Dancing the Netbook Boogie

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Dancing the Netbook Boogie

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I have spent a great deal of time (and even greater amounts of money) getting my fancy new Macbook Pro kitted out to be a virtual machine hosting speed demon. With a 2.6Ghz dual-core processor, 8GB of RAM and a blazingly-fast Samsung 256GB SSD inside, this thing is truly a bit-crunching monster. I was extremely pleased with the way this new setup performed at TechEd North America and how much lighter it was than my old rig. Yes, there are alternatives that can be had for less scratch, but bear in mind that my presentations are largely about performance AND I travel internationally on a regular basis; as such, I need something that’s thin, light, and oh-so-fast running VMWare (sorry, Hyper-V is not an option – I need a machine I can work on day-to-day that actually has portable functionality like, oh, I dunno, SLEEP and HIBERNATE, not to mention decent battery life and the ability to capture host USB/FireWire devices).

One thing I noticed at TechEd, besides all the Macbooks being paraded about (hooray for my Apple-toting brethren), was the plethora of small-form factor devices, now commonly referred to as Netbooks. The obvious advantages of these little devices – size, weight, portability – makes them perfect for note-taking, Twittering and email, which are the primary tasks everyone engages in at tech conferences. It goes without saying that the miles and miles of walking we do at these things makes toting around big bags full of gear a back-straining test of endurance. Anything that lightens the load is welcome and the Netbook form factor seems to be just right.

Not having much experience with ultraportables, I played around with a few of these things that various people had brought along and found that, for the most part, they were perfectly functional for the described tasks. No, they won’t run a virtual machine or let you do a hundred things at once but they’re quite good at web browsing and tapping out session notes in OneNote. So I determined that I would grab one of these little guys up when I got home, as I could certainly make use of it in the never-ending series of meetings that I’m constantly engaged in, between-meeting recaffeination at Starbucks, and the ad hoc lunch meeting that requires a quick demo of something or the other.

Boy, was I in for a surprise when I started shopping around. There are literally dozens of options – Asus’ Eee PC line, the HP Mini 1000, Dell’s Mini 9 and 10 models, the MSI Wind series, Sony’s Vaio P, the Acer Aspire One – the list goes on and on. And, being a newly-minted Machead, I couldn’t overlook the Macbook Air (not a true Netbook but definitely thin and light). Where have I been for the last year that I missed all this stuff?

A few trips to Fry’s and Best Buy convinced me that the number one issue with these little devices is the keyboard. Speeds and feeds are important as well but most of them run the same 1.3GHz or 1.6GHz Intel Atom processors so it’s mostly a wash and port selection just isn’t all that important to me on a device this small (of course, if I actually ever learn how to type on my iPhone then maybe I won’t need one of these things after all – six months on and I’m still struggling with the onscreen keyboard). I would *really* like to get a Vaio P just for the form factor but it’s dreadfully slow, the screen resolution is way too high for that small a display, and it’s nearly impossible to type on. Not to mention the ridiculous price – but it is the only Netbook I’ve seen with built-in 3G wireless. I tried hard to consider the Macbook Air as it certainly has enough muscle but it’s just too big – might as well just carry my Pro around. I then tried the Dell’s and HP’s but the trackpads were pretty crappy and they only come with the slower CPU. And only 3 hours of battery life? C’mon, how am I gonna get any work done with that? I tried some others and found the Eee PC 100x-series to have the best combination of features and typeability (is that even a word?) but I didn’t like the form factor – it was clunky and thick with absolutely zero visual appeal.

Then Asus came out with the Seashell. Now that’s more like it. Clean lines, right size, good display and up to six hours on battery. I’m sold. So I pre-ordered the 1008HA model on Amazon and was surprised to get an email two days later stating the product had shipped. Very cool. Two more days and it’s sitting on my doorstep. The Seashell comes with a 1.6GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive (plus 10GB of online storage but I can’t image what I’d use that for – I have a SharePoint MySite for online data, thank you very much). They keyboard is almost full size and, although it is a bit cramped to type on, it’s not nearly as tight as the HP or the Acer.

The form factor on this unit is just superb. It’s only an inch thin and so very Mac-like; smooth contours all around, ports hidden by little doors, and the LCD is on a recessed hinge almost identical to the Macbooks. The screen itself is fantastic – nice and bright with good contrast and perfect resolution for 10-inch widescreen. The only downside is that it’s glossy – very glossy, in fact – but I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. It weighs just this side of nothing; the specs say 2.5lbs but you can barely feel it’s there while toting it around.

Of course, the real test would be whether or not it would run Windows 7 RC? In a word: Youdamnbetcha. Extract the DVD files to a USB stick (which was way more a pain than it should have been), set the BIOS to boot from the USB (which, in my case, meant setting the removable device as the primary hard drive), pop it in and off it goes. Thirty minutes later and I’ve got a fully-functional Win 7 desktop.

I can’t say that the Seashell is very fast but it seems to run quite well with Win 7 loaded. I was expecting significant lag time to open applications but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well it handles Outlook, Word, and OneNote with only 1GB of RAM onboard (which, sad to say, is not upgradeable). I can’t testify to the battery life yet but just playing around with wireless on and Vista Battery Saver handling auto-switching to Power Saver mode showed over four hours of battery. That’s not great but it’ll do until I figure out how to tweak all the settings to squeeze out the most juice.

One important thing to note is that there is currently a BIOS issue with the screen resolution on the Seashell and other Asus Netbooks. For some reason, when booting up into Windows the device reports the wrong resolution, causing the screen to go black. The only way to get around it is to put the device to sleep and wake it back up, forcing Windows to reset the screen resolution. This is a particular pain on a cold boot because the login window never appears (you can type in your password even though you can’t see what you’re doing). Hopefully, Asus will release a new BIOS version soon to correct this problem; for now, I’ve just set it to autologon as I don’t plan on having any sensitive information on the machine.

I’ll be putting this little guy through its paces over the coming weeks to see if it can stand up to my daily routine. So far I like what I’m seeing but only time will tell if it fits the way I work. It might be worth it just so I never have to worry if the goon in front of me on the airplane decides to lean his seat all the way back into my lap; I’ll just balance the Eee on his head and keep right on truckin’…

UPDATE: The BIOS resolution issue appears to have been fixed with the 6-03-09 release.  Yee-haw!