Friday, June 7, 2013

Xubuntu: How to Adapt it for a Netbook's Small Screen

Chrome full-screen, with my adapted main panel to the left

I love minis – usually called “netbooks” in the normal world. In fact, I've come to like them so much, I would probably buy one even if I could afford a full-sized laptop.
But there's only one problem; as Isaid on Tuesday, most operating systems are not made for them. Either you get too much squished into the screen and everything's tiny, or the operating system eats up too much memory for these light-performance machines, or – most often – both.
Yesterday, we saw some nice options in the other Ubuntu variations for netbook-specific desktops that I've actually tried. There are other Linux-based systems also that look nice from the screenshots I've seen.
My solution: use an operating system that's light-weight but very customizable, like Xubuntu.
Xubuntu – Lightweight, Visually Pleasant & Flexible
As I pointed out last post, Xubuntu is not visually laid out for netbooks. However, it offers these advantages:
  • it is lightweight – it works at lightning speed on my Acer One Aspire
  • it looks nice – it's no Windows 7 or Ubuntu, but it's clean and elegantly designed; several other light-weight Linux distributions I tested looked clumsy, or at best very bland – not Xubuntu
  • it's very customizable – for the most part, you can make it do what you want, if you know how; a few weeks ago I did not know how, but in the Ubuntu world, Google answers all
So, after being satisfied that Xubuntu was the best balance of rapid performance, features and visual appeal for my netbook and my needs, I set out to optimize it visually for a small screen.
I will start off by simply listing the changes I made with a brief description why. At the bottom I will offer brief instructions about how to make them, if anyone reading this is actually interested in installing Xubuntu on a mini.
The Changes I Made for a Netbook's Small Screen
The basic concept of these changes is to make everything as big as possible without cluttering the screen, and have everything appear full screen:

1. Synapse Searching and Launching – This is the best and fastest search and launch feature I have used. As you type, it auto-completes with suggestions from files, programs and folders, based on what you've used most and recently. Hitting “enter” launches the selection immediately. This is not specifically a netbook customization, but it eliminates 90% of menu use. On a very small screen, menus are a nuisance. It also eliminates the need for quick-launching buttons in the panels (for common programs like word) saving space.

This is what Synapse looks like:

2. Maximus – This simple program makes all windows open automatically maximized. On a netbook, fullscreen is the best way to go.

3. Panel Adaptation - I replaced the top menu panel and bottom quick-launch panel (which by default look pretty much like a simpler version of what you see in Mac) with 2 side panels:
  • Left Panel – Start Menu (“Applications”), Synapse, Show-Desktop Icon, Clock, and all indicators and notifications (battery, network, etc.) I increased the size to 60 pixels and made it icons only with no text.
  • Right Panel – Shows icons for all open windows; medium icons only (48).
  • Auto Hide & Appear – When the panels are not being used, they are hidden. The appear when you move the mouse to the edge of the screen. This means maximized windows are full screen, optimizing the screen space.
    both panels with the panel modification menu open: notice the green "S" Synapse icon, top left, 2nd from the top
With Synapse, I found all the quick-launch icons have simply not been necessary. On the whole, the narrow main panel that appears on the bottom for windows and on the top for Xubuntu/Ubuntu is not very useful for netbooks, since it's hard to see and eats up much needed vertical space. As an auto-hide side menu with large icons it takes less space and is easier to see everything quickly.

4. Windows & Themes – The following changes in the Settings Manager work wonders:
  • greybird compact ” theme, which has a very narrow, grey header on all windows (with Maximus, mentioned above, there's an option to make all the headers disappear entirely!)
  • default font size - 12
  • reduce workspaces to one 1 – the default is 2, but I found I can work with everything in the same workspace; with two I found I kept having to move open windows between them, although it can help to keep the “open window” panel less cluttered.
  • desktop icons – only removable devices, like USB sticks or external hard drives; For some reason, Synapse doesn't search for these or their content, so it's nice to have a quick-launch somewhere
  • increase menu icon and text size – As I said, Synapse eliminates the need for most menu use, but when I do use the main menu, I don't like to squint; with a size of 28, they are nicely visible, but the entire main menu still fits on the screen; it almost fills it. (This change isn't in the Setting Manager. It requires changing the menu settings file, which is easy, you just have to know how.)

My full screen in the file browser; notice the larger fonts and icons, and the open-window menu on the right
5. Program Zoom – Besides increasing the size of everything in the Xubuntu desktop, I found it more comfortable if I increased the zoom within each program to about 125-140%. In word documents, this still easily fits the entire text onto the screen. On the internet (Firefox or Chrome) I found most pages have all of their main information on 2/3 of the page (either left or right side); the rest is ads or menus. For a few, you have to scroll back and forth, but I haven't found this is common. (See the screenshot at the very top of this post.)

Come to think of it, this post is already too long, so I'm not going to describe how to make these changes step by step. If you need to know how to do any of this, please let me know.

Tomorrow I will share a list of programs I added, that have nothing to do with netbooks, but make life easier for me.


  1. netbooks as these technological devices are not only lighter than laptops, but also cost less than larger laptops and many desktop computer systems.If you really want to take design of Android Netbook with specific features then have look on that.

  2. Thanks Jacob, found this article really helpful.

  3. Old blog post, BUT, I needed this when installing xubuntu on my Acer netbook. Gave me some good ideas, thanks!

    1. Glad to hear that it helped! I've made some minor tweaks since, but I'm still very happy using Xubuntu with basically this same set up.