Netbooks, revisited but still found lacking

Netbooks keep coming back to haunt me in more ways than one, and, what’s worse, I keep letting them. In case you’ve been missing out on last year’s writing, the 5 ones of note among the ones I’ve owned or tested for an extended period of time are:

In case you’re trying to spot a pattern, there isn’t one, other than the tremendous appeal of having a very small, quiet machine for writing and my increasingly casual Internet access at home1.

Pure consumption of content (i.e., news and social trivia) and media (video or music) is already done in a quite effective and intensive fashion via either my iPhone or my iPod, so the key aspect here is having a standard input method2 and a large screen.

The problem is that these things are pretty much useless right off the bat, piling compromise upon compromise. Nearly everything is bad – the screen, the keyboard, the default OS and (in most cases) the RAM or storage aren’t nearly enough to hold the OS, let alone a minimal set of apps.

So although they’re sold as web-capable machines, you’ll be very hard pressed to do much more than run a browser on them with the base configuration, and even then you’re sure to come up against slow loading times (entirely the local CPU’s fault), stuttering video, wobbly Flash animations, etc.

Which (granted) is mostly what people experience these days on PCs – a netbook is likely faster than a lot of the cheap 2-year-old PCs that people may have as sessile technological adornments on their home desks, and I’ve yet to hear people complaining about hardware speeds these days3.

Let’s get physical

But what repeatedly kills the notion for me is ergonomics. Although I have no real difficulty with 9” netbooks, I (like most people) find the the 10” form factor to be more agreeable in terms of screen readability and keyboard size.

Since I’m most concerned about text input, I’ve found that the adjustment from a full-size keyboard to most 10” ones is easier than to the (often ridiculously cramped and scrambled) 9” devices I’ve come across, and my only regret is that cost has prevented most manufacturers from doing more than the (rather ridiculously small, if tolerable) 1024×600 resolution, which chops off the lower bits of various kinds of UIs designed for the more traditional 1024×768 by rather lame and lazy web artisans.

Something like 1366×768 (as available in some panels) would be a lot better, and I hope to see it become standard for 10” devices, even though I’m not holding my breath given the price points these things are being driven down to (on most civilized countries except Portugal, where retail prices, at least, seem to be propped up for as long as possible).

Prices have also driven down battery life to an extent where I have to wonder if manufacturers expect you to fully charge the netbook prior to leaving home for a half-hour commute. Tales of review units being shipped to reporters with higher-capacity batteries than what is available to the end user are rampant, and I myself have had to resort to begging, borrowing or buying better batteries to have a minimally usable device.

Tales of a Mini

There are, however near-perfect designs like the Mini 9 – it doesn’t have a fan, has a seemingly cramped but usable keyboard (for writing, not for coding), and was, for a while, the closest thing I could get to a MacBook Air.

Its two best features for me is that it is dead silent – something that you can only appreciate properly when you have small kids and have to keep noise (any noise, even background noise) down to a minimum, and that the battery lasts me for several evenings (i.e., 2-3 days of hourly sessions after dinner, which is when I usually get up to date on news).

The base configuration, of course, is laughable – a 8GB SSD and a single GB of RAM, which Windows tolerated but stuttered against when running anything but Citrix.

So I got a 64GB SSD from Crucial, installed Leopard on it (oh, the horror, the horror), and lived happily ever after with a kick-ass Mac until the SSD died on August 2, which kind of makes me wonder if SSD tech is really consumer-ready right now.

Crucial replaced it under warranty, and I can only praise them for their overall customer experience, but, as it happens, this was also a learning experience where it concerns the way PC manufacturers preload software these days.

The retail restore horror

Until I got a replacement part, I set out to use Windows again on the original 8GB SSD, but since I had a Portuguese device, I asked one of my UK colleagues if they could ship me Dell’s “restore” CDs for their edition.

As it turned out, they sent me the Ubuntu restore disc as well, and, just for a lark, I ran that first, since I wanted to check out their 3G connection manager.

And this is where it gets interesting – from inserting the disc to rebooting into a final, working desktop, it took roughly 30 minutes (maybe less, I wasn’t really paying attention at the time). I clicked around the hideous Dell netbook shell, poked at the 3G config, and thought “OK, great, but I really need to run Evernote and might as well have a go at Postbox again”, so I began the Windows XP Home “restore”.

Which turned out to take nearly four hours, give or take, because (guess what) Dell doesn’t ship you a disc with a restorable disk image, i.e., you cannot (ever?) restore your machine to the state you bought it in.

You get a full OEM installation disk, but (get this) without the right drivers slipstreamed, so that I had to manually install drivers for everything out of the accompanying driver disks. One reboot for each driver, at least.

My conclusion? A fourteen-year-old kid does a better job at building a custom XP installation disk than these clowns.

Anyway, here are my notes on the install:

  • As a matter of course, I set up full disk encryption using TrueCrypt – not out of paranoia, but because I want to be at peace if something as small and easy to steal is gone from my life in the wrong way. However small the amount of personal data that actually hits the disk, I don’t want to bother with going through the rigmarole of changing passwords, SSH keys and whatnot across all my stuff, so this goes a long way towards having peace of mind.
  • I removed all the Welcome screen junk, set the machine to auto-login into my account (but with a screensaver password, so that I can lock the screen if needed) and installed (of all things) the Zune desktop theme, because it matches the Office 2007 black design somewhat.
  • I set up Google Chrome and promptly regretted it, since the keyboard UI is atrocious (or, at the very least, a bad match for my expectations). Firefox it was, then, even though I did not have an F11 key until I did a BIOS upgrade (the mini doesn’t have dedicated function keys, so F11 is Fn+Z).
  • I installed OpenOffice 3.1, tried some of my documents on it, and promptly removed because it is impossible to use Writer for properly outlining documents. I’d rather have a set of bona fide Microsoft Office viewers installed, draft text in Wordpad, and use Office over Citrix to do final copy.
  • I tried using Thunderbird for my e-mail (since I loathe webmail with a passion), only to find that its message compose window is still ridiculously tall on a 1024×600 display, leaving me (all toolbars and taskbars included) with less than half the screen height to actually write something – and reading was not much better.

Still, the end result was usable, reasonably speedy and had a roughly 4-hour battery life, but the Windows reinstallation experience definitely put me off. After all, every Windows machine needs to be reinstalled now and then, and the prospect of ever going through this again doesn’t appeal to me4.

Even though I still think Linux isn’t the least bit ready for general usage due to the lack of decent applications, proper system-wide spellchecking and other niceties I enjoy on the Mac, it is way easier to get a PC running with it for basic Internet access…

What next?

Well, until the Apple tablet rumors coalesce into actual hardware (I hear they have been putting together a fresh herd of unicorns and ordering magic pixie dust by the cauldron), I’m currently fooling around with an NC10 (a great gift from colleagues in the UK) to a rather gratifying extent.

It has a pretty decent keyboard, built-in HSPA (no Bluetooth, sadly, since it’s either one or the other due to the internal design), and a few Euro got me an extended (if bulky) battery able to provide eight solid hours of real-life usage (i.e., nearly a full week for my kind of casual use).

Since I don’t carry it everywhere the extra bulk is tolerable, and it is still smaller and lighter than everything else I have except the Dell – my unibody MacBook is still my main machine, but the Samsung can sit on a bedside table.

If it weren’t for the 1024×600 resolution (which I still think is too low for a 10” panel) and a tendency to switch on its fan once in a while, it would be perfect – although the 160GB HD is clearly overkill for me, since it’s currently a wide expanse of digital emptiness with only a few lonely GB in use.

But given my current tendency to divorce myself from most online activities and my utter saturation with technology in general, I don’t expect to ever fill it up.

1 Also, many of the above list were/are bundled with either internal or external 3G modems, so it was only natural I’d have access to them.

2 I am perfectly capable of using an iPhone for extensive (and fast) text input, but there are things that

3 No, they mostly complain about Windows, but I don’t want to get into that here other than to mention that people seldom say their PC is slow – they say that _Windows is slow.

4 I will eventually get around to clone the entire Windows partition using a Linux boot disk and some patience, but not in the foreseeable future…