For years I ran Linux on Thinkpads, until I was forced to go Macbook Pro for my work machine. In everyday life it’s fine, but when I travel it’s sure easy to get tired of a lappy that weighs 10 lb and has to be carried around in a padded backpack approximately the size and shape of a human torso. I can’t in good conscience not have a computer with me all the time; but the 15″ sure seems like overkill for days when I’ll be spending 2 hours on the computer rather than 12.
I think some personal quirks might make it easier than average for me to go netbook. For one thing, I’m female. That means smaller hands, but it also means I reliably carry a purse around and a form factor that fits in there is a big win. I’m not a huge consumer of digital media — my whole iTunes collection is only 1.23GB, and I’ve almost never watched a DVD on the lappy — so I don’t need much in the way of storage or multimedia. Especially now that I do all my coding on a remote dev server, all I need locally is Firefox, Thunderbird, an IM client, and a decent terminal.
I almost got the Dell Mini 9 (cherry red!) but time pressure pushed me in the direction of the HP Mini 1030NR. For a gig of RAM and 16 gig solid state disk with a black lid, the price is almost identical right now ($399.99 vs $374 plus shipping; I think HP will soon be shipping a slightly cheaper version without Windows) The HP has a slightly bigger screen (10.2″ vs 9″) and supposedly a near-fullsize keyboard, but honestly I think that’s all pretty much a wash. The biggest practical difference is the pointer device: the HP has the buttons on each side of the trackpad, while the Dell has them below.
I am not exactly a Paganini of the pointer — in fact someone once told me I was a drag-n-drop idiot! — but I’m not sure most people would be able to use the side-button trackpad effectively. You can configure it to allow mouse clicks, and then every time you double-tap the pad it will register as a click; or you can put it in left-hand mode, in which case the button on the right will become what is normally the “left-click” button. I’ve never mastered the art of using my thumb on the trackpad, but it seems like that technique might work well on this hardware. I personally brace my thumb against the bottom edge of the Mini while using my forefinger to move around, and cross the forefinger over the thumb to left-click — but I suspect those without years of piano lessons might find that movement annoying. Also, I should mention that for some reason the HP’s trackpad gets smudgy very easily; in fact, overall this machine shows fingertip oils badly on every surface.
For the first time in my entire 12+ year history with Linux, the install was a snap. I installed from USB, and for some reason it didn’t like the first stick; but we tried a different USB drive and the second one worked like a charm. I threw a stock Intrepid Ibex Ubuntu on there, plugged in an Ethernet cord, said yes to all the defaults, and just sat back while it did its thing. I can honestly say I’ve never had a Linux laptop that had perfect X11, wifi, suspend to RAM, and suspend to disk right out of the box. What makes it even more astonishing is that this is fairly new and quirky hardware.
Oddly enough, my problems came when I tried to use the Canonical Ubuntu Netbook Remix that is supposedly specific to these little lappies. Ume-launcher was horrifically buggy for me, and without that the other pieces are basically unusable — Maximus in particular is annoying without a launcher, since it deliberately removes all the title bars and resizing elements. I rolled back on that stuff and went back to a normal Gnome desktop, which seems to work fine although I might try a more compact theme.
I’m off on my trip tomorrow night, and will update this post when I see how the HP Mini worked out for me in the field.
UPDATE: So after a bit over a month, I’m quite happy with my purchase and have in fact replaced my Thinkpad with the HP Mini as my main Linux box. Away from the office, it’s fast becoming my favorite coding machine.
The main problem for me has been that I’m a “banger” on the keyboard… just a really fast, hard typist. Someone once told me my typing sounded like a machine gun when I was mad. The Mini really DEMANDS a delicate touch on both keyboard and trackpad, and it will punish you if you get too rough.
Also, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you get the “normal” hard disk on this thing. Go solid-state or stay home! The SSD stays very cool and makes almost no noise; the non-SSD has a super noisy fan that seems to run all the time.