(to view all photos in this article, visit my flickr photoset)
My main criteria for a netbook were:
- Battery life as long as possible.
- With my large hands, it must be as ergonomic and accommodating as possible.
- Preferably without Windows. What’s the point of paying for something I won’t use?
- Linux must work well on it.
- As light & small as possible.
Given that nearly all early (pre dual core) netbooks are based on Intel’s Atom / 945 mobile chipset, most of the above criteria were already met. Ergonomically, I’d read that each netbook had its foibles, so this point was moot. The battery life was, for me, the deciding factor, which is why I chose a Samsung N130: the only model in the discounted range which ships with a 6-cell battery. In ideal circumstances, this will last 6 hours.
Order process, shipping, packing and unpacking
The Argos outlet on eBay accepted only PayPal payments, but this didn’t matter to me. The purchase process was as painless as you could expect. I ordered the unit on a Friday morning. On a Monday morning, at my office, it arrived courtesy of a cheery DHL delivery chap. No complaints so far!
The packing itself was as you’d expect: satisfactory for the job, with nothing much else to note. Unboxing the unit was a quick affair, and before long I had a shiny netbook on my desk. Considering this unit is classed as “refurbished”, I could see absolutely no defect or mark on it whatsoever. I would have been very happy were this brand new.
Plugging in, powering on, first impressions
When unpacking the device, I was impressed with the general feel of it. The plastic shell feels robust and the lid action is smooth. Instead of a clasp, the lid clamps to the base by means (I’m guessing) of a magnet arrangement, which has a lovely feel about it. Furthermore, Fedora behaves as expected, going straight into standby when the lid is closed.
The weight of the unit was good too. Before I put the battery in, that is. After that, the weight felt subjectively like it had more than doubled, which would put some people off I’d imagine. However, it’s hardly as heavy as my laptop so by my standards it’s still very light. A positive effect of the battery unit is in providing more stability while on a desk, and more resistance to the motion of closing/opening the lid. All together, it works well.
Along the front, left of the touchpad, are 5 LEDs. I question the value of having an “on” LED in addition to a “charging” LED, but these are tiny devices so power consumption is likely to be equally tiny. Besides, if unplugged, the charging LED isn’t illuminated. Again, another moot point.
The feel of the keyboard is good. There isn’t a compromise in terms of key press action, although to fit in a full QWERTY keyboard, some compromises in layout have had to take place. As you can see, the hash (#)/tilde and right square-bracket/brace keys are squashed in, but the compromise is acceptable.
Fedora installation and general usage
Using the usblive-creator tool in F13 on my laptop, I was able to set up a USB drive with a Fedora 12 live CD image, ready to boot and install on the netbook. I’d opted for F12 because I’ve had issues with mobile broadband on F13 that worked fine on F12, and mobility is the primary goal here. A quick change to the boot order in the BIOS and it was good to go.
I was surprised how quickly the installation completed. After having read about Atoms generally being slow processors, I’d expected an unhealthy dose of lethargy when installing the OS. The first boot wasn’t particularly tardy either (and this is running on a 160GB Toshiba hard drive with Fedora’s default encrypted LVM set up). It’s comparable to my HP laptop (2007 model) with a Turion TL-60 (@2GHz) w/4GiB RAM (@667MHz). In usage, though, it’s somewhat slower than the AMD laptop, taking considerably longer to load up Firefox (with half as many extensions, too).
As hoped, my Huawei E270 mobile broadband dongle worked straight away. I was also pleased that the webcam worked with no effort whatsoever (screenshot shows Cheese; ’nuff said)! So, what doesn’t work straight away?
- Brightness controls on the keyboard. Probably fixed easily by identifying the char code generated with the keystroke and binding it to the dim/brightening function in GConf (he says, having no real clue..)
- Wireless. I believe a Broadcom 4312 is under the bonnet, so this shouldn’t be a hard fix with a quick visit to linuxwireless.org.
- Some things I haven’t tested yet, like monitor switching and the built-in microphone. But everything else seems to work fine.
A bit more on ergnomics
It has taken me a little while to get used to the layout of the keyboard and touchpad. A problem I am overcoming slowly is that the touchpad’s two buttons are actually a single, rocker-style button. It sits flush to the surface of the base, and this lack of tactile feel I find awkward. I often find my thumb in the wrong position, mistakenly pressing on the bottom of the touchpad rather than the left button. The pointer then jumps across the screen instead of clicking on the intended widget. A small but annoying issue.
Also, the keyboard is great to use while typing (as I do here, writing this review on the N130) but for cursor positioning it can become more tricky. Hitting CTRL-End to position the cursor at the end of some text, for example, is now CTRL-Fn-PgDn(End), given the multi-function aspect of the PgDn(End) key. Likewise, the cursor keys are just a shade on the small side. But these are minor complaints in the overall picture.
Taking into account the annoyances, weighing them against the needs of the many… I would have to have to award this machine 8/10. At £150 (incl VAT) + £4 postage, it has exceeded my expectations. Sure, it’s not perfect, but the price, utility and solid build get my vote. I would recommend one for a partner, friend or colleague….. maybe even a parent 😉
Oh, there is one thing about it that I couldn’t understand. There was this sticker on the top which made no sense (“Designed for Windows XP”). Surely you design an operating system for target hardware and not the other way around..? Well, regardless, I think the new location for the sticker makes much more sense. 🙂