Archive for the ‘Netbook’ Category

Frankenstein’s Netbook

May 9, 2010

or, what I learned from triple-booting an MSI Wind U100…

My wife’s birthday was the other day and she had been wanting a MacBook to go with her iMac.  Proprietary software is not my thing, but it makes her happy.  Problem: nowhere near enough $ to buy one.  Not enough $ to buy an iPad either (if they were even for sale here, that is).  So we talked a bit and really she just wanted something portable for her games… and what I ended up doing was buying a cheap netbook (the older model MSI Wind U100) and started learning everything I could about making a ‘hackintosh’ out of it.

Now, when talking about what could (theoretically) be done, try not to sound too confident since you may just get asked to that in practice ;)  Basically, yes, it would be nice if she could run her XP games too and Ubuntu would be icing on the cake… so I started learning about how to make a triple-boot system.

Two days of on-and-off tinkering later, I emerged from my room with a kludged together system that actually can boot successfully :)  I used the SnowyWind OS X distro and Grub2 and Chameleon… it’s not perfect, but it boots OSX/WinXP/Ubuntu 10.04 consistently.

What I noticed:

XP is ancient; a real clunker.  Had to use an external USB CD-ROM (USB flash drives can be used in theory, but this was just easier).  Sloooooow install.  25-character key in tiny print to read off the sticker on the bottom.  WGA.  A mountain of security patches.  3rd party drivers to make the hardware work.  Would love to toss it in an internet-free VirtualBox cage and throw away the key if I could.

Hackintosh distros are still rather… brittle.  Reminds me of the reported difficulties of Linux pre-Ubuntu, mixed with the groping around in the dark feel of doing things with proprietary software that the original authors didn’t want you doing.  Feels like a ‘square peg in a round hole’.

Adding more OSs always makes things more complicated :) No “average user” will ever want to mess with bootloaders and when something goes wrong, you might as well reinstall.

Ubuntu loves you unconditionally and wants to make your life easier ^_^

Unless you have a real reason to want XP (games… sigh), or OS X on non-Apple hardware (games… heh), you really are just setting yourself up for a headache down the road.  Ubuntu installs fast, is very straightforward, small and netbook-friendly.  Oh and there are even proprietary games for it these days too.

I look forward to the day when $199 ARM-based netbooks with Ubuntu flood the market ;)

Linux on the cusp of 2010

December 31, 2009

We’re almost at 2010 and so I thought I’d revisit my 2010: The year of the Linux Desktop post. But rather than start with Linux, I want to start with Apple…

I noticed a story “2010: The year of the Mac?” which derisively began “It’s almost a pathetic assertion: This year, the Mac will break out of its ghetto and become a mainstream computer for individuals and businesses alike.” The author doesn’t understand what Apple wants to be (that is to say, what Steve Jobs wants Apple to be ;) I wrote back in late 2007 that “Apple will tend to restrict itself to the mid-to-high-end market”.  And you know what?  Apple won it; they now get 90+% of sales of $1K+ systems; this is where the largest profits are made and Microsoft has effectively been banished from this segment. Apple also has done well with its iPhone and of course its iPods; these are tech products with significant market share that do not run a Microsoft OS and do not necessarily need one to interface either; as Microsoft absolutely requires monopoly conditions to maintain its business, anything that reduces dependence on Microsoft will cause its empire to shrink.  There are now persistent rumors that Apple is going to release some sort of Tablet Machine that will likely sell below $1K; this will further pressure OEMs that currently preload Windows to compete on price…

Which still doesn’t bring me to Linux yet ;) In the refs to the 2010 article I included a letter that I wrote to ESR regarding his predictions about RAM in computers: by 2008, he wrote, we should see 4GB of RAM in “low end” desktop machines and 16 GB in “high end” ones. However, this did not foresee the transition from majority desktop to majority notebook form factor, the current emergence of netbooks, which have begun to displace some notebook sales (see also here) and which tend to have Windows XP preloaded… at least for now; it uses MUCH less RAM than Vista did! ;) Notebooks tend to use less RAM than desktop machines and netbooks less than notebooks; it is still possible to buy a notebook (albeit refurbished) from FutureShop here in Canada with 512 MB of RAM!  Even the average netbook only has 1GB of RAM and low end notebooks typically come with 2, 3 or 4 GB of RAM.  All this has helped drop the price of off-the-shelf notebooks considerably.  Netbooks still tend to be in the $300 range (the same as last year, but with a larger screen and other ‘improvements'; Microsoft has been pushing for this to keep prices artificially high: “What’s the industry’s advantage in saying lets drive this thing to rock bottom…What we are enabling with Windows 7 [is the ability] to try to maintain higher average selling prices…This doesn’t have to be about who can get to $199 first.”)

And this brings us, finally, to Linux. Currently about a third of netbooks are being shipped with Linux globally and this should rise to a majority by 2013. This is the beginning of Linux taking over the low-end of ‘desktop’ (that is, ‘not server’) computing. What I think will happen this coming year is going to be a convergence of technologies that are going to result in that sub-$200 machine, and it won’t have Windows XP or 7 on it.  But unlike the current generation of netbooks that are Intel Atom-based, these will run on ARM processors. Predictions include that 20% of 2010’s netbooks will have ARM processors and the amount will be over half by 2012. And while Google’s Android will be on some of them, Ubuntu stands to grab a large amount of the market with its 10.04 LTS release.

So, will 2010 be the year of ‘desktop’ Linux? I think yes, but in a way that I didn’t quite imagine in 2007. The “major commerical apps designed to run on Linux” aren’t “designed to run on Linux” per se; they’re designed to run in standards-compliant web browsers (e.g. Firefox) and are ‘free’ (gratis) ala Google (mail, maps, news, etc.)  The low-end of computing will be amazingly inexpensive, almost disposable in the new and uncharted sub-$200 range (the “race to the bottom“).  We probably will see lots of Asian OEMs that most in the west have never heard of before cranking these out (perhaps even toy manufacturers; look at this one that uses rechargable AA batteries! :-), while the bigger ones attempt to maintain their Windows-based notebook sales.

An example of what I hope to see for specs on a 2010 Linux netbook:

Ubuntu 10.04 LTS
Pixel Qi Monitor (10″) [read more]
ARM Processor (2 GHz Dual Core)
1 GB RAM (DDR2 or 3)
Fast SSD (8 or 16 GB)
Cost <$200

a backlit keyboard, lots of USB ports and wireless n would be nice too, but those would probably cost extra ;)

Update Jan. 7, 2010: An article mentioning ‘smartbooks’, an intermediate between smartphones and netbooks, and predicting ARM/Linux ones to do well in 2010. But THIS ARTICLE has the real deal; a gorgeous and incredibly thin 12″ ARM “smartbook” which “runs full Ubuntu plenty well”. Look at the pics and watch the video…

Comparing Windows 7 to Linux

September 7, 2009

Slashdot recently featured a post (mirrored here with working images) that shows what Microsoft is telling retail employees to tell customers to get them to not buy Linux netbooks; it’s the usual sleazy marketing FUD we expect from Microsoft.

Tellingly, Microsoft omits any question of cost; while it pushes the point that ‘Macs are more expensive’ in the Win7 vs Mac section of their online training, it never once mentions that Windows based systems are going to be more expensive than Linux ones; and not just for the cost of the OS (and the hardware needed to run it… which is why Windows Vista never made a dent in the netbook market).  You want Microsoft Office? That’s another $100 at least.  Most Linux distros have OpenOffice.org or some other word processor that saves in an open format preinstalled…

Then there’s the ‘big lie'; “Linux is safer than Windows” is called a “myth”.  I think anyone outside of Redmond can easily laugh that one off.  But more amusingly, they push the fact that Windows has IE8 as some sort of big deal that you’ll be missing if you run Linux! :)  Earth to Microsoft: most people who use IE do so only because it was on their computer when they bought it; most people who actually care about the browser on their system download and run Firefox… which, coincidentally, is what you’ll find on most Linux distros ;)

Microsoft also specifically targets Ubuntu regarding their update process.  I have to say that Microsoft seems to think that the world only wants to run Microsoft apps that can be updated through Windows Update, since my memory of updating other software on my system in Windows is that it was a mess.  Also, Microsoft’s once-a-month Patch Tuesday approach to software updates leaves people vulnerable most of the month; it was designed to cut down on the amount of negative press of patches constantly being released for severe security issues.

Finally, I should mention a sneaky sleight-of-hand Microsoft doesn’t want you to notice: when dissing Linux, they mention “Because there are different ‘flavors’ of Linux, you can’t learn one version and be sure you know them all.” [1] yet at the same time, they say “Most customers have used Windows before.  Windows 7 offers many new features, but it still provides the same great Windows experience they’re familiar with.” What they fail to mention is that most customers have used Windows XP before.  Switching from XP to Vista usually involved a steep learning curve since Microsoft seemed to have made ‘change for change’s sake‘ all over in Vista.  The XP to 7 learning curve should be similar; I seriously question whether it would be easier for XP users to migrate to Vista/7 rather than Mac OS X or Ubuntu.

[1] an aside: all the Linux distros packed onto netbooks these days are GUI-based; how hard is point-and-click?  Also, since Ubuntu is the ‘leader of the pack‘ when it comes to desktop Linux distros, it’s what people are most likely going to run into when they try ‘Linux’…

In short, if you know someone is going to buy a netbook and you know more than they do about computers, go with them and make sure they don’t get suckered into buying a Windows lemon if that’s not what they need.

Lenovo’s Revisionist Netbook History

May 18, 2009

A reply to bug #1:

> im seeing more and more vendors offer systems with ubuntu and other
> linux distros. i agree with bert07 that they are finally starting to see
> the linux community.

Speaking of “vendors” who are “starting to see the linux community”, I note that Lenovo is not one of them:


The other challenge has been, in order to keep the price points down, a lot of people thought that Linux would be the saviour of all of these netbooks.

You know, there were a lot of netbooks loaded with Linux, which saves $50 or $100 or whatever it happens to be, based on Microsoft’s pricing and, again, from an industry standpoint, there were a lot of returns because people didn’t know what to do with it.

Linux, even if you’ve got a great distribution and you can argue which one is better or not, still requires a lot more hands-on than somebody who is using Windows.

So, we’ve seen overwhelmingly people wanting to stay with Windows because it just makes more sense: you just take it out of the box and it’s ready to go.

I’m going to call ‘revisionist history’ on Lenovo BTW; People didn’t want “to stay with Windows”, they wanted to stay with Windows *XP*. Yet at the same time, XP (which is still much more widely used than Vista; e.g. see Net Applicaitons and Stat Counter) had all but gone extinct on regular machines from the big OEMs. Thus there was a high demand for it with low supply. When XP netbooks entered the market at a price point of less than half what Vista notebooks cost, they sold quite well as you might have expected! You’ll note that while there are fewer Linux-based netbooks than XP ones available, you don’t see any in stores with Vista O:) Also it turns out that Microsoft only charged the OEMs $15 per XP Home license on netbooks which explains why they didn’t cost significantly more than the Linux ones. And while MSI apparently had 4x (!) higher return rates on their SUSE systems than they did with those preloaded with XP, Dell’s netbooks shipping with Ubuntu (a full third!) had about the same return rate as those with XP. What this says to me is that MSI didn’t do a good job of picking/testing/tweaking/marketing their distro of choice, while Dell did.

My prediction is that companies which decide to put Windows 7 Starter (limited to 3 concurrent applications… can we say “crippleware”? ;) on netbooks are going to have unhappy customers and low sales, those who continue to preload XP will continue to do well and those that preload Ubuntu will see increasing sales.

(more…)

Comments on Netbooks

May 13, 2009

Chris Pirillo has an item on CNN talking about Netbooks.  I left the following comment:

My wife gave me an Acer Aspire One for Christmas that ran Linux.  The Linpus Linux they used on it was rather sad, so the first step was to replace it with Ubuntu (8.10 had some issues, but 9.04 runs very nicely on it)  I later upgraded the RAM to 1 GB (Acer apparently designed that to be a VERY difficult task).  I recently tried Ubuntu Netbook Remix and found that I like the look even better on its small screen.  It still has a few rough edges, but in six months (when Ubuntu 9.10 is released) I imagine it will be heavily polished.  It has earned its keep on several occasions, for example when my 4-year-old daughter was occupied using Tux Paint on it for over an hour when I needed to keep her busy ;)  She also really liked the World of Goo demo I downloaded (being able to play simple games offline is a nice feature that should not be ignored).

In my mind, the defining features of netbooks are:

- their small size and light weight resulting in high portability (not to be too much of geek, but does anyone else remember Penny’s computer book from Inspector Gadget in the ’80s?  That’s what I thought of when I started taking mine outside ;)

- their tendency to lack moving internal parts (rotating disk based hard drives and removable optical media drives giving way to solid state drives and USB thumb drives)

- their low cost (I would not pay more than ~$300 for one currently; in a year you can replace it with something nicer and you’re only looking at about a dollar a day in usage costs; I expect the average price to drop down closer to the $200 range for low-end machines by year’s end; preloaded Linux will almost certainly play a part in that)

These early netbooks remind me of the RIO MP3 player that heralded the beginning of solid state music players, of which iPods currently dominate.


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