Friday, April 24, 2009

Netbook, Windows 7, and Ubuntu Netbook Remix

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a HP Mini 1000 netbook.  I had a couple of intentions for this netbook.  Firstly, I wanted to use it for any personal network use wherever I went.  Rather than using my work PC for checking account balances, personal e-mail, and other non-work related network uses, I would use the netbook instead.  Second, I wanted a portable machine that I could do some light development on.  Nothing complicated mind you, but just the ability to open up a small project, hack some code, and check that it compiles.

After playing around with the netbook for a while, I can safely say that I am very happy with the decision to purchase it.  Netbooks are the latest consumer trend in computing, and there are a lot of models out there.  You'll find that they are all very, very similar.  The typical unit has two or three USB ports, a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 512MB or 1GB or RAM, and a small solid state hard drive, or possibly a traditional magnetic drive.  Most come bundled with a simplified Linux operating system, or Windows XP for a slight price premium.  With so many vendors and so little to differentiate them it can be difficult to settle on one.  I chose the HP model mostly because the keyboard felt the most comfortable to type on.  Otherwise, there isn't much to differentiate it from the other $350 10" netbooks on the market.

I made some modifications to my netbook before even powering it on.  First, I upgraded the RAM to 2GB, which only cost $20.  Next, rather than use the provided Windows XP operating system I decided to load the beta of Windows 7 (with some help from my colleague Mike Hall who had done the exact same thing to his own netbook).  I loaded Visual Studio 2008, Google Chrome, and a handful of utilities that I like.  After install my 16GB SSD has about 1.5GB of remaining free space.  I put all of my code on the provided 2GB "HP Mini Drive", and I still have two USB ports and an SD Card slot to expand memory further, if necessary.

I'm very happy with Windows 7.  Even on the relatively weak processing power of the netbook it runs like a champ.  I definitely like it as a replacement for Windows XP.  Visual Studio runs well, if a bit sluggishly, and I am able to compile projects as I had hoped.

Still, this beta is eventually going to run out, and at that time I need to make a decision between paying for a license for Windows 7 (if it is available) or selecting some other operating system.  I could always revert to Windows XP, which came with the unit, at no cost.  Or I could try one of the linux variants on the market, also at no or little cost.  A friend of mine tipped me off to the Netbook Remix of Ubuntu.  Version 9.04 of the Linux OS just released, so I decided to download it and give it a try.  One of the nice features of this release is that you can try it by loading it on a USB stick as a "live" OS, which means you can run it without wiping out the OS already on the machine.

After playing with the netbook remix for a bit, I was impressed.  I'm not ready to swap out my Win7 install, but when the beta expires it will definitely be something I consider.  With MonoDevelop 2.0 and the Mono framework running I could probably still do some light C# work.  One feature of the OS that I really liked was how UI works to maximize screen real estate for the foreground application.  One of my frustrations with running Chrome (or any other browser) on Windows 7 is how much of my precious screen is taken up by title bars, menu bars, toolbars, bookmark bars, status bars, and task bars.  With limited vertical space, it leaves only just enough room for my active application.  This is exacerbated by sites like Google Reader that have a static header that cannot be minimized.

In summary, I'm very happy with the utility I am getting out of my netbook, and I think Windows 7 is a solid OS choice for the platform.  I'm impressed by what I see in Ubuntu Netbook Remix as well, and I may give it a try when my beta license expires.

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