Pick Two

March 21, 2011

The last time I did this, it didn’t go particularly well – The cheapest subnotebook I could find turned out to be pretty terrible, had a lot wrong with it from Day 1 and ultimately lived a pretty short, pretty unhappy life. I’ve got an odd fascination with the bottom end of the hardware spectrum, though, and while I’m waiting for Apple’s ARM-powered Airs to materialize (you’ll have to wait for that post, sorry) and, y’know, running a software company that builds stuff for Windows users, when I found another super-cheap laptop I decided to pick it up.
The Light At The End
This one cost $170. It’s a “Compaq Mini” and it’s pretty surprisingly good, as though somebody at HP read over my list of gripes and decided to address them all. The whole case actually fits together properly, there’s no obvious problems or ugly seams and even turning it over doesn’t reveal the usual mess of ill-advised ventilation grates and license barcodes, all of which are hidden elegantly away. The proprietary “Mini Mobile Drive Port” and “Expansion Port” connectors are gone, replaced respectively with a third USB port and nothing, entirely the right decision. The keyboard is unspectacular but usable, a pleasant surprise as compared to the old Mini 1116, and the decision to put the mouse buttons back at the bottom of the trackpad instead of keeping them on the sides brings it nicely back into “usable at all” territory. It’s still a tiny little trackpad and there’s only so much you can do with that, but despite the quite-dodgy multitouch it’s nowhere near the same grade of hateful that the 1116’s was.
VGA out only, a little sadmakingly and c’mon, guys, it’s 2011. HDMI? DVI, Displayport? Something with a D in it? But for $170, I’m not going to fuss too much. All told, designwise this really is the netbook the 1116 could, and should, have been. Well designed and assembled, quite inexpensive without feeling flimsy, designed with some care and not obviously junk.
Boy, the OS it comes with is junk, though. Preinstalled with Windows 7 Starter and, um, did you know this thing existed? I was unaware that this cut down, deliberately crippled version Win7 was a thing, and it’s not a good experience. Microsoft, if you’re listening, I really don’t understand why you’d do this to your customers; the contempt for your users on display here is astounding. This is really, really bad, and the fact that your idea of a business model here to annoy your customers into paying you more really doesn’t say much about you, or your opinion of your customers. You’re being out-executed by the free software movement and your answer to that is to ship a product that does less?
It’s also got the inevitable menagerie of grotesques that come preloaded on every Windows machine these days. Fish swim, birds fly and if you’ve got a new Windows box and an ounce of sense you need to spend hours deboning it before you can use it for anything. It would be like buying a brand new car, then finding out that the dealer has let an elephant take a dump in the back seat after the local zoo gave him ten bucks to claim elephant dung is “added value”.
It doesn’t help, and it’s a little odd, that device drivers and random apps are all on the same list, all horribly named, and HP apparently doesn’t sign their own applications. So when you go to uninstall something you’re given this slightly terrifying “unknown application from unknown person wants to modify your computer, do you wish to proceed?” dialog. It’s really a mess; it didn’t used to be like this, but something about Windows 7 makes it impossible to love. I may actually break down and install linux on this thing, because honestly, it can’t possibly be worse than this. But it’s incredible, as in despite the evidence of my eyes it is very difficult for me to believe, how you much of Windows hasn’t improved or even been changed since before WinNT 4. Scrape off a little bit of the paint and there it is – if you want to change capslock to control or use that dumb windows key for something else, you go to the Keyboard control panel and… it is the same damn dialog you’ve been looking at since Windows 3.0. You can change how fast the cursor blinks. Whoopee.
Having to calculate hexadecimal values and type them into freaking regedit.exe to remap a key is just so damn antiquated I can barely stand it. It was easier to use xmodmap in 1996. It’s really sad that in 2011 the experience is still this terrible. It makes me wonder, again, if anyone at Microsoft ever actually uses their own products.
But oddly enough this makes me really optimistic for the near- to mid-term future. HP has stated that they’re getting ready to ship WebOS on every device they make, possibly as a quickboot option in addition to a full-on OS, so they’ve got something modern available to them for approximately free, a significant upgrade from this one. I’ve said this before and if this laptop is any indication I may even be right: there are still people at HP capable of building hardware that people can love, and if they harness that talent and find an OS to back it up, that’ll be pretty exciting times. I’m actually looking forward to that WebOS tablet thing quite a bit.