In migrating virtually all of my computing into the cloud, I decided to try my hand at using a netbook. Depending on your semantics, I was using a netbook before they were netbooks, as a beta tester for the ill-fated Palm Foleo that arguably pioneered the genre. Of the models I surveyed, the HP Mini 1000 Mi came closest to the Foleo’s form factor, which I absolutely loved.
Last week, Engadget asked its readers "How would you change HP’s Mini 1000 Mi?" After the reply I started to post ran into a few paragraphs, I decided to cut and paste my thoughts here instead.
Why a Netbook?
My time logs show that it takes from 8 to 11 minutes for me to start working on the my regular laptop — time spent looking for an electrical outlet and waiting for the boot sequence to complete. Granted, my old laptop only has 1 GB of RAM and the battery is too exhausted to last more than 30 minutes before throwing XP into Hibernate mode. The HP netbook gave me something more agile than a full laptop: small, fast-booting, and with sufficient power to leave the charger at home. But is a netbook computer useful for serious work?
When I first started using the Foleo, I was primarily attracted by how I naturally carried it around: one handed in a neoprene sleeve, instead of a bag that would inevitably get filled things I didn’t need. Frank Lloyd Wright used to design homes with as few cupboards and closets as he could get away with, recognizing that if owners had additional space to fill, they would stockpile possessions rather than use them. I never missed having a laptop bag. Alas, I had to RMA the Foleo back to Palm when the product was canceled. Most of the netbooks released in the interim have either been too small, unergonomic, or otherwise compromised for me to take them seriously — until now.
The HP Mini 1000 Mi
Fast forward 18 months. From the moment I unboxed the Mini 1000, I had most of my Foleo experience back. Of all the netbooks currently on the market, except for a couple of sibling HP products, the Mini 1000 has the best keyboard I’ve tested, with keys that are flush-mounted and untapered. The Mini has a "92 percent," almost full-size keyboard, which is becoming increasingly common on netbooks. I only wish HP would have used a trackpoint (the eraser-like nub) for navigation instead of a trackpad, which would have created enough space to incorporate a full-size keyboard like the Foleo. As with a few other netbooks, like the Acer Aspire One, the trackpad’s buttons flank the sides of the pad rather than the bottom, which my thumbs have yet to get used to.
The "Mi" version of the HP Mini 1000 features Ubuntu Linux instead of Windows XP. I wanted a less commercial operating system that would compel me to use web-based applications rather than native ones. The Mi was clearly designed with the non-geek in mind — there’s no command line console like the Bash shell, for instance. I miss the shell, since I much prefer to write with the classic text editor, vi, than the included text editor, gEdit. Most writers want a full word processor, and would probably be satisfied with OpenOffice, which is also bundled with the Mini. I’ve never been able to get into OpenOffice Writer, since it lacks the Outline View that makes Microsoft Word indispensable.
HP’s Mobile Internet Experience (MIE) user interface is a bit more attractive than a default Ubuntu distribution. The home screen is comprised of three panes. The left pane is for email, using Thunderbird. The center pane is for the web, featuring a search/address bar and bookmarks for launching a customized version of Firefox. The right pane is for music and photo, using HP’s own MediaStyle player and manager.
I set up the Thunderbird panel for my Gmail IMAP account, but after a couple of days I found myself more comfortable with accessing Gmail through the browser again. The Thunderbird interface is superficially attractive, since it displays the headers of your latest messages is soon as the computer is booted. But clicking on one of these headers doesn’t open the message directly. It opens the Thunderbird client in full screen mode, so you have to click on the header again to open the individual email. So the header column on the home screen is essentially a launcher icon for Thunderbird.
The same is true for MediaStyle. When you click on a thumbnail of a photo on the home screen, instead of displaying that photo full-sized, you’re taken to MediaStyle’s photo manager, from which you have to select the thumbnail again. Clicking on the thumbnail cover art for a music file works similarly: the selection launches MediaStyle’s file manager, and the file must be re-selected.
The web pane is better designed. The dropdown bookmarks menu and four Favorite thumbnails launch the browser and go to the selected website directly. The entry bar at the top of the allows you to put in a URL or search term, and the icons for Go and Search are intuitive.
The Linux version of Firefox, though customized, doesn’t seemed optimized for the Mini’s 1024 x 576 screen. The browser frame consumes too much real estate, but I’m still searching for a lightweight Linux Firefox theme — the two that I found wouldn’t install. Most of the extensions I use on the Windows version, on the other hand, did install (I have more compatibility issues with the latest Windows Firefox betas than with the MIE version). Fullscreen Mode (F11) is the best way to use the browser in most cases, especially when using Google Docs and Gmail.
In Daily Use
Switching between several computers nudged me into using the cloud exclusively on the netbook. After a couple of instances of leaving a natively written draft on the Mini, then needing that file later at a different computer, I decided to rule out local computing on the netbook. I use MindManager Web (the web-based version of MindManager, using the Mindjet Connect service) as my digital inbox. If there’s a thought I want to grab while working on something else I toggle over to MMW and drop it there; then process what I’ve collected on that collection map at the end of the day, opening the file from the MindManager 8 desktop version. I also use the "inbox" map on MMW for any collecting any sites, articles or documents I come across when using the Mini. 90 percent of what I need to be productive on the Mini is Gmail, Google Docs, and MindManager Web.
Like the old days of the Foleo, it’s been a relief to carry nothing but the netbook and it’s sleeve instead of additional paraphernalia. Unlike the Foleo, the Mini’s battery life is 2.5 to 3 hours, while the 2-year-old Foleo’s battery lasted nearly 6 hours with WiFi and Bluetooth active. HP sells a separate 6-cell alternative to the included 3-cell battery, but it protrudes from the base of the device at the center, which is neither visually attractive nor lap-friendly.
I’m tempted to replace MIE with Windows 7. Part of the reason for choosing the Linux version was the chance to learn something new. I don’t feel lost in the new environment, but the overall responsiveness is sluggish compared to Windows 7 installations I’ve seen on other netbook computers. I also find MIE’s slate-colored interface a rather cold ("Because modern science was looking for a color more somber than black," Mort Sahl once quipped about charcoal gray suits).
Overall, I like the practicality of the Mini Mi, but I’m still at a point where I feel more comfortable and productive when I’m sitting at a full-size laptop. But the netbook is perfect for taking advantage of smaller windows of time.