Chris Baus

HP 110-1030 netbook

Before our recent trip to Kauai, I bought an HP netbook. I typically use hulking desktop replacements that are clunky, hot, and have a short battery life. They mostly suit me fine, but they are terrible for traveling.

It was kind of an impulse buy, and I went with what was locally available. I bought HP 110-1030 which uses the common Intel ATOM architecture. When the netbooks first came out, they mostly used a small SSD and ran Linux. Today almost all the netbooks available retail have 5400RPM hard drives and Windows XP (soon to be replaced by Windows 7). Apparently Microsoft has a licensing deal for XP that makes it cheaper to OEM if the device has 1 gig of RAM or less, so all the netbooks have exactly 1 gig of RAM (I installed two gigs of RAM, the max the 110 will support, before even booting it up).

Since I was looking for longer battery life, I made sure the device had a 6 cell battery. Unfortunately, I didn't realize was that the 6 cell battery is much larger than the typical 3 cell. With the battery installed, a round cylinder protrudes about an inch below the bottom, so the device sits at about a 20 degree angle when it installed. The battery is the biggest and probably the most expensive component in the system, and seems to be place to invest R&D dollars committed to the product. HP needs to find a couple of the hardware engineers they might still have on staff after Fiorina's gutting of the R&D staff and go back to the drawing board on that one. It is a detail that matters A LOT!

This is the first time I've bought a computer retail (I typically use throw away Dell's), and I was surprised by hard it was to get any sort of spec sheet for the devices I was looking at. Since the batteries are still quite expensive relative to the rest of the machine, finding out what battery was in the device was important to me, but the spec sheets on the devices were no where to be found. PC netbooks are like buying bullion. I want the most metal I can get for my dollar, as it is pretty obvious few of the manufactures made any significant investments in the design of these devices.

After spending 20 minutes on the first boot and install procedure (seriously 20 minutes to get the machine started?) I found that Windows XP insufficient for the small display. HP did nothing to make the configuration work on the small footprint. It looks like a standard Windows install, and I was surprised to get an error after first boot telling me that my resolution was set too low, even though it was set to the device's native resolution. The gum drop looking window frames take up half the screen real estate, and the device was loaded up with a bunch of useless trail software. This type of thing gives Windows a bad rap, and it isn't completely undeserved.

I promptly fixed the problem by installing Ubuntu's netbook optimized "remix" distribution. HP has a multi-card reader connected internally to the USB bus, so the cards look like USB drives to the system. I put in a 4 gig SSD drive, copied the Ubuntu image, and booted directly to the system installer. It went smoothly, but I invested a lot of time repartitioning the NTFS partition to dual boot Windows, only to find the NTFS partition corrupted. I gave up on that plan and went to Linux exclusively.

I'm pretty impressed with the Ubuntu distribution. Linux on the desktop (nettop?) has come long way. Ubuntu spent some time making sure their OS ran well on the netbooks. Apps start full screen, and there is a full screen shell navigation that makes sense as opposed to the tiny start menu on Windows. The days of wondering if X would boot and living without a suspend or sleep mode are thankfully over (note: I've recently had some problems driving the external monitor with Ubuntu remix). In most cases, Ubuntu just works. I'm typing this in emacs in full screen mode, and really isn't bad (cramped seats on the United flight excepted).

Conclusion: in my opinion the market for devices like this is going to continue to expand. For a significant amount of computing most people do, an inexpensive, low powered device with long battery life makes more sense than full featured desktop replacement. I could see how Microsoft's tablet PC concept would make a lot of sense for a device of this stature. Where Microsoft went wrong with the concept was marketing the OS and subsequent at premium over notbooks. Consumer won't pay the premium. In fact they would probably prefer to pay less for a low spec machine with a touch screen monitor. I think the iPhone makes it clear how key the touch screen is for these small devices. Browsing the web with a tiny touch pad is a surely a quick route to carpal tunnel. But for significant text editing (like writing this blog entry) the touch screen keyboard on the iPhone isn't optional. The keyboard is probably one of the biggest strengths of the HP offering, and I have no problem typing at a reasonable speed on the device. The mouse pointer is pretty difficult to use which makes old school text based editors like emacs a good choice for the device. I'm now using the netbook almost exclusively as an emacs machine.

I can see why Apple is gaining market share in consumer devices. Engineering details (like a battery that allows the device to sit flat) that can be amortized across an entire production run, matter. It is going to be difficult to differentiate a product in this market with something that feels like an Intel engineering prototype. HP invested almost nothing, if anything at all, into the software shipped with this product. The Linux distribution that I downloaded for free was actually better than the default software that shipped with the product. How can HP expect to compete against a small form factor product that Apple is surely cooking up? HP can only go so far competing on price, and long term they'll never beat Taiwanese companies like Asus and MSI on price. I think there is a future in these devices, but right now it feels like we've barely gotten past the prototype phase. If Apple develops a bigger iPhone type device with a keyboard, they will dominate the portable space. My question is what is everybody else waiting for? A tablet device with a 10" touch screen, retractable keyboard, GPS, and wireless connectivity will surely dominate this space.