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MeeGo Brings The Magic

When the Linux Foundation announced the MeeGo project earlier this year, they said it would "bring the magic to Linux." Now that it is finally here, does it deliver on its promise? It sure does.

MeeGo is comprised of specially chosen applications, all of which are designed to integrate seamlessly with the interface. Most of these are GNOME based applications such as Epiphany (messenger), Evince (document viewer), Evolution (email and calendar), Nautilus (file manager), as well as the calculator, text editor, archive manager, image viewer, screenshot taking tool, and more. Evolution is broken up into individual components and spread out across the interface in relevant sections. It is definitely a little slower to open than other apps, as is media player Banshee (a .NET application) – but they are still fast by comparison.

All in all, this makes for some great default applications. MeeGo will include access to Intel’s AppUp store at some point, but for now it has access to various Yum repositories and two main front-ends, Garage and the GNOME PackageKit front-end. It also includes a graphical update utility which advises users when updates are available, just like a regular distro. The current package list is limited, but many regular Linux applications are available, including Abiword, GIMP, Gnumeric, Frozen Bubble, Inkscape, Rhythmbox, Simple Scan, Stellarium, Totem, and Tuxpaint. Regular tools like vim, fdupes and even PostgreSQL are also available, although both iotop and htop were not.

MeeGo's Software Updater
MeeGo’s Software Updater

The biggest gripe I had with previous versions of Moblin was the web browser. The project decided to build their own custom browser from existing technologies, but it was not a pleasure to use. Fortunately, with MeeGo this has been rectified with a solution which comes in two flavours, Chrome or Chromium. That’s right, MeeGo turned to Google for what is fast becoming the world’s favourite browser (and for good reason). Unfortunately some flavour of mini-Firefox was not chosen, but Chromium is open source and it works very, very well indeed. Flash also works out of the box thanks to the inclusion of Adobe’s 32bit RPM repository, all pre-configured and installed.

Chromium Web Browser
Chromium Web Browser

All of the installed applications are available from a tab at the top and are search-able with the standard “Alt + F2″ key combination. This is another place where integration is highly noticeable, each application has a specific, custom MeeGo icon, rather than the default which comes with the application. This makes for a very nice, clean looking system.

MeeGo Applications
MeeGo Applications

Of course, not everything lives in the cloud with MeeGo and a File Manager is a must have tool. MeeGo has a simple and unique interface for handling this task. Although Nautilus is the file manager which does the heavy lifting, the devices tab at the top loads a front end which contains shortcuts to directories like “Music” and “Pictures”, as well as a separate panel which detects any additional storage like a USB memory stick. As well as being logical and easy to use, this once again this shows great use of space and the thought which has gone into putting MeeGo together.

MeeGo File and Device Manager
MeeGo File and Device Manager

When it comes to playing Media, MeeGo has all that sorted too. The media tab at the top loads another custom front end to Banshee, the current media player of choice. From here one can see the play list, play, pause and load media, as well as kick up the full screen Banshee. Media keeps playing even after closing the application and going about your business elsewhere. MeeGo ships with a low resolution version of Big Buck Bunny (encoded in Ogg Theora Vorbis, of course), but also includes the good and bad GStreamer plugins for a wide range of format support.

MeeGo's Media Player, Banshee
MeeGo’s Media Player, Banshee

Of course, many of these components are configurable and items in the Toolbar can be shuffled, added and removed. To accomplish this, MeeGo includes various configuration tools, broken into categories Personal and Hardware. The list of options is not exhaustive, but what is there works very well and isn’t overwhelming. No doubt over time, this will grow.

Configuring MeeGo
Configuring MeeGo

Being designed for the Internet, a netbook is not much great if it doesn’t have access to a network. MeeGo once again makes this very easy, automatically configuring wired networks (with the exception of custom DNS), detecting wireless access points, managing 3G, and even bluetooth connections to certain paired devices.

MeeGo's Network Manager
MeeGo’s Network Manager

No-matter where you are in MeeGo, you’re constantly kept up to date by the built in notification manager. It pops up messages letting you know the status of your network connection, online chats, as well as hardware information like low battery and then really, really low battery where it kindly lets you know that it will soon force a shut-down and to “save your work”.

MeeGo would benefit from a built-in backup program which synchronizes your settings (or even just the home directory) to somewhere else. It would be great if, upon losing the netbook or getting a new one, the user could simply synchronise it and pick up where they left off! MeeGo does support a number of pre-defined synchronisation services for your calendaring such as Funambol and Google, but it also works with any other provider which uses SyncML. You can also sync directly with a device over bluetooth, if it’s supported via Evolution’s Sync plugin or is a compatible Nokia model.

Unlike other available operating systems, MeeGo does not lock you into any particular provider. You are free to use any service provider you like for your chatting, social networking, email, calendaring and whatever else you want to do. MeeGo does a great job of managing your life online, with the exception of a limited number of services – currently it just has Twitter and Last.fm. It’s a pity that the option for other open services such as Identi.ca and Status.net are not yet available. Over time this will no doubt grow to include these and others. Thanks to Empathy however, most chat based services are supported, from Jabber and Gmail through to MSN and Facebook.

MeeGo is simple, provides all the tools you’d come to expect on a little device like this without locking you into any one vendor. It gives you simple, powerful tools to do netbook computing the way you want to and best of all, great freedom.

Concerns

Is MeeGo perfect? No, certainly not. MeeGo is definitely a worthy successor to Moblin and it’s great to see this technology improving, but it’s not for everyone. Some Linux users will actually want to use their netbook as a primary work machine. For others who use it as an Internet appliance it might be perfect. I did install it without any problems on an Asus EeePC 1000HE, however there are a great number of existing netbooks out there and it might not work as seamlessly on other makes and models.

While MeeGo will run on any Atom based device, the website lists some specific machines which have been officially tested:

* Asus EeePC 901, 1000H, 1005HA, 1008HA, EeePC 1005PE, Eeetop ET1602
* Dell mini10v, Inspiron Mini 1012
* Acer Aspire One D250, AO532-21S, Revo GN40, Aspire 5740-6025
* Lenovo S10
* MSI U130, AE1900
* HP mini 210-1044
* Toshiba NB302

Coming into an existing market, MeeGo will always have a hard time working on every machine. Going into the future however, by working closely with manufacturers who will create devices specifically for MeeGo, the situation should be very different.

Of course the other big feature of mobile computing is a constant connection. Just how well MeeGo will work with the large number of 3G devices out there remains to be seen, as does the ability to tether MeeGo with a mobile over bluetooth (it did automatically set up a network connection to my non-3G mobile phone).

While overall the system was extremely stable I did notice a few crashes, primarily in Chromium and Banshee. However, on the whole MeeGo remained very responsive and was a pleasure to work with. Netbooks and their limiting form factor can be challenging but the way MeeGo is designed helps to overcome many of these issues and turns it into a highly usable format.

As with any free software project worth its salt, MeeGo has a user forum, mailing lists, bug tracker and extensive online help.

Looking to the future

When netbooks first came out, we weren’t quite sure what they were for. We were hoping they would be a cheap laptop, but they were far too underpowered and too small and fragile for “real” work. Instead, they have become a lightweight, intermediary device perfect for travel. If the iPad comes off however, we could see the end of the netbook in favour of tablets (finally!). If that’s the case, MeeGo will certainly be ready if the tablets on show at Computex are anything to go by (lots of magic there!). Tablets running MeeGo should be on sale later this year and will sport the MeeGo Core with you guessed it, the “Tablet User Experience” – that unique, intuitive Qt based interface. These tablets are truly something to behold and make the iPad look like a cheap toy.

What I really love about MeeGo is that it is a compilation of great pieces of technology, all pulled together really well. It’s solid, responsive and it’s slick. In a word, clean. It makes great use of the small screen by separating out activities onto their own, and it simply makes the netbook format a pleasure to work with.

Best of all, MeeGo is open and free. It does not lock you into any one specific provider for anything which is a welcome relief when looking at other products on the market. It’s built on standard upstream free software projects and is designed to be customised, and hacked on (yes, hacked). Yet it’s not just pie in the sky out of reach technology and you can’t help but think, this is the way it’s meant to be.

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