A personal take on various topics

First Two Days With a Netbook

So its been only a couple of days as I write this since I got myself a netbook. I must admit, in a way it was an impulse purchase (not in the conventional sense). I had gone to the store to get a new notebook. But as I browsed around the shelves, a few netbooks really caught my eye. And as I really kind of gave them a thorough look around, found myself getting increasingly attracted towards buying one of them. Of course a friend who I work with quite regularly had got one for himself a month ago, and that jealousy factor of seeing him lug around fewer kilograms each time had already injected the initial curiosity in me towards a netbook. Reviewing the multiple models on offer. So there were multiple models around. HP, Acer, Lenovo and Dell. Acer was ruled out due to my prior experiences with them. They had once refused to support me on an office server which was showing high temperature readings on a CentOS linux citing the fact that their hardware does not state Linux as a supported platform. They were of course right, but refuse to even make a decent attempt to support me since I use linux – and there’s a good likelihood I will move you to the bottom of my list. HP has an apparent problem. The netbooks I have seen have a proprietary display adapter which requires a proprietary cord to hook up to an external monitor. Now it is quite likely that ever so frequently you’ll hook up your notebook to a projector – and lugging around an extra cord (and paying perhaps premium price for the same) is quite avoidable. Finally I was left with a 12” Dell and a 10” Lenovo IdeaPad. After a careful 10 minutes of thought I decided that for a netbook – smaller was better. Moreover the S10-2 IdeaPad looked a lot nicer to me (not that the Dell one was a particularly bad looking one). A 90 minutes long activation period Anyways after I paid for the IdeaPad, the store associate told me that he would need to activate it (I didn’t understand why, but gave in with good humour). Big problem. The ideapad just kept on starting itself, doing some funny stuff in auto run procedures (including freezing the keyboard and the mouse for extended intervals) and then restarting itself repeatedly. This probably went on for almost an hour and a half, of which half the time was spent in the system backing itself up. That was really frustrating, but I couldn’t get upset at the store staff since it was clearly beyond their control – thats the way Lenovo had designed things and there was no way around it. However they certainly could’ve helped by upfront telling me about the activation time before I paid up. Although I was a little free that day, what if I wasn’t ? It would be terrible to be caught in situation where you had to wait an additional unbudgeted 90 minutes. Installing Linux The activation time created one more issue. Usually once I bring home a new PC, I repartition it in the first few minutes, reduce the windows partition size (or remove it entirely), and reinstall windows followed by linux. But this extra 90 mins of activation was really something I didn’t want to spend time on again in case I repartitioned the disk. So the only way out was to repartition a live windows installation. I had read earlier about gparted having the capabilities to do so, so quickly pulled out my ubuntu live cd. Suddenly the realisation set in that there was no optical disk. CDs are useless with a netbook. The only reasonable choices are either external disks or USB keys. So now the hunt began for the smallest linux installer I could download and install on a pen drive. Soon I had located and downloaded a 100MB file containing the PuppyLinux iso. But you can’t quite copy an iso onto a usb key. So located another tool for the same UNetBootIn, which allowed me to copy the iso and explode it onto a bootable USB. Next step was to enable the netbook to boot of a USB key by modifying the bios settings and I was in business. Popped in the pen drive, booted the machine, downsized the main Windows partition (C drive). But wait – I got into another problem. There were three partitions on the disk, of which two were primary and one was extended. So given the fact that I could introduce only 1 more primary partition and no more extended partitions I was in trouble because the minimum Linux installation requires at least two partitions (one for swap). So I went ahead and downsized the extended partition to create a 2G space for the swap. Downloaded and installed the ubuntu iso onto the USB this time, and soon enough - I had a brand new Ubuntu installed. (Of course I had to spend a few hours waiting for the Ubuntu iso to be downloaded since I did not have the CD for the latest version). So a few hours after coming back from the store, Ubuntu 9.04 was running on a Netbook. Experiences My first task was to work on a planned presentation, Much of my presentation, I had worked on on a different machine, and copied it over to the netbook after it was setup. I must confess, the keyboard size is actually a lot less constraining than it first appears. But there are two situations where it does hurt. When you are attempting to write a lot of stuff rapidly (as I am doing this at the moment) or as you are filling out some fields in an HTML form. For some curious inexplicable reason, I end up fat fingering HTML fields quite often and since passwords usually present themselves as HTML form fields, I have had much more than my fair share of incorrect logins on web applications in the past two days. However in all other situations, I was able to use the keyboard comfortably. Another potential issue is the display size. This is indeed a constraint initially. But after a little while you get kind of used to it. (at least if you are using Firefox or OpenOffice kind of applications). Another problem is the display resolution. It has a non standard aspect ratio. My netbook has a display resolution set to 1024*600. However the non standard resolution created issues when I attached an external projector and turned on the dual (extended) monitor mode. Ubuntu got completely confused. I had configured the two monitors side by side with the projector set to 1024*768 mode. The vertical heights 600 and 768 confused ubuntu leading to a highly difficult to use OS rendering of the applications (in hindsight, I could’ve explicitly configured the projector to 800*600 and it could probably have worked). Anyways, I then laid out the dual screen configuration in a vertically stacked mode. Now that the horizontal length of 1024 was consistent across both the displays, the configuration just worked like a dream. I could now have the presentation open on the netbook in a notes view and the actual presentation running on the second monitor (projector). It was wonderful except for the fact that when I actually attempted to redo the configuration when I was called upon to present, I couldn’t quite easily configure it correctly in the minute long duration that I attempted to configure it. In hindsight, it makes sense to practice the dual screen configuration a few times, since the configuration is only possible after you attach an external monitor cord, and it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time working on the configuration when the audience is waiting for you to present. During the meetings itself, the netbook was quite functional. Browsing, switching wireless access points, taking notes etc, all worked like a dream. One hardly realises the constraints at this point in time (since you are not intensely working on the computer but using it as an adjunct to your primary activities of participating in the meeting. However if you are attempting to write out a long document (as I do right now), please be prepared to grant yourself far more fat fingering leeway since one does tend to make many more mistakes using a netbook keyboard. On the go One place I enjoyed the netbook was on the airport and in the air. It starts up real fast (for the simple reason I run linux). The real pleasure is when you have to move from your seat to get a coffee or use airport facilities. Its just a snap to quickly push it to an hibernate mode, slide it so conveniently into your bag, come back after a few minutes, quickly slide it out of your bag, unhibernate, and you are ready to go. In the air again it is quite easy to use. Once the doors are closed, you can quickly hibernate, wait for the seat belt light to be turned off, and quickly resume again. I really used to find working on the notebook in transit a really onerous task. Lugging a few kilograms, taking it in and out of your bag, opening and closing the large brick just seems a lot more onerous. So I had given up using notebooks on flights, but am using this one quite happily. The gentleman sitting ahead of me right now obviously has had a long day and has extended his seat backwards to the fullest extent allowing for a much reduced space on my tray table. But this netbook isn’t worried – its still ensconsed itself quite happily, and I can work with the base fully supported by the tray table and the screen at 90 degrees to the base (with a notebook, either the base has to be overhanging the tray table or the display turned towards an inconvenient acute angle. Well connected Note that you do get some extras in a netbook as well. An important one among them is the built in bluetooth support. So synchronisation between your computer and mobile just became easier. Moreover I imagine it might be quite feasible to use your mobile for wireless internet and hook it up to your netbook through bluetooth. No extra dongles, no extra cables to carry. If you are an infrequent outdoor wireless user (not including the typical areas which have wireless lan support such as airports or cafes), the netbook might just make it more convenient to check your email or write a liveblog even as your mobile sits comfortably in your pocket. This gets even easier in many geographies since many netbooks support 3G and WiMax out of the box. Summary So how would I summarise my experiences at the end of the day (actually 2 days now) ? It gets an absolute A+ for doing anything on the go. It also gets an A+ for presenting, since the small size does make it convenient. Its great for meetings too. Extended use without a mouse however is terribly painful, since the trackpad is really very difficult to use (due to the size). I can also imagine this being a great liveblogging accessory, and it’ll probably work well for blogging too, since it allows you to spend your time in transit in doing work you enjoy (eg writing out a blog post). And if you want a headturner, macbook is no longer the only choice. However don’t expect it to replace your desktop especially if you are a programmer or a graphic designer. Don’t make your first machine the netbook. There are many situations where having a notebook / desktop is much better eg. programming. The display size, and propensity to fat finger that sucks make it hard for programming. Moreover these machines are likely to be underpowered especially if you like to run application servers etc. However you could use it for occasional programming with some inconvenience. Another area where it is unlikely to be of much use is if you are into 3D modeling or graphic design. This display size simply isn’t going to work. If you are an executive on the go working with Outlook, Powerpoint, Word, Excel n Firefox primarily, you are quite likely to like it. The impression of it being underpowered is just that – an impression. The netbook feels real zippy in the applications I just listed, even if you have all of them open at the same time. FWIW, I wrote out this entire long post in the aircraft – 2.5 pages in an hour. I am really happy with the choice at this stage, and I do hope the propensity to fat finger does come down over time. On the whole if I was to travel back 2 days in time, and put myself back into the position where I made an impulse purchase of a netbook instead of a notebook, would I purchase the netbook again ? You bet I would.