Monday, August 10

My Mini: possibly one of my most useful tools

Its small, it's got tons of battery life, it's got a webcam and mic built in. There's a whole lot to like about my Mini 9 from Dell running Ubuntu 9.04. There are some drawbacks, but overall, they are incredibly handy little tools. Lets take a little more in depth look at what I like and don't like.

The inspiration for this post came from exactly what I'm doing right now... chasing my 10 month old around the house to prevent him from doing any major damage to himself or the apartment. He's just started walking so he's even more mobile than he was even a week ago, so the ability to go after him is premium. I found the urge to look something up on the internet too much to resist, so I unplugged my Mini from the desk and, whenever he stopped to play with something, I sat down and did what I had to do. It's small enough to carry around without really thinking about it. It's cheap enough that if I had to drop it in a hurry, I could replace it and the SSD would prevent any data loss(although there's not much on here to begin with). Additionally, it's size makes it easy to set it down on just about anything and resume whatever I was previously doing.

To demonstrate how difficult it can be to remain connected while chasing a mobile baby around, I'll log each time I have to get up with a * and each time I have to change location with a @. Keep in mind, it's not a very big apartment.

In the time it took me to type this much, I've already had to get up
three times(not counting that one) to either take something away from him or stop him from injuring himself.
Should have been paying attention there... he just smashed himself in the face with
... ok, first one was with the back end of a dump truck, the second was a wall
... yeah, in retrospect, giving him back the dump truck was a bad idea... changing rooms... and diapers.
So... we changed rooms, but he went back to the last room for the truck. As you can see, it requires a lot of mobility to deal with that. The mini is a perfect fit for that job.

Second are the tools it comes with. Since I work from home a lot, the webcam is a fabulous piece of equipment to keep me connected to others on my team. I use tokbox a lot for that... and the Mini works flawlessly with it(better than Skype that wouldn't pick up my internal mic and continuously froze). Keep in mind, I've got Linux on here, so working out of the box is not always assumed.

Third, I like to listen to streamed music from services like Pandora. Unfortunately, in many laptops you get a hum from internal devices like cd drives and hard drives. Not so in the Mini. No moving parts equals no hum. The SD slot also provides some nice additional disk space.

Speaking of the SD card, about an hour went by between that sentence and this one. My wife wanted to build some photo invitations for our son's first birthday. The SD slot makes it easy to pop the SD card out of the camera and into the machine. The processor isn't going to handle any advanced photo manipulation, but for doing basic resizing, cropping, and such, it's more than serviceable.

Portability outside the house is a big deal as well. This is, of course, what netbooks are made for, so it performs very well there. My wife will often slip it in her purse or a diaper bag when she's headed somewhere and might want to pick up a wireless signal. Likewise, I pop it in my laptop bag alongside my full size notebook and, with almost no additional weight, I have my very useful, ultra-portable tool with me at all times.

When you are back home, if you need a more full screen interface, plugging it into a monitor, keyboard, and mouse is always an option as well. I plug it into my 24" monitor at times and it scales the desktop just fine and operate like it's a regular, albeit somewhat slow, regular-size computer.

There's miscellaneous advantages as well. For instance, I needed a tuner for my guitar the other day. Normally I have this type of equipment laying around but I didn't at the time. However, due to the beauty of apt-get and open source, I installed Lingot, which worked right out of the box with my internal mic, tuned up my guitar, and then used the mini to find some chord sheets.

Before you go off and buy one, there are some drawbacks, some of them fairly serious, depending on what you want to use it for. First is the processor. If you're a developer, you're going to be frustrated if you purchase one of these and expect to load up Eclipse and crank out some code. It's an Atom processor, it was made to conserve energy while providing enough horsepower for a serviceable interface. I treat it as an internet appliance, video conference machine, and music box and it works great. The key is to know where it fits, give it too much and you won't be satisfied.

Second, and probably most significant to me, is the keyboard. Regular typing is not much of a problem. I can see where someone with gigantic hands might find it cramped, but I don't have trouble until I need to use quotes or if I'm using the command line. The command line is an understandable trouble. Most users go their entire computing lives without knowing what a pipe is let alone use one. So conserving space by making it a function key, while an annoyance to me, makes perfect sense. What I don't get is, why is the stupid quote key between the left arrow key and the menu key??!!! I spend half my time correcting issues with hitting enter instead of hitting a single quote. You can forget instant messaging... I send people half finished thoughts all the time and then have to apologize for it. I suppose if you aren't a touch typist it doesn't matter, but it is my number one annoyance with this machine by far. Luckily, this has been corrected in some of the larger models but it's not an issue with other netbooks at all.

Third, the touchpad is fairly large, which is not terrible except you can end up hitting it accidentally while typing. To get around this, I installed touchfreeze, which turns off the touchpad while typing. After a little playing with the settings I have been able to get rid of mistakes due to accidentally hitting the touchpad almost entirely.

Before I wrap things up, there is one more thing I wanted to hit on and that is battery life. This machine has been running on battery for nearly 3 hours and still has 50% charge left. I've had my music player running, my wife spent about 20 minutes pulling pictures up off an SD card, so it's not like the computer has just been sitting here. That is, in my mind, very good and something you would expect from a machine that is meant to be ultra-portable.

All things considered, I am extremely happy with my mini and find it an incredibly useful tool as long as you understand it's boundaries. Newer versions pack larger screens, better keyboard layouts, and better battery life and the prices continue to go down. If you've been sitting on the fence for a netbook, I suggest getting one. I can't guarantee how useful it will be running Windows, but I know my Dell Mini 9 running Ubuntu with the Netbook Remix interface has been insanely useful and versatile for me.

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