The Truth About Netbooks

There’s been a backlash against netbooks in recent weeks, with one blog post in particular standing out. Netbooks, for the uninitiated, are small, lightweight and not-so-powerful laptops that have been selling like hotcakes for the past year because they offer most of the capabilities of a full-size laptop in a lightweight package (usually about a kilogram), and at a lightweight price (generally from $250 to $500, but I’ve seen them south of $199 on occasion).

A lot of the complaints come from the “mobility” fans — people who already have big, heavy, and powerful laptops as well as smart phones (usually iPhones). They see netbooks as entirely pointless because they lack the power of their serious laptops and the mobility of their smart phones. News flash: if you already have a laptop and an iPhone then yes, a netbook would be pointless. News flash update: not everybody shares your situation.

I’m an example of the kind of person who finds a netbook to be a perfect device for my needs. I have a desktop computer where I do all my “heavy lifting,” including image processing for my two photoblogs. I have a beautiful 22-inch HP monitor that should be (and hopefully will be) color calibrated for photography work. I’m perfectly happy to do that work — and most of my writing and blogging work — at my desk in front of that big bright monitor, using the keyboard and mouse of my choice. I have no desire to do that work on a laptop. None at all. (You want reasons? Start with not wanting to carry my entire photo library and other valuable files around with me every day.)

However, I do like to occasionally go somewhere else to write. I also like to read the BBC online news in the kitchen while eating my breakfast. I find it handy to be able to look things up on IMDB and Wikipedia while I’m watching TV in the living room. I like having the option of updating my blog from anywhere — such as when I’m on vacation or merely passing time in a café or someone else’s house — and to do video chat or Skype from where ever I happen to be. I can get all that by having a laptop to go with my desktop machine. Or I can get a netbook, which does all of those things for half the price and less than half the weight.

Incidentally, I don’t have a smart phone, but I have an iPod Touch, which, with WiFi, is almost the same. More often than not when I’m looking things up on the Web while watching TV it’s on the iPod. Sometimes I use it to read the news on the Beeb, too, but all the scrolling can easily get annoying while you’re trying to eat.

That said, what I find rather laughable are the mobility fans who think you can do just as much (or even “almost” as much) on a smart phone as you could on a netbook. That is daft. Below I will list a few challenges; things that are dead simple on a netbook (or a laptop) that are very difficult or even impossible on a smart phone. These are things I do on a regular basis. OK, mobility fans, let’s see you do any of these on your iPhone:

  • Edit a Wikipedia article, including adding references and updating the history and discussion pages.
  • Make a 600 word blog post on your self-hosted WordPress blog.
  • While reading a long article in the New York Times (online), use your browser’s search function to find a keyword.
  • Update an old blog post to include some new links (which generally involves having multiple tabs open, easily moving between them, cutting and pasting, and forcing a link to open in a new tab).
  • Play the video that appears in a BBC online news story.
  • Buy something on eBay.

“Oh, but those are things I do with my laptop” you might say. Well yes, but I don’t have a laptop! And if I want to do those lightweight things, why should I get a heavy monster of a laptop — or pay $2000+ for an “ultraportable” like the Macbook Air or the Toshiba Portégé — when I can get a netbook that is cheap and effortless to carry? It’s a matter of knowing what you need and buying accordingly.

HP mini 1000 - Smart car

Put another way, if you live in the suburbs and you need a vehicle for hauling lots of gear around for your gardening business, you should probably get a big pickup truck. If you need a second vehicle for getting around when it’s just you and your sweetie, get a tiny, fuel efficient thing like a two-seater Smart car. If all you ever do is go from Point A to Point B and back on a regular schedule, get a bus pass.

You can see where that’s going. My desktop is my pickup truck. My netbook is my Smart car. My iPod Touch is my bus pass.

Presto Sucks

Last week I came upon a reference to a product called Presto. It claims to be a fast, lightweight version of Xandros Linux designed for fast booting and minimal operating system overhead. The odd thing is that it isn’t installed independently; you install it from Windows. When you boot your machine, you are given the choice of running Windows or Presto. However, according to Presto’s FAQ, it isn’t actually Linux; it’s “a Windows application based on Linux.”

Regardless, it sounded interesting and I thought I’d like to try it on my HP Mini 1000 netbook. I did a quick search to see if there were any known problems, and I found nothing of significance so I installed the trial version. True to its claims, it booted in 12 seconds. Wow!

After that, things didn’t go so well. I’ll begin by listing the good stuff, then the bad. Spoiler: the bad was so bad I uninstalled it and ended up having to reinstall Windows in order to get my Mini 1000 working correctly.

The Good

It boots really quickly, like 12 seconds quickly. Wow!

It shuts down really quickly. Something like three or four seconds.

The interface, while very minimal, is quite functional. You get a sort of task bar on the side of the screen that has a few buttons (one for the web browser, one for the file manager, etc.). Very basic, but that’s what you should expect from an OS that boots in 12 seconds.

It has an “App Store,” just like the iPhone. This is an excellent innovation, because one of the biggest complaints that nOObs have about Linux is the difficulty of installing software. Typically, you need to use some obscure commands in a terminal window to access some kind of repository somewhere (and it’s never really clear which repository to use), and then you often have to download the software in different parts and do all sorts of things that only make sense to Linux experts. Presto’s Linux App Store is the kind of thing that could really help bring Linux to the average user.

The Bad

Hidden Control Panel

Presto looks terrible when you first start it up. The fonts are all to big and the buttons are ugly. I could not find a control panel, so I went to the Presto web site and checked out their very minimal FAQ. It turns out you have to open a terminal window first (Ctrl-Alt-t) and then type this unintuitive command: xfce4-settings-manager. You have to do that every time you want to change settings.

Further research revealed that the control panel was pinned to the task bar in the beta version of Presto, but not in the 1.0 release. Why? Who decided to pull this very useful tool out of plain view and hide it behind an arcane terminal command? (WTF does “xfce4” even mean?)

Hidden Apps

I decided to try out the App Store. I went in a poked around and downloaded two free applications; a text editor and FileZilla (FTP). Great. But where the heck did they go? There was no sign of them anywhere. Nothing appeared on the task bar and there were no desktop icons. I dug around some more on the web, and found out that a patch had been issued, available from the App Store, that puts the Control Panel back on the task bar. It also includes a “launcher.”

It required a lot of digging to find the patch and I never would have found it had I not read about it in the Presto forums. I installed it, and bingo! The launcher appeared, and there too were my text editor and FileZilla.

At this point the Linux dorks (not to be confused with Linux users) are thinking “yay, he dug around and now it’s working the way he wants it to. So what’s he complaining about?” The rest of us, however, are thinking “what idiot decided to hide those things in the first place? Is the product manager asleep at the wheel? The launcher should be part of the initial installation because it’s an important part of the user experience.”

Trackpad Problem

In Presto, the trackpad on my Mini 1000 worked as a basic pointer, but there was no scrolling function. In the forums I found a reference to this issue that said it was just a matter of downloading and installing the right drivers. So I asked for clarification; what drivers and where do I get them? Silence. More silence. Days passed, and still nothing but silence. Great. Thanks for the excellent support.

No Sleep Mode

Every laptop on earth has a sleep mode. You close the lid, and the machine goes to sleep. It’s still on, but the hard drive and the screen is powered down. This is basic, standard stuff. With Presto, when you close the lid it shuts off.

Back to the forums. Apparently there is no fix for this, and in a rare appearance by someone who actually works for Xandros (the parent company of Presto), the claim was made that it was a safely issue.

The guy said a laptop in sleep mode might overheat if put into a backpack. What? All around me, every day, I see thousands of people carrying their sleeping laptops. I’ve done it myself with the half dozen or so laptops I’ve used over the years. Yet this one guy at Xandros has apparently not been living on the same planet as me, because he thinks we’ll burst into flames if we put our sleeping laptops into our backpacks. Therefore, no sleep mode for Presto.

Well, sir, no sleep mode is a deal breaker for me. Even if Presto boots in only 12 seconds, I open and close my laptop dozens of times a day, sometimes a dozen times in an hour. I don’t want to have to close my applications every time I want to close the lid. No sleep mode is absolutely retarded!

Help and Documentation

The Presto web site has a few words of instructions for installation, a very basic FAQ, and links to the forums. There is also a feedback form where you can send in your questions. That’s it!

Oh, but we’re in the time of web 2.0 you say. Get all your help from the forums! That would be great if people actually responded to questions that are posted.

I posted four questions, none if which were complicated, and as of this writing none have been answered.

The silence of the forums.

Dear Xandros; if you’re going to rely on user forums for tech support then you really need to assign a few people to monitor the forums and to reply to questions that are not being addressed by other users. This is the FAIL zone for product launches; if you don’t actively support your new users they will go away. Relying on un-monitored forums is passive support.

Windows Hose Job

Here’s where it goes beyond “deal breaker.” At one point I decided to boot into Windows. While there, I went to check something on the web. Zonk! Pages not loading. I tried Firefox, Chrome, and IE and none of the browsers would load a page. (Yes, I was definitely connected and online). I went back into Presto and Firefox worked fine. Back to Windows; nothing.

(This is where Presto as “a Windows application based on Linux,” as opposed to a standalone Linux operating system, shows itself as a hazard. You seem to be in a lightweight Linux environment, but in fact it’s messing with your Windows setup and drivers.)

Interestingly, the Windows troubleshooting GUI had to go online to get some information, and it did so without any problems. Also, I could ping web sites in a Windows command window. It just wouldn’t connect through any of my web browsers. Incidentally, I also noticed that my LAN icon in the taskbar was missing.

I tried many fixes, and none of them worked. I spent hours on this, trying everything. All indications were that I was connected and everything was fine. I just couldn’t connect to any web pages. (The Linux dorks are shaking their heads saying “the workaround is obvious; surf the web through Presto.” I won’t elaborate on just how stupid that is.)

In the end, I uninstalled Presto. But guess what? That didn’t bring my Windows web browsing back. After much more fixing attempts I managed to get it so it would occasionally load some pages, but it was intermittent and entirely unacceptable. (Incidentally, after uninstalling Presto my LAN indicator came back. I don’t know what the connection between the two is.)

So thanks to Presto, I spent most of last night reinstalling Windows on my HP Mini 1000. This is no easy feat given that my netbook does not have a CD or DVD drive. But I managed it, and many hours later I am back online and everything works.

In the meantime, my questions in the forums are still lying there, unanswered. I did, however, get an email response to my support form query about the connectivity problem in Windows. After a three day wait I got this brilliant reply: “Can you check with your Windows Xp Network Settings for any incorrect settings. Also check for any wireless connection settings configuration that might have any issues.” Dude, I spent an entire day doing that!

The verdict is this: Presto sucks.

Presto sucks because of its lack of user support, its product management FAILURE, and because it hosed my Windows connectivity.

Update: the day after I finally heard from the support guy (and did not reply), he followed up, asking if I had made any progress. So they at least have a pulse.

Update 2: It has been pointed out to me offline that this review reads a bit like someone winging because some obscure Linux variation isn’t supported to my liking. However, I should point out that Presto is not some obscure Linux variation designed for tinkerers. It is a commercial venture, designed to appeal to non-specialized users.

Xandros is a big company, and Presto has a lot of marketing money behind it. (That Video on their Web site is professionally made, and that App Store was not coded overnight.) You have to pay to use Presto beyond its seven day trial, and you have to pay for many of the apps in the App Store.

If Presto were indeed a tinkerer’s delight, I would have gone in with the expectation of having to fight with it. (Or, truth be told, I wouldn’t have gone in at all.) But my criticisms are based on Presto as a commercial venture.

Less Junk in my Trunk

Just a quick note to say that I’ve cranked my email SPAM controls way up, on both the server side and with local filtering. So if you really are a Nigerian prince with a bit of a banking problem, or someone from Men’s Health who really does want to make me a great offer, then you’re probably out of luck.

That also means that friends who put a lot of junk in their emails will also get filtered. Oh well. But here are a few tips to help prevent having your email spam filtered (and not just with me):

  • Use plain text email instead of HTML. That means you won’t be able to use all sorts of fancy fonts and colors, but who cares? It’s email. Get over it!
  • Don’t fill up your email with links. The more links in your message, the more likely it will get filtered.
  • Ditto pictures. If you must send pictures by email, you should follow up with a no-picture message saying something like “I just sent you those photos. If you didn’t get them, check your spam folder.”
  • Make sure your email is configured properly. Spam filters look for things like inconsistencies in email headers, so if you’re sending it from Hotmail but the return address is configured to say Yahoo, you’re probably going to get filtered.

In the meantime, if you send me an email and I don’t reply, then try me again with a plain text message.

Optimize Firefox for your Netbook

I‘m on my second netbook. In May 2008, when they first came out, I acquired an ASUS eee 900. I ordered it from Amazon.com and had to drive to the U.S. to pick it up (Amazon.com doesn’t deliver to Canada, and Amazon.ca was not offering it). It was a sweet little machine, running an odd variation of Linux called Xandros, which I hacked to enable “full desktop” mode instead of the “simplified” mode that the system came with. I toted that little sweetie around for several months, even taking it with me for our week in Paris. It only had one serious flaw (plus a few minor ones) — the keyboard was too small for my hands. This was compounded by the half-size Shift key on the right side. I’m a right-side-shifter, and I’d miss the Shift key and hit Enter at least four out of five times. It drove me crazy.

When HP came out with the HP Mini 2133, I knew that was the netbook for me. The keyboard, while only slightly larger than the one on the ASUS, felt much bigger, and it had a nice large — and well positioned — Shift key on the right. However, I couldn’t justify abandoning the ASUS just yet, so I hung on for a while. Soon enough, HP came out with the HP Mini 1000, a variation on the 2133. Most importantly, it used the same keyboard. Fine. The minute it was available in Canada I got one, and I absolute love it (although, like any machine, it is not without its problems).

I love small laptops, and I have a long history of experimenting with them, going all the way back to the Compaq Aero I bought in 1995. It had a small 600×480 greyscale screen and a paltry 25 MHz processor running Windows 3.1. Oh, those were the days.

My wee laptops

For the current crop of netbooks — which pretty much all have the same specs — the main problem is the small screen. This is particularly so with regard to the height. Most 10-inch netbooks have 1024 pixels of horizontal resolution, but — because they have “widescreen” aspect ratios — only about 600 vertical pixels. In other words, they’re long enough but not tall enough. If the application you’re using has a lot of horizotal toolbars, you’re left with very little actual working space. For example, I can’t even imagine using Word 2007, with its ghastly “ribbon,” on a 600 pixel tall netbook screen. You’d have barely a paragraph’s worth of writing space!

In my case, I use my netbook almost exclusively for Web browsing. Fortunately, I’ve found a few tricks that let me optimize Firefox for use on a short screen. If you’re using Firefox on a netbook — or any machine that has a small screen — you too might find these tricks useful.

Tip 1: Use the Tiny Menu add-on to reclaim a toolbar’s worth of screen space.

The TinyMenu add-on puts all of the Firefox menus under one “MENU” button. You can then move your navigation items up into the freed space on the Menu toolbar, and then get rid of the navigation toolbar.

Here’s how to move the navigation items up to the Menu toolbar:

  1. Right-click on any toolbar and choose “Customize…” from the context menu.
  2. On the “Customize Toolbar” dialog, check the “Use Small Icons” box.
  3. Now, behind the dialog, drag and drop items from the navigation toolbar onto the menu toolbar, one by one – your back, forward, stop and home buttons, the address bar, and the search bar.
  4. When there’s nothing left, click the “Done” button. Now you’ll have an empty navigation toolbar. Right-click on the empty toolbar and uncheck “Navigation toolbar.” It will disappear, pulling everything up a row.

Below is a screenshot from my HP Mini, showing the result. Notice how there are only two toolbars, yet the menu is there (way over on the left). The navigation buttons and the address field are on the same toolbar as the menu. Under that is the bookmarks toolbar (which you can easily remove, but I find it very handy).

Flickr @ 1024x600 with Tiny Menu add-on

Tip 2: Use F11 to get more real estate on a temporary basis,

When you need more space in your browser, (such as when you’re looking at a Google map or a photo), hit F11. Firefox will go into an “extended maximize” mode, in which all the toolbars and the status bar disappear. Even the Windows task bar is hidden. You can still access your tabs by putting your cursor at the top of the screen (the tabs will appear as long as the cursor is there). When you want to go back to the regular mode, hit F11 again.

Below is a screenshot from my HP Mini showing what it looks like after you click F11. Full screen mode!

Flickr @ 1024x600 with F11

I hope these tips help you enjoy your netbook!