Ubuntu Light Review – The future of Ubuntu in mobile devices?

Canonical's new frontier is the potentially lucrative dual boot market. With Ubuntu Light Canonical is offering swift boot times, access to media in Windows partitions and the fastest route to the internet possible on small form factor computers. Russell Barnes investigates to see if it's ready for prime time...

This article is due to appear in issue 98 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Ubuntu Light is a scaled-down, stripped-back version of Ubuntu that makes use of the new Unity-based interface that shipped with the last version of Netbook Remix and is due to go live on desktops with Ubuntu 11.04. Designed primarily as a dual-boot distribution for netbooks – a buddy distro for a standard Windows installation, if you will – Ubuntu Light is also targeted at smaller embedded and mobile devices; things aren’t happening in that area just yet. Since Ubuntu Light is a specialist distro currently only available for manufacturers to pre-install alongside Windows 7, it’s currently not available for download. It can be found, however, installed as standard on Dell’s excellent Inspiron M101z sub-notebook (reviewed here).

Ubuntu Light’s job is simple: to get its users onto the internet as quickly as technically possible. Netbook owners with SSD drives should be able to reach Ubuntu Light’s Chromium web browser in eight seconds from the boot menu. On the Dell Inspiron M101z with its standard SATA II 320GB hard disc, we were surfing within 16 seconds. And we mean surfing – not waiting for the Wi-Fi to kick in. An incredibly impressive achievement, not least considering the fidelity of the user experience it offers.

As previously mentioned, Ubuntu Light leverages Unity, the new interface design that’s still sending shockwaves through the industry due to Canonical’s sudden departure from the GNOME experience that the firm has offered since its humble beginnings.

If Unity makes sense anywhere, though, it’s in the cramped confines of a mobile device such as a netbook or large tablet. As with Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.10 (reviewed here), the bottom taskbar has been removed, making way, instead, for a vertical-standing icon-based dock that sits snugly to the left of the screen. This design helps to free up as much vertical screen space as possible by leveraging the extra width widescreen monitors offer.

The bar contains just five pinned icons upon first use – quick-launchers for web browsing, instant messaging, media playback, Skype for VoIP services and the Ubuntu Control Center. At the very bottom of this vertical bar is a fixed icon that users can use to launch Windows. There’s no doubt it’s streamlined and basic, but it’s also elegantly executed, not least because browser favourites can be pinned to the bar, simply by clicking the ‘Ubuntu Light Favourites’ button in the Chromium web browser.

The top panel remains essentially recognisable to Ubuntu users, save for the new Google search bar and the Ubuntu logo which exposes all open windows for quick and convenient changes of focus. There’s no Ubuntu Software Center, no Synaptic software installations possible here – what you see is is exactly what you get.

While web browsing, IM, Skype and even the Ubuntu Control Centre work exactly as you would expect, the multimedia player deserves some explanation. Based on Moblin Media Player 2, it incorporates music, pictures and video file browsing and playback. Local media options are displayed in the left pane, a search bar adorns the top, and 95 per cent of the rest of the screen is reserved for thumbnail views of the media itself.

Clicking a thumbnail will prompt its contents to shuffle smoothly out, filling the space, allowing you to rummage through albums, individual tracks or catalogues of photographs with relative ease. Clicking towards the bottom of the thumbnail (where a small bar with the ‘play icon’ appears) will start the media immediately. Users can set up a play queue, watch a full-screen image slideshow, or start a movie quickly and efficiently. It’s a decent offering, if somewhat limited in scope.  And this brief statement quite effectively sums up Ubuntu Light in its entirety.

As a solution to quickly access the web and your media (the same media in the Windows installation) it works brilliantly. Boot times are as quick as we have ever seen and Canonical’s trademark penchant for quality design oozes through every pixel. We were – somewhat inevitably – left wanting more, however.

It lacks things like simple webcam and gesture support, the battery life is a limiting factor due to a lack of voltage throttling support in the video driver and, to cap it off, Ubuntu Light doesn’t yet offer Ubuntu One support, which continues to puzzle us. While future releases based on 11.04 promise to address all these things and more besides, we can’t help think that Canonical has sold Ubuntu Light short.

Verdict: 3/5
There’s a lot to love about Ubuntu Light. The lightning boot times, the simple and attractive interface and the sheer convenience of the package are truly commendable. But there’s a lot missing and the battery performance (three and a half hours compared to over five hours in the same system running Windows 7) definitely left a sour taste in our mouths. We hope that, in time, as the bugs and driver issues are ironed out, we’ll see a matured, capable Ubuntu Light available – and hopefully not just for OEMs.

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