small laptops and netbooks, Jon test drives and reviews

Most of the people I know here volunteering in one of the several charities in and around Jerusalem have a laptop.  A lot of people have a laptop for just home use as the prefer to access the web in a comfy chair.

Increasingly now, some people are turning to smaller laptops better suited for working on the move.   Netbooks, which came about in the last three years or so, are popular as they are cheap small and enable you to get online anywhere too.

I have serviced and maintained various ultra-mobile computers for my work and for friends, I thought I would give a brief review of what I have found.  It has to be said that with Netbooks, they are compromised on performance and usability to make the cheap and smaller, depending on your requirements this can be a hindrance or perfectly adequate for just working on the move.   Remember, as in most cases there isn’t a DVD drive built in, you have to buy this separately, which means a lot more cost and more to possibly carry around with you, this of course necessary if the computer’s OS crashes and needs to be reloaded again.

Asus EEE 701

This was one of the first netbooks on the market, and when I was working for NICE systems (UK branch of an Israeli software developer) some of my colleagues got some of these from an overseas business trip before they were out in the UK.  Cheapness and lightweight were the main things that appealed here.   The machine is small and light, but the plastic body feels a bit cheap, and the trim looks poor.  The EEE easily flops over as the screen is actually heavier than the base.  The LCD is 1024×600 which is adequate but cramped for anything than word processing and web browsing.   The one I tested had a 3G card onboard for browsing on a phone network, 4Gb SSD (solid state disk, that is a purely non-mechanical flash based memory card that acts as a hard disk)   This is very limited for Windows XP, the one I was using the SSD suddenly stopped working, causing the machine to no longer boot.  After some google searching, these type of SSD disks seem to have questionable reliability and hard to replace as this is a non-standard part and cannot be substituted by a regular hard disk.   The EEEs are popular hackers as some features absent can added by soldering USB wireless sticks inside spare space inside the screen lid.

It has a low performance Celeron 900 processor which is outdated compared today’s popular and cheap Intel Atom chips in most netbooks.  Verdict, the Asus EEE is not a quality system, gets good marks for being one of the first on the market, but can’t be recommended now.  There are numerous newer models of the EEE family. Asus however is a very poor hardware maker, they are well respected by the home built PC crowd, but their web site for support is terrible, and finding drivers is awkward and when getting drivers for my PCs at work, they never have enough bandwidth to provide downloads and suggest using a torrent app to get the drivers (very risky!)  a lot of their drivers are only listed as Beta test versions.   For this reason, in my opinion Asus are only good as a hardware maker for the overclocking PC gaming kids.   For laptops and netbooks the competition is way better, so avoid Asus.

Dell Mini 9 (also known as Inspiron 900)

This was Dells first attempt at a small netbook about 2 years ago.   It belongs to my work and is perfect for working on the move.  It feels solid and well made like most of Dell’s hardware, if you are corporate tech person like me, you will know Dell’s are a joy to support, as you can get drivers quickly and easily from the 7 digit serial number on the bottom.  In terms of compromises, the F keys are missing, requiring the user to press FN and numeric keys along the top to get these, this is actually quite a good cost saving idea and doesn’t impact on the user’s work.  This machine has also a 16Gb SSD disk but I think can be substituted for a regular SATA hard disk, the battery life is really good.   Overall I like the Mini 9.

Acer Aspire One

This is a very respectable Netbook with 1Gb of memory and 160Gb hard disk, seem well made and good performance, nothing that much out of the ordinary, but worth considering.

Compaq Mini 110

This was a friend’s machine, and came bundled with XP Service Pack 3 and Internet Explorer 8.   I had some difficulties getting online as the wireless card seemed flakey, but this was probably due the coffee shop I was in was close to a metal fence cause wireless interference.  Of course like a lot of hardware makers, HP (who bought Compaq) some years ago, preload a fair bit of rubbish onto this machine so annoying browser toolbars and other tat are there as search engine use probably earns HP’s a few quid.   I put on newer wireless drivers and replaced IE with Firefox with the browser icon set smaller to come with the small screen.   Overall this is a nice unit too, with glossy black case and sharp screen and has a decent keyboard usable for people with fat fingers.  Battery life was good too.

HP netbook (unknown but close to above)

I have also used a HP branded machine similar to the above Compaq but silver, privately owned by one of my users but uses it for work.  Has a regular 120Gb hard disk.  My only complaint was the silver paint rubbed off the keys after a years worth of use, and of course installing Adobe Acrobat 9 pro on it, meant the installation didn’t work quite right unless you put it on an external screen.   But of course this is the play off with a system with a 1024×600 screen.  Oh, but there is only ONE USB port on this machine so small external hard disks that have two connectors will have some trouble connecting to this, meaning more costs and silly adapters to carry round with you.

Dell Latitide X1

I use this at my work to do the song lyrics for our worship sessions using an open source app called ‘Open song‘ which is excellent.  The X1 is a proper laptop but not a netbook, so has a Celeron 1.4 processor, full 1024×768 screen and very good keyboard and touchpad, its super lightweight but doesn’t fall over, the battery still seems good considering this machine is 5 years old now.  I did try to open it up to upgrade it, but found there was not available slots to upgrade the memory (it has 256Mb fixed to the motherboard and 512Mb in a single SODIMM slot)  It also has an unusual 1.8″ (like an iPod) style hard disk.   Think this would of been expensive to buy new, and the external DVD writer seems to have gone flakey and needs replacing, but for it ultra lightweight size, this is a excellent no compromise portable system to work anywhere.

IBM Thinkpad X31

I have used these at two places I used to work.  Like all Thinkpads they are hugely expensive for the standard type laptops, even more so for the small form factor units like this.   The X series Thinkpads also have an option snap on base with DVD drive which fixes on securely and can be used with the laptop on the move.  The casing is magnesium alloy, and the hinges and frame of the laptop are very high quality, you have a regular 1024×768 screen, but only IBM’s quirky nipple controller and not a normal touch pad which a lot of users might not like.  The X31 dates from around 2003-04 so very old now but can be bought cheaply second hand.  Thinkpads are now made including newer X series models by Lenovo who bought out IBM’s laptop business, which IBM decided the margins on PC hardware were too thin.

Gigabyte M912

This belongs to my work, this netbook is unusual as it runs XP tablet edition, the screen rotates round on a single central mounted hinge and fold back on it self making it into a full tablet computer.   It has a hard disk of 160gb.  Microsoft produced the tablet edition of XP back in 2003 but it was a failure with just HP and Toshiba producing a few portables using it back then, so it was a surprise seeing this machine with Tablet XP that’s only a couple of years old.   Gigabyte are like Asus, they mainly make clone motherboards, this netbook is not something with even medium quality feel to it, the power switch is a sliding bit of plastic that feels like its about to break off, the silver effect to case looks horrible, and where as the tablet feature in XP is reasonably pleasant to use with slide out pen stylus, I didn’t try and use the handwriting recognition software, but the screen is horrible, its grainy, probably because of the fine mesh type material that is used for the pen, but still not that nice, the keys are tiny also.  There is a bug in the BIOS I think (I put on a update, this didn’t fix it) that causes the machine to hang when started with a USB DVD Drive, all thats needed is to quickly remove and reinsert the USB cable though.  Not recommended.

Toshiba netbook (dunno model sorry)

I quite like Toshiba’s previous laptops, and this one is good although as extremely new in the market runs Windows 7 Starter edition.  Like Apple (and Sony’s Vaio who tend to be the first PC maker to mimic Apple’s features) this has one of the new keyboard with no gaps in between, so less likely to drop crumbs in the keys.   This machines seems pleasant enough to use and has usual netbook 1024×800 screen and 160Gb hard disk – but the Starter edition of 7, intended to completely replace XP home, is not available for casual retail purchase, its only available pre-loaded on low laptops like this, seems heavily compromised compared the regular versions of Win7, you can’t change your Windows wallpaper screen, something that was hugely disappointing to the lady who bough this unit.  I have no doubt that a lot of users will be disappointed that 7 Starter is a backward step from XP in several ways.

Overall, the choice is dependent on taste, certainly price, battery life, physical size, disk storage and performance should be factored into when needing a portable computer.

There’s also tablet computers, in the last month or so Apple’s now famous iPad came about, being a upsized version of the iPhone, and a lot of fans of Apple’s hardware wet themselves with excitement.   I don’t really see the intended target market of it, the unit has to be linked with iTunes with a regular iPod or iPhone, and so its not a self contained computer, I don’t think it easily connects to a company network or even can use a printer.    Theres also Apple’s total control on the apps store which developers and consumers are getting frustrated with lack of choice.  I have not used an iPad, but it has some questions with its usability, do Apple fans want to carry this and an iPhone or iTouch when they go out?   not being an upright device with a stand, having screen reflection has got to be annoyance, no physical keyboard means this isn’t the right device for writers and bloggers surely.    I can see this being a novelty item that people will quickly get tire of, wether they are hardened fans of Apple or users of any brand hardware.  I think it could have some niche for artists using Adobe Illustrator to do work away from their desk or maybe for musicians though.

I haven’t mentioned Linux or Android. Linux was intended to be supplied on netbooks like Asus EEE but quietly disappeared from retail suppliers, due to its more complex, and I don’t think grandma wants to have to enter things in the command line just to install a photo editing app.   My own experience with Linux is I have tried numerous different distros but always not done much more that install it briefly and forget due to having to learn a whole new computing experience.  Has to be said that as well as the free and openness of say Ubuntu its certainly pleasant to use to some degree but having to rely often on a command line to install things puts me off.   Android, being Google and the Open Handset Alliance who wrote a phone operating system based on Linux looks enticing, but the vast array (HTC, Motorola, Samsung, etc) of manufacturers have adapted it to their own method so small computers and phones that runs this, could be fragmented and not so consistent in use, and newer versions of the Android OS, like 2.1 may not be able to some models.

Jonathan is volunteering for a charity in Jerusalem keeping the IT systems running so a busy Christian charity can continue to bless Israel’s families that are in most need.   As I am on a very small allowance to partly pay for me keep here, I am always welcome opportunities to provide consulting, repair advice and servicing to anyone in need of technical issues keeping you from working.   Feel free to contact with any questions or offers of work, he would appreciate any donations in return for assistance on any problems you are facing.

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