October 3, 2009

I’ll Call Him Mini Something Something Mutter

Filed under: digital,hate,interfaces,linux,losers,toys,want — mhoye @ 1:42 pm


As many of you know my hypocrisy is boundless, cavorting around the landscape like an exuberant fratboy with something poorly thought through to prove. It is the slightly too young, slightly too drunk Ernest Hemingway of hypocrisies, full of an exuberant joi de vivre, slightly manic and from time to time would like to know what you’re looking at, buddy. So when I said a while back that you should not buy any new computery widgets between now and November or so, I meant you shouldn’t buy any computery widgets between now and November. It should be clear that I was going to do basically whatever I felt like doing regardless.

If that didn’t come across at the time well, come on, pay attention. I’m right over here.

I’ve been jonesing for a netbook for some time now, and I finally caved when I came across an HP Mini 1116nr for $200, and thought what the hell. Keyboard, screen, likely pretty moddable if I feel like banging my head against that particular desk again, sure. I know it’s going to come with XP, and I know that means I’ll have to install Linux on it, and if nothing else it will entertain the hell out of Kev to see me get back on that treadmill again. But for a knockaround microlaptop with a passable screen and a keyboard, that I don’t worry too much about hurting? Sure, why not. Here we go.

Now, that’s not entirely accurate; what I’ve actually wanted all this time is to be able to pair an bluetooth keyboard with an iPhone, but Apple’s ongoing douchebaggery on that front has so far proven intractable and nothing says second-rate or second-choice like HP’s consumer hardware so why not, here we go.

It’s definitely far and away the cheapest laptop I’ve ever bought and, wow, super-tiny. And now that I’ve scraped off all the ugly stickers, it doesn’t look half bad either, at least until a human touches it. I’m still getting used to a keyboard that’s about 85% of nominal and not superbly well-suited for my fat hands, but it’s got pretty good tactility, so I rate it an OK. The trackpad is this dumb, tiny little thing with seams in confusing places, but I’ve been so well-spoiled by the Macbook Pro’s multitouch for almost a year now that anything else is just about unusable. There’s not much grounds for fair comparison there, so I just turn it off and plug in a mouse.

The Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix I installed in place of XP is turning out, much to my pleasant surprise, to be a remarkable improvement over my last experience with a graphical Linux userland. Power management works properly, a significant improvement over “not at all”, and even though I’m actually using it to check my email and download things the wireless drivers have resolutely refused to lock the whole machine up so far. Better still, there’s no VGA- or DVI-out on this thing, so I don’t need to get that set of hopes back up to be crushed again.

Which is all awesome, don’t get me wrong, and a huge improvement over the last time I saddled up to get stomped at the linux-on-laptop rodeo. It’s still Ubuntu, though, and Ubuntu is still Linux, so in comparison to modern operating systems it’s still pretty heartbreakingly bad.

One example of several so far is that if I spin my mousewheel around and then stop it the webpage keeps jumping around long after I’ve stopped the spinning wheel. It’s a lightweight machine, so it’s clearly buffering those signals somewhere as it tries to keep up, but OSX and Windows are both smart enough these days to do what I clearly want rather than what I specifically asked for and stop the scrolling when I stop spinning the wheel. Linux, well, it’s still Linux. It’s not one big thing anymore, which is nice, but it’s still lots and lots of little ones. Even so, I haven’t tried getting it to make sounds yet and I don’t think I’m going to even bother. Who knows what sort of mess they’ve made out of this year’s ground-up audio-subsystem rewrite, but I’m trying really hard not to look or care.

And the colour schemes and rampant themeing, jeebus. Guys: we all poop, I know, it’s a part of the human condition, I understand, but in terms of a default palette there are so many better options.

FInally, the hardware is just classic HP consumer design. The few things they do well and the distressing number of things they continue to be mind-blowingly dumb about are right here on incomprehensible display. The glossy rim around the screen looks great until you touch it, and there’s no lip or catch to make it easy to open up. The mousepad has a little seam on the side that pretends its a scroll wheel, but with the mouse buttons to the side of it you can’t tell if you’re trying to scroll or just rubbing a mouse button ineffectually if you’re not looking directly at it.

There’s two USB ports, an SD slot, one “Mini Mobile Drive Port” and one “Expansion Port”, and I bet those last two sounded like awesome ideas in some board meeting somewhere. The “Mobile Drive Port” turns out to be a recessed and customized USB port with a loose plastic cover that you can only plug HP-made stuff into, and would have been far better as a third regular usb port.

The “Expansion Port” bit just floors me; I’m sure this sounded good in the meeting (where I’m sure the word “monetize” came up) but they must have put a lot of engineering work into something that no human will ever use, and that does the same job that a $20 USB hub would do better on another port. If they’d dropped this and the Drive Port thing, and put in, say, a second SD (or, better, universal card reader) slot and another standard USB port, rethought the mousepad a bit and added a little more thought to the trim, this thing would be killing the netbook segment right now. But they’re HP, so they didn’t do any of that, and now it’s selling for about half price.

The price is the real saving grace here, and it’s a nice screen. It’s just a shame to see yet another PC manufacturer churning out something cheap and only OK that could have been great with just little bit of good taste and foresight. I’m happy with it for what it is, but it’s a solid reminder of why I’m glad I’ve switched to Macs.


  1. Just to inject a note of fairness here, you’re comparing a laptop specifically designed to be as cheap as possible to a freakin’ Macbook that costs like, what, ten times as much?

    If you’re willing to spend Macbook money, you can get something that’s a lot closer to Macbook quality, albeit maybe not from HP. As silly as I think Dell’s Adamo is, if you’re really a design fetishist looking to spend $1500, hey, there you are.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — October 3, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

  2. See, that’s not what I’m saying at all – I’m saying that even though it’s designed to be cheap, HP has made deliberate, expensive, and counterproductive design decisions that have both driven up the cost and made it less good. I’m saying that _even at this price point_, or at least at the whatever the price point on this thing was new, a little bit of extra thought (and not even all that much) could have improved this device immensely.

    Comment by mhoye — October 3, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  3. Ah, I see what you’re saying now. Yeah, that’s HP for you. They REALLY REALLY want to always do something proprietary and “value-added.”

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — October 3, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

  4. I did a lot of netbook shopping and comparing in the beginning of the year, and to my surprise, the best netbooks I found available were all manufacturers that were either unheard of to most consumers, or held in somewhat low esteem. The Asus EEE is a solid candidate usually for price, features and usability. The Acer netbooks, I found, were also some of the most highly recommended. I also looked at MSI’s Wind series of netbooks, but they were new entries into the market and didn’t have a lot of customer feedback yet.

    Ultimately, I went with the Acer Aspire One 8.9″ and I have been very pleased. The keyboard layout of the Dell Mini series was, at first, plain awful, and the HP Mini Note line had the worst finish, too many proprietary features, and a keyboard with big, flat keys that made it very difficult to touch type.

    I’ve used both 9.04 Desktop and 9.04 UNR, and I was very pleased with UNR for casual use, but I eventually went back to the Desktop release because the maximumizer (or is it Maximus?) package that UNR uses for window management interfered with some of my applications.

    Does 9.04 audio not work out of the box on your HP Mini? If not, I’m sorry to hear that. 9.04 was a significant improvement over 8.x in that, on all of the systems I tried, audio and wireless networking just work out of the box. I think one of your frustrations with Ubuntu, the scrolling issues, may be caused more by the relatively low horsepower processor. I experience the same thing on my netbook, but not my desktop or VM with Ubuntu.

    I totally agree that Ubuntu has borrowed, even ineffectively, many of the window/program management concepts from OS X. I find that it’s still a lot more flexible and intuitive than even Windows 7, and if I didn’t need a Windows environment for work, I’d likely be a Linux/Ubuntu convert for good.

    Glad to hear you’ve picked up a netbook, all the same. It’s a fun addition.

    Comment by jeg83 — October 3, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

  5. jeg:

    I’m sorry, but you’re on crack if you seriously think ANY X wm/theme combo can remotely play against Win7, and I say this as a long time Unix bigot (I’ve been running *BSD on my home boxes since 94 and I have SGI and Sun hardware at home, but I live under no illusion that X is even remotely comparable to modern Windows and Mac GUIs).

    Comment by Jamie — October 5, 2009 @ 8:04 am

  6. As sad as it makes me, Jamie’s right. The X people sat on their thumbs for the better part of a decade while their competitors just kept getting better and better, and it really shows. They’re getting better fast, but they’ve got a long way to go before they’re in the same area code as their competitors.

    Comment by mhoye — October 5, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

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