17 December 2008

Netbook

Why I’d like a smaller Apple laptop

In New York this summer, I bought an ASUS Eee 901 “netbook”, and chose the Linux version, congratulating myself on sticking it to The Man while gaining an extra 8Gb of drive space. A week later, I was sighing with relief after having deleted Linux and installed Windows XP instead.1 What went wrong?

The default Xandros operating system looked okay at first: certainly, the computer booted very quickly (in roughly 15 seconds), after which I had Firefox, OpenOffice and a bunch of other little apps which pretty much replicated the bare-bones functionality of an OS X or Windows system. The wireless seemed a little flaky, but I assumed there would be driver updates. But then I made a huge mistake! I tried to install a new application.

All I wanted was a full-screen text-editing app along the lines of WriteRoom. So I googled and found a likely-looking candidate. I quickly found out that I had been spoiled by years of Mac or Windows installation procedures, in which you simply double-click or drag a file and hey presto, you have a new app. This paradigm doesn’t seem to have quite filtered all the way through the Linux world yet. The text-editing app I wanted wasn’t available as a binary for my “flavour” of Linux; and to make it I first required a certain library, which in turn required a certain bunch of dependencies, which in their turn required a bunch of other things…

Suffice it to say that after four hours of stabbing in increasing fury at the 901′s lovably tiny keys, as it told me that things I had just installed were in fact missing, and I would need to download another 100Mb of bizarro crap, and then laughing in disbelief when after downloading another 100Mb of bizarro crap it somehow still didn’t work, I gave up. The wise words of a friend of mine, a polyvalent genius in the fields of writing, country music, and software architecture, echoed in my head: “You probably count as a power user of the Mac, Steve,” he had warned me through a foreboding cloud of Lucky Strike smoke when I told him about my new machine, “but Linux is a different matter entirely.” He was tragically correct.

Sure, sure — I probably did something stupid or wrong. But if someone who is comfortable-ish in the Mac OS X Terminal can’t install an application he wants on Linux, how on earth could Linux ever become a mainstream consumer operating system? Maybe the specific version of Linux installed by Asus was the problem. But I confess that I ended up thinking: if the point of the Linux world is to provide a robust, *nix-based alternative to the Windows gorilla, why bother? Dudes: Mac OS X is it.

Anyway, phew: the next day, I had Windows XP installed on the little bugger instead. The wireless was more reliable — and, as I later found out, the battery life was better. I installed Firefox 3 (you don’t want to hear about the further hours I had spent trying to update Firefox 2 in Linux), and the brilliant Q10 (suggested in comments to this post) as my WriteRoom replacement, and all was right with the world. Well, nearly.

I didn’t mind all that much having to use XP instead of Mac OS X in general: I’m not the sort of person who dicks around pointlessly in the file-browser congratulating himself on his particular choice of operating system.2 But the crunch comes with the single-platform applications one wants to use. And there is one app I don’t really want to do without on any machine I work on: Scrivener, which is Mac-only.3 I could try to go commando, legally speaking, and install Mac OS X on the Asus, but it seems that the best current way to do this still leaves you without sound and with sucky wireless. So for the moment I have to suck it up and leave Scrivener at home if I choose to take the Asus on my travels.

Which brings me to the rumours that Apple might soon launch a “netbook”, about which possibility John Gruber of Daring Fireball writes an elegantly deflationary post. Why should Apple make such a machine?, he asks:

For one thing, I remain unconvinced that “netbooks” are an actual new category. What is the difference between a “netbook” and a “really cheap laptop that runs something other than Vista”?

For me, there’s a big difference. I don’t know why, but since the Apple Duos were discontinued, the industry trend has been for “laptops” made by everyone to get inexorably larger. I myself have owned and loved several Apple laptops — a PowerBook 520, a “Wallstreet” PowerBook, an iBook, and the black MacBook on which I am writing this. But the reason I bought the Asus was because, as a machine for writing, web and email when I’m travelling, even the gorgeous BlackBook is just pointlessly large. I was not interested when the MacBook Air came out — I don’t care if the computer’s thinner and lighter but still takes up the same space on a café table: what I want is something literally half the footprint. Which the Eee is.4

What’s more, the Eee has a real-world usable battery life of about six-and-a-half to seven hours5, and you can boot it6 and use it very comfortably even while standing up. It will slip nicely into a hand- or manbag (for the metrosexual among you), rather than demanding a padded compartment in a backpack. And the fact that it’s so cheap makes it nearly disposable, unlike an expensively beautiful Apple machine. With your important files synced across a service like the excellent Dropbox, that’s another faint worry not rattling inside around your head. If Apple were to make a computer like this, I’d buy one in a heartbeat to run Scrivener on — even though I already have an OS X laptop and a Windows-based Eee.

So, finally, spare a thought for the British computer company Psion, who understood most of this before anyone else did, and unfortunately also before anyone else much cared. They even made a computer that was a step up from the Series 5 that I owned and adored but wasn’t as big and clunky as your average laptop. What was it called? Why, the netBook, of course.

  1. Luckily, I had an XP disc around lying around from the days when I had to have a PC for reviewing videogames. That era taught me at least one thing: nearly all PC games can be described with the single word “pointy”.
  2. Well, not much.
  3. The one other application that keeps me Mac-based is Logic, but I don’t foresee composing big orchestral arrangements on a netbook any time soon.
  4. And in turn, my black Nintendo DS is half the footprint of the Eee. You can imagine the happy hours I’ve spent stacking the three machines on top of one another.
  5. This is why I chose the Eee over other “netbooks”. There is no shortage of more positive reviews for competing machines, but for some reason the journalists who write them give other manufacturers a free pass on incredibly poor autonomy, often of less than three hours. Dudes: for a machine that’s supposed to be a take-anywhere internet and work device, a battery life of two hours and a bit equals MASSIVE FAIL.
  6. With a bit of fiddling, you can get the XP boot time to around a highly respectable 30 seconds, though really it should be instant-on like the old Psions.
  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    You used the wrong linux. Ubuntu (aka Debian) has the best install story I’ve seen on any platform. What’s more, there’s specific support for the Eee PC, and Ubuntu EEE. I haven’t used it, but I know people who have and are very happy with it.

    There’s are three morals to this story:

    When a company tries to roll their own linux for some whacky application, they fail. There’s too much work involved, and there are too many variables. Unless the company is will to put a lot of time and money into making it work, their distro won’t be best of breed.
    When a company is the distribution, they succeed (ie, Ubuntu and Red Hat). They are able to massage the bare *nix into something that works for a larger community. That community, in turn, contributes back to the company.
    Consumers should only be exposed to a polished linux with strong corporate backing (see #2). It’s too easy to cobble together a distro, say it’s linux, and fail to meet user’s expectations.

    e

  • http://stevenpoole.net/ Steven

    Thanks for the insight. I probably won’t go to the trouble of changing the OS on my Eee again, but it’s good to know there’s a decent Linux for it after all, even if it’s not the one Asus supplies.

  • http://www.currion.net Paul C

    I’ll second Erigami here – the Ubuntu installation process is the simplest I’ve ever seen. I switched over completely this year and so far, so good. Maybe you should give that distro a try on your Eee again ;)

  • http://akho.ru/ akho

    While I second Erigami’s recommendation, there is another thing you should know. The Linux world is disconnected; the fact that an application exists on Ubuntu or Mandriva does not necessarily imply that it also exists on Xandros (sure, most applications can be adapted to a different Linux flavor, but that requires time and skill most users do not posess; also, most Linux applications can be made to run on Windows or Mac OS X, but that’s more trouble than it’s worth for anyone). So your main problem was that you were trying to install an application that simply does not exist on your platform.

    This lack of differentiation is a major problem, of course, but that is a PR problem.

  • kubia

    Just one question: what was the name of the texteditor you were trying to install? I’m currently using Q10 with Wine on my Linux notebook, but I’m not that impressed with the strange flickerings of the screen.

  • http://stevenpoole.net Steven

    I’m afraid I can’t remember!

  • http://stevenpoole.net/blog/ Steven

    Trying Ubuntu-Eee (or rather Easy Peasy now) with textroom — I can highly recommend the latter. (It even lets you set time limits and word-count targets.)

  • ken lang

    According to DISTROWATCH there are 314 flavors of LINUX, starting with UBUNTU and ending with Dzongkha.

  • Raoul Duke

    i use linux, mac os x, and win xp. they all suck in various ways. “you can’t win, child. you can’t break even. you can’t even quit the game.” :-)

  • http://stevenpoole.net Steven

    I agree that they all suck!

    Unfortunately, even Ubuntu-Eee still sucks more than XP in my experience on the 901 (it’s nice and shiny, but still slower and buggier).