May 24, 2009

Netbooks

The Netbook is the coolest toy I've ever seen for Linux. As someone who loves small screens on laptops (who doesn't want a super thin 12" to carry with them to meetings or to pass through security at the airport) but can't stand the insane prices, I've had to stay in the 13" realm for a while. Then along came this idea of a super-cheap 9" laptop with a tiny keyboard that just looked to cool. That is until you tried to use it - typing on that keyboard was unbearable and the large bezel around the screen made it look as cheap as it costs. But then along came these 10" models with only a slightly reduced keyboard size (95% being the norm) which peaked my interest. Only one thing stood in my way: rationalizing the purchase of another laptop. This one was pretty easy: since I ride my bike to work each day I'm afraid to have one of my nice machines in my backpack which would surely be destroyed in the event of any crash no matter how minor. Great, now I can buy one. $350 later I'm pulling out this only semi-cheap looking laptop with a pathetic three-cell battery and no CD-ROM.

What if I could have a cheap ultra-portable Windows laptop which could connect to my company's VPN (64-bit Linux just can't do it) and run Outlook (Exchange 2007 broke Evolution)? This idea kept flirting with my mind, so I decided to keep Windows XP SP3 32-bit on there. For a while. Now, I won't pretend to be a Windows expert, but I'm a pro at 2000 (which I will argue was a really good OS) and was able to really trim down the install into the most per-formant XP to ever see the light of day! Internet Explorer was unusable, Firefox was painful, but surprisingly Safari seemed perfect for the job. Things were going alright for a few days, but I had to keep restarting the machine every half-hour or so because some application I needed just won't start (and don't even get me started on the delay after clicking on the "start" menu). Maybe I just had a bad install, but XP is no good so Windows not an option (although I hear Windows 7 is good on these things, let's see what happens when that comes out).

Let's talk about the Intel Atom processor running these things. It's a 32-bit single-core processor with Hyperthreading (pseudo-fake second-core), no out-of-order execution engine, and very low power requirements. Well the low power part sounds good at least. Hyperthreading was a terrible joke I though Intel kept hidden in the closet until the Core 2 came around, so I never thought I would see this again (apparently those marketing guys have more say than the engineers again, next step 20GHz processors with a 50-stage pipeline). The lack of an out-of-order execution engine also scares me (imagine removing fuel-injection and going back to carburettor); but that would explain XP running slow with the additional branching due to module message passing.

This thing needed a monolithic kernel; this thing needed Linux. Don't bother with those "Netbook Edition" installs if you know what you're doing, the interface is made for people afraid of the word "Linux." I went ahead and installed the latest and greatest Ubuntu Desktop. I've heard several horror stories about old Ubuntu on Netbooks, but Jaunty is up to the task, especially in a corporate environment. VPN's requiring Java won't run on 64-bit Linux (yet), but 32-bit works well (although I have noticed in my environment that it loses connection every 21 minutes). OpenOffice is always a pleasure to work with, but if you install 'Basket' as a OneNote replacement, and you'll have your co-workers envy. Be careful though, if you're like me and have a Solid State Drive (SDD), you'll want to make sure to not use a journaled file system: use ext2. As there are a finite number of writes to the drive, you'll need to cut corners in this area every chance you get (but be sure to backup, we have journaled file systems for a reason). You will see some swapping with the 1GB Netbooks, I haven't seen any when I maxed it out to 2GB. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have a swap drive, but increasing memory will help the lifespan of the SSD.

There's a lot of FUD coming from Microsoft and their partners these days about Linux being a horrible option for the Netbooks (stories of the Linux options being returned more than their Windows counterparts). I'm more inclined to believe the stories about inept salespeople over-promising what these devices are capable of. From my experience, even though it is only a few weeks, Windows is a poor option for these devices, and Linux is the only viable solution (I would love to see some desktop BSD in this area though, competition is good).

So what's the verdict? These things are fun little toys on the cheap which can do a lot for you in both a personal and professional environment. It's not a full featured laptop, and shouldn't be treated like one. But if you want to surf the net, check your email, chat with friends, or run office productivity software you'll be pleasantly surprised. So will I shed a tear if I crash my bike and with it my Netbook? Yes, but it'll probably be from the broken collar bone and road rash. I already have my eyes on a super-thin six-cell Netbook from Asus, and all I need is a good excuse.

Click Here!