Boy, I am always amazed at the breadth of stuff that goes on weekly, surrounding people’s preferred operating systems, new hardware press releases and so on.  For me, it’s one of the best things about the internet: constant information from all corners of the globe, seeking an audience and advocate elsewhere.

Intel, AMD and the new kid in town

Image via CrunchBase

So, this week there has been loads of stuff which caught my attention, only a short list of which I have time to share.  First things first, Ars Technica : a constantly vibrant source of interesting news out there in the technosphere.  Featured in its hallowed pages was the title ARM’s Eagle has landed: meet the A15“.  Indeedy, ARM is developing more processor chips which are beginning to compete with the likes of Intel’s Atom and AMD’s lesser-known Geode.

AMD Geode™ LX 800@0.9W Processor

The exciting thing here is that a third player is entering the midst of a traditionally two-horse race: GPU/CPU design and manufacture (AKA AMD vs Intel).  Similarly to the console race of 2007-ish, a third player getting involved (in the console war, this being Microsoft‘s XBox 360) does great things for the market and the larger picture.  Who would have thought, against the mighty 360 or PS3, that the Wii would have competed so well?

 

We’ll see how this plays out in a different way with chip manufacturers though but, as with most of these things, the early adopters of SmartBooks (Netbooks with phone capabilities, typically powered by ARM processors) will likely be Business types and Linux users who aren’t just taken in by the big names.

The Apple is finally ripening
Finally. Sense at Apple.  Well, some at least. Developers are creative, resourceful individuals.  So throwing down the gauntlet by restricting their development languages was kind of a draconian, hard-line gesture by a company pimping itself as cool and trendy.  Sorry Fanbois, but it was a bit Microsofty, actually.  Which is actually unfair to Microsoft, as they are generally far less restrictive about this (as this list of programming languages illustrates..).  Then again, 99.4% of malware is aimed at Windows users.


But back to Apple, this Ars story describes the change in stance at Cappuccino.


How nice of them to open up their policy as well as opening up their iOS 4.1 BootROM in the same week!  In case anyone thinks I have a grudge against Apple, far from it.  This vulnerability intended feature clearly demonstrates that Apple are committed to opening up their systems and allowing users to fully use what they have purchased.  Brilliant!

Oh, but then there are still situations which make you wonder.  Like the stealthy Apple OS-X update that kept “fanbois strangely silent“…   I’m not sure I would have described Apple’d products as a “mutant virus“, but their loyal customers’ thinking probably is.  But then, Apple build fashion statements, not computers.


Open systems continue to gather pace


There’s an interesting article at O’Reilly on debunking the 1% myth.  The 1% myth is the idea, forever purported by some in the industry, that Linux only has 1% of desktop market share.  Succinctly put, as there is no way of actually measuring this accurately, it’s a false claim (as the article details).


Talking of open software, media player Amarok is looking more and more beautiful.  What’s not to like about this, especially when it’s free?

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(to view all photos in this article, visit my flickr photoset)

I’ve been needing a netbook for work for a little while.  So, chancing upon Martin Lewis‘s wonderful MoneySavingExpert web site, this article on cheaper netbooks was the prompt I needed.

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

I use Fedora, CentOS and Red Hat in my day job, so for me it’s the architecture that I prefer due to familiarity (which, in this case, has not yet bred contempt!).

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.

Final analysis

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.  🙂


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