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My Ideal Netbook

I have direct knowledge (through observation or first-hand reports) of the following use cases for Netbooks:

  1. System administrator’s emergency workstation – something light to carry when you might get an SMS about a problem.
  2. A really small laptop for a serious technical user, can be used for programming and other serious tasks. Only someone who is really dedicated to the hobby of computing would choose a system with a tiny screen for their main computer so that they can take it everywhere.
  3. A computer for a child. Children are less demanding about some aspects of their computer experience, no-one wants to buy a really expensive toy for a young child, and children find it difficult to carry full size laptops.

1 and 2 are the options that interest me. But it would be good if the extensive children’s toy market could drive economies of scale and reduce the expenses of my hobby and profession. I have found my EeePC 701 to provide adequate CPU performance (Celeron-M 630MHz) for light compiling tasks and I have used it for some Debian development work. The SSD that is built in is very fast and OpenOffice load times compare well to my Thinkpad T41p because of it.

The main problems I have with my EeePC for sysadmin and coding tasks are the small keyboard (which can’t be fixed – the overall size of the machine needs to remain small), the small screen (which could be expanded without changing the case size), the low resolution screen (which has been fixed in newer netbooks), and the fact that my 3G dongle sticks out and is likely to get broken. More recent Netbooks address these issues – while having the trade-off of being heavier and larger.

There are also some tasks which are generally not performed on a Netbook but that could be if it was properly designed. Here are some examples of things that I think should be done on a Netbook:

  1. Basic image editing and blogging – something that a lot of people do on smart-phones nowadays. It can be done more effectively and with less effort on a general purpose computer – I can’t imagine the GIMP or Inkscape running on a smart-phone.
  2. Reading electronic books. The number of people who want a Netbook but don’t want to read electronic books would be quite small as would the number of people who only want to read electronic books and never want to use a general purpose computer while travelling. No-one really wants to carry both a Netbook and an ebook reader at the same time.
  3. Watching movies.
  4. Everything that you might want to do on a terminal in an Internet cafe – those machines are always 0wned, just say no for security reasons.
  5. Games. The Nintendo DS has two ARM CPUs running at 66MHz and 33MHz and a combined screen resolution of 256*384*18bpp [1] and the Sony PSP has a 333MHz MIPS R4000 CPU and a screen resolution of 480*272*24bpp [2]. The original EeePC had more CPU power and more screen resolution than the DS and the PSP so it IS suitable for games – even though it won’t run the latest 3D games. There are lots of great games like Wesnoth that don’t require much video performance.
  6. Educational Software. Portable educational devices include the awful V.smile system for young children [3] and the educational software for the DS (I’ve seen a demonstration of a training program in rapid completion of basic maths problems for elderly people and presume it’s not the only educational software on that platform).

Image editing requires a color screen of high resolution. Effective blogging requires a platform with a resolution that compares to the typical web user – according to Hitslink 1024*768 is the most popular resolution of web browsing systems at 28.34% and the most popular resolution that is less than 1024*768 is 800*600 at 3.28% [4]. So even the most casual blogger will have an incentive to get a screen that is of higher resolution than all but the latest Netbooks. The recently released EeePC 1201 has a screen resolution of 1366*768 which should be barely adequate for those tasks.

Reading electronic books requires a reasonable resolution. Based on my experience with the 1400*1050 display in my Thinkpad it seems that a resolution of 1366*768 would be barely adequate for reading an academic paper that has two columns in a small font. But as the original Kindle had a resolution of 600*800 and the latest Kindle has a resolution of 824*1200 [5] it seems that perhaps the epaper displays are good enough to allow reading the text at a lower resolution. A display that can draw little or no power when idling (as epaper does) is simply required for an ebook. The Pixel-Qi hybrid displays are claimed to offer the best features of TFT and epaper displays [6] but they haven’t been released yet. I think it’s reasonable to assume that someone will achieve that Pixel-Qi is attempting and that it will become the standard display for a Netbook.

Watching movies and playing games (even games like Wesnoth) requires better video performance than epaper can deliver, we just have to hope that Pixel-Qi release something soon.

Watching movies and reading ebooks are both things that are best done without a keyboard in the way. The Always Innovating “Touch Book” [7] seems like a good solution to this problem. It’s a tablet PC that can be connected to a keyboard base if/when you desire. It should also be good for web browsing and reading email while on the move, I find that my EeePC is unreasonably heavy and awkward for typing email while walking.

Intel CPUs are not particularly energy efficient. As there are ARM CPUs with clock speeds as high as 2GHz and with as many as four CPU cores it seems that the ARM architecture can provide as much CPU power as is required. Debian currently supports two versions of the ARM CPU, if another one became commonly used it wouldn’t be that difficult to run Debian build servers for it.

Given a screen resolution equal to the latest Kindle, CPU power greater than the early Netbooks, and the ability to run a free software OS the range of educational and gaming software should be adequate.

So it seems that the ideal netbook would have a detachable keyboard and base and a touch-screen in the computer part. It would have a Pixel-Qi display (or equivalent) with a resolution of 1400*1050 or better. It would have USB, Gig-E, Wifi, and Bluetooth connectivity and the ability to have an internally mounted USB dongle (as the Always Innovating Touch Book does). I think that this is not overly difficult to achieve – it is basically an Always Innovating system with a better display.

Update: Another criteria is the ability to start operating quickly when requested. Even mobile phones are often limited in their utility by the time that is taken to activate them (I can’t get my mobile phone to take a photo in much less than 7 seconds after removing it from my pocket). The Always Innovating system is apparently always in suspend to RAM mode when it’s not being used so that it can start quickly. That combined with fast application load times and a good menu system could allow turning the system on and launching an application in less than 2 seconds.

If I was buying a Netbook right now the only thing that would stop me from buying an Always Innovating device is the shipping delay. But as my EeePC is working quite well I’m not going to buy another system unless I am going to get significant benefits – such as a high resolution PixelQi display.

9 comments to My Ideal Netbook

  • James

    “System administrator’s emergency workstation – something light to carry when you might get an SMS about a problem.”

    Sadly, it’s hard to find even full sized laptops with serial ports anymore. And yet all of my switches/routers/network appliances still have serial console ports…

    :/

  • Hrw

    James: USB->RS232 dongles exists and it is not hard to find FTDI ones.

  • My flatmate’s approach to fixing the 3G-dongle-sticking-out problem is to get a short USB extension cable (the dongles usually have one of these included), a 1cm dot of adhesive backed velcro on the 3G dongle, and a larger area of matching adhesive-backed velcro on the back of the laptop screen.

    Works very well and costs almost nothing.

    The other approach, which only really works in the 701, is to permanently install the 3G dongle (sans plastic packaging) inside the largely empty space on either side of the screen. You lose an external USB port but then you were going to give one up anyway. I’ve heard of people putting GPS receivers, USB hubs and extra CF or SD storage in that space also.

    I guess one downside here is that all such-installed devices are now _permanently_ connected and so always draining battery. Not so good for a portable-sysadmin laptop

  • etbe

    James: As Hrw notes it’s easy to get USB->RS232 devices, I own several and they work well (even running Portslave for use as a terminal server). Also when you are on the road you don’t need a serial port, so having the extra mass for the port and the extra case space (which may result in other ports being discarded at design time) for the port will not be a good thing.

    While we like serial ports I think that we have to resign ourselves to the fact that USB has taken over as the primary bus and that serial and parallel ports are things of the past. I expect that eventually routers will be designed with a USB connector and will internally emulate a USB serial port.

    John: Nice idea. I recently had a 3G dongle die which required paying $100 to buy a new one. I believe that twisting at the end of the USB cable was responsible. I don’t know which would be better in terms of mechanical strain on the 3G dongle, swinging in the breeze at the side of the Netbook or being twisted around behind it.

    As for wasting battery life, I don’t think that’s a real problem. A USB device doesn’t draw much power and my use tends to not be at the border of the battery capacity. Either a problem can be fixed in under an hour (which is well within the battery life) or it will take long enough that I need a power cable. I am hesitant to do hardware modifications to my Laptop/Netbook machines, hardware isn’t really my thing.

  • I’m surprised you would want a high resolution like 1400*1050 on a netbook. My EEE PC 900 is as large as I think a netbook should be, any bigger and it will pretty much be a normal laptop. It has an 8.9″ screen, at 1024×600, with a diagonal of 1187 pixels, so 133 ppi. It’s getting hard to see those little pixels! With anti-aliasing on my 17″ 1024×786 monitor, I can read two full pages of a bell-labs paper side by side with wide margins. More pixels might make it a little smoother, but really I think 1024×600 is more than enough on a small screen. You will be squinting to see the letters before you run out of pixels. My Pandora handheld / pocket computer will have 800×480 resolution, with a 4.3″ screen, at 216 ppi. Again, I think a higher resolution would be wasted on such a small screen.

  • etbe

    Sam: I guess that to some extent the resolution required for ebooks depends on the vision and comfort level of the reader. Someone who has vision problems or is fussy (like me) will want a higher resolution. I noted that the Kindle seemed popular at a resolution that is lower than I would desire for an ebook reader and assumed that it was because of the difference between epaper and TFT, but I could be wrong in that regard and it could be just due to me being fussy about the appearance.

    For doing sysadmin work you want the highest resolution possible. On my EeePC 701 I can’t even have two xterms that are fully visible. My estimation is that you need a horizontal resolution of at least 1140 pixels or a horizontal resolution of at least 768 pixels to be able to see two xterms at once. To see four xterms you need 1140*768. My Thinkpad has 1400*1050 and allows complete view of four xterms and partial view of another five.

    I admit that most users wouldn’t need such a high resolution, but I suspect that you would want to do similar things to me and thus would benefit from a higher resolution.

  • steffen

    PixelQi devices are about to be released very soon. And it appears the first device using this technology is living up to all of my expectations:

    http://www.slashgear.com/notion-ink-adam-hands-on-0969281/

    You find some specs in the picture gallery down this page:
    http://www.slashgear.com/notion-ink-tegra-android-smartpad-uses-pixel-qi-display-1866308/

    GPS, wireless and appearantly multiple days on battery in plain ebook mode. And it is likely that these first devices do not even have the “DCON chip” yet that was used in the OLPC. This will allow to keep the display content while in S2RAM. It is the main reason why my OLPC survives to the next day when I fall asleep reading.

    Anyway…first release is USA only and will still take a few months. I’ve been waiting for a PixelQi device far too long now, so I ordered a kindle DX in the mean time. I suppose it’ll still be better for reading complete books and longer manuals/specs. Should be a bit lighter as well.

  • etbe

    steffen: Thanks for those links, that is really interesting. It’s just a pity that we have to wait!

    Of course I will be waiting a little longer than most as I want to run Debian not Android on such a device and as I don’t have time to contribute to the porting I have to wait for others to do it.

  • etbe

    http://kitenet.net/~joey/blog/entry/xmonad_layouts_for_netbooks/

    Joey’s post about tiled window layouts for netbooks is interesting, he apparently gets a lot more use out of his netbook (including coding) than most people attempt.