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Hello netbook world!

Started: 2009-12-04 17:40:29

Submitted: 2009-12-04 18:09:01

Visibility: World-readable

At this moment, I'm riding in RTD's route J bus up the Diagonal typing in my tiny new netbook, a Dell Mini 10v preinstalled with Ubuntu 8.04 Netbook Remix. (I picked a mostly-default configuration but substituted a 16 gig SSD and added a Bluetooth adaptor.) This is my attempt to figure out whether my money was well spent on a portable text-entry device, or whether it's simply too small to make a worthwhile typing experience. So far, the signs look good. Dell claims the keyboard is 92% of a "normal" keyboard size, and I can attest that I've done a fairly good job hitting the keys for the paragraph of text I've typed so far. The bigger problem is the non-alphanumeric keys, which are scrunched up around the sides. Since I'm typing in vi, escape is important; it's in its normal place but seems to be a quarter of the size one would expect. I keep hitting some key or touchpad combination that is minimizing my terminal. As soon as I figure it out I'm going to disable it, if I can.

I hope my netbook (which I'm naming "Hobbes") will become my second computer, after my full-sized 17" notebook Portico. I love Portico, but it's too big to lug around casually. I expect I'll carry Hobbes with me most days, as a standard fixture in my backpack, and pull it out whenever I need a portable text-entry terminal where my phone isn't adequate. (Twitter on my phone works great. Reading and responding to short e-mails is fine. Anything longer is not really practical.) I'm also looking at my planned trip to India next spring; I'd like to bring a computer on which I can back up my photos, write changelogs, and try to keep in touch with the world, but Portico is much too big and heavy (and expensive) to bring. I still have my old T21, Illyria, but she's showing her age, and she's still much bigger than Hobbes. I considered the merits of a "netbook conversion" for Illyria, in which I would buy an SSD to replace her aging (and noisy) magnetic drive, but a new computer won in the end. (I wiped Illyria's drive last weekend but I haven't decided whether to retire her entirely or come up with something else to do with her. Having failed to do almost anything at all over the past eighteen months since acquiring Portico, the likelihood of my putting her to other use is slim.)

While considering netbooks, I traveled to my local Best Buy to look at their stock. They had a comprehensive selection from several major manufacturers, including the Dell Mini 10v I was looking at. The reviews of the touchpad scared me; the consensus seemed to be "it's not so bad, after a week", but after using it in person I tended to agree with the outlier review, which suggested that the problem with the touchpad was a problem aiming at the buttons. The right- and left-click buttons float over the respective corners of the touch-sensitive surface, and one has to aim at the center of the silkscreened icon rather than at the corner of the touchpad. (Tapping also works, which is my normal mode of touchpad operation, but so far I've had mixed luck with the tap sensitivity. I can even simulate a middle-click by clicking both buttons at once.) No one seems to make netbooks with trackpoints, which is my preferred portable pointing anyway. (I don't actually use a mouse under normal operation; I have a trackball on my workstation at work, which seems less inclined to stress my lingering RSI.)

I haven't yet decided whether I want to install Ubuntu 9.10 Netbook Remix or stick with the classic flavor. I'm fascinated by the big icons and shiny effects, but I wonder if I can get better mileage out of the standard flavor stripped of its effects and wild window decorations. (I'd also like to play with Chromium in my copious free time.)

I think I can say that Hobbes and I will have good times together.