Linux Ubuntu

Linux users take note: Google knows marketing

While critics and advocates of so-called “desktop Linux” waste their time imagining a world in which some consumer-targeted Linux distro manages to fix all its bugs and then self-proclaimed computer illiterates everywhere download and burn .iso files and then set their BIOSes to boot from CD and install and configure Linux themselves, Google moves forward with Linux doing what Apple has always done: market! Strengths? Highlight those. Perceived weaknesses? Market those as strengths. Actual weaknesses? What actual weaknesses?

Seriously, instead of saying “Anything Windows can do, Linux can do” (some BS statement I’ve seen repeated on numerous Linux forums over the years) or “Linux will be a Windows replacement when it can do X” (another popular BS statement), just be honest about what Linux can do well and then play that up. For years, Linux distros had “app stores” called package managers. Because they didn’t have savvy marketing departments, somehow those package managers became a deficiency (“if only I could double-click a setup.exe as I did in Windows”) instead of a strength (get all your software in one place automatically updated and easily searchable). Apple knew how to take that concept and make it sexy. Voila! The App Store. Google followed up with the Android Market.

Likewise, for years, Linux distros have offered relatively safe computing for web, email, word processing, light photo editing, and music organization. Did that get played up as a strength? No. Linux advocates and critics instead decided to focus on what Linux didn’t offer (mainly Windows-only applications and drivers for some third-party hardware peripherals). What does Google do? Remind people (YouTube watchers, anyway) that they use “the internet” (web browser, really) for 90% of their computing anyway. Why not focus on the web browser instead of niche applications (the features in Photoshop that only professionals use, since the rest are in GIMP; high-end commercial video games, since people who use their computers 90% of the time on the web will either not play video games or play them on a console; iTunes, because you’re going to buy an Android phone and not an iPhone anyway, target audience of this YouTube video)? Why not play up the strengths of Linux?

Linux fanatics and haters, I give you… proper marketing:

It should also be mentioned that Google isn’t stupid. It knows that people generally buy devices, not operating systems. Who wants to install an OS herself and have to go through figuring out drivers and other such nonsense? That’s the OEM’s job. If you’re like the vast majority of consumers, you don’t buy an iPhone and install Linux on it. You buy an Android phone. You don’t buy a Windows netbook (or, worse yet, buy a badly configured obscure Linux distro preinstalled—Xandros and Linpus, I mean you!) and install Linux on it. You buy a Chrome OS netbook.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Where is this dreamland in which Windows “just works”?

First of all, I have to say it is not my intention to bash Windows. I am not a Windows hater. I actually like Windows. I use it at work every weekday, and I have found ways to have a generally pleasant experience with it. I like Mac OS X better than Windows, though, and I like Ubuntu Linux better than Mac OS X. I actually am quite a firm believer in using the operating system that works best for you and that all the major platforms have pros and cons.

What I can’t stand is Windows power users having a bad experience trying to migrate to Ubuntu (or some other Linux distribution) and then proclaiming “This is why Windows will always dominate the desktop” or “This is why Linux isn’t ready for the masses.” This in these contexts meaning that they had some problem using a peripheral or getting their wireless to work or whatever. I don’t get it. Really. I don’t understand where the logic in this proclamation is. Such a conclusion comes from several flawed assumptions:

  1. Windows always works.
  2. People choose Windows because it always works.
  3. If Linux always worked, the masses would suddenly flock to Linux.
  4. The problem I had with Linux is a problem everyone would have in Linux.

The truth is that if you work in tech support (I don’t officially, but I have unofficially in my last two jobs), you know that there are problems (many problems) on both Windows and Mac OS X. Windows has been the dominant platform at both my current and previous workplaces, and every single day there are Windows problems abounding—cryptic error messages, printer driver conflicts, wireless drivers preventing laptops from going into standby, blue screens of death, rogue viruses, and frozen applications. Believe me, our official tech support guy doesn’t just sit around twiddling his thumbs. He is busy.

Oddly enough, when people have these constant Windows problems, they don’t decide Windows “isn’t ready for the masses.” They just stick with it. Maybe they’ll say “I hate computers.” Maybe some smug Mac user (who also has problems of a different sort but somehow turns a blind eye to them) will say “I hate PCs” (and by PC they mean Windows PC). Oh, but the second a Windows power user tries Linux and encounters one or two problems, suddenly Windows is this always-working utopia. “I’d never have this problem in Windows.” Sure, buddy. Let me tell you about problems.

Last week, a friend of mine wanted to create a playlist of songs to put on her iPhone for a party she was throwing. Here are the problems she encountered:

  • The iPhone wouldn’t update because it couldn’t connect to the iTunes server
  • After it appeared to start the update, iTunes estimated the update download to take 54 minutes.
  • When the download failed after a half hour, she gave up on getting updated firmware on her iPhone altogether.
  • After installing the Amazon MP3 Installer, the download of the purchased MP3 failed midway through and would not complete or offer a useful error message after clicking retry.
  • The iTunes store worked better for purchasing music but cost more ($1.29 per song instead of $.99 per song)—not really a technical problem but still annoying.
  • She couldn’t sync the songs in her playlist to the iPhone, since the iPhone had been authorized on too many computers already, so she had to call Apple to get them to deauthorize her other computers so she could authorize her current computer.

So that’s “just working”? These are not the only problems she’s had on a Windows computer, and she’s had multiple computers. More importantly, she could not solve all these problems on her own, but she needed me to walk her through almost every step of the way. Is this pretty typical? Yes, actually. As I said before, I’m not even the real tech support guy at work, but people still ask me for help with their Windows problems every single day of the week. It could be Microsoft Word inserting some stupid line that can’t be erased or deleted. It could be Firefox not accepting cookies for website even when you’ve enabled them in Tools > Options. It could be the printer icon not allowing you to delete an errored out print job.

If there were really an operating system that offered you a flawless experience that didn’t require you to be your own tech support or for you to find outside tech support, then a lot of people would be out of jobs. Help desks everywhere would be laying off employees by the tens of thousands.

So does Linux have problems? Sure. It has a lot of problems. But those problems are not the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) reason most people use Windows. Windows’ dominance has mainly to do with inertia, marketing, brand-name recognition, and a near-monopoly on preinstallations. Why should I have to state this obvious fact? Because again and again Windows power users perpetuate this nonsense—because they have spent years or even decades perfecting the art of making Windows a bearable experience—that there are no problems in Windows and that any problem in Linux must be the reason Linux for desktops/laptops/netbooks isn’t more popular than it is.

Further Reading
Linux-for-the-masses narratives
Macs are computers, not magic (part 2)

Linux Ubuntu

The GUI v. CLI Debate

I’ve been helping with online tech support for Ubuntu for over four years now, and every now and then the discussion comes up about whether it’s “better” to use terminal command instructions or to use point-and-click instructions when offering help.

Inevitably, some die-hard CLI (command-line interface) fans come out and say that the terminal is “more powerful” and that every Linux user should learn to use the terminal, and then some die-hard GUI (graphical user interface) fans come out and say that the terminal is intimidating and that if Linux wants more users, it has to develop more graphical interfaces for things; and then you get the hardcore Linux users who claim they don’t care if Linux gets more users or not, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

The truth is that neither CLI nor GUI is always “better” than the other. There are appropriate situations for both CLI and GUI on a support forum. I hope everyone can agree that all common tasks should be able to be done in the CLI and through the GUI. Choice is ultimately what’s most important, so that those who prefer the CLI can use the CLI, and those who prefer the GUI can use the GUI.

But if I am offering help to new users, do I give GUI instructions or CLI instructions? It depends on what kind of support I’m giving.

When is GUI support appropriate?
If a new user wants to know how to do a basic task that she will probably repeat (or, if not the exact task, then at least something similar) in the future, then I will usually give point-and-click instructions to encourage that user to explore the GUI for that kind of task. For example, if a new user asks “How do I install Audacity?” then I am not going to say “Just use sudo apt-get install audacity.” Instead, I’ll tell her to use Applications > Ubuntu Software Center or Applications > Add/Remove, or just link her to this tutorial on how to install software. There are several reasons I do this:

  • Even though the apt-get command makes perfect sense to me, it is just cryptic gobbledygook to a new user, and it will not help her to install other software in the future unless I bother to explain how the command works; and, more importantly, even if she understands how apt-get works, she’ll still need to know the name of the package she wants to install in order to use the command most efficiently.
  • A lot of new Linux users (myself included, when I first started) have an irrational fear of the terminal, even if you tell them to copy and paste the command with a mouse (no typing necessary). Eventually, as they become more comfortable with the new environment that Gnome or KDE (or Xfce or whatever other user interface they’re exploring) has to offer, they are more likely to be amenable to learning terminal commands and even liking them.
  • Among Windows power users (the most likely group to migrate to an almost-unheard-of operating system that requires download, installation, and configuration from the user and not the OEM), there is already a reputation Linux distros have of being too terminal-dependent. It’s great to advertise to new users just how many things can be done by pointing and clicking, and that will make their transition to Linux that much easier.

Ah, some veteran forum members would protest, but what if I don’t want to bother making screenshots or typing out long point-and-click instructions that can be summed up in a single command? To that, I say if you’re too lazy to offer appropriate help, don’t offer help at all. Someone else will help. Or, better yet, find a good screenshot-laden tutorial and link to the tutorial instead (that’s actually how I started up my Psychocats Ubuntu tutorials site—I got tired of constantly retyping the same support posts over and over again, so I just made one place I could keep linking new users to).

I would say something similar to those who use Fluxbox or Enlightenment and want to primarily help those who use Gnome or KDE. If you aren’t familiar with the graphical environment the user you’re trying to help is using, don’t offer help in that instance. Save your help for when the CLI is appropriate.

When is CLI support appropriate?
The GUI may be fine for common tasks (installing software, launching applications, managing files and folders), but what if someone runs into a problem? What if what she’s doing is not a common task but a one-time setup or configuration? There’s no way if a new user says “When I try to launch Firefox, it just disappears” that I’m going to offer a point-and-click solution. Problems are best diagnosed with the CLI, and terminal commands (even for GUI applications) are more likely to yield helpful error messages. Likewise, if her wireless card isn’t recognized properly or fixed by System > Administration > Hardware Drivers, it isn’t a crime to walk her through manually editing configuration files to fix the wireless problem, because once it’s fixed, she should never have to do that again.

If you do offer CLI solutions to problems, though, as much as possible try to explain what these commands mean or do. You don’t have to copy and paste in a whole man page (in fact, that probably won’t be helpful at all—I’ve been using Linux for years and have yet to find a man page I actually understand). Just keep in mind that to many new users, terminal commands are like a foreign language they can’t even say hello or thank you in.

CLI and GUI aren’t going away any time soon. One is a hammer. One is a screwdriver. No one tool will suit everyone best at all times. Use what’s appropriate. Appreciate that what you like or prefer may not be what someone else likes or prefers.

Linux Ubuntu

Psychocats will be updated for Karmic… please be patient

The new release of Ubuntu 9.10 (codenamed Karmic Koala) came out today. It’ll take me a couple of weeks to get my tutorials site updated. I appreciate the patience of Ubuntu users who like and use my site. Thanks!

Linux Ubuntu

My response to Rory Cellan-Jones

Rory Cellan-Jones recently spent 24 hours with Ubuntu:

I installed a few applications – including Skype, and a social networking application called Gwibber.

But when I tried to install a free open-source audio editing program, Audacity, it appeared more complex to get hold of an Ubuntu version than the one I’ve used on a Mac.

So it was simpler than this on Mac?

What was tripping you up? Not knowing a sound recording and editing program would be in the Sound & Video category? Or not realizing how silly it is to have to open a web browser to install a program? Do you find the iTunes App Store difficult to use? Because that’s pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

I very much look forward to reading your next article, “24 hours learning to ride a bicycle.” The wheels must just not be worth the effort.

Further Reading
Know why software installation is difficult on Linux? It’s a secret. I can’t tell you.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Music I Like Ubuntu

A professional musician switches from Mac to Ubuntu Linux?

I just read Linux Music Workflow: Switching from Mac OS X to Ubuntu with Kim Cascone, and I have to say I’m shocked, especially after reading Kim Cascone’s Wikipedia entry. Kim is a serious musician, not just some schmoe dinking around in his basement.

I’ve been a full-time Ubuntu user for a little over four years now, having switched from Windows XP. My wife switched around the same time but from Windows to Mac, as she uses Mac for serious graphic design work.

Even though I get annoyed when anti-Linux trolls make it sound as if no one could use Linux just because Linux isn’t great for certain niche commercial applications (AutoCAD, Adobe CS, certain graphics-intensive video games), I have to concede that Linux is not for everyone. And if someone had come up to me yesterday and said, “Hey I’m a professional musician who uses a computer full-time for audio stuff. Should I use Linux?” I would probably laugh in her face and tell her to go with Mac OS X.

Even though I don’t use Linux for serious audio work, I’ve seen enough of the Linux audio mess of Pulse Audio, OSS, and ALSA to know it can be an obstacle for someone seeking to use Linux primarily for audio work. After reading that blog post, though, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised.

And I also think that, even though there is a myth of meritocracy in the software world, arguing about how freedom is important isn’t going to win over the general public. If open source is really a better development model, it will create better software. There shouldn’t be a choice between functionality and ideology. If the ideology of freedom being better is true, then it should produce the best functionality eventually. And maybe it is slowly getting there.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that if Ubuntu (or some other Linux distro) fixes all its usability issues that all of a sudden hundreds of millions of Windows users (and Mac users?) will just download .iso files, burn them to CD, boot from CD, and install and configure a new operating system themselves. But why have extra obstacles?

Keep on bringing the improvements, Linux communities. This is definitely a cool development.

Ubuntu Web Browsers

How to Install Chromium Daily Builds in Ubuntu

Add key for Chromium daily build repositories
Add Chromium daily build repositories
Install Chromium
Enable plugins
Use system GTK theme
First 4 steps with one terminal command


Chromium is still in testing. It has not been officially released, so please do not expect it to run well. In the minimal use I've made of it, it appears to run okay, but daily updates could just break it at any moment.

So please be prepared to have a backup browser ready to use (like Firefox) and do not do anything critical in Chromium at this time (e.g., something you'd be really sad about if you were in the middle of doing it and your browser randomly crashed).

Click on any of the screenshots below in order to see a larger image.

Add key for Chromium daily build repositories

First, add the GPG key for the Chromium daily build repos.

Visit the Chromium daily builds section of Launchpad.

Copy the line of code to add the key.

Open up a terminal.

Paste in the code.

Add Chromium daily build repositories

Now we need to add the actual repositories.

Go back to the PPA page, select your version of Ubuntu, and then copy the first line of text.

Go to System > Administration > Software Sources and enter your password when prompted.

Under Third-Party Software click Add. In APT line: paste in the line, and then click Add Source.

Do the same thing for the second line.

When prompted to reload the the repositories information, do so and wait.

Install Chromium

Now that we have the daily builds repositories enabled, we can actually install Chromium.

Go to System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager and search for chromium

Mark chromium-browser for installation and then confirm the Mark.

Click Apply and then confirm again by clicking the second Apply when prompted.

Wait for Chromium to finish installing.

Quit Synaptic and quit Firefox.

Enable plugins

Even though Chromium is installed and ready to use now, it doesn't come with the browser plugins enabled (no YouTube... no anything involving Flash).

If you want to enable plugins, go ahead and launch Chrome.

Copy the little phrase --enable-plugins

Right-click the Applications menu and select Edit Menus

Then, under Applications > Internet, double-click Chromium Web Browser and under Command, paste --enable-plugins right after chromium-browser and right before %U, so the whole command will read

chromium-browser --enable-plugins %U

Use system GTK theme

By default, Chromium will have the same blue border that Chrome has in Windows.

If you want to blend it in with your GTK theme, click on the wrench and select Options

Then, under Personal Stuff, select Set to GTK+ theme

That's it. You're ready to go now and use Chromium!

First 4 steps with one terminal command

If you've never added the daily builds repositories and if you're using Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope), you can do all the first four steps (sans getting Chromium to use your GTK theme) by just pasting this one command into the terminal:
sudo apt-key adv --recv-keys --keyserver 4E5E17B5 && echo "deb jaunty main" | sudo tee -a /etc/apt/sources.list && echo "deb-src jaunty main" | sudo tee -a /etc/apt/sources.list && sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install chromium-browser && mkdir -p ~/.local/share/applications && cp /usr/share/applications/chromium-browser.desktop ~/.local/share/applications && sed -i 's/Exec=chromium-browser/Exec=chromium-browser --enable-plugins/g' ~/.local/share/applications/chromium-browser.desktop
Linux Ubuntu

What’s the point of Ubuntu remixes?

I remember when Ubuntu Christian Edition first came on the scene (don’t look for it any more—the project has since been discontinued). There was an uproar in the Ubuntu Linux community. Why are people bringing religion into software? Free software should be bringing people together, not separating them. And, of course, the objection of Why even bother? Can’t you just create a metapackage? Aren’t all these things in the software repositories? Users can just install GnomeSword and DansGuardian themselves.

Religion aside, there seemed to be (and sometimes continues to be) an objection to the very notion that you might take a Linux distribution, change the default packages and artwork in it, and then re-release it as a modified distribution (or “remix” as the Ubuntu folks like to call it, as per their trademark policy). Even now I still see people on the forums asking “Why? Why would you bother? Why can’t you install those packages yourself?”

To answer this question, let’s imagine Ubuntu stopped distributing itself the way it does now. Right now, the default Ubuntu comes as a CD that has a live session that runs off RAM, and if you want to install it to your hard drive, you can do so. Both the live session and the fresh install give you a set of applications—a web browser, an email client, a bittorrent client, a word processor, an image editor, etc. What if Ubuntu stopped doing that? What if they said “Eh. People can just install applications themselves. Let’s just give them a command prompt after installation”?

Well, I actually know some Ubuntu users would be thrilled with that. There is a reason, though, why the mini.iso is less popular than the Desktop CD .iso, and it’s not just because the Desktop CD is the main download on the Ubuntu website.

Defaults matter.

I can’t tell you how many Windows users I see with the taskbar on the bottom and a green rolling hill with a blue sky for the desktop wallpaper. People use Internet Explorer because it is the default web browser in Windows. A lot of Ubuntu users like Gnome because it has two panels instead of one. Guess what, people—Gnome can easily have one panel. Just delete the bottom panel (or the top one).

Have you ever taken a default installation and tweaked it to be exactly the way you want it? For some people, that can be just a couple of minutes. For others, it can take hours. I’m not kidding.

What if you felt the default Ubuntu packages weren’t a good way to introduce Ubuntu to folks interested in trying Linux? Would you carry around a live CD with you and then say “Hold on. Hold on. I’m going to boot this up, but it’ll take me about forty-five minutes to make this interface presentable and install a bunch of packages… oh, which may not fit in your 512 MB of RAM”? Wouldn’t it be far more effective to have a live CD with Ubuntu exactly the way you want it?

I recently created my own Ubuntu remix called the Ubuntu HP Mini Remix. Yes, you can do all those things in Ubuntu after installation (fix sound, make sound settings stick, have wireless resume more quickly after suspend, consolidate panels to make room for more vertical real estate), but it involves editing configuration text files and doing a lot of annoying little tweaks.

And some folks with HP Minis haven’t been able to get those tweaks working. Maybe it’d be good if I just gave them an .iso they could use right away that had those tweaks in them?

More importantly, though, what’s the harm? You don’t have to use my remix. No one does. In fact, if I were the only person using my remix, I’d still consider it worth the effort. It doesn’t take anything away from Ubuntu. I’m not a developer or programmer. I’m not a graphics artist. The time and energy I put into my remix would not benefit vanilla Ubuntu, since the tweaks I’m making are specifically for the HP Mini 1120nr. Yes, there are some bugs that could be fixed, but I’m not fixing bugs. I’m employing workarounds for those bugs.

Remixes are a good way to make easily available to a niche population a set of default packages that its members can install on multiple systems or demonstrate as live sessions on multiple systems without them having to make an hour’s worth of tweaks to get going.

Defaults matter. That’s why remixes matter.

Computers hp mini Linux Ubuntu

Vanilla Ubuntu on the HP Mini 1120nr

Anyone who read my last post knows I am not a fan at all of the HP Mobile Internet Experience. It was a huge disappointment that made me almost regret buying the HP Mini 1120nr.

Good thing I didn’t give up on it, though, just because of the bad MIE interface. I installed vanilla Ubuntu on it, and it’s great now!

First I had to consider whether to install Ubuntu lpia (lower-powered Intel architecture) or the regular i386 version. Presumably the lpia version is optimized for the Intel Atom processor in my HP Mini, but…

…not to mention the fact that almost all third-party .deb files (TrueCrypt, DropBox, Opera) are compiled for i386. Since the battery life on the HP Mini appears to be between 2 and 2.5 hours (less than the 3 hours I got on my Eee PC 701), an added 12 to 15 minutes of battery life wouldn’t really help anyway. In any case, I don’t travel much, so battery life would be just something to brag about, not necessarily something I would need.

Instead of the hours I spent trying to make the MIE interface usable (to no avail, by the way, and it wasn’t any more responsive even after I switched from 1 GB to 2 GB of RAM), the Ubuntu installation and configuration took me only about 40 minutes and was extremely painless.

I took a vanilla Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope), booted it from USB, clicked the Install button on the desktop, answered the easy questions quickly, resized my MIE partition to make way for regular Ubuntu, took 20 minutes to install, then rebooted.

Almost everything worked straight away—Compiz, screen resolution, function keys, resume from suspend. Even wireless worked (and it’s a Broadcom card, which is notoriously Linux-unfriendly). The only thing broken was sound. So I did a quick Google search and came across this fix. I pasted those few commands into the terminal, rebooted, checked a couple of boxes in the sound preferences (check to enable speakers, uncheck to disable PC beep), and everything was running quite smoothly—and with no lag at all.

It’s a shame HP didn’t put more usability testing into their preinstalled version of Ubuntu… or just put more thought into sticking with regular Ubuntu.

Edit (26 May, 2009): Actually, the sound settings would reset after each reboot. Usually, I just suspend to RAM, but every now and then I reboot, and it’s annoying to have to mute the PC Beep and unmute the PC Speaker every time.

The fix is:

  1. Get the volume settings exactly the way you want them.
  2. Paste the command sudo alsactl store into the terminal.
  3. Edit the /etc/rc.local file as root (sudo nano -B /etc/rc.local) and then add in the line alsactl restore before exit 0

Now if you reboot, your sound settings should stay the same.

hp mini Linux Ubuntu

My HP Mini Mobile Internet… Experience

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.

Major Criticisms
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.

Hardware Problems
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.

Other thoughts
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…