update: iPad’s cost/benefit bar set high by Hackintosh netbooks

Addendum: 3/30/2011 -as I await the arrival of my iPad 2, I can now look back at this post and chuckle. In the year since this post, netbooks have tanked as over 15million iPads were sold. While hackintoshing is fun for a while, the stress of upgrading the OS is not, and I sold the netbook, sans OSX. The Macbook Air covers the gaps left by iPad, and in fact, it is fairly rare for me to need a laptop when I have internet access via my iPhone or iPad. The iPad2 will be the 3G version on AT&T -I chose it because I want the flexibility of buying a local provider’s SIM card when I’m abroad. The thing is this -I don’t think that Apple will want to launch iPhone 5 this year, even though most contracts for iPhone cycle around the summer. It’s like giving gifts to a girlfriend -the timing has to be right and given too frequently, you beg for contempt.

If you want to know what the iPhone5 will look like, I think you can see it in both the iPad2 and more importantly the iPod Touch 4G. iPhone5 will be similar to both with metal back and thinner. It will also feature a 4 to 4.5 inch screen. If it is to keep it’s battery life while getting skinny, it will have to get wider and taller. iPhone4 won’t be phased out but will become the cheap phone.

FROM LAST YEAR JANUARY -MARCH, 2010

The iPad launch yesterday was not up to the hype -you needed the device to have time travel capabilities for people to be satisfied. That said, the question for this first adopter among first adopters is, “Where does this fit in my man purse?”

I need portable internet access for many reasons -I write a lot and am working on several research projects as well as need to keep in touch with a vascular team -the iPhone (now disconnected from AT&T) still serves as my primary email device because the HTC TouchPro2 that I have from Verizon has a maddeningly inconsistent email app that jumps between HTC’s beautiful interface and the horrible, ugly Windows Mobile 6.5 bones underneath. Despite this, the TP2 has earned a semi-permanent place because of the $30 app called WalkingHotSpot which will turn the TP2 into a Wifi hotspot.

I have a maxed out dataplan and tethering plan through Verizon, so I am just using the data that I have already purchased, just not for a Windows laptop but also for my iPhone which I can now use again for my golf GPS apps.

The middle spot between a big laptop (my 15inch Macbook Pro) and the iphone is the need to have a bigger screen than my iphone especially for iTunes movies and content, but at the same time having a keyboard, with at least 5 hrs of battery life. The netbooks do fill this niche in terms of hardware very nicely, but the software just isn’t there. I have become very used to iLife and iWork -thinks look prettier and works nicer through these than anything in the Windows or Linux environment.

The solution came in the form of Hackintosh. The Dell Mini 10v is a netbook which seems to have been designed solely for Hackintoshing. Hackintosh is a non-Apple computer made to run Mac OS X. This technically is a breach of the software license, but I own the computer and I own the shrink wrapped software license for this Hackintosh.

With this, I have a portable internet solution that goes 5hrs on battery, and more with the additional battery, all for a total of $400 bucks for the hardware. If you choose to go this route, you should buy the OS license.

The instructions are here: link.

This works nicely for now, because Apple didn’t have something that effectively served my needs in this space. Now they have iPad. We won’t be able to get our hands on one for 59 days, 89 if you want the 3G/Wifi version. Maybe my netbook days are numbered.

I’ll tell you why. The trackpad, designed by Dell, is one of the worst pieces of industrial design ever created by humans. Dell, after I ordered the netbook, took my money but didn’t acknowledge I even ordered the netbook until I spent two hours on tech support. It was only through the graces of a very nice lady in India, that I eventually got a netbook 10 days later than promised. The next OS upgrade to 10.6.3 may break the netbook again, requiring another round of hacking, which I used to enjoy, but not so much anymore. The 10inch screen is adequate, but I know, compared to the OLED screen on iPad, it will be like night and day. I see that a lot of people are giving up their netbooks on eBay, and this is most likely because the hardware being, well, not Apple.

So I wait, with my proverbial tent pitched outside our local Apple store.

The Best Chrome OS Computer is Yours

The recently released Google CR-48 computer caused a wave across the geek-o-sphere. If you signed up and were deemed worthy, you received a black laptop which looks like the black MacBook circa 2008 which run Google’s Chrome operating system (Chrome OS). The reaction is a litmus test of where you stand on computing and on Google’s Borg-like intrusion into everything we do.

The operating system doesn’t let you open files or rummage around the system folder, or make you do any kind of management at all. Booting up takes less than 20 seconds, and you get a browser window and that’s it.

The amazing thing is this: you can have all the advantages of Google’s Chrome OS without getting your hands on one of these CR-48’s (I’ve applied, but I’m not holding my breath). All you have to do is download Google’s Chrome browser. You then log into the browser with your gmail account and get to the Chrome app store. Once you do, you get access to all the Chrome OS apps that you would get on the CR-48. If you run the browser in full screen mode, I bet it is basically indistinguishable from the CR-48’s basic screen, but with all the usability of your own computer, whether it be running Mac OS, Linux, or Windows.

The screen shot from above is the NY Times app running full screen -it’s very nifty and fast and formats the Times in a way that is not iPad like but not entirely web-like either. I think the days of bringing up a web page on a browser is going to be considered antediluvian by todays generation, which is a shame because I remember when you could browse to any web site served up by anyone with the interest, but now you need an app to be legitimate.

Do I like it? Yes! Because I can access my data from anywhere, but the great line is faith and trust in the cloud. How secure is it and what is Google gaining from knowing even more about us. The great possibility for Chrome OS is this: you may in a year have several computer choices where using the computer comes first and maintaining it -maintaining the virus protection, the folders and files, and programs is a nonissue. This is a breakthrough for people who have to spend hours on the phone with older relatives whose Windows machines stop working and they can’t figure out what you mean by ControlAltDelete.

iPad versus netbook -FIGHT!

iPad versus netbook, fight!

I am a mobile professional, I suppose. I walk a lot. As a vascular surgeon, there is a lot of downtime waiting for things to happen. Operations get booked, but the rooms have to be turned over. In these spaces of time, I endeavor to be productive. Time was, in the nineties, I had a marvelous pocketable computer called the Psion Series 5 (link) which allowed for mobility with a complete office suite. The internet was not yet ubiquitous and for what I wanted it to do, document creation, it was perfect. It allowed me to type out patient consultation notes from a corner of an emergency room and wirelessly print them out (via infrared port) to the ubiquitous HP computers around the hospital -I really think that I was the only one that used them. What it attained for me after three years of use (and three Psion’s used up), I had a bank of notes on patients which constituted a pocket EMR, indexed via the database. It let me print out very detailed notes often in 5 point font -I also had a terrible dislike of multiple pages which could easily be lost, much to the chagrin of older attending who became hopping mad at the small type sizes.

Since that time, I have tried to replace the venerable Psion Series 5 with something more modern, but nothing would replace it. It had the ability to turn instantly on and instantly off. Battery life was basically infinite as long as I had a ready supply of double A batteries. Litihium cells would routinely last over 40 hours or about a month. I tried using various Palm and Windows mobile PDA’s with keyboards, but was terribly disappointed. The Palm Treo came close with a workable thumb board, but by this time, I had joined a practice that had a fully evolved EMR which required a full PC.

The attempts at mobility then moved to laptops and sub notebooks, and more recently netbooks. It’s ironic that Psion marketed a small sub notebook called the netbook, possibly the best portable computer of its day, but soon quit the consumer electronic category. The problem with all laptops was that there was no instant on. The wait for bootup was inordinately long, and it precluded the jotting ideas down as they came up. The other thing with regular notebooks was the battery life. Even with 3 to 4 hours, it wasn’t possible to go a whole day without recharging or shutting down and replacing with a spare battery -more stuff to carry.

The netbook brought a lot to like to the table initially. As a minimized laptop running on a low energy chip (Atom), it offered better battery life with lower costs. The 8 inch screens soon grew to 10 inches and now 12 inch netbooks are available. The downside was you got what you paid for. The keyboards were often cramped and the screens were too small to see your work. What was worse, the manufacturers could not effectively shrink the trackpad down to anything workable and various awful to terrible trackpads were released. The video which offered the promise of turning the devices into cheap portable iTunes viewing station, would slow down and skip frequently, and HD video is not possible. The final straw is that they ran Windows XP, which was fine for 2005, but now serves as a constant reminder that you are running something pretty shabby.

As a workstation, I tried using a netbook and found it to be just a smaller, less capable sub notebook, poorly suited for any hard work. Running our EMR off Citrix was a chore for the tiny Atom processor and I pretty much gave up using it to blog because of how small everything was. Funny thing was even with the pocketable Psion, touch typing was a breeze, and not being able to turn the machine on with a touch of a button was a really problem.

Even loading the Mac OS X onto the netbook -called hackintoshing, resulted in an inferior experience. The OS is designed to work in a 15 inch screen -it’s barely usable on a 13 inch screen, and forget it on a 10 inch screen with a balky touchpad. The netbook pictured is a Dell Mini 10v which was discontinued recently and was touted as the most easily hackintoshable netbook.

With arrival of iPad, everything has changed. Now we have a very portable computer with a 10 inch screen with the capability of instant on. Email is not only a breeze, but a joy to look at. My calendar which is coordinated by my scheduler over Microsoft exchange is also a wonder to behold. The device is fast, and the Citrix client for it works well enough (needs some improvements) for what I do.

In particular, when I am out and about between operations, I have to find an open computer and get onto my EMR. Now, I can access it right where I stand. When I’m at home fielding a phone call from another physician or a patient, I no longer wait for boot up times, but go straight to the Citrix app.

The keyboard on the tablet is fine for quick emails and texts, but not suitable for longer missives. This blog entry was composed on the Pages app using the keyboard dock, but I also have a wireless bluetooth keyboard that I can use for it when I’m not at home. The netbook and its spare battery lays under my bed, waiting for a reason to be turned on -mostly it’s to go to Flash heavy websites which the iPad won’t run.

The other killer app is Papers -this allows me to organize my journal articles by Pubmed entry metatags with direct access to the PDF’s. All the papers I need to read are handy, and again, its a pleasure to read PDF’s on the iPad. My main Mac (a 2007 MacBook Pro) runs Papers and will wirelessly sync all the journals so my iPads will stay current. Yes, I bought two iPads because I liked the first one so much. Having two is the only way to multitask currently.

Why would you want two -well if you’re doing work with one, you can have the other one stream a live Yankees game over the MLB app, or a Netflix DVD, or a movie you bought or rented on iTunes. You might want to listen to all the NPR pieces you missed that day over the NPR app. Or have access to every episode of LOST via the ABC app.

The final killer app for the iPad is the Kindle app, which will kill the Kindle slowly. Amazon is wise in taking a wide broadcast approach to distribution. The Kindle, which is wonderfully light and has an always on 3G connection (which you can use to do light browsing), is available as an app on iPad and all your Kindle books show up wonderfully. The book light is no longer necessary. The only place the Kindle has an advantage is in direct sunlight -the iPad would not display well pool side.

I’m eagerly awaiting the camera dongle to transfer pictures from my cameras. All the photo processing software on my iphone works great on iPad, and new iPad versions roll out daily. That is the other part -the App store updates nearly hourly with some new technological wonder. The games are immersive and just funner than playing on iPhone or the Nintendo DS. Gratification is instantaneous.

The iPad is not the first tablet, just as the iPhone was not the first smartphone. But like iPhone, it redefines the category and raises the bar to a very high level. Love Apple or hate it, this kind of innovation spurred the creation of Android and even Microsoft is abandoning Windows Mobile, that instrument of suffering. Using the iPad is transformative. It makes the internet more accessible. It makes work joyful. It allows me to express myself even more fully, and that is what technology is meant to do.

Top 12 features not yet found on any one netbook

fujitsu-u810

1. Instant on/off

2. 8-12 hours battery life

3. Touch typable keyboard yet pocketable (in coat pocket of doctor’s labcoat)

4. Wifi 802.11n and 3G, GPS, bluetooth

5. SSD storage 64-128GB

6. Touchscreen, high resolution

7. Stable, multitasking, multithreading OS -some Linux flavor with OpenOffice and Mozilla with Flash

8. Convertible from tablet to clamshell

9. Multimedia capability

10. 1.3mP videoconferencing camera, runs various chat programs, Skype

11. Can boot into alternative OS’s (including Windows, MAC OS)

12. Memory expansion through SD, CF (for cameras)

As I have been saying in prior posts, when you load Windows XP onto a netbook, it is just a small, cheaply outfitted laptop. When you load Vista on a device like the Fujitsu 810 pictured above, you take a beautiful design concept and turn it into a paperweight. The beauty of the Psion series of proto-netbooks (the Series 5, 5mx, 7, the netbook, and the Revo (pictured right), psionrevois that they were rock stable and had instant on/off capabilities. By rock stable, I mean you could open as many programs as the RAM would allow, and they would all run without crashing the whole thing. Psion is currently in a lawsuit defending the netbook trademark.

The convertibility to tablet is a useful concept for people who walk and compute at the same time -like doctors. The Sony Clie UX50 was a palm based PDA with wireless capabilities and showed the bleeding edge of useful design, but was again hampered by the OS, this time Palm.

Clie UX50

Clie UX50

The gadget designers are limited by the OS they can offer on their kit. Psion was the last hardware maker aside from Apple to completely write an operating system from scratch, creating the inimitable EPOC OS which has since morphed into Symbian. Apple understands that a device’s soul is its OS and its user interface, and has created the near perfect iPhone/iPod Touch, but it won’t go beyond the multimedia player/game/phone space because of SJ’s distate for buttons and desire not to split the OS (but it has) and not draw market share from the crown jewels, the Macbooks.

Nokia, who still is part of the Symbian alliance, and makes Symbian smartphones and the direct descendant of the Series 5mx, the Nokia communicator line (below). nokiacommunicator2

It is pocketable, and typable, but limited in that Symbian evolved into a phone centric OS and not necessarily a work centric one. The keyboard is for thumbs, not actual touch typing, though people report doing so. I used to be able to touch type on the Revo without a problem. nokia8101The same goes for their internet appliance the Nokia 810, which I came close to buying, but held off because of the lack of built in touch typability. Make it a clamshell, and I’ll take it.

There are those who would recommend I get an NEC Mobilepro 790 or 800, which I used to own. These are completely handicapped by having Windows CE. The same with the netbook pro, made by Psion. It is wonderfully up to date, and quite a nice piece of hardware, but again having Windows CE.net handicaps it to the point it is undesirable to use. Believe me, you can hold your nose only so long before the thing crashes and you lose your file! The netbook Pro initially sold for over 1500 -now you can get one for cheaper than the older netbook which runs EPOC. Windows CE killed the clamshell portable notebook.

Why not EPOC running netbook -I used to own this, but running 802.11b with no multimedia addons to the browser, inability to run net 2.0, is a huge drag.

No, we’re all waiting for the next great thing, and unfortunately, even running Windows 7, the so-called netbooks are just small laptops, and not an internet appliance that facilitates your work.

addendum: A thought came to me as I ranted over on CNET. Psion is busy suing people for using netbook, but fact is,psion-netbook-pro-i1 if they merely updated their netbook pro (which they completely ruined after the successful first EPOC OS based netbook by using Windows CE), with a built in wireless card, and had it boot Linux, use a more modern but affordable processor, and use standard memory -and if they priced this 500-700 bucks, they would sell these hand over fist. The netbook form factor was beautiful, very nice to carry, the keyboard was the best I have ever typed on, and it was all covered in leather! The netbook Pro to the right can still be found used on the internet, and it always sells for about a hundred bucks less than the older but far more capable original netbook that ran EPOC

addenum #2: Like all things in this age, you think about it, and someone has already got there. Gizmodo reports on the Touchbook, a convertible netbook/tablet which uses Linux and runs 10-15 hours. Looks fabulous, and all for 300 bucks see link.

always_innovating_touch_book_0005

Addendum 12-14-2009

It looks like someone is thinking the same way I am: link

The un-iPhone: A Review of Nokia N810 -an iPhone User’s View

img_2042

Moore’s Law, the observation that processor speeds double every few years, has hit the other principle, the law of dimishing returns. Once computers can reliably do the following, list below, any increase in processor speed or other tech spec is frivolous:

1. Connect to the web
2. Get and send email, photos, and video
3. Process text, spreadsheets, and presentations
4. Keep track of schedules and tasks
5. View documents, pictures, and video
6. Communicate by voice and video
7. Play music, movies and television
8. Play games
9. Blog

There is really no great need for the latest processors or gizmos once a device can do the above reliably. To make money, you have to innovate or you sell upgrades of broken software. This is why Apple has triumphed by creating a device that does all of the above with panache in a pocketable package. But in getting there it created compromises (12 things I hate about iPhone), which made me try out the N810.

It was after a great deal of research that I finally broke down and purchased the Nokia N810. I had been complaining about the iPhone and its deficiencies, and even with iPhone 3.0 which came out yesterday. Apple has been determinedly avoiding creating a competitor to its MacBook, iMac, and PowerMac’s. This means keeping everything aside from the making of simple emails, playing songs, and launching apps completely hidden.

The N810 is an internet tablet which in many ways is the un-iPhone. It runs a flavor of Linux designed for ARM processors, and potentially the iPod Touch could run it. It has a physical keyboard. I wrote this review on it using LeafPad, an open source project available for free download. Nokia appears to have built the N810 for geeks, because I see no obvious business use. It only connects via wifi 802.11g, although they offer a Wimax version. But it has several things going for it that trump iPhone: the keyboard, bluetooth keyboard capability, and communications via Skype and Google.

First Impressions
The device out of the box is gorgeous. All brushed aluminum in grays and blues that are dressy and corporate. It has none of the tacky garishness of some of the Windows Mobile phones. The slideout keyboard works nicely and there are just enough buttons.I think iPhone doesn’t have enough -particularly a keyboard. There is a forward facing videocamera for chatting and a popout easel stand -perfect for using with a bluetooth keyboard.

Turning On
This is one dislike -the device requires a bootup but the device behaves like a smartphone in that it quickly spools into standby mode which the battery meter will tell you is good for almost a week. Bootup takes less than a minute. I would much prefer instant on. After some use, I realized that you aren’t meant to turn off the machine after bootup. It goes into a sleep mode and you can keep it in standby for days. A tap on the screen brings it back to life. With average use, I’m getting about 7 hours of battery life. This far exceeds the iPhone, which frankly is under-batteried for the ways that I was using it.

Software
The device needed to be upgraded to the current OS version which I had to do via a Windows computer. Not a big deal, and it enhanced stability.

It comes with a very capable web browser that renders full pages quite well. It has a dedicated zoom rocker switch that lets you adjust to comfort level. Also, there is a dedicated full screen button. It has Flash, which empowers this device for web 2.0. Unfortunately, it is an older Flash and some web sites, including Hulu won’t run, but Youtube and videoclips off NYTimes ran okay, if a bit choppy.

Multitasking is smooth and it has copy paste. Pressing the x cleanly ends the program, unlike Windows Mobile which has muddled way of dealing with multiple processes -namely it doesn’t and Windows Mobile devices get easily gummed up.

It works perfectly as a communicator -it notifies you of incoming text messages via skype, google, and aol and presumably msn via a number of programs. Unfortunately, skype’s client doesn’t have video chat yet.

Email is functional and straightforward. The client that comes with the N810 is spare and straightforward, but has a limited feature set. A more feature rich client, Claws Email is available for free download from Maemo.org.

The un-App Store – the Apps are open source and free. What isn’t available are PIM and Office software -I don’t think anything matches the utility of Documents to Go for the Palm OS. Everyone is waiting for someone to port OpenOffice, but I know it will run very slowly. There are some who have hacked Debian or Ubuntu Linux to run on this device but it slows down when programs meant for laptops and desktops run on what is a smartphone.

I have paired an Apple Bluetooth keyboard to it and it is now a very useful netbook replacement.

Media
It will play movies converted to mpegs or wmv’s. It comes with a one month trial of Rhapsody’s music library which is wonderful. I installed a Mini-SD card which had a few albums from my former Treo. With the iTune’s store offering DRM free MP3’s, getting music onto this device is not too cumbersome. The included headphones have a built in microphone for phone calls which work fine as well.

Rationale
Why did I get this when iPhone did most of the things I needed? It has to do with the things iPhone left out: Bluetooth keyboard, copy-paste, multitasking, and builtin-keyboard. I got the N810 through Amazon -not from the mothership but one of the vendors who had it for $250. With Apple Bluetooth keyboard which is very portable and stable, and usable with my other Apple gear, it is a worthy replacement for the Acer Aspire One which I recently sold to a friend.

Why? The netbook phenomena is a giant failure because it has been hijacked by Windows. With Windows XP, these small laptops are just that -small Windows XP laptops with slow processors. Coupled with Vista, these netbooks are completely useless. Microsoft intends on loading these netbooks with Windows 7 that has been downgraded to run only 3 applications.

Right now, I can compose on a very comfortable keyboard or a usable thumbboard in a pinch with a total cost of $325, with all the communcation capabilities brought by Nokia. Very happy. This entire blog entry has been created on the N810, by the way.

The netbook replacement in action

The netbook replacement in action

Rhapsody on the N810 is pretty cool because you have access to a large number of tracks and radio stations centered around bands. This rental of music scheme is okay, but I don’t think I’ll keep it. Pandora works! It’s slow, but it works fine. Streaming Sting radio, it comes through with FM quality with occasional very short skips probably related to the processor groaning while I type away.

The media player does a fine job with files loaded onto the internal storage. External storage is in the form of Mini-SD cards. I don’t particularly mind as I have all the adapters, but would have preferred regular SD. I don’t plan on watching movies with it, as the iPod is just too easy to use -iTunes to iPhone trumps ripping DVD’s to the correct aspect ratio, then copying to a mini-SD card -it was okay ten years ago to geek away, but in this day, streamlined delivery of content is a given.

I wish they would update the Flash, as Flash 9 doesn’t work on all sites, particularly Hulu. Also, Netflix is run off Silverlight -and I doubt they’ll release a Linux version anytime soon.

The picture shows the minikeyboard opened -this elevates the display perfectly. The easel stand is a wonderful touch. The Apple Bluetooth keyboard is the same chiclet keyboard found on the new Macbooks and is wonderful to type on. It would be great if iPhone would do the same, but we will never ever see this. They want you to buy a Macbook.

Addendum 3/23/2009
After using it as my netbook replacement for a week, I have been only delighted with it. I use the open source program WordPy to update this blog. Google Documents, though a big laggy when it comes to saving and opening, works just fine and is the office solution that this device didn’t come with. The great thing is that I am now typing on a great keyboard and extremely portable.

I have totally gotten into the internet radio, which for now eliminates my desire to pick up a short wave radio. Hundreds of stations from Hong Kong to Zambia, from Lichtenstein to Kuala Lumpur are available.

I also get much better phone calls out via Skype indoors at my hospital over the guest web connection than I do through the AT&T connection which goes through a repeater. I have to figure out how to get my contacts on the thing though -simply taking outlook contacts and trying to get the N810 to recognize them isn’t working.

Addendum 4/17/2009

After a month of use, I am pleased with the portability of the setup. I do find that certain things run slowly -some web pages take a while to load up where in iPhone Safari -it’s pretty blistering fast. Also, typing on some Web 2.0 pages causes strange stutters in the text. It is much easier to live with than the Acer Aspire One primarily because I didn’t need a small Windows XP laptop in my life. This the N810 does everything that iPhone doesn’t do at all very well. The overlapping functional items -mostly I leave to iPhone because I don’t have too much in the way of non-iTunes related media. The whole idea of using the Acer One as a large video iPod really failed because the video output was laggy compared to the sound.

The N810 is a device to fill in the gap between iPhone and a small laptop. It does this function very well.

The protonetbook

519yhcvvj3l_sl500_aa280_

Pictured above is the Psion Series 5mx. It was an upgrade of the original Psion Series 5, and no computing gadget has come close to matching its utility.

It had a touch typable keyboard and compact flash drive for additional memory. Its power laid in an amazing operating system EPOC OS that Psion built from scratch. It was rock stable -the kind of stable that you would hope satellites and medical life support equipment were based on. I could routinely run 10-20 programs simultaneously and it just would not crash. The Office suite fit in a space less than a meg of memory -I heard the word module was 22kB!. The elements from each -like graphs, tables, and text were hot linked and autoupdating. And you could convert it to word or rtf or xls.

It ran on 2 AA batteries and could print wireless via IR to HP printers with IR ports -I did this for three years during my residency -eventually creating a database of patient notes that I could look up and reprint for frequently seen patients.

When you wanted to use it, you turned it on. When you were done, you turned it off. No boot up, no worrying about viruses, no nothing. With a phone modem, you could check email and do some light browsing, particularly on WAP sites (the equivalent of todays mobile sites such as m.nytimes.com.

This all came to a sad end when Psion gave up the ghost after creating the inimitable netbook, for which it carries the copyright. Nobody can call anything else a netbook, although common usage is calling a whole class of crappy small laptops.

Why do I call them that. No matter how beautiful the gadget -like the Sony Vaio P series, it’s software determines how useful it is. If you got a Sony Vaio P, for example, you would turn it on, and wait 47 seconds while it booted up. What’s the point except to impress people with your stupid gadget purchase?

The Psion 5mx is so valued that you can still see them on ebay going for 150-200 dollars used. There is a site in England that will sell you pre-owned refurbished units or even NEW units (link). It is illustrative that a the netbook Pro, an “upgrade” that runs Windows CE 4.2 is priced way cheaper than a refurbished netbook running EPOC OS. 

As I have been unhappy with my iPhone as the sole portable device, I have been thinking about keyboarded solutions for blogging. The lack of wireless internet capability of the series 5mx keeps me from purchasing, as I have an Acer Aspire One which I use as a breakfast nook computer for updating Facebook. I am toying with the idea of a Nokia N810 with a bluetooth keyboard as a mobile blogging solution. 

If you needed to go to the unwired parts of the world with no wall outlets, but needed to write a journal of your journey, there is no gadget that I would take other than a Psion 5mx. This was exactly the reason why the fellow who purchased my Psion in Mexico bought it -he was a writer who made frequent trips to rural Mexico and needed a solid portable computer which recorded to a safe medium -nothing more safe than compact flash drive which I have laundered and used without a hitch. AA batteries can be found everywhere but wall outlets are dear, he told me, paying 250 dollars for a five year old unit with printer cables, modem, and other accessories.

The Freebie -Be Free!

neooffice-dockiconVery few things in free are life, but for people who purchase new computers, regardless of flavors, a free office suite is available for download onto your Mac, your Windows XP netbook, or your Linux loaded computer. Vista flavors are also available. Just search for OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) for Windows or Linux, or NeoOffice (for the Mac). 

neooffice-newThe images shown are for NeoOffice, which is a direct native port of OpenOffice into OS X. It offers a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation program, a line drawing program, and a database. In OS X, you can publish directly to PDF format or export to Microsoft Office formats. 

This ability trumps any need to purchase a Microsoft Office license. I have found that most people use only 10 percent of the functionality in any software, and the increasingly complex versions of Office offers no benefit. Still, their document formats are the lingua franca of business, and being able to open attachments and see them correctly formatted is a big thing. 

neoffice-docThe programs are fast and very functional. This all builds into my basic premise that Microsoft and its dance partner, Intel, have reached the end of their upgrade rope. Basically, with the current set of Windows XP netbooks, you can watch get on the internet, check email, watch video, and do work. You can do it on a Mac even better. If you need to frag aliens on a shooting game, then you need a high powered rig, but the basic items of fast internet connection and ability to read the basic file formats: MPEGS, Flash, and WMV’s (movies and music), DOCs (wordprocessing), XLS (spreadsheet), PPT (presentations), and databases, allows to do 95% of computing work. It’s available for free. If you can create PDF’s it’s even better because you don’t have to waste paper. 

Even better, you don’t need a computer if you sign up for a Google Docs account. You access it with your gmail login -and you can create the basic triumvirate of doc, xls, and ppt documents right on-line. No need for a flash drive or burning CD’s. 

So what is the value added for paying for software? I use iWork from Apple because stuff created on it just looks better and blows away anything you can make on the free stuff or on Microsoft Office. You have to get something in return for what you pay for. 

But the free stuff is great, because it levels the playing field. It means your four year old computer does not need to be upgraded because you can still create documents on it. It means your netbook that you bought for 300 bucks can do anything the laptop your company tries to load on you, but only lighter and simpler with battery life. It means that by getting a Mac, you get a competitive advantage if making presentations and documents is your livelihood because the stuff on it just looks better. It means being free of the Microsoft/Intel duopoly that demands a tithe every three years.

The netbook

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Acer One netbook

The netbook, the smart phone, and the future of personal computing

 

The netbook is a new category of laptop computer that is really a refreshing of an old category. Starting with the ASUS eeePC introduced in 2007, several major laptop manufacturers have joined the fray, and the category has exploded. The current set of netbooks are a re-entry into what is a very old category centered around mobility. What the current set includes is connectivity. 

The first ultraportable of note was the Radioshack TRS-80 Model 100.

Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 100

Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 100

It was portable and had a full keyboard. It featured a wordprocessor and Microsoft Basic. The Atari Portfolio and the HP95LX brought computing into the coat pocket, and the culmination of this was the Psion Series 5 which was tiny but touch typable. I used it to write my consult notes during residency and maintained a database of frequent fliers. The hospital had HP printers with infrared ports allowing me to print out my notes wirelessly. 

 

 

Atari Portfolio

Atari Portfolio

Psion went on to create the Psion netbook and holds copyright over the name. It is a shame that they gave up the personal computer business after developing the most stable portable operating system (EPOC) and software set ever created. For example, their spreadsheet program, part of an Office compatible suite, took up 22k of memory. My Psion could run over twenty programs concurrently without crashing. EPOC became Symbian which powers Nokia and Sony-Ericksson phones. Having given up the business, they are now chasing the netbook ghost by filing cease and desist letters to websites and businesses that use the word netbook.

HP 200LX

HP 200LX

 

 

I used to own a Psion netbook and it was fantastic to type on with incredible keyboard feel. It was fast, and had instant on -booting up was instantaneous like a cell phone, not like a computer with the minute of bootup time typical for a Windows computer. The EPOC office suite was integrated and allowed cutting and pasting of graphs into documents that would update with changes in the data -this was rock stable and again, took up only a few hundred kilobytes (not megabytes) of memory.

Psion Series 5

Psion Series 5

With AA batteries, the Series 5 would run up to 40 hours. The netbook had a PC card slot for a WiFi card giving it wireless internet back in 1999.

 

 

I believe Microsoft killed the portable computer industry for about ten years with their Windows CE operating system. Microsoft powered clamshell computers were popular for a while but were difficult to use and crashed frequently. I owned a fairly advanced PocketPC clamshell, the NEC 790, but was frustrated by its instability, it’s tendency to freeze and crash, and worst of all lose data, but the full keyboard and instant on capability were enough of a plus to keep me interested for a while. 

 

The salient features of portability, keyboard for human hands, instant on, long battery life, full resolution landscape screen, and wireless internet with full capability -Flash, Quicktime, WMV and other multimedia features, are the killer features of the modern netbook. None of the currently available netbooks (Acer, HP, Dell, MSI, ASUS, and now Sony) fit the bill.

NEC Mobilpro 790

NEC Mobilpro 790

 

Psion netbook - the original

Psion netbook - the original

 

 

 

All are based on the Intel Atom processor. This is a low voltage processor that integrates graphics which translates into slow -how slow? About a hair faster than Centrino Mobile (laptops circa 2005) when running Windows XP. It definitely won’t be lighting up the specs compared to dual core laptops, but it is “good enough,” especially compared to how we used to access the internet via dialup. 

Most of the netbooks come with Windows XP. The whole netbook category along with resistence to upgrading from the coporate side has kept Windows XP alive despite the presence of Vista. A few of the netbooks are presented with a scaled down version of Vista. Having stayed away from Vista like the plague, I can’t say first hand if it’s good or bad, but the word from people using the first generation HP netbooks which ran Vista on the slower VIA processor is that it is slow. This goes against the concept of a fast-boot, efficient, fast running machine. 

 

Apple Newton eMate 300

Apple Newton eMate 300

Linux was offered on the first generation of netbooks, but as they became popular, Microsoft made Windows XP licenses available for these netbooks, essentially killing off Linux on netbooks. This is unfortunate, because Linux starts up quicker and runs more efficiently on netbooks. OpenOffice, an office suite that is available for free, runs very well on Linux. The only downside is there is no iTunes for Linux, but the bulk of the needs are met through open source and usually free software. The great thing about Linux is that the computer are customizing the operating system for their product. The new HP Mini 1000 just presented at CES with a highly customized interface. We are all use to this with the Macintosh, but also with cell phones. In fact, this is a bit of a return to the days of yore, when computer makers created the box and the software. 

 

What does this mean? The netbook is in evolution. It is somewhere between a laptop and a smartphone. The laptop offers the larger screen, USB ports, and a keyboard. The smartphone offers instant on, extreme portability, omnipresent connectivity, long battery life, and great integration between software and hardware. The netbook is slowly moving toward this end, becoming less a commodity, and more a finely honed tool. 

 

HP MiniNote 2133

HP MiniNote 2133

Do I recommend a netbook? Depends. They are easier to carry than a laptop and offer the ability to work anywhere. My Acer One netbook cost less than $400, and has a battery life of over 6 hours, has a 160gB hard drive, and has Wifi. It runs Windows XP which has its faults, but it runs iTunes, turning my netbook into a large screen iPod where I can watch movies and TV shows. With Skype, I can have video chats with family and friends wherever WiFi is available. What is really neat is cloud computing being embraced by Google, Apple, and others. It moves the work onto the browser, and makes it platform agnostic. The problem is the current generation of netbooks are still just small, slightly slower Windows laptops. 

 

The future is the next generation of netbooks which will feature more solid state memory, customized Linux operating systems, and 3G or WiMax high speed internet that is integrated. The solid state memory or SSD (solid state disks) have no moving parts, are fast, and more energy efficient getting you closer to instant on. The customized operating system means that your hardware is more tightly integrated with the software, much like a cellphone. The 3G or WiMax type high speed internet means you can go anywhere untethered from a WiFi network. You can buy netbooks that feature 20Gb SSD’s (solid state disks) with Linux, but these basically disappeared after some muscling in by Microsoft. Windows 7 promises a smaller footprint to be able to run on netbook-like gear, but it completely misses the point. You don’t buy a car from BMW and run it on an engine from GM. You want the software to run seamlessly with the hardware, and this is much more difficult under Windows.

Apple is still digesting this arena. The Newton eMate 300 was an effort by Apple to create an instant on clamshell laptop, but was quickly killed by Steve Jobs upon his return along with the Newton OS and the great Newton 2100. MacBook Air has some netbook features, but fails in it basic concept as another, albeit beautiful, laptop. Ideally, iPhone/iPod Touch would be the platform for it’s netbook, but I don’t see it going that way because of Steve Job’s aversion to buttons. No, this category will be populated by manufacturers looking to capitalize on Apple’s deafness and blindness to this category. BTW, this blog entry was written entirely on my netbook running OpenOffice and uploaded via the Google Chrome browser.