Thursday, August 28, 2008

Subnotebooks [Warning: Geekish Content]

Some time back I got an Asus eee 900, a two pound laptop, for traveling. It's a nice machine and worked well for the trip I got it for, but it has one serious fault—the keyboard. The right shift key is small and next to the up arrow, with the result that when I try to use the right shift while word processing I am quite likely to suddenly find myself typing two lines above where I should be. A further problem is that, because the left shift and the shift lock are small, it's easy to hit the latter when I want to hit the former.

Neither of these turns out to be a problem for my daughter, who uses a fast hunt and peck style of typing rather than touch typing. I have accordingly sent my eee off to college with her—its size and weight make it an ideal machine for taking notes in class—and am considering a replacement.

The improved version of my machine, the 901, has much longer battery life but essentially the same keyboard. The larger versions—the eee 1000 and its direct competitor, the MSI WIND, which have 10" screens instead of 8.9"—have satisfactory keyboards but are noticeably bigger and heavier hence less portable. I already have a MacBook, and although these machines are smaller and lighter I'm not sure they are enough smaller and lighter to be worth giving up its advantages or paying the cost of a second machine.

It looks, however, as though I have found a solution. The Acer Aspire One is a little wider than my eee 900 but about the same weight. It has an entirely satisfactory keyboard—I think as good as the ten inch machines. And it is less expensive than any of the others, currently $329 in its least expensive configuration.

That, however, does not end my purchasing dilemma (perceptive readers may suspect that I enjoy purchasing dilemmas). The least expensive version of the Aspire uses a version of Linux and a flash disk. Two other versions, one of which doesn't yet seem to be available, use Windows XP and a physical hard disk (120 or 160 GB vs 8 GB on the flash disk). Linux is interesting, and the version that comes with the Aspire is said to boot in about 15 seconds, which is impressive and convenient. But XP means that I can run World of Warcraft (slowly) without fiddling around with WINE or some other kludge for running Windows programs under Linux, something I tried unsuccessfully on my eee.

The obvious solution is to get one of the XP versions and set it up to dual boot with XP and the Aspire's version of Linux. Doing that should be possible; I'm not sure how hard it is. The very best solution would be for Acer to offer the machine in that configuration. They already have an XP license, Linux is free, so it should cost them practically nothing and I would happily pay for the convenience. I could use Linux most of the time, for the fast boot, lower demand on system resources, and general fun of playing with it, but XP when I wanted to run a Windows program.

All of which leads me to a puzzle and a question. I can find webbed figures on how fast the Aspire boots in its Linux/flash disk configuration (very). I can find complaints about how slowly it boots if you install XP on that configuration—I gather the flash disk comes formatted in a form that XP has a hard time writing to. But I cannot find any figures on how fast the hard drive version boots either in XP, which it comes with, or in Linux, which presumably can be installed on it.

My current plan is to wait until both the flash disk and the hard disk versions are actually available in stores I can get to—the former already is, which is how I know how good the keyboard is. Then I can do the experiment myself and produce two of the three numbers I want. Finding out how fast Linux boots on the hard disk version, however, will require the cooperation of someone who has the hard disk model and has installed Linux, preferably the Aspire version, which apparently boots faster than other versions on their machine.

I don't suppose any of my readers ... .
[Later Addition]

I found a store with the 120 GB XP version. Boot time is about 75 seconds. I also timed a Linux/flash disk machine. Boot time is about 15-20 seconds.

One commenter points out that I can always suspend the XP, which I gather corresponds to sleeping a Macintosh. I don't know how much power a suspended machine uses; my impression is that if I leave my Mac laptop asleep for several days, it will be low on power when it wakes up. Also, of course, airlines require you to shut down a machine for takeoff and landing, and I assume sleep doesn't qualify.

Using the XP machine reminded me that I don't much like Windows. On the other hand, the Linux machine comes with an interface designed for people not very used to computers. It's possible to get at some additional features of the OS via a command in the terminal window, but I haven't yet found a way of converting the interface to a standard windowed one, similar to the Mac or Windows interface. That may be one reason why some users replace the Linux variant that comes on the machine with an alternative version.

I'll probably end up with the Linux/Flash disk version, but I'm still intrigued by the possibility of a hard disk and dual boot.


At 12:55 PM, August 28, 2008, Blogger Mike Hammock said...

If you are especially patient, you might try this:

At 1:10 PM, August 28, 2008, Blogger Ryan Lackey said...

Boot performance issues are mainly kernel driver-probing (i.e. not probing for devices which aren't installed, and setting short timeouts) and "writes to flash are slow"; the linux optimizations are "turn off atime and other write-blocking operations on the disk" and "minimize gnome/etc. type startup processes which people often have in their linux distribution.

I would predict similar boot times on linux on hd as linux on flash; flash reads are faster but not really hugely so in practice.

Optimizing boot time seems like a somewhat irrelevant task if you can use ACPI/suspend. Are you really worried about "cold boot" performance, or "restore from hiberation" performance, in the case of hard-disk-linux? (for switching OSes, it makes some difference, sure)

The One looks great compared to the Eee due to a brighter screen (better outdoor readability), which is a major use case for me.

If you wanted to be a bad person, you could try taking a USB ubuntu installer to a store with a winxp Aspire, installing linux on the hard drive in the store (after resizing the partition), ...

At 2:17 PM, August 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

macbook air?

At 9:14 PM, August 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A 15 second boot is only 10-15 seconds slower than computers from the 1980s. Progress!

At 3:32 AM, August 29, 2008, Blogger Robert Wenzel said...

This sounds like a rarity to me, where the (especially the male)parent touch types, while the daughter hunt and pecks.

I would think in most cases it is the opposite.

I hunt and peck, I was never taught to do otherwise, anywhere. I don't even think it was offered as a class in high school (the college track) or college. My son touch types---but I don't believe this was generally offered in high school (college track) until after the advent of the PC.

At 7:04 AM, August 29, 2008, Anonymous A.B. said...

There is stand by and hibernate.

Stand by uses a small amount of power to power the ram, meanwhile the hard disk stops spinning, the processes stop computing, the screen turns black etc.

Hibernate means you save the content of the ram to the hard disk, which allows you to fully power off the device (remove the battery for example).

Boot time is faster with stand by... it's not even a boot. Hibernate is slower but still very fast as the OS doesn't need to probe the hardware.

At 8:05 AM, August 30, 2008, Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

My son touch types---but I don't believe this was generally offered in high school (college track) until after the advent of the PC.

Typing was offered as a 1 semester course in 1983, in my high school in Oklahoma.

I was on the college track but took the course so I'd know how to operate at typewriter. I do not think I've used a typewriter since, but when I started using computers for a living in 1989 it sure came in handy.

At 8:36 AM, August 30, 2008, Blogger Robert Wenzel said...

Hmmm, I went to a Prep school, maybe that was the problem:)

At 12:41 PM, August 30, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

On typing in school ...

For most of K-12 I went to the University of Chicago Laboratory school, essentially a prep school. I don't know if typing was ever offered--I didn't learn it there.

It was, however, taught in the public junior high in California that I was in for a year (ninth grade). That would have been about 1957.

Both my daughter and her brother taught themselves to type. She does a fast hunt and peck, he does his own version of touch typing.

At 12:43 PM, August 30, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

On the subject of hibernation ... . It isn't an option provided with Macs, so I wasn't familiar with it. A little poking around the web, however, found a free widget, deepsleep, which hibernates current Macs. I have now installed it on both of mine--it seems very useful.


At 2:38 PM, September 01, 2008, OpenID said...

I've realized that the Asus keyboard is either a love or hate type situation. I love mine and have managed to type 90% as fast on this keyboard as on a full-size (where full-size is 100wpm and asus is 90wpm -- these are net). But I don't have particularly large hands and also play guitar, so maybe those little things are helping me out.

That acer does look interesting though ... still, the form factor (read smallness) of the 901 is almost unbeatable.

At 8:04 PM, September 01, 2008, Blogger southphl said...

I have the Asus eeePC and have modified my touch typing to use just three fingers of each hand. It seems to help with the right-shift problem. I use it as a note-taking machine at meetings so I often just skip using the shift key, cleaning it up later.

At 3:15 PM, September 02, 2008, Anonymous sportember said...

It would be pleasant both for you and for the whole GNU/Linux community if you were to ask Blizzard a linuxian version of World of Warcraft. If they produce one, you will not have to pay Microsoft for an OS you don't like and not intended to use for any other purpose than WoWing.

On Acer and Linpus linux: I own an Acer computer, and the supplied Linpus Linux is IMHO a native *fake* thing. They deliver it installed onto the computer, but without any graphical user interface, and, to point out a deeper level of the problem, without any password to access administrative features. There is neither documentation, nor usable support for it. Acer do not want you to use their computers with Linpus.

This is in deep contrast with Asus's effort to produce an easy to use, graphical, carefully tailored version of GNU/Linux for their EEE users.

Some vendors like Dell and system76 offer notebooks with Linux preinstalled, but I don't know if they also offer such gadgetish ones as the EEE.

To stay at the point, if the hardware has annoyances, you can still drop the stuff to your children, but if the software sucks, you either has to obey Microsoft, or get someone good at linux to make it comfortable for you.

In fact, Apple did almost that, with a BSD instead of GNU/Linux, and a less personal way.

At 4:50 PM, September 02, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

On the subject of Linpus. My first hand experience is limited to playing with a demo machine at Circuit City. There is an easy way of getting access to some of the invisible features but, unlike the eee, no easy way of getting to an ordinary Linux desktop.

There is a webbed script, however, that is supposed to convert the Linpus Lite to an ordinary version of Linpus. Some users report some problems with it; I don't know if at this time they have all been solved.


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