Update: (20/05/11) MeeGo just release the 1.2 core and seems to have changed the numbering of the Netbook edition. Updates took me to 1.4, apparently that is no longer the case as those updates are included with the new 1.2 release. Lets call this a 1.1 review with bugfixes.
MeeGo 1.4 for Netbooks has been out for almost a month now and I wanted to give it a spin. For anyone who is unsure about what MeeGo is, it is a GNU/Linux based OS that is blending of Intel’s Moblin OS and Nokia’s Maemo. Of course, Nokia’s investment in MeeGo is going to be less as they’ve decided to focus on Windows Phone 7 for their devices. Intel seems to be doing enough to lead MeeGo for optimisation on their hardware, at least for Netbooks. I have a pimp’d out Acer Aspire One 532H netbook for this test.
MeeGo has a short list of hardware they’ve tested that should work well out of the box. Unfortunately, you’re going to need some hacking skills to really enjoy this OS. The install is really the only thing simple and easy. Install took about 8 minutes and is straight forward.After installing, I needed to update. The version they supply end-users is 1.1, and the current is 1.4. The first update was a change to the Updater Program itself. After it was done however, it asks to log out. Which was fine. When I reboot however, there would be a disk problem. I would have to run fsck and fix the error. I did tried installing and updating as a normal user would, three times. First, installing, doing all updates and then rebooting but hit this error each time. For someone who is unfamiliar with fsck, this would be a deal breaker. MeeGo is not marketed as a Beta product, and something as simple as this would stop novice users in their tracks.
After the disk fix, the system did load without much trouble. If you’re interested in the look, the MeeGo site has the best example of screen-shots.
MeeGo is built around social networking. In the netbook edition, you’re presented with a menu bar that navigates to different tabs. The desktop has a main page built around the sites you have linked to your MeeGo device. In this case, I was able to set up facebook, twitter and Last.FM accounts. This is all they offer at this point. If you’re like me and don’t need much more than that, you’re set.
The interface is broken down into buttons and tabs. After booting up, we start in MyZone. You get an instant feed of the latest Facebook and Twitter updates and recently surfed web pages. MeeGo comes with two flavors, one with Firefox and one with Chrome. Since Google is central to my life, I had the Chrome version and had no problem getting integration with contacts, GMail, and Chrome Apps. There were some hiccups getting Chat services up and running (MSN), and Twitter feeds seem to stop working occasionally. Over all, it is nice to have Facebook and Twitter feeds posted on this page. Basically it gives you a quick summery of what’s going on, and is probably my favorite part of MeeGo netbook. Google doesn’t allow 3rd party Notes intergration but the Appointments and Task box is a nice feature as well: MyZone
It is obvious that the MeeGo team knows they are dealing with only a little bit of screen real-estate, and I am really happy with the layout of the system. The tabs or ‘panels’ take you into a series of screens: MyZone, Zones, Applications, Status, People, Internet, Media, Devices, Bluetooth, and Networking. All of them are straight forward. Zones, is similar to Exposé on OSX, in that you are shown all instances of Chrome or Applications that are running. The Applications panel is just a way to view all installed Applications. Status is used for Twitter and Facebook updates; Internet to launch the browser; Devices show hard drives and other devices attached through USB, as does Bluetooth, and Networking sets up your wired or wireless connection. There is really not much else to say about these panel. They offer a basic function and they do it well enough. The menu bar hides when surfing or emailing, and I appreciate that as it means I get the maximum view of the internet. When compared to Ubuntu’s netbook edition, Unity gets in the way with system bars that take up so much space that you’re left with little room for the browser. MeeGo has done a good job at keeping useful things hidden until asked for.
I left out Media because it is where I had the most trouble. I suppose it is because so many media formats require plug-ins that are not GPL. Banshee will run OGG out of the box, and it does well enough with a few video formats. For whatever reason, it crashes though. A lot. Even before I attempted to install MP3 support I had problems with it locking up. I am not sure why. When something goes wrong, the menu is still accessible, but if you click the Media button, the screen will default to your background picture. It was frustrating and I had to kill Banshee manually to get around it every time. On top of that there are no databases of Pod-casts, Radio stations or media and I was not able to find a good way to add feeds in bulk. In other words, my media experience outside the browser is crap. It is really a deal breaker for me. I suppose a good OS for my netbook should do three things well: manage my hardware, let me surf the Internet, and let me play music.
As for a breakdown to of the system itself: Applications are basic. A few games, the Browser, and settings. There is text editing, but MeeGo is meant to be used online. Google Docs more than makes up for the lack of a native Office suite. Hardware support is also basic. It has been tested on a few laptops, but if you have older hardware or a non-Intel chipset, it is going to require some additional hacking. Getting support was somewhat of a headache, users seem to be using a few different package management systems in MeeGo, and a lot of the forums posts were outdated.
After having tested both KDE Plasma and Ubuntu’s Unity for netbook, MeeGo has a lot of good interface features too. The basic theme isn’t the prettiest, but it is practical. The layout works well with a 10” screen. MeeGo’s hardware support requires some hacking, and the community isn’t nearly as large as the Ubuntu crowd. The experience isn’t very safe for a novice. Chrome has issues on all platforms with Flash, and Banshee’s crashing really put a bitter taste in my mouth, even after I got MP3 support working.
In the end, I cannot really recommend using MeeGo in its current state. Certainly, manufactures who tune the OS to their hardware will offer a better experience. Those of you looking for an alternative to Windows 7 Starter are best left to Ubuntu. MeeGo needs a few years or at least a few good devices to get a community behind it.