My Linux netbook search
The first (relatively) popular netbook was the Asus Eee PC 700, which came out in late 2007. I waited until mid-2008 to get my Asus Eee PC 701, because I thought the second-generation would be better and worth waiting for.
Turns out I should have waited just another few months until a 1.6 GHz Atom processor with 1 GB of RAM, an 8.9″ screen, and a 16 GB SSD became the standard. I love the size of my Eee PC, and I did adjust to the keyboard. But the dealbreaker for me is the screen size. And I don’t even mind looking at the screen. The real problem is that web designers have abandoned the notion that 800 pixels wide is the limit. And side-scrolling is not fun.
So for months and months, I’ve been searching for a new netbook to replace my old Eee PC. Netbook reviews now are funny to me, because people still complain about the small screens and small keyboards, even when the screen is 10″ and the keyboard is 92% the size of a normal keyboard. Clearly they haven’t used an Eee PC 701 before!
The best netbook I could find was the Asus Eee 1000HE. It’s only US$389 and comes with a 10″ screen, 160 GB hard drive, multi-touch touchpad, 1 GB of RAM, and 9 hours of battery life. But I didn’t end up getting it, because it also came with Windows XP, and I’m not buying another computer with Windows preinstalled.
Unfortunately, the Linux preinstalled options in the US for netbooks are getting slimmer and slimmer (maybe this will change with the new ARM processors, but a decent ARM netbook probably won’t be out for at least another year). On NewEgg, I saw the Linux options go from 8 to 6 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1 and then back to 2 again. But the 2 left were older models that were hardly worth the money (or that offered a keyboard the same size as my 701).
The HP Mini Mie: What I was expecting
Eventually, I settled on the HP Mini 1120nr (“Mobile Internet Experience”). I did a fair bit of research and, based on the reviews I read and videos I saw, these were the general pros and cons I thought I would encounter:
On the positive side, it uses a customized version of Ubuntu (my distro of choice) with a beautiful interface, it has a very large (compared to my 701) keyboard, and is relatively affordable (the model I bought was under US$350). Even with a large keyboard, the exterior design of the netbook is gorgeous. It’s slim and sleek.
On the negative side, the Ubuntu interface has its flaws (clicking a Thunderbird message in the preview screen takes you only to Thunderbird and not to the message you clicked on), there are only two USB slots, there’s no VGA, there’s no multi-touch, the trackpad has buttons on the sides instead of the bottom, the battery life isn’t much better than my 701 (unless I buy a 6-cell battery, which costs a lot more and physically juts out the bottom).
Turns out the hardware was more beautiful than I thought it would be, and the software was a lot less usable than I thought it would be.
The worst part of the HP Mini MIE as it’s sold is the lack of proper usability testing. Why do major OEMs screw up Linux so badly? Why can’t they just use vanilla Ubuntu or Ubuntu Netbook Remix? Why do they have to create convoluted interfaces that are difficult to use? Yes, on the surface, the MIE interface is pretty and slick, and it looks very simple. You have emails on the left, web stuff in the middle, and music and pictures on the right. One button always takes you back to that screen. The other button helps you cycle through the open applications or launch a new application. Sounds good, right? It’s actually terrible, and not for any reason I found in reviews I read of MIE.
I bought the 10″ screen version with a 16 GB SSD and 1 GB of RAM. You would think (especially with a 1.6 GHz processor, as opposed to the 900 MHz processor on my Eee PC) the performance would be decent. It’s not. It’s barely usable. Seriously. Boot time is rather quick. I didn’t time it with a clock, but it seemed to be about 40 seconds… less than a minute, in any case. Launching applications doesn’t take too long (the requisite few seconds). It’s actually using and switching between applications that is slow and often inelegant.
There is a lag. You still see the last bit of the other application’s window fading out as you begin focusing on the new application, and you often have to wait a second or two in order to start typing in that new application. There’s just a general sluggishness. In fact, when I installed updates with the update manager, Firefox was pretty much unusable because dpkg was CPU spiking.
The Mobile Internet Experience
Not helping in the performance area, the MIE designers replaced the regular Alt-Tab behavior with a custom Alt-Tab command. In a regular Linux (or even Windows) installation, Alt-Tab will allow you to switch applications quickly. Pressing it once automatically switches to the other most recently used application. Hold down Alt while Tabbing will cycle through to the other open applications. In MIE, the first time you press Alt-Tab, the available applications appear but the focus is on the window you already have open. Why would I want to switch to what I already have open? So switching between the current window and the last-used window requires two Alt-Tabs instead of one.
The MIE interface is generally inflexible. The tweaks on the simple interface for the Eee PC were pretty simple and straightforward—edit this text file, paste in this command. Not so with the MIE interface. I’ve looked up tweaks, and I can’t find a way to completely free up the Gnome panel or to make search (and not URL) the default on the web search dialogue. I even tried just installing IceWM and using that instead of the MIE version of Gnome. No go there. If I used IceWM, the Network Manager applet would launch but not work, and resume from suspend-to-RAM did not work either in IceWM. There are some hidden scripts or something in MIE that make things work, and it’s a little annoying.
The startup questions asked if I didn’t want to be prompted for my password, and I thought they were talking about an autologin. But apparently, that just took the password completely off sudo, and I don’t see any simple way to get it back. Maybe I’ll have to dig into the /etc/sudoers file. For any setting you have to change something, you should have another setting to change it back.
A couple of other general annoyances: granted, I’ve had this for less than one day, but I’m finding it extremely difficult to adjust to the touchpad buttons being on the sides instead of the bottom of the touchpad. And the touchpad is just too sensitive, even after I installed gsynaptics and tried tweaking the settings. Yes, there is a dedicated button to turn off the touchpad, and that button would be handy if you’re typing a long novel, I guess, but most of the time you want to constantly switch back and forth between typing and mousing on a netbook!
Another annoying thing about it is the display is extremely bright. Even at its lowest setting, it is bright. When you plug in the power cord, the brightness resets to the highest brightness, and even if you unplug the power cord, the brightness resets to the highest brightness. I don’t want my netbook on the highest brightness… ever. I can’t find a setting to change this, though, and I think it’s one of the reasons the battery life is so poor.
The power button is oddly placed on the underside of the front of the HP Mini, and it’s one of those ones you have to pull to a side instead of push. I guess in one sense that’s good because you’ll never accidentally press it. But, really, it’s annoying to pull a button.
Even though WEP is far less secure than WPA, my wife’s Macbook Pro cannot work with WPA reliably, so we use WEP because I still think it’s better than no encryption at all (won’t stop the serious packet sniffers, but it will stop the casual leecher). Unfortunately, the MIE would simply not connect to the type of WEP encryption we were using, so I had to change to another type. Then it connected just fine. But that’s a bit odd.
Not really a problem, but I did notice the HP Mini came with no carrying case or bag. It didn’t have to. It was a nice touch that Asus included a bag with my Eee PC, though.
Ordinarily in a review I would put the criticisms last, but the MIE interface and the Mini defaults are such a bad implementation of Ubuntu that these defaults seriously hamper the Mini experience so that I cannot overlook them in any moment I’m using the Mini.
The Good Stuff
There are good things about the Mini, though, and that’s why I’m going to stick with it.
As I said before, the physical construction of the netbook is genius. When closed, it looks tiny. When open, the keyboard looks impressively large. The screen is a bit too shiny, but it’s a very nice, large screen. I read one review that complained about the plug not going in all the way, but I didn’t have that problem at all. I like how the SD card slot is a bit recessed, so when I put my SD card in, it’s a bit hidden and doesn’t jut out (as it did on my Eee PC).
The speaker is cleverly placed on the hinge of the netbook so that it doesn’t take up extra space, but it isn’t hidden behind anything either. The sound comes out very strongly.
Even though it’d have been nice to have another USB slot and a proper VGA-out, the slimness of the netbook simply does not allow for it—there’s a lot of machine to cram into such a small package.
Not a big deal to Windows and Mac users, I know, but suspend-to-RAM works perfectly (as long as you use MIE’s custom Gnome and not IceWM). I haven’t tried hibernate yet.
More importantly, there seems to be a relatively rich set of packages available in the HP Mini repositories (which live on Canonical servers). Even though the regular Add/Remove has a pittance of applications, Synaptic is also installed and can be easily reached with an Alt-F2 and gksudo synaptic. Some reviews I read said applications installed this way wouldn’t show up in the regular application menus, but I installed both GIMP and gsynaptics and both made their way into the menus. (Of course, when I tried to do a –force-architecture installation of DropBox that didn’t quite work out.)
I bag on MIE’s usability, but the visual design of it is quite slick, from the USplash theme to the GDM theme, right down to the buttons and window decorations. Everything looks really nice, even though MIE does inherit some of the transitional flaws of Ubuntu (a quick view of terminal text before USplash loads up).
Despite the touchpad’s configuration being a bit annoying, its physical surface has a nice textural feel, and the buttons are not loud when pressed (unlike the serious clicking sound from my Eee PC’s buttons). The keys on the keyboard, likewise, are fairly quiet and easy to press.
I have to say I’m disappointed. All the reviews I’d read of the HP Mini MIE made it sound a little limiting but not a total disaster. Even a few hours of use has made me frustrated, so I would say MIE is a total disaster, definitely.
Since most of the flaws seem to have to do with the MIE interface configuration and general sluggishness, though, I want to give a proper vanilla Ubuntu installation a try on this (especially since I do have a 2 GB RAM stick on the way). The best thing is that with 16 GB of space on my SSD, I can do a proper dual-boot (unlike on my 4 GB SSD Eee PC). More later…