With the recent arrival of my iPad, I’ve been looking for ways to re-purpose my netbooks (a Dell Mini 9 and a Samsung NC10) aside from selling them off or recycling them, and it’s been an interesting (if perhaps entirely too geeky) experience.
The Samsung (which I won at a company trial) is, at this point a nice, glossy doorstop, largely due to the infamous white screen problem (a mis-designed, faulty, broken or loose LCD ribbon cable that makes the screen white out for a few seconds every now and then).
Despite a decent keyboard (with a UK layout, which doesn’t bother me in the least) and a so-so screen, the build quality is crap (a QA problem that seems to pervade every single piece of Samsung consumer electronics gear that I’ve handled for a while now), and even with it being quite speedy and having fueled quite a few posts, I have cast it aside for the moment.
As to the wondrous, tiny Mini, I’ve procured an extra SSD for it and had a go at installing Fedora 13, an endeavor that was cut short due to the apparent inability of the base spin to do proper suspend-resume (still a common problem for a lot of current Linux distributions, sadly), the lack of an easy way to encrypt my home directory (a basic security feature that ought to be included in all operating systems), and the utterly asinine policy regarding inclusion of proprietary (but perfectly good and fundamentally useful) Wi-Fi drivers.
It bears mentioning at this point that the Mini has a dark (and quaint) secret: You can all too easily get it into a state where Bluetooth, 3G and Wi-Fi can’t be re-enabled without booting into Windows, and since re-installing Windows is a major pain in the posterior, I opted for leaving it installed on the original SSD and just getting another.
Jolicloud, my next stop, got the driver bit right but failed the encryption requirement, so after a bit of soul-searching and double-checking to see whether there were packages for the kind of things I wanted to run, Ubuntu it was, despite my long and frustrating history with it.
And no, it didn’t get the Wi-Fi working right from the get go as well, but at least it knew enough about proprietary drivers to let me enable it with a couple of clicks.
The stuff I wanted (or rather, still need) to do on a netbook is pretty clear cut, and revolves around three things:
- Coding (for which I require a moderately sophisticated text editor – I prefer TextMate, of course, but vim will do – and Python, plus Mercurial and a few other doodads)
- Managing my growing e-book collection (for which I need some desktop-only knick-knacks I will get to in a little while)
- Moving “regular” files around (photos, media, etc.)
Everything else (reading books or news, writing, browsing, e-mail, social noisemaking, remote desktop/Citrix, basic document drafting and editing, etc.) can be done on the iPad, so the list of stuff I needed to install could easily be pared down to:
- Calibre (where all my long-form reading material is easily transmogrified into whatever format I require)
- Dropbox (where everything I’m drafting lives in)
- Evernote (the tougher challenge)
- Sigil (the hidden gem)
Evernote has always been a particularly tough nut to crack for folk running Linux, because not only is their web UI on the far side of ugly, there is also no decent way to view and draft notes short of trying to stack an ancient version of their Windows client atop the rather wobbly and incomplete bag of tricks that is WINE.
That was until I found NeverNote, which is written in Java (and therefore fails to adopt the system theme, slows down at odd moments, etc.) but gets a surprising amount of things right. It’s already good enough for me to draft text-only notes (provided I don’t mind their growing extra line breaks now and then, which may be a result of editing the same note on 3 different clients), tick off to-dos and (most importantly) access my ever-growing collection of notes offline. It’s not Evernote, but it mostly works and saves me the bother of installing WINE.
As to Sigil, it is probably the app I use the most right now, since I am revising a book. Or, rather, an e-book that will eventually see the light of day before Autumn (time permitting) and that has absolutely nothing to do with my regular endeavors. Or pretty much anything else, really.
It is, however, a great way of learning more about EPUB and e-book readers’ idiosyncrasies, and the app is heartily recommended.
Then there come the niceties, which are not essential but useful to have on a netbook:
- Acrobat Reader (because it’s marginally better than the built-in Linux PDF viewers for rendering some documents, even if not by much)
- Adobe Flash (because there are still morons designing Flash-only websites in Portugal)
- Chrome (because it’s WebKit, which is useful for basic testing of iOS webapps, and because I can’t bring myself to use Firefox anymore)
- Pino (because there is no way whatsoever I’m using Gwibber until it actually works)
- Pinta (because I can’t abide the GIMP and wanted a basic image editor)
- Shotwell (same goes for F-Spot, and because I sometimes need to plug in a camera to an actual computer)
In case you’ve noticed some of the above are the defaults in Fedora 13, congratulations – you get extra geek brownie points.
Finally, for the relatively small amount of e-mail I expect to do on it, I decided not to install any extras whatsoever and just use Evolution, which I (and many others) rate as the greatest misnomer ever in the history of MUAs. I loathe it, but it is better than a webmail interface – and the iPad’s mail client is faster and more efficient than either.
Typography and UI design are, sadly, dark and eschewed arts for most Linux developers or packagers (how else can you explain Ubuntu’s hideous brown, orange and purple theme?), so I eventually came to terms with having to tinker with fonts and themes to be able to look at the screen without flinching.
For years now, I’ve carried around a tarball of TrueType fonts for the sole purpose of making Linux bearable – not only for the UI, but also for documents and browsing. It has all the basic staples: Arial, Georgia, Verdana (to cater to the Microsoft hegemony), Helvetica, Lucida, Myriad, Palatino (to lessen the effects of Mac abstinence), Calibri, Candara, Consolas (because occasionally Microsoft gets their typography about right), and a few others to fill in the gaps (dingbats, symbols, decent monospaced fonts, and generic odds and ends).
And yeah, I have Comic Sans and Marker Felt in there as well (because I’m a stickler for consistency, even if that includes the bad bits sometimes).
This time around, however, I decided to figure out if there was something already built in that was borderline readable and tolerable as a system font besides the horrendously ugly sans serif font GNOME defaults to. After scratching my head trying to remember where I had come across some tasteful and readable dialogs lately, I remembered that Jolicloud had looked quite good (oddly enough to register), so I popped in the USB stick again and had a look at their settings.
As it turned out, they’re using Liberation, a set of sans, serif and monospaced fonts that are not just metric-compatible with the usual Arial, Times and Courier fare, but also render properly (and legibly) as UI fonts, so I just grabbed them and set things up with a mostly nice theme to look like so:
Usability and Tweaks
It’s poor, obviously, but tolerable. My usual irritations about every app using a different widget toolkit and copy/paste of rich text or images never quite working properly remain, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
As to other tweaks, the minimalist dock I installed is my only concession towards accomodating both my muscle memory and the long time habits of a Mac desktop, and I have decided to leave it at that. Since I am not actually using the netbook intensively (if only because it heats up considerably, another sharp contrast to the iPad in 37C weather) tinkering is not on the cards.
Breakage and Flakiness
There are, as usual, a number of things that could work better – the battery life is roughly 3/4 of what I get under XP, suspend/resume sometimes doesn’t actually work, Wi-Fi often fails to re-associate for some odd reason, Dropbox gets occasionally stuck “Connecting…” although it works fine when relaunched, and the machine has yet to properly shutdown without tossing up the usual ugly text messages (seriously, guys, is it that hard to leave a splash screen as the last process standing?), but my personal favorite is the VNC client showing a yellow tint when it connects to a Mac server.
It kind of sets the overall tone for the Linux experience – everything works, provided you don’t mind it not working perfectly.
But, ironically, it’s the ideal flip side to using an iPad.