Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The "Netbook" Experience

I have just added a Dell Mini 9 to my computing arsenal. I ordered it with the Dell-ized Ubuntu 8.04 precursor to "Netbook Remix" and after spending my first day with it am rather more pleased than I had expected...

Sure, the keyboard is somewhat compressed and "interesting," but the keys that are in weird locations are used infrequently during netbook-friendly tasks. The biggest exception to this general rule is the right Shift key, which requires a bit of a pinky stretch to get to, and will require training before muscle memory would render it easily-accessible. For completeness, here are the odd and quibble-worthy key placements:
  • - / _ and = / + are to the right of the P, and not on the number row
  • ' / " is down low, next to the "right-click menu" key (this can interfere with some normal typing activities, such as blogging or composing documents)
  • `, ~, {, }, [, ], |, \, Insert, PrntScrn, PgUp, PgDn, Home, End, and the F1 through F10 keys all require use of the blue Fn key. (In other words, you wouldn't want to do any heavy programming or scripting using this keyboard.)
  • There is only one (left) Ctrl key, and one (left) Alt key.
  • The diagonal shift of the top row w/r/t the "home" row is practically non-existent. (Honestly, this hasn't bothered me or prevented me from touch-typing.)
  • There is not even an embedded, Fn-key triggered number pad, as is common on many notebooks. You have to use the traditional (horizontal) typewriter layout to generate numerals.
  • F11 and F12 don't exist (at least not directly)
  • Esc, Tab, Caps Lock, and the right Shift key are all tiny, but usable. Enter and Backspace are quite generously sized...
  • The arrow keys form an inverted T, but are surrounded by other active keys.
The Operating System
Full disclosure: I am a bit of an OS collector and aficionado, and entered this experience with no fear of using Linux.
I would have loved to see an Ubuntu 9.04 installation, and even preemptively downloaded the "Jaunty" ISO before receiving my system. But, I realize the 8.04 is the LTS release, and figured that I'd give it a fair shake before making any "radical" changes to my new toy...

My biggest dislike was that a slightly-rebranded (Web Browser) and non-update-able Firefox 3.0.5 was installed (To be fair, an update to a later 3.0.x was in the Dell repository). I suppose the rebranding was intended to help uninformed new users who may not know what Firefox is, but the inability to update just plain bothered me to the point of being unforgiveable. Fortunately, I was able to quickly and easily load Firefox 3.5.2, and reprogram the Dell desktop launcher to use that version (and its icon). I also replaced or removed many of the Yahoo! shortcuts that Dell placed in the launcher to "help" me. I was also successful in downloading and installing *.deb packages for Picasa 3 (library on external USB HDD), Skype, and some other staples...

OpenOffice 2.4 is there by default, and functional. I would have preferred to see 3.0, and will now have to investigate whether 2.4 can handle "Office 2007" file types (I don't think so, but could be pleasantly surprised if I'm wrong -- [I wasn't wrong.]).

The Dell launcher is actually quite convenient (much more so because it can be very easily customized). But, it looks like Canonical has made some improvements in UNR.

Summary of First Impressions

I got this as a bit of a toy, with the primary intended real use-case of "photographer's travel companion". Paired with my Photo Safe II backup device, and with the aid of Picasa, this use case will definitely become a reality. Since the Photo Safe II interacts with the computer as a USB HDD, the limited storage space on the built-in SSD is less of a concern (although upgrading to 64GB is still a distinct possibility). The 8.9-inch glossy screen and features of Picasa easily out-class the screens on my digital cameras, and those on the very expensive photo viewer devices, like the Epson P6000. Having access to a full-featured web browser (and Flash) on hotel and hotspot WiFi greatly outdoes the mobile phone experience, too. Hulu works quite nicely!

Watch this space for further impressions after I've lived with this for a while... I'm using this as my primary living room browsing experience right now.

No comments: