Using GNOME on a Small Screen

Last week, we reviewed the Aspire One, Acer’s entry into the netbook market. The small but powerful device comes preloaded with either Linux or Windows XP, and we reviewed the Linux version. Even though most people will never need to go beyond the default Linpus Linux offering on the One, more advanced users will quickly hit the wall Acer set up: it has more or less completely locked down the Xfce 4.2.2 installation on the One. This bothered me – this is a powerful machine, so I want a powerful operating system. I went for Ubuntu 8.04.1 – read on for a few thoughts on how well GNOME’s user interface fares on a small-screen device such as the One.

My preferred course of action was to ‘unlock’ the default Linpus installation. While this unlocking process is documented quite well on the AcerAspireOne.com community website, it’s not a single process per se; you need to unlock several things, and Acer hasn’t exactly made it easy. Somewhere in the process I made a mistake, and before I knew it, I was receiving HAL errors that proved unfixable. Fed up, I decided to go with Ubuntu. The installation and optimisation process is well documented and easy enough to accomplish. This gave me the default Ubuntu desktop on my One, and I figured I would share some screenshots with you so you get an idea of how GNOME handles smaller screens.

I obviously made a few changes to the default desktop (apart from theme and icon pack changes) to make GNOME better suited for small screens. Most notably, I set all fonts sizes to 9pt, and chose my favourite typeface (Trebuchet MS). This greatly reduced the size of various labelled widgets and menus, saving precious screen real estate. The sans-serif Trebuchet MS happens to be very readable at smaller point sizes. To reclaim even more screen space, I disabled the text underneath toolbar buttons.

I also reworked the two-panel layout, something I always do anyway on GNOME. However, I did opt for the single-icon menu instead of the Applications/Places/System trio, for obvious reasons. The small menu takes some getting used to, but it’s not that big of a deal.

I didn’t exactly have high hopes for GNOME on smaller screens, but with the above changes, it is very much usable. I was afraid Evolution would be completely unusable, but using the vertical layout, it is actually quite pleasant to use:

As Linpus already showed me, OpenOffice.org works really well too:

Most GNOME settings dialogs have no problems whatsoever…

…but some aren’t exactly working well and need some love.

And, well, let’s just say not all applications like being on a small screen.

Overall, using GNOME on such a small screen is not an unpleasant experience, but it does need some work here and there when it comes to settings dialogs. It is up to the distributions to make proper panel layouts and font choices for their netbook variants.

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