the last few days playing with Moblin 2. Boy, it's something else. It's such a radical leap from the conventional Linux desktop you will be hard-pressed to believe that you're using the geekiest operating system in the world. Enough babbling. Follow me.
Moblin 2, a revolution in beauty and simplicity
When you start Moblin, you have the option to go into the live session or proceed with the installation immediately. The live session allows you to get a first impression of the system before you decide whether to install it. But wait just one second ...
Moblin is designed to run on netbooks with modern Intel chips. Which makes this review all the more interesting, since the total count of netbooks in my possession was nil. In this review, I will attempt to run Moblin on notebooks. Rest assured, it works ... so you can keep on reading without trepidation or frustration marring the reading experience.
For the task, I had my very own Lenovo Thinkpad T61 and - surprise, surprise - an HP Compaq 6910p borrowed by a friend. In fact, it was my friend who rekindled the passion for Moblin in me. Just a few days ago, he called me over to show me his new toy: Moblin, installed and purring sweetly. After a bit of begging on my behalf, he lent me the machine for a few short hours of testing. After a bit of begging more, he gave me the Compaq for a whole week of fun. Both these machines are running dual-core Intel chips and have 2GB RAM. Additionally, I tried to test Moblin on my elderly T42 and in virtual machines, both using VirtualBox and VMware Server. I'll talk about these efforts later on.
What are we going to do?
As in all my reviews, you'll get a taste of pretty much everything: live session, installation, post-install experience. We'll see how well Moblin likes Wireless, Bluetooth, Web camera, network sharing, multimedia, and more. We'll explore the new concepts that Moblin introduces, including a radically designed GUI, the zones, etc.
Unlike most my reviews, this one is going to take a slightly different course. We'll first talk about the installed system. After all, this is what most netbook users will be - a machine preinstalled with the lovely Moblin. After that, I'll show you the live session and finally, what the installation looks like. And now, let's see why Moblin is going to annihilate the competition.
1. It's all about speed
Moblin is meant to run on low-end machines. Moblin is meant for people with a very short fuse, the young, modern generation without patience for protracted boot times and unnecessary delays.
The installed Moblin has an incredibly short boot time. 12 seconds to be exact. I did not install Bootchart, so I could not perform an exact boot sequence profiling, still, it's faster than any other operating system I've tried.
Even when you boot into live session, it takes only about a minute to load the CD into memory. Again, much faster than any other distro I've tried, save maybe the ultra-small ones like Puppy or Slitaz.
To make things even more incredible, Moblin is a 32-bit distro (for now). Imagine what the 64-bit version will do on a platform with a handful of Gigs of RAM. And the boot time has been promised to go down below 10 seconds. What more, you don't get any fancy messages. Just a humble little logo that fleets by as you thunder into a spectacularly beautiful desktop.
And the desktop:
Moblin desktop is nothing like you've seen so far. The entire interface is commanded by a handful of big buttons on the top of the screen, which stand for various operations the users might want to do.
For example, there's no such thing as a Web browser. This is a geeky term. Instead, a very simple Internet button is used. People know what Internet is. They don't care what software lets them go there. What more, Internet is spelled internet. In fact, the menu buttons are all lowercase. You don't want to frighten the average user with capitalization now, do you?
Then, you have the media button, the applications button, the pasteboard, zones, people, status, and myzone, which is the main view. We'll talk about them soon. The speed does not stop with the boot sequence. Applications also launch faster than your eye can register, which means probably less than 50ms. Instant reaction gets a new meaning with Moblin. Click. Done.
Memory consumption is also rather modest. To gauge it, I captured a screenshot of the top utility running inside a terminal. Forgive me for this geeky stunt, but it's a part of the review.
Moblin has taken 1.8GB RAM, which sounds a lot. But wait! 1.25GB of it is cached, meaning it's preallocated for use, but not really necessary and will be freed when needed. Overall, with a handful of stylish apps running, Moblin takes approx. 500MB RAM. The baseline just after the boot is approx. 400MB, close to what Windows XP takes and much less than Windows 7.
This probably means Moblin will be able to run comfortably on machines with just 1GB of RAM, lightning fast. Oh yes, and it beats competition when it comes to speed. Blink and you'll miss it.
2. It's all about giving the users what they want
Moblin is not meant to be used by people who care what kernel version they have or how many software interrupts their latest Python script caused in the last hour. Moblin is for people with a keen sense of laziness, simplicity and aesthetics.
For most people, this keen sense translates into immediate, flawless online experience with media and lots of social networking. You may dislike or despise this attitude, but it's the reality. No point in fighting it. Therefore, the most important part of my review was to see how well Moblin could satisfy the primal needs - to get online and start enjoying a virtual life.
One of the many complains I've noticed with Moblin was (and still is) Wireless connectivity. Indeed, when I tested Moblin on Compaq over at my friend's place, we managed to connect to a network for just a few brief seconds before it died on us, permanently.
However ... when I installed Moblin on Compaq, things were running smoothly. Wireless was there, working as it ought. No sudden glitches or disconnections. Which proves the theory that machines have a soul and fear a competent mind. Network connections are governed by a small icon in the top right corner. Click it, choose the network and off you go.
Internet works, as you would expect it. The browser interface is a totally simplified Prism/Chrome like, with rounded, beautiful Droid Sans fonts. The choice of black, white and violet has an iPhone feeling that should please the Web 2.0 oriented user.
Moblin works well with tabs, providing you also with previews of open items, similar to what Opera does. So in a way, the browser in Moblin is a sort of hybrid between Prism, Chrome and Opera. And it looks and feel well, although it is quite minimalistic. If you're a Firefox fan and like extensions, you may feel a bit out of place here.
The last time I tested Moblin (alpha), I was not able to enjoy multimedia that much. This time, things were a little different, a little better. Flash worked out of the box.
Windows media & MP3 playback - Here, unfortunately, I was unable to enjoy either. The Windows video would play, without video. The MP3 file was silent. This is a big no-no and should be given a top priority in resolving. If there's anything the Web 2.0 generation cares about, it's having their music ruining the soft membranes inside their ears. Still, not all is lost. Moblin comes with an appetizing selection of colorful image, video and audio teasers, meant to excite the user.
The category icons are all big and shiny. Clicking on any which category, displayed as a sort of a stack of cards, will zoom into it, including stylish shuffle-like animations.
One of more exciting pieces is the free Big Bucks Bunny movie, created in the free, open-source Blender 3D software. The movie also serves as a background story for the lovely Yo Frankie! computer game.
After you're done playing your clips, the Media player will automatically remember your files, making them available for future use. This also includes images, like the screenshots I've taken of my escapade with Moblin.
3. It's all about being online
Internet is the lifeline of today's generation. It's no small wonder that Moblin is oriented at having you hooked into your chat and social networks the first thing your desktop comes up. To that end, you have the people and status buttons:
If you click on any of those, you'll be taken to account activation/creation menus. You'll be asked to setup your social networks or create one of the Instant Messaging accounts. I would gladly show you this, but since I have no friends ...
And you also have a web camera to share pictures with your online contacts. The superb Cheese Webcam Booth does not disappoint. Like always, it flawlessly integrates with the built-in camera deice (both on HP and Lenovo).
4. It's all about beauty
Moblin has a design unlike any other Linux. In fact, it is completely different from any other operating system. While Gnome and Mac have similarities and KDE and Windows have similarities, Moblin opens a fresh page. This is a great thing, because it strips away the old habits and preconceptions about how the desktop should look like and what it should do.
This makes Moblin so appealing. You won't get frustrated about the Start button, because there isn't any. You won't get frustrated about the shutdown button, because there isn't any. Hit your poweroff button on the laptop case and Moblin will turn off. Plain and simple.
There is no right-click, because right-click is not intuitive. Most people can't really understand the concept of right-click. Finally, there's a bunch of smart people who have realized this - and have created the truly simple desktop. I wanted to write an article called perfect desktop for ordinary people, but now I no longer need to. Moblin does that.
Then, you have the beautiful Droid Sans fonts.
And the choice of colors is smart. The desktop maintain perfect consistency across all categories. There are no unnecessary details to distract the eye. The pure white dominates, laced with classy black and violet. Just lovely.
5. It's all about functionality
Applications button will take you to a sort of control center, where you can change and tune all manner of settings, configure system updates, launch individual applications, and pin them as favorites.
Moblin has another joker hidden up it's sleeve. It's called zones. Moblin introduces a new way of thinking and working. Rather than pile up applications in the standard fashion, it lets you group them by zones. If you choose no zone by yourself, a new one will be opened for you. However, you can associate applications to specific zones by their functionality, e.g. all multimedia applications go to zone 1, all office applications go to zone 2.
At first, the concept of zones seems a bit strange, but after a short while, you start appreciating them. They're somewhat akin to virtual desktops in Linux, except that you can sort your applications before you launch them rather than after.
The main view is called myzone, a rather audacious title. It's the desktop view that is display whenever you log into the system or when you click on the leftmost icon.
Additionally, the entire desktop can be hidden away. Notice the small icon at the bottom center of the myzone. Click on it, and the desktop will roll up, leaving you with a blank wallpaper. You can then use Alt + Tab to shuffle between zones or move the mouse pointer against the top corner of the desktop to unhide the menu bar.
I promised you a live session and here it is. I tested Moblin on T61. Indeed, the live desktop booted up quickly, within approx. a minute. There was no Wireless connection, but then, few distros managed that on my T61. However, with a wired connection, things worked as expected.
I tried troubleshooting the lack of Wireless connectivity. I removed and reinserted the kernel module, but this did not help much. I also tried restarting the wpa_supplicant service, again without success.
Once connected by cable though, I was enjoying a rather solid session. Like the installed system, the live Moblin did not play my Windows video or MP3. Youtube worked, but there was no sound (see below).
One of my big concerns was how well would Moblin handle the non-standard hardware of the two laptops it was not meant to run on. I was rather pleasantly surprised that almost everything worked out of the box.
HP Compaq 6910p
Bluetooth did not work, but Wireless did. I could change the display resolution without any problems, although the default 1440x900px was correctly detected. The lighting & battery meter icon was missing. Still, clicking on the spot where the icon was supposed to be did the trick. I was also able to change the display lighting levels without any problems.
The sound button was also missing, but I had the sound and could change its volume level without any problems. All the fancy laptop buttons worked, including the mouse pad and Function buttons.
Lenovo Thinkpad T61
On T61, there were no problems with the display either. Moreover, it showed the lighting & battery level and sound buttons correctly. However, there was no sound. Wireless and Bluetooth did not work either. The mousepad & Function buttons worked correctly. Overall, Moblin liked Compaq better than T61, although neither was supposed to run Moblin. We'll talk about other platforms (T42, virtual machines) later.
Do not forget Moblin is still BETA! You should be careful about using it, especially if you intend to install it on a machine. Overall, there were no cardinal problems. Moblin was quite stable and ran well. However, there were problems with a number of applications, including occasional crashes, all of which I hope will be sorted in the future.
Software installation & updates
The Moblin repository is currently broken or unavailable. This prevented me from trying to install and test new applications.
This was unavailable. Even if you try to use the sexy file manager to browse the Network locations, you'll only get your own localhost. Using the smb:// protocol in the address bar does not work, as Samba is not installed by default.
Tabs in file manager sometimes open, sometimes don't
Well, the title speaks for itself.
Unmounting external USB devices does not always work
Naturally, I've also tested the compatibility with external USB devices, formatted with FAT32 and NTFS. Moblin had no problem mounting them and reading/writing data from/to these devices, however sometimes, unmounting them would not work. This can be troublesome and may cause data corruption.
This also caused occasional crashes of the file browser, as trying to mount/umount devices would get it stuck and unresponsive. I've submitted all the crash reports, for what it's worth. The lack of stability does remind me of glitches with Fedora beta releases, which is not surprising, considering Moblin's legacy.
Like Mac, Moblin deposits a hidden directory named .kozo onto the external device. I don't know what the purpose of this directory is, maybe it's a sort of a cookie, maybe a lock file. Either way, I don't think it should be there.
Restarting X does not work
If you hit the Ctrl + Alt + Backspace combo, you'll kill the desktop, but it won't come up. You'll be stuck with a login shell.
Well, we've discussed that already, in the hardware compatibility section above.
Not being able to play their video and music will automatically disqualify Moblin with 99% of users, no questions asked. This means that these two issues have to sorted out as top priority in future releases.
Well, as you can see, Moblin has its problems. But they pale out against the beauty and simplicity of this remarkable product. What more, Moblin surprised me by booting on two machines that it has not been designed t run on in the first place. Overall, hardware compatibility was OK, save for the Wireless and sound issue on T61. But the Compaq machine gave near-perfect performance. Now, let's discuss other platforms and finally, I'll show you how to install Moblin.
If you have an AMD machine or one with am older processor, you probably won't be able to boot Moblin. Moreover, if you don't have a netbook, you'll have to settle for a notebook, although there's no guarantee Moblin will run on it.
IBM Thinkpad T42
This machine could not boot Moblin. It complained about missing PAE.
In both VirtualBox 3 and VMware Server (1.x) with the necessary chip extensions and functions enabled, Moblin would not boot into the live session. However, the boot & install option worked well. However, again, after the installation, Moblin would freeze upon reaching its logo splash.As you can see, Moblin does not cooperate well with older or virtualized hardware. This is a bit of a miss, in my opinion, as providing users with the ability to test Moblin in virtual machines will allow infinitely more feedback. Netbooks and notebooks are still a rather precious commodity and few people can afford to use them for Beta testing, to say nothing of the risk. Going virtual would improve user experience and provide Moblin developers with lots of useful information that is currently unavailable.
Moblin is based on Fedora, which means if you've done one RedHat-based installation, be it Fedora or Foresight or any other distro, you'll be able to complete the installation without any problems. It's simple and straightforward and it takes 10 minutes. You start with choosing the second option in the boot menu. After a while, the installation begins, using the typical RedHat anaconda installer.
Your first steps are to choose the language, keyboard and the timezone:
After that comes the partitioning:
And the installation will begin. It takes only about 6-7 minutes to copy the data to disk.
Once this is done, you will have to create your user account:
And the installation is complete. Congratulations!
Moblin is a revolution. Plain and simple. It's the next big thing. It is going to rule the netbook market. Not only that, it's being developed by one of the largest and most powerful hardware/software companies in the world - Intel.
Skeptics among you may point out that Linux is considered a trademark of the geekland and thus, it is doomed to remain the privilege of a small niche of highly skilled users. One would think it may not work. On the other hand, why not. If Mac can do it, so can Linux. Mac is based on UNIX, the dreadful forefather of the infinitely friendlier Linux, and yet, Mac is today considered to be the pinnacle of desktop simplicity and beauty. And virtually none of its users know they're running something called BSD or such.
Moblin Beta works well. It has its problems, but none of these are crucial issues or showstoppers, save for the Wireless and multimedia problems. This is where the effort has to focused. The other glitches will be smoothed out.
Even so, Moblin surprises with unsurpassed beauty and style, ease of use, lightning speed, and a fresh spirit that leaves you excited and pleased. On the Compaq machine, Moblin was nigh perfect. If only I could have played the media files, this distro would receive a remarkable score of 11 out of 10. Too bad I have to give the laptop back.
Mark my words: 2015, the year of Moblin domination. I'm either a total genius or a total fool. Time will tell. BTW, we'll have another Moblin review soon. Novell have also cooked a version of their own. It's Moblin 2.0 user interface running on openSUSE. It should be interesting.