With all this talk of iPads, I decided to dig up a few of my languishing notes on the (now effectively obsolescent) concept of netbooks and post them here both for future reference and because I like to keep an open mind about such things.

But, since this is going to be a long piece, here are the relevant bits in a nutshell:

  1. Netbooks still aren’t that useful.
  2. Windows 7 is actually tolerable.
  3. Custom netbook oriented experiences like MeeGo are probably going to turn out OK, but nothing beats XP on a netbook yet.

As it happens, Intel is touting the latest, but still unavailable1 version of MeeGo on so many different devices that one has to wonder if they’re still focused, but I’m getting ahead of myself here…

The New Toy Bit

I’ve had a Dell Mini 9 for a year or so now, and it’s been with me to work almost every day even though (truth be told) I soon started using it less and less – either because my iPhone is enough to take notes or because I’ll be spending well over a couple of hours in a meeting, at which point it’s just plain better2 to take the MacBook.

The Mini came pre-loaded with XP on a puny 8GB SSD, which I promptly upgraded (it now has 64GB of disk and 2GB of RAM) and I had the occasion to fiddle with a number of operating systems over time, including several Linux variants along the lines of Moblin (now MeeGo).

As usual, all of them had too many shortcomings – most attempts at designing netbook-oriented interfaces (from the hideous Ubuntu Netbook Edition to the nice, but effectively stalled Moblin 2.1) were, from, my standpoint, failures in either elementary good taste, ergonomics or focus, so that was a short-lived phase (plus I only had a single kid at the time…).

Since the original installation was in Portuguese and I simply cannot bear to use a computer in anything but English, I eventually set up XP again on the 8GB SSD with my minimum requirements for a secure work environment (i.e., with Firefox, Evernote, Citrix and TrueCrypt full disk encryption).

I soon came round to the opinion that netbooks are, in fact, too many compromises rolled into a small package that requires a custom OS rather than the burden of traditional ones. So I used the 64GB SSD to set up a minimal Ubuntu with Evernote (a poor hack, but somewhat usable) and left it at that, for it was good enough to re-draft notes without firing up a “normal” machine, even though it sucked at setting up dual-head displays or toggling a projector.

The Ugly Bit

However, the Mini does have a recurring issue, which is that it will occasionally trash the partition table on the 64GB SSD for no good reason.

At first I ascribed it to hardware failure, and then mostly to general OS issues and impatience (it’s not the most performant of machines when doing heavy disk access and I tend to shut it down in a hurry), but I have been able to match every time it’s happened with instances of overheating (either because I left it on with the power adapter plugged in for a good while or because it was stretching the limits of what its somewhat puny CPU can do, like trying to run Flash…).

The Seven Sins

Even though I took to doing whole disk images and restoring from those, last time around I decided to do something radical and set up Windows 7 for five reasons:

  • It’s going to be my future corporate environment (whether I want it or not, although we seem to be mostly in the “let’s keep patching XP until it’ll become unmanageable” phase while details are ironed out).
  • I needed an instance of it running on bare metal rather than on a VM for testing miscellaneous mobile-related apps (new versions of iTunes, the Blackberry Desktop Manager, etc.) that will normally work OK in a VM but which occasionally fool around a bit too much with USB.
  • I wanted to have the same experience as the “average” computer user these days (there’s no way you can do proper Marketing of anything that’s technology oriented if you don’t know what your customers do, and how they do it on a computer is now fundamental for all kinds of business).
  • It was much less hassle to set up the stuff I needed to work on it (Evernote, Citrix, dual head, etc.) than in Linux.
  • I wanted to use it for an extended time on a non-critical machine before razing my loathsome Vista installation and upgrading my main Windows laptop (I never mess around with work-critical boxes).

It was trivial to install from a USB key (created using this handy tool), although I couldn’t be bothered to time the install itself – I just plugged it in, went on a kid herding mission, came back after dinner to find it done and called it a night.

Over the next few days, I set up the aforementioned applications and did a few tweaks (mostly gleaned from here, and a variation on what I had done earlier for XP):

Item Steps
Indexing Computer, Manage, Services and Applications, Services, Right-Click Windows Search, Startup type: Disabled, OK
Defragmentation Computer, Manage, Services and Applications, Services, Right-Click Disk Defragmenter, Startup type: Disabled, OK
Write Caching Computer, Manage, Device Manager, Disk drives, Right-Click SSD device, Properties, Policies Tab, Uncheck Enable write caching, OK
Page File Computer, Properties, Advanced System Settings, Settings (Performance), Advanced Tab, Change, Uncheck Automatically manage, No paging file, Set, OK, Restart
System Restore Computer, Properties, Advanced System Settings, System Protection Tab, Configure, Turn off system protection, Delete, OK
Hibernate Start Menu, cmd, Right-Click the cmd Icon, Run as Administrator, Type powercfg -h off

Typical “mouse engineer” stuff, I know, but it seemed to make a difference. Setting everything up took me around a week (by this time I already had my second kid) and I then tried it out for three weeks or so without tinkering with any other part of the OS.

Overall, it wasn’t bad – Windows 7 surpassed my (admittedly low) expectations where it regarded running on such puny hardware, but running it on a netbook for serious use isn’t something I’d recommend at all (unless, like me, you are lucky enough to have Citrix to take the load off your CPU).

Nor can I actually recommend netbooks in this age of the iPad, but that’s another matter altogether.

Stuff I Liked:

Work-wise, IE8 is tolerable, runs the new Exchange 2007 web UI so well I hardly needed to use Outlook at all, and the only thing I really needed to install besides Citrix and Evernote were a few file viewers (more on that below). I did not install any alternate browsers whatsoever, since I didn’t want to have an easy way out if I didn’t like it, and most of my customers will just use IE anyway…

Setting up mobile broadband was (at first) a dream come true – other than installing the driver for the built-in Ericsson module, there was nothing else to do. To my utter delight, 3G and Wi-Fi support are decently integrated, so I just needed to click on the mobile network to connect just as if it was another hotspot (and I could right-click to properties for using custom APNs and suchlike without having to put up with operator-specific software3).

I got Aero Glass running out of the box on the Mini’s relatively puny graphics card, and I just loved using Windows-P to toggle between the internal panel, a mirrored display and an extended desktop without having to fiddle with anything else on the system (something Linux can’t seem to get straight regardless of how many improvements they tout).

I used it for presentations and boom – it just worked, including auto-detecting our “vintage” (i.e., nearly ready to be taken out and shot) Sharp projectors, which are notorious for mis-negotiating display resolution with both Macs and Linux machines for some arcane reason (I only have a doddering 2nd generation MacBook at the office, but sometimes automatic detection just doesn’t work with those projectors).

The new “Start” menu was vastly better for me, mostly because I ignored it utterly. I very seldom go around clicking anywhere to run an application – on any platform I use (be it desktop or mobile), I simply hit the relevant hot key to bring up a text field (a la Spotlight) and start typing until the OS gives me what I want – and 7 gave me what I wanted.

Battery life and overall power management were stellar when compared to just about anything else but XP (which is understandable, but sad). No overheating of any kind, either, which was common under Linux.

Stuff I didn’t quite fancy:

Explorer is nicer (especially the path bar), but I found it too visually distracting – there’s a difference between pretty and functional, and I lean towards both spartan and functional, so it didn’t win me over. On a related topic, I hated libraries (i.e., the visual aggregation of folders with similar content), largely because they hindered more than helped. I can see myself using them for some purposes, but they really ought to be off by default.

Bing is… different. I switched back to Google soon enough, mostly due to cognitive dissonance and not being able to find the stuff I wanted in the same way.

OS-wise, the number, shape and size of dialog boxes is absolutely overwhelming – I don’t think I ever used such a verbose operating system before, for every single dialog box seems to be hell-bent on explaining the tiniest details of everything to me.

Maybe it’s reassuring to average computer users, but I find it disconcerting that it tells me it’s “searching for file X for deletion” when it’s simply putting it on the Recycle bin. It’s just too much information to handle, and I keep wondering why Microsoft thinks this helps users.

Stuff that put me off:

There were no default file viewers for anything. I know I’m spoiled due to Snow Leopard’s built-in support for viewing just about every common Office format, but it was a pain to use 7 for catching up on e-mail without setting up some – I eventually settled on OpenOffice Portable, not because I liked it, but because it was the simplest solution – a single 92MB download that let me view (and tweak, although that wasn’t the point) most documents rather than hunting through the Microsoft support site looking for Office 2007 viewers piecemeal.

Windows Update still sucks, period. Aero Glass died upon the very first automatic update, for the “updated” Intel graphics driver broke it. I quickly uninstalled the new driver and switched off all automatic updates, as well as pretty much all the computer maintenance warnings.

Worse (and this was the deal killer), the internal 3G module stopped working mysteriously after a while for no apparent reason, and after several days of patient experimentation, I had to re-insert the 8GB SSD, boot into XP and reset it there to get it to work. Since that happened on a day I really needed it to have worked for a meeting, I was thoroughly annoyed and stuck with XP ever since.


Despite the hardware issues, there were three main conclusions from this experiment, as far as I’m concerned:

  • Windows 7 is, despite annoyingly verbose and crammed with superfluous dialog boxes, pretty damn good (something I already knew, but bears reminding). All it needs is less crud and a set of basic file viewers, but then again Microsoft and OEMs are likely to pre-load Office trials with it.
  • It may well be good enough for netbook use, but will surely be better on more up-to-date hardware than the Mini.
  • Netbooks are still mostly a dead end, mostly because of the overall concept and not the OS per se.

i.e., I still think they need a completely different user experience rather than a shoehorned desktop OS. Hacking Snow Leopard into some of them makes for amazing little machines, sure (and there are oodles of folk doing that), but it’s still prone to performance and compatibility issues and too far beyond the red line for my tastes.

Moblin and MeeGo

Faced with the prospect of getting an iPad and therefore making my netbook antics completely redundant, I’ve since been having another look at Moblin to turn the Mini into a simple news reading and note-taking appliance.

Out of the free alternatives, it was the most polished and promising approach, and if it didn’t suffer from the usual idiocies regarding non-Open Source drivers to get the Wi-Fi card working in earlier releases, I might well have stuck with it for a bit – I found it very fast and usable for accessing the Web, drafting text and viewing PDFs, etc. – but most importantly of all, the UI is thought out to use on a netbook.

Sadly, it seems that its merger with Maemo and re-casting as MeeGo is (despite today’s announcements) quite likely to both delay its evolution and spoil all the good bits, because neither Nokia nor Maemo have been delivering stellar user experiences of late and I suspect they’ll weight down the actual development and release process.

There are some unofficial images floating about that make it seem that Moblin will keep a lot of the good bits, but I’m nevertheless looking for credible alternatives until they trot out an end-user version of some sort (it’s apparently slated for end of this month, but development schedules are always fluid…).

Chrome OS is not really an option yet (I can’t seem to find a decent installable image of it that doesn’t require major tinkering, even though this one and the Dell unofficial build come close), and although Android already has a X86 port it isn’t that appealing4, so for now I’ll just shelve the Mini when I get back to work in a week or so, taking it out with XP if I need to do a presentation someplace.

And then I’ll sell it to help fund an iPad, and that’ll be the end of it.

1 And by available, I mean something the average person can install, not demo setups and unofficial images.

2 Yes, I too fail to see the benefits of multi-hour meetings (since people invariably end up doing other things to make “better” use of their time and therefore render the original purpose of the meeting – which is to have a focused discussion – utterly void, but such is today’s corporate culture, and despite my best efforts, I can’t change it.

3 Even though I work for Vodafone, I have long loathed our data card front-ends for being overly complex when the only thing most people use is the “connect” button, so this was particularly gratifying.

4 Before someone mentions Haiku again, please bear in mind that it’s currently lacking both Wi-Fi support and decent power management.