Archive for ‘netbooks’


A great (and affordable) MacBook Air Sleeve

My new MacBook Air sleeve arrived today from ebay:

Leather envelope sleeve for the MacBook Air


MacBook Air and envelope sleeve
The MacBook Air safely tucked away

It was $5 plus $6.50 shipping.  I’d have happily paid double or triple that if I’d been able to find something locally.  The only downside is that it took about a month to deliver.  Still, not bad coming all the way from China.


SSDs: A great upgrade for any laptop

One of my favourite things about the now-ancient Asus EeePC 701 was the tiny 4GB SSD that it shipped with.  It meant that the EeePC could be completely silent – something that I think is underrated in general.

Now, I’m fussy about system noise, I realize this.  But if you haven’t used a completely silent computer, you owe it to yourself to try.  They are a joy to use.  Maybe it’s just the amount of time I spend in our noisy server room at work, but I find the noise (if any) of a computer to be absolutely key to how much I enjoy using it.

My HP 2710p sold me on the value of SSDs.  Here’s a computer with pretty low-end specs:  Core 2 Duo at 1.2GHz, 1.8″ PATA 4200 RPM drive, nothing special.  Add an SSD into the mix and suddenly you have a much faster – and silent machine.  The end result:  The HP 2710p is pretty much still my favourite all-around PC.

The MacBook Air, though, was what really sold me on the idea.  Again, this machine is now great shakes spec-wise:  1.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB of RAM.  Still, with the super-fast SSD that Apple ships with, the machine just flies.  In day-to-day use, I find the little MacBook Air to be faster than both a current-model 13″ MacBook Pro and an older 15″ MacBook Pro, both of which have better CPUs and more RAM.

Now I have added SSDs to my old HP Mini-Note 2133 and my ancient but still-mighty IBM ThinkPad R50p.  The R50p, off the assembly line in April 2004, is worth keeping around because it has a 15″ 1600×1200 IPS screen.  This makes it perfect for print production.  The 5400RPM drive in it has now been replaced with a KingSpec 64GB PATA SSD and already the machine is faster, and silent under light load.

If you’re not convinced that the upgrade to an SSD is worthwhile and need the space of traditional drives, the Seagate Momentus XT line is an interesting option:  They pair a 500GB SATA drive with a 4GB SSD buffer.  The result is performance approaching that of an SSD but with a standard HD capacity, all at only about $40 more than a traditional 500GB SATA drive.  If hard drive noise doesn’t bother you, this is a great upgrade.


Living with Lucid: HP 2133 Lucid Setup

I have an HP Mini-Note 2133. Despite the flaws, I really like this little netbook. In yet another vain attempt at making it fast enough to do the job of a machine with a decent CPU, I have added a screaming SSD to the machine. (What the heck, it worked for the MacBook Air, right?)

Well, the SSD isn’t all that I’d hoped, but it did give me the opportunity to go over what is involved in setting the 2133 up with Ubuntu 10.04:

  1. Install Ubuntu.  (I chose the Netbook release)
  2. Patch it completely, using wired LAN for the network; reboot
  3. Activate the restricted Broadcom STA drivers; reboot
  4. Download and install the closed Via drivers found here
  5. Before rebooting, download this xorg.conf file
  6. sudo cp 2133.xorg.conf /etc/x11/xorg.conf
  7. Now you can reboot and X11 will start with some degree of acceleration.

That’s pretty much it.  Any way you dress it up, this is still a 1.2GHz Via C7 CPU with a dog-slow S3 GPU.  The SSD helps quite a bit but there’s just no getting around the specs.  MacBook Air, this ain’t.  Still, it’s a lovely keyboard.  Sure the 1280×768 display is too small for a 8.9″ screen but I’m the one that normally likes high ppi.  Serves me rice for supper.


11″ MacBook Air Thoughts: It’s FAST with 2GB of RAM

Six years ago, I bought my favourite new computer. It was a 12″ PowerBook G4 running at 1.5GHz, with 768MB of RAM, and a 100GB HD. Since then, I have owned a first-generation MacBook, a 15″ MacBook Pro, a 13″ unibody MacBook Pro, and a late-model 13″ MacBook. Along with this, I have had a slew of netbooks, laptops, and even a trio of tablets.

My second favourite computer has been an HP Compaq 2710p, later to be renamed to an EliteBook. This machine is a 12″ tablet with a perfect keyboard, a ThinkPad light, and my first decent solid-state drive.

Today I purchased what will likely become my third favourite computer: The 11″ MacBook Air.

My new 11" MacBook Air

What distinguishes these three machines above all of the others that I have owned and used is that they all do what they are designed for perfectly. They are small, light, have a great screen and keyboard, and excellent battery life for their class. The second two are silent, or are nearly so, the first was the quietest machine I had owned to that point.

I’ve only had the 11″ MacBook Air for a day, but I’m already certain that I made the right choice in this machine. It is simple and elegant in a way that only Apple and Palm seem to be able to do it. The machine is lovely.

I decided to buy a MacBook Air a few weeks ago but struggled with which model to buy. I was bracing myself to plunk down almost $2000 for the 13″ with a 256GB SSD, 4GB RAM, and the upgraded CPU. My thinking at the time was that it would replace a few laptops for me. I had been planning to dual or tripple-boot the machine and make use of the 1440×900 display. Before committing to such a large purchase, I went to Future Shop to try one out. There, I briefly tested the 256GB SSD model with 2GB of RAM. From my very limited testing, the machine seemed very nice and undoubtably thin, but it was also quite a bit bigger than I had envisioned. There’s just no getting around this with a 13″ screen.

The next day, I borrowed a base-model 11″ Air from the Campus Computer Store. I installed my common apps, Firefox, Coda, Acorn, and a few others, and tried to actually work with it for an hour or so. Then I bought it.

I was blown away with how usable it is. In fact, for my use, it feels faster than my 2.2GHz 15″ MBP at work.

With this in mind, I changed my plans entirely and opted for the base-model. 1.4GHz CPU, 2GB RAM and a 64GB drive.

At the time of writing, I have about 25GB free with a selection of music, a few movies, Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite CS5, and the Apple Developer Tools all installed.

At first I didn’t realize why the machine seemed so fast with only 2GB of RAM. Then it occurred to me: We max out RAM to avoid swapping from fast RAM to comparatively slow hard drives. With this machine, the SSD is so much faster than a traditional hard drive, that swapping is far less expensive than it is with a traditional hard drive, thereby rendering the RAM upgrade less critical.

Perhaps if you’re running HUGE programs that require gobs of RAM, it is worth the upgrade. For me, running fairly complex programs, often many at a time, the base $999 MacBook Air is more than up to the task.

As far as I am concerned, the 11″ MacBook Air is the best laptop that Apple has released.  For anyone that is interested in quality over brute-force, I recommend that you to at least consider when you’re buying your next laptop.

I was going to write a review of the Air, but there are already several excellent ones out there.  Here are a few that mostly capture my opinions of the machine as well:


Ubuntu Font for Lucid

Ubuntu 10.10 is out. While I’m planning to stick to Lucid, I love the new Ubuntu font in 10.10.

Of course, this is easy enough to add:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:webupd8team/ubuntu-font-family
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install ttf-ubuntu-font-family

The default Ubuntu themes have also received nice, subtle improvements.  These can be installed by running:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:murrine-daily/ppa && sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install light-themes gtk2-engines-murrine

And while on the topic of themes, you may wish to add the following:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:bisigi && sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install bisigi-themes

Windows 7 Starter Edition: I’m impressed

A friend recently picked up a refurbished Asus EeePC 1005HAB at Factory Direct.  This machine is, in my opinion, one of the better netbooks: Up to 8.5 hours on the battery, Intel Aton N270, 1GB of RAM easily upgradeable etc.  The other interesting feature:  Windows 7 Starter Edition.  I haven’t played with it too much yet but I must say that I’m pleasantly surprised by the OS.

Windows 7 Starter Edition is basically the same as Home Edition but without a lot of the bloat:  No Aero, no DVD Maker software, fewer options of changing the look.  It’s basically a slimmer, faster version of Windows 7.

As with Windows 7 Home, the big drawbacks are: No Remote Desktop, No Windows Domain support.

From what I’ve seen, it looks, acts, and has the improved security of Windows 7 but seems to run even faster and more efficiently than XP on the same hardware.  Seriously, I am quite surprised by how well this little machine runs in 1GB of RAM. Bravo, Microsoft.  I’d use this version if I could buy/install it on all machines.

I’m of the opinion that OSs should be transparent.  They’re there to facilitate and then get out of your way.  From my limited experience with Windows 7 Starter Edition, it seem to do this better than any version of Windows since 2000 Professional.


Sony Vaio W Netbook: Back to the store

So close, yet so far.

I purchased a Sony Vaio W (VOCW111XX/T) from BestBuy yesterday.  ($499CDN)  It’s going back ASAP.

I love netbooks, I own an HP 2133, an EeePC and have owned a Mini Mi.  All were fab.  The Sony has the usual netbook specs but has an above average keyboard (though it’s still not as nice as HP’s line) standard bluetooth, 802.11n and, most importantly, an HD 1366×768 10.1″ display.  All for the high-end of normal pricing.  Fabulous!

What they don’t tell you is that the speakers are absolutely horrible and that the rather high-pitched fan runs constantly.

That’s right, the Vaio W is a constant assault on the ears.

The final nail in the coffin was that a Wubi-based Ubuntu 9.04 install resulted in a complete lack of networking on the Linux side.  I’m not sure how they swung it, but Sony has managed to create an affordable, light, nice-looking netbook that is positively Linux hostile, sounds terrible, and is the loudest netbook I’ve heard.


Sorry Sony, better luck next time.  I really wanted to like the Vaio W, I swear.

If only I could find an HP 2140 with the HD display.  Alas, I’ll be picking up the last low-res 2140 in town tomorrow at Staples downtown.  Such is life.


HP Mini MIE Review


I seem to have a thing for netbooks.  Honestly, it’s as if someone thought: “What would Ben like in  a computer?” when what has emerged as the standard netbook configuration did so.  They are small, light, cheap, have decent battery life, are reasonably fast, and invariably, it seems, run some version of Linux.  What could possibly be better?  The HP Mini Mini 1110NR is the fourth netbook that I have owned.  A pair of the original EeePC 701s and then the Via-based HP Mini-Note 2133 preceding it.  Also, in the course of my job, I have had the opportunity to use both the Linux and Windows-based EeePC 900, an XP-based Dell Mini 9, an Acer Aspire One, a Toshiba netbook and an Asus EeePC 1000H.

Three betbooks: HP 2133, HP Mini Mi, Asus EeePC 701

Three netbooks: HP 2133, HP Mini Mi, Asus EeePC 701

However, my netbook of choice for the last two months has been an HP Mini 1110NR.  The rather typical specs are are as follows:

  • 8.9″ 1024×600 display
  • Intel Atom N270 1.5GHz
  • 1GB DDR2 RAM (Upgradeable to 2GB)
  • 8GB SSD (Options in US from HP for 16GB SSD or 60GB HD)
  • 3-cell battery
  • 2 USB ports
  • SDHC port
  • Ethernet, 802.11G wireless, optional 3G
  • Dock connector to adapt output to VGA
  • Windows XP SP3 or Ubuntu 8.04-based “Mobile Internet Experience” Mi

Now, I loved my HP 2133.  With the HP Mini-Note 2140 already available in the US, my original plan was to sell the 2133, buy the 2140 and call it a day.  There were a few problems with that, though:  The 2140 wasn’t yet available and the 10″ screen had two resolution options:  1024×576 (SD) or 1300×768 (HD).  The 2133 had an odd resolution resolution of 1280×768 on its 9″ screen.  This was at once one of the better and worst features of the netbook.  The higher-res display meant that it was well-suited to desktop-type tasks, but it also meant that I had to squint to see most text.  I had tweaked the UI considerably to make this work well, adding the Firefox nosquint plugin and zooming pages to 120%, causing pixelation of images, changed X11 to use 120dpi fonts, and more.  This mostly worked fine, but it was still a struggle.  So, I was torn between the SD and HD 2140 options.  The other problem with the 2140 is that your OS choices are SLED 10 or Windows.  I hated SLED 10 on the 2133 and won’t go to Windows.

Enter the HP Mini 1110NR (Mini).

The Mini ships with the OS I wanted, the 9″ version has the screen resolution I was looking for, the SSD means it silent, and it’s only $349CAD at Future Shop.  Armed with this information, I bought the Mini.  I honestly bought it knowing that I could take it back within two weeks.  I figured that, as internally it is  similar to the 2140, it would give me a feeling for relative performance compared to my 2133, and it gave me a chance to play with HP’s Linux UI.  When I bought it, I was fully prepared to return it and wait for the 2140.

Then a funny thing happened:  I used it, found the actual computer to be a much better option than the 2133/2140, and decided to keep it.

Looking at the Mini in specs alone, it is a fairly typical netbook in a crowded market.  It has a smallish battery with mediocre battery life (2.5-3hrs on a 3 cell battery) it uses the same CPU as everyone else, the screen is the same size as everyone else etc.  However, I have found it to be a cut above all of the other netbooks that I have used.  Here’s why:

It’s very thin and light:  It weighs a paltry 2lbs, about the same as my original EeePC 701 and a full half pound less than my 2133.  It doesn’t sound like much, but it is.  This netbook is lovely to tote around and is thin enough that it fits almost anywhere.

The battery life is good enough:  2.5-3hrs doesn’t sound great, but it’s all that I need and is a perfect trade-off for the size of the battery.  I had both the 3 cell and 6 cell battery for my 2133.  It would get a consistent 1.5hrs on the 3 cell and just over 3 hours on the 6 cell.  If I disabled wifi, dropped brightness down a bit, it would help.  The Mini gets about the same battery life on a 3 cell that the 2133 did on the 6.

The screen is perfect(ish):  1024×600 is the right resolution for a 9″ netbook.  There is a 10″ version but it has two problems:  The resolution is HP’s SD, so 1024×576, and the screen is flush with the lid (Like the 2133 and current MacBooks)  The screen on the 9″ Mini, while still reflective, is recessed.  For some reason, this seems to really cut down on the glare.  It also greatly reduces the number of fingerprints and lint that the screen picks up.  I was rather surprised by this.  Aesthetically, it isn’t quite as nice looking as a flush screen, but functionally it’s much better.

It has the potential to be silent:  Yes, I occasionally miss the massive 120GB HD in my 2133, but I don’t miss the extra weight, noise and clicking that it imposed.  Yes, the SSD is significantly smaller, but under light load, the Mini is silent, something I greatly value.  Unlike the Dell Mini 9, the Mini does have a fan.  I am very picky about fan noise and even I find the Mi’s fan quite acceptable.  Even under load the Mini is much quieter than any of the many other laptops that I have owned.

The Defining Feature:  The Keyboard

Of course, what really sets HP netbooks apart from the competition is their spectacular keyboard.  The 2133 was the best laptop keyboard I’d ever used, the Mi’s is even better.  True, they don’t feel as solid as the 2133 keyboard but the white letters on black keys make the keyboard far more usable in low lighting conditions.

The Mobile Internet Experience

The OS and software selection is nearly perfect.  Ubuntu Hardy Heron (8.04) is still my favourite Linux release.  Yes, there are newer versions with enhanced packages, but 8.04 is a Long Term Support release, meaning that it will be patched for 5 years.  While I won’t kid myself to think that I’ll be using the Mini in five years time, it does mean that the packages are set, that the distribution is well tested, and that further updates will only enhance this stability.  8.04 is a rock, and is my preferred deployment platform for both servers and workstation.

On top of this very solid base, HP has added a wonderful Gnome-based UI.  The interface starts with a home screen with favourite bookmarks, links to a few photos and music, and a summary of mail messages.  Clicking on the mail messages takes you to Thunderbird, my preferred mail client.  The media portion takes you to “HP MediaStyle powered by Elissa”  This is similar to Canola 2 on Maemo or Apple’s AppleTV interface.  I find it a little cutesy, but it’s functional.  I still prefer Rhythmbox, so I don’t really use MediaStyle.

Why look at high-quality pics on other sites when you can see my terrible phone shot?

Why look at high-quality pics on other sites when you can see my terrible phone shot?

Beyond the initial screen, you are presented with a tabbed interface that corresponds to .desktop files in /usr/share/applications.  The menus are easy enough to tweak but are fine for people to just use.  This actually is the way of the entire interface:  You are presented with logical defaults in an attractive package but the underlying system is easily understood, quite standard, and easy to modify if you so desire.

HP has also developed a very nice black theme that compliments the laptop well.  The entire package is very attractive, both hardware and software.  The design on the lid of the laptop matches the background of the machine, HP has clearly given much attention to detail on the software of this machine.

What’s not to like?

On the downside, the Mini uses a different power adapter than the 2133.  Unless, like me, you happen to own both, this isn’t a problem.  However, replacement adapters are $70, compared to the 2133’s $45 adapter.  Considering the entire laptop was $350CDN, $70 seems far too steep for a spare adapter.  I was able to find a third-party alternative from eBay for $25USD.  It hasn’t arrived yet but I will report back when it does.

Another downside is that you need an a recently released VGA adapter to plug the laptop into a projector.  I had HP ship one to me as soon as it became available.  It was $40CAD shipping and taxes included.  It retails for  $16 in the US.  It’s a bit of a pain but is the price you pay for the thinness of the laptop.  It would have been better if HP had used HDMI or another interface that has standard VGA adapters such as Apple’s DisplayPort.  All-in-all, I feel that this is a fair trade-off for the width of the machine, which most people will never plug into a projector anyway.

HP's oddly long VGA adapter next to Apple's variation

HP's oddly long VGA adapter next to Apple's variation

HP is also now selling a 6-cell battery.  It’s about $120CAD, so it isn’t cheap, nor is it out of league with the competitors offerings.  One could assume that this would give you about five hours of battery life, give or take a half hour.  I may buy one of these, I may not.

The only other real downside is that the speakers on the Mi have less low-end than the 2133.  The 2133 had excellent sound for any laptop, let alone netbooks.  I would say that the Mi’s sound is still far better than average for a netbook.

HP’s Mobile Internet Experience is great for both new and experienced users.  I hope they expand this software to other laptop lines.  All-in-all, it is much faster than Vista, is at least as easy to use, and requires no anti-virus or malware software.  In short, it is an excellent OS and interface for the vast majority of users.  I find the interface to be much easier to deal with than Vista and would love to be able to buy a 15″ laptop with this software for most of my family.


Considering that I purchased my first Apple laptop six years ago, things have certainly changed.  If you had told me on the day that I purchased my G3 iBook that I would buy a faster, 2lb laptop with comparable battery life, more RAM, that was completely silent for a quarter of the cost of the G3, I wouldn’t have believed you.  If you told me that it would ship from the factory with my favourite Linux distribution with completely Linux-compatible hardware (power-management included) I would have laughed at you.

The HP Mini 1110NR is exactly what I was looking for:  A remarkably small, fast, inexpensive, and well-made Linux laptop available at all major retailers.  Thank you, HP.

Update: Good pictures/info here and here.


Another Netbook: HP Mini 1000

It turns out that I’m a sucker for Netbooks.  Who could blame me?  Small, cheap, ships with Linux.  What’s not to like?

I bought an HP Mini 1000 a week ago and am loving it.  It has pretty much everything I liked from the Mini-Note 2133 but is lighter, cheaper, and ships with HP’s “Mobile Internet Experience” (Mi) Linux-based OS.

The HP Mini 1100 featuring HPs Mobile Internet Experience

The HP Mini 1100 featuring HP's Mobile Internet Experience

The OS is basically Hardy 8.04 with a slick theme, some HP-specific software and art, all managed, it seems, by Canonical.  It’s pretty much ideal.

Anyway, I’m working on a full review, but the short version is that it’s the nicest netbook I’ve had the opportunity to use, and is an absolute steal at $399CDN.

Update: It’s $379 now!


Ubuntu network keyring

In Ubuntu Hardy, I am always prompted for my keyring password to join a saved WPA wireless network.  While not terribly secure, there is a workaround for this in:

System -> Preferences -> Encryption and Keyrings

Full instructions here, use with caution.