Tale of a Netbook


For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been running a little experiment – I’ve been trying to figure out whether or not the netbook concept fits my current lifestyle.

And I’m pleased to say that yes, it does – quite so. But the concept, alas, is yet to be realized in a way that I feel truly comfortable with, and this piece will tell you why – after quite a long ramble, for which I apologize in advance.

The One

Two weeks or so ago, during one of our usual lightning shopping trips to pick up stuff with the kid in tow, I picked up an Acer Aspire One – the relatively cheap 512MB/8GB SSD Linux model.

My reasoning at the time, after all my previous considerations on the matter, was more or less as follows:

I needed something small and light that would let me write, surf the web in a full screen (including watching the occasional Flash video, for despite what Apple thinks, there is lots more interesting content outside YouTube), as well as access the rest of my stuff from afar (via VNC, Citrix and whatnot).

And I wanted it in a package small enough, light enough, and cheap enough to be able to toss it around with abandon, for unlike what non-initiated geeks may think, parents do have to drop everything every now and then, and I mean that quite literally.

Now, the most important thing on a netbook for me is the keyboard, period. That’s what I really, really wanted to use with minimal hassle, and as such was willing to put up with compromises on things like the touchpad and other physical aspects.

The second most important thing is the screen, and 1024×600 is a sensible resolution for packing into an 8.9” screen – good enough for proper font rendering at regular point sizes, and enough to view most web pages without side-scrolling.

Next up, I wanted solid-state storage, wireless connectivity and the least possible amount of weight. Since I have HSPA equipment of my own, getting something with it embedded wasn’t high on the cards.

The One fulfilled all my requirements to the letter – it has an absolutely excellent keyboard, an amazingly bright screen, and felt so light as to be entirely too fragile, which it isn’t – it’s just that we’ve been conditioned to think of portable devices as heavy, regardless of the way they keep shrinking.

Plus it has a very, very good Fedora-based Linux environment, light-years beyond the Asus Xandros stuff.

For me, at the time I bought it, the OS was not completely irrelevant, but nearly so, because most of what I need for writing and surfing the web runs fine anywhere.

And yes, it delivered on the promise: out of the box, I was able to do pretty much everything I wanted with it, and much more.

The Others

Why not an Asus Eee PC, you might ask? Well, first of all, because of the keyboard.

Asus has, in my opinion, completely bungled the Portuguese keyboard layout on the 7” and 8.9” machines by turning the right-hand cluster of accent and symbol keys into an ungodly mess and making it more than just an adjustment issue for me.

Why companies do so poor a job at hardware localization is, alas, beyond me – even Apple managed to swap some of the accent and symbol keys (and to this day they do not even print the square and curly brackets on the Portuguese keyboard), but to their credit they had to improvise a Portuguese layout many years ago and have stuck with it ever since.

Whereas Asus managed to do a much worse job from scratch in the 21st century, and seems to be making little adjustments with every model just to keep us on our toes (perhaps they assume we touch-type with them).

I envisioned myself using the thing late at night, tired, nearly asleep and having to fish around for stuff, and quickly decided it wasn’t for me. It is perfectly OK for casual or novice users (as long as they don’t do enough typing to mind the somewhat small keys), but not something I’d use myself.

Then there was the shipped OS. I would rather format everything from scratch and install an English OS than put up with half-baked Portuguese translations, and the prospect of putting up with, say, Windows XP Home Edition in Portuguese or Asus’ translations was daunting. Acer ships a proper, multi-language OS, even though I had to download an automatic update to get the Portuguese keyboard support straight.

And, if I am to endure using Linux on anything, I’d rather use something based on Fedora (which I feel very comfortable with) rather than Xandros. Even considering that a netbook in my hands would surely be running some flavor of Windows further down the road, whatever minor tweaks I needed were just easier for me to do on Fedora than on anything else.

At least, I thought I would only do minor tweaks. As if I could restrain myself…

Being the One

Considering all the netbooks I’ve handled (and I’ve played around with almost half a dozen different models so far), I would rate the Acer Aspire One as one of the best in nearly all categories except battery life.

(The fact that I actually went out and bought one should give you enough of a hint about how good it is, but the rest of this section tries to drive home that point…)

The screen, for instance, is one of the best 8.9” panels I’ve seen. In fact, I would rate it as very good, bordering on the awesome. Although only 16-bit deep, the thing is extremely bright, very readable and has a wide viewing angle from the sides, making it a pleasure to have around.

The overall build quality is pretty good, but the keyboard is the star of the show – it’s damn near perfect considering the size – there is zero compromise in terms of functionality, and although it has little travel, the layout has no surprises whatsoever and I can type on it at the same breakneck speed as on any other machine without needing to fumble for keys.

There were no adjustment issues, no muscle memory snafus – all is where it should be, and the Fn key mappings to re-use the cursor keys as brightness and volume control struck me as particularly sensible.

I had only two gripes with the machine as shipped – first off, the little carrying bag that many people have mentioned in their packaging seems to be absent from Portuguese machines.

Sad, I think. It would at least have minimized the tendency the casing has to pick up fingerprints, although I’ll take fingerprints on the blue casing any day compared to a dirty white keyboard (the blue model that I got has a black keyboard, which I prefer).

The second gripe was the fan. It was constantly on and became downright unnerving at times, something that is apparently due to both Acer’s approach at component sourcing (i.e., they picked a cheap fan) and the built-in Linux’s inability to manage it properly.

Unlike my MacBook’s, its hum was fairly noticeable at night, and depending on what you’re doing, it can be on pretty much constantly – definitely something to keep in mind if you treasure absolute quiet.

As to the MiniNote-like touchpad, which many people wrote about as being hard to use due to the side placement of the buttons, it is a complete non-issue – once you figure out you can tap to click and drag to scroll, you only really need the right-hand button for invoking context menus, and if you’re right-handed it will sit handily under your thumb.

I am also told that the touchpad is multi-touch, although only if you run XP and bother to tweak the driver settings.

Half-Gig, Slow Solid, Speedy Book

Veritable rivers of pixels have already been written by people who have found it necessary to upgrade the relatively meager 512MB of RAM the One comes with for some reason. I know that some, in their delusional impetus to turn it into the ultimate mini-laptop, upgraded it just to get Vista to display Aero Glass, since the video RAM is shared and it wouldn’t work otherwise.

I do not, however, subscribe to the notion that performing the basic things I need (browsing, some e-mail and remote access) should require more RAM. If it ever did, well – I did make sure before I bought it that it could be upgraded, even if not trivially so (there are now a bazillion videos out there detailing the process of stuffing everything but a dead hamster into the machine, so the process is pretty well documented).

And, up until I came to my senses, the thing behaved beautifully. The overall user experience of the Acer Aspire One was very good – very quick boot, applications popped up on cue (not amazingly quickly, but plenty speedy enough), and, to my amazement, sleep and resume worked out of the box without any hassles (including reconnection to Wi-Fi, always a troublesome thing in Linux).

Allow me to reinforce that: suspend and resume was wonderful. Faster than a full-blown Windows laptop. Nearly as fast as a Mac, and reliable, to the extent where I would snap the lid shut around mid-morning and come back to the machine before dinner to resume exactly where I left off with zero hassles (and although the machine did not hibernate, it did not deplete the battery significantly).

Surfing the web was an overall zippy proposition out of the box, and I had no trouble setting up the Vodafone” Linux”:Linux dashboard and an HSPA connection to make it so anywhere I went.

As to the relatively small and slow SSD (another common complaint), it is sluggish, sure, but hardly noticeable under Linux. Not much noticeable than, say, the little pauses I would have running the traditional Windows and Office combination on a regular machine, but the people who make the mistake of getting one of these to run conventional desktop-bound apps will certainly suffer with it.

Now, I most emphatically do not want a hard disk on a netbook. I do not even want it to run more applications than a browser, an e-mail client (if at all necessary) and Citrix, or some other way to reach remote machines where stuff actually takes place.

(Yes, I am one of those people who would have bought a Foleo, or something similar but with less idiotic ties to a nearly dead brand of smartphones, and this was as good as it got.)

For note-taking and surfing the Web, the SSD was plenty fast (at least under Linux). I later proceeded to tax it beyond all reasonable expectations by compiling stuff and installing extra packages, and couldn’t really complain – after all, I was way outside the normal usage envelope.

I think it boils down to a matter of expectations. If I was looking for a netbook for purely professional use, I’d be a bit more worried about performance, especially considering that I would certainly be running Windows (or something like it). People who are looking for that will probably want to look at the model 150, which will bring 1GB RAM, a standard hard disk, and a bigger battery.

A minor note on battery life: Yes, it fell a bit short on occasion. But it recharged very quickly, and with instant suspend/resume, I would get nearly a day’s worth of usage spread across five or six half an hour sessions (or about an evening’s worth if I fired it up after dinner), so it was OK for me.

The Tweaking Begins

So, what would someone like me do with a One? Why, turn it into my own notion of productive working environment, of course. And there the trouble began.

Many people have already taken notice of the mini-Wiki I’ve attached to my Aspire One page where I listed all the tweaks I performed on mine, and I would like to make it clear that I loved doing all of it.

And that I did it out of my own free will, too, because despite the usable stock environment, I wanted that little extra bit more.

It started innocently enough with getting Firefox 3 installed to be able to use its F11 complete full-screen mode, and Skype to show the kid to our friends in Switzerland (incidentally, the built-in mic is good enough, but not stellar).

Then I started doing things like disabling the Super/Home/Windows key to keep myself sane (since by default it minimizes everything and puts you right back at the Acer desktop), and setting up VirtualBox on it with a minimal Windows environment – just IE6 and the Citrix client, since the Linux one is too crufty (I later got it to work, but that is more of a testament to my patience than to Citrix’s ability to keep up with Linux environments).

And yes, that was a bit overkill, but, to my amazement, it worked perfectly in a machine with only 512MB of RAM. It even let me run Windows applications in seamless mode alongside Linux ones.

My name is Rui, and I haven’t compiled a Linux kernel in six months

I soon started feeling enough at home with the Fedora environment (after having restored the machine from the supplied DVD a couple of times due to silly mistakes), to start doing stuff like setting up encfs to protect my data in case the thing was stolen and sshfs to mount this site remotely.

I even (shudder) installed portions of KDE, since Acer tweaked some Gnome and XFCE packages that I preferred not to mess with, and spent a while trying out some extra apps, which is where the spiral of tinkering reached time-wasting proportions.

To my credit, I tried to focus on writing tools and even established that Evernote runs passably under WINE – most of the toolbar graphics are a mess, but they’re recognizable and just all of the editing and syncing functionality works, although I eventually found that I couldn’t type accented characters under WINE (I spend so much time thinking and writing in English that it took me three days to notice), so that lost all its usefulness pretty quickly.

But the turning point came when I found myself fooling around with a set of tweaks that included a script to monitor CPU temperature and tweak fan activity. By then, I decided I had had enough.

Some people have since suggested I ought to have tried Ubuntu – to which I replied (politely) that it would require a lot more tinkering and would most likely never work properly.

There Is No Spoon

Even considering that I’ve taken a Linux appliance and dragged it kicking and screaming way into generic computer territory, I think that running Linux on a netbook is, ultimately, a waste of time – at least for me, and given the current state of the art.

I’m not saying this because of any built-in limitations – the hardware is perfectly capable and there isn’t much software that I can’t get working on the shipping Linpus Linux – but because running Linux on a netbook inevitably leads to tinkering with stuff under the hood and I, for one, despite being perfectly able and willing to mess around with things, want no truck with that notion – it is precisely why I stopped using generic PCs at home nearly six years ago.

It’s fun and all, but I’d rather have an OS X-like environment where someone has gone to the trouble of polishing all the rough edges for me – it’s one of those instances where “freedom of choice” is the dumb thing to aim for.

What I should have done, in retrospect, was install Windows on the thing, lock it down with a couple of system policies (allowing only network configuration and minimal desktop management) and set up TrueCrypt and the Firefox 3 Portable Apps edition on it. Maybe Safari as well.

After all, I have been running Firefox, Pidgin and even OpenOffice from a TrueCrypt image on a USB flash drive for a couple of years, and it does all I tried to do with Linux on the One with much less setup time.

(Incidentally, I thought of setting up MojoPac at one point on an SD card, but never got around to it. Thankfully, too, because the thing has an atrociously ugly UI.)

But in the end, that would also have been too much tinkering, since the One doesn’t ship with Windows and I’d have to spend a while tweaking that to run off the SSD optimally.

Regular Daring Fireball readers will probably want to stop reading here, because I’m going to write that Rob Enderle is probably right when he writes that (and I quote):

[…] this class of product needs an OS that is specifically designed for it, like Apple did for the iPhone […]

It’s the Little Things

Linpus Linux nearly qualifies. But personally, I would prefer using an OS where changing the icon theme doesn’t break the battery status indicator (seriously, it did).

Even though Acer have done a stellar job of piecing together a coherent environment, there’s too much cruft lurking just underneath the veneer, and all sorts of things started getting on my nerves.

For instance, to take an example that is readily apparent if you value your typography, I missed Safari a great deal. Firefox was speedy and friendly enough (plus, of course, I had no trouble whatsoever buffing it up with extensions like AdBlock and Firebug) and text and graphics were crisp and legible on the One’s excellent screen, but Linux font rendering still leaves a lot to be desired, even after copying over a bunch of OpenType fonts.

I spend hours looking at stuff through Firefox on Windows, and have grown used to it (I even find the way some of our intranet pages are broken on it rather amusing), but somehow, despite the speedy response times, it wasn’t the same.

There’s something intrinsically faster and neater about WebKit that makes it more appealing to me, perhaps.

One Too Many

In the end, it boiled down to how much time I really need to be at a computer these days, and whether or not I wanted the hassle of maintaining another one.

Besides my Macs I have an iPhone 3G now – which, despite not being that good at high-volume text input, is plenty good enough for capturing notes and surfing most web sites. It is by no means perfect as a phone (I’ll be posting more on that later), but it is a pretty decent mini-computer.

And, when I’m at home, I carry an iPod Touch everywhere – it is my web pad, my main e-mail client, my iTunes remote, and (thanks to a VNC connection to the house server) it is even a basic photo management tool.

I can take short notes on it and e-mail them to myself or toss them into Evernote (which is still a half-assed solution, since it does not do any local storage) and have them sync to my MacBook, or bookmark stuff for later reading via MobileMe (yeah, I’m feeling lucky) or an Instapaper bookmarklet.

The iPhone does the same, sure, but the iPod is slimmer, tougher (the metal back does make a difference) and generally less of a hassle – I don’t really like the iPhone as a phone.

And I have to do very little tweaking to get all of it working, and I get to spend more time using it to do things that I enjoy. Enjoying tweaking is always an option regardless of what you’re using, of course, but this way there’s no risk of wasting too much time.

Which is why we went back to the shop today and returned the Acer Aspire One. In the end, I was spending too much time tinkering around inside it instead of using it.

The Old One

I still wanted something I could use to touch type and kick around without fear of breaking anything important, so I dusted out my trusty old iBook G3, let it charge and tried to see what a nearly six-year-old machine can do – it’s running Tiger, and was recently updated to the latest Safari (3.1.2).

And, as it happens, it can do plenty. With only 640MB of RAM, a measly 30GB rattle of a hard disk and a rather spent battery that has trouble getting past three hours, my iBook is at least as good a netbook as the current crop of Intel Atom machines (provided you disregard the size and weight), makes absolutely no fan noise whatsoever and was trivial to tweak to have a zero distraction environment (I set up a ‘kiosk’ user with a hidden dock and Safari launching on login).

It does lack the oomph to watch Flash video – which means I’ll have to figure out something else for that – and is roughly twice the size and three times the weight of the One, but my current lifestyle doesn’t really require carrying a laptop everywhere (except at work, which isn’t why I got a netbook in the first place).

But the UI is far superior, I can have something like twenty Safari tabs open in various windows (and switch between them with Exposé), and it suspends and resumes instantly.

In fact, it works so well that I revised this piece (and typed more than half of it) on it using Google Docs. I could have used a local word processor of some kind, but this way I had nothing else running except the browser.

Of course, having a six-year-old (and utterly obsolete machine) perform this well today when compared to the new industry darlings speaks volumes about the quality of Apple engineering of yore, but hey, that’s why I switched back then.

The Matrix is Real, Even For Other People

On the whole, this was more evidence that less is more. Yes, netbooks are cool, and useful, and I can surely find a use for one. But they’re not good enough yet, or at least not a good enough fit for my needs, and I don’t really need more stuff.

More computers, regardless how neat, mean more hassle. So despite the Acer Aspire One being the best of the bunch at its price point for me, it had to go back.

When Apple brings out a netbook – if they ever, considering that they are quite unlikely to aim for the Eur. 300 range – I’ll have another go. Or maybe (just maybe) the Mini-Note gets a decent CPU and a sane Portuguese keyboard, and I suddenly need to go on sabbatical and find myself lacking a lightweight computer.

Yeah, right.

In the meantime, I swapped the One for a couple of Asus Eee 901s for my family – gifts for folk who never had laptops (or even a computer of their own).

And why did I choose those, given that I wouldn’t take one for myself?

Easy. Because Acer doesn’t ship a restore DVD for their Windows-based Ones (currently a hot topic in the forums, since nobody trusts restore partitions), and the only maintenance I intend to do on those laptops is a fresh reinstall now and then.

Asus includes one in the box, and that was enough for me to overlook the keyboard – which my relatives will get used to, since they seldom touch-type – and localized Windows, which they actually prefer.

It does, however, bear mentioning at this point that an Asus Eee 901 with twice as much RAM and a faster SSD running Windows is much slower than the One running Linux.

As to the chances of sticking with Acer, people are likely to point out that I could have waited a few more weeks for the Acer 150 to reach Portugal, but they haven’t shown much tendency to stick to schedules and seem mostly concerned with the Spanish market. The lack of a restore DVD just cinched the deal.

So yeah, Acer lost out on two sales because of their inability to ship a 0.20 Euro piece of plastic with the devices – I guess they are planning to re-invest that on sourcing new fans…

In the meantime, and since everyone seems to be wondering if Chrome will make a difference on the usability of netbooks (gotta be the newest gadget blog meme), I’d just like to say that it won’t make one whit of difference – not until we’ve reached the point where the OS is completely gone, and I’d say we’re a few years from that yet.


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