Thoughts & Ideas

Ubuntu 9.10 Netbook Remix First Impressions

Ubuntu 9.10 Netbook Remix First Impressions

I adore my HP Mini 1000 netbook. It's got a fantastic keyboard (one I can actually type on), and the screen is gorgeous. It's a little cramped for space, though, given that it uses a solid-state drive, but in general that's not a problem -- this isn't my primary machine, after all. (Just don't expect it to handle your entire MP3 collection!)

But Windows XP didn't get along well with the SSD. I don't know why -- it should handle it just fine, but XP would often freeze for no apparent reason and then come back after a few seconds, and I tracked that down to accessing the SSD. So anytime an application needed to load a good bit of data from storage, the entire computer stopped. That gets annoying after awhile, to say the least.

I was originally going to just install Windows 7 on it, hoping it would do a better job, but that 16gb SSD kept nagging at me -- that's not a lot of space for XP; Windows 7 would eat even more. Not only that, but there was no guarantee that performance would be acceptable on the netbook, and so I bit the bullet, and switched the operating system to Linux -- Ubuntu 9.10 Netbook Remix, to be exact.

My first impressions are very favorable. There were some installation difficulties, and I just wish that Adobe would release their products on Linux, but other than that things are going really well. The OS starts up far faster than XP, and once going, the OS is fast, responsive, and actually pretty. Not only that, but the HP is more than capable of supporting Compiz, which adds some pretty nifty effects to dragging windows, switching desktops, etc. 


Installation was not as simple as it should have been, in my opinion. For one, of course, is the lack of a CD or DVD drive -- this is a netbook --, but Ubuntu provides a nice utility for putting the OS on a USB stick and installing from that. Which does work, but with a very big quirk that wasted a lot of my time.

Because some people use the stick as their primary storage (which means they can take the OS anywhere and use it on any machine that can boot from USB) the USB stick tool assumes that's what you're going to do. Nowhere is it obvious you have to select the option to discard all your changes (like documents, etc.) when the OS is shutdown. For one, that's a scary way to phrase it, and two, the install fails if this isn't selected! 

So, check the option, and relax; the install proceeds normally, and you're left with a machine that runs just fine, and since you're installing to internal storage, the scary "discard" word isn't a problem -- you'll be saving to your hard drive, not to the USB stick.

That problem solved, the installation went without a hitch, and WAY faster than any Windows install I've ever seen. Granted the UNR version of Ubuntu is a smaller OS than the full version, but it's still pretty cool to see an OS install in something like seven minutes. ;-)

But wait, that's not all...

So everything's installed, and I'm pretty impressed. The machine responds quickly to any of my actions, and exhibits none of the slowness and freezing that XP exhibited. Score one for Linux. 

And then the next problem: no wireless. Uh oh - that's a pretty big problem -- I'm not always going to be hooked up to a wire - that's part of the point of a netbook.

So I scour the web, and it turns out that the wireless isn't supplied by default because the HP uses a Broadcom Wifi controller, and there are some legal issues that means that Linux can't use it out-of-the-box.

So I follow as many instructions as I can, and end up installing b43-fwcutter and try that. It's supposed to work, but fails for some reason. No matter what I do, no wireless. Even more annoying, I keep losing my wired connection at random, forcing a reboot to get it back.

And then, by magic, I find a post that indicates that Broadcom has released their own drivers. Downloaded, installed, rebooted, and...


No go. Crashed computer. Ick.

Reboot. No wifi. Ick.

And then, after a few more tries, suddenly after a reboot, the wifi controller is there. (!!!) I don't know how it got there, but it was, and so I wasn't going to complain. I set it up to connect to my network, and voila! I had wifi access! YAY!

Elation aside, however, this is where Linux tends to fall flat on its face for new users. I've had experience with various flavours, and am pretty tech savvy, so I was able to eventually get things working. But a new user who knows none of this is going to get stopped by either the first failure (getting the OS to install), or by the second (getting drivers to work). So until Linux gets better at this, it's never going to beat Windows or OS X.

Happy Days Are Here Again...

With the Wifi enabled, happy days officially started. Mostly ;-) Being that this was a brand new installation, there were all sorts of programs I needed to install to get a familiar environment. Here's a few that I installed:

  • Adobe Air
  • Tweetdeck
  • Google Chrome (Dev)
  • Last.FM
  • Mozilla Sunbird
  • Gimp
  • RawStudio
  • AbiWord
  • MonoDevelop
  • Audacity
  • Hulu Desktop
  • Wine

(Yes, Wine. I know it is heresy to install something that would allow some Windows applications to run, but hey -- you never know when you'll need it. And no -- Lightroom does not work under Wine. *Sigh*)

After all that, and configuring each application (like adding plugins to Chrome, getting Flash working, etc.), I have a machine that I can use without feeling frustrated at it because it feels slow or keeps freezing. Responsiveness is amazing, even when I push it. If an application freezes for any reason, the rest of the system still works, which wasn't always the case with XP.

Minor Glitches Remain

Not everything is 100% rosy, but it isn't enough to cause me to drop Linux on this machine. Here's a bit of what is glitchy:

  • Flash: sucks. Period. While it technically works, it quickly slows any browser or application that uses it to a crawl. I suspect this may be in part to my use of Compiz and extra desktop effects, but seriously -- I like me my eye candy. So watching Hulu in my browser or via the desktop application is a bit painful, but any other flash use is too. It could also just be that Flash for Linux really isn't all that optimized, but whatever the cause, I'll only be using it whenever necessary. (For that reason, I've got FlashBlock installed in Chrome.)
  • The UNR interface, while very nice, occasionally breaks down when using an application that isn't aware of the limitations of my display. (Chome, I'm looking at YOU.) Granted, UNR is just window-dressing, but it'd be nice to have some way to get to parts of windows that  have decided to be off screen because surely no one would ever think to use the application on a screen that's only 600px high. 
  • Also, some portions of the UNR desktop could use extra customizability. Granted, this is supposed to be easy for end-users, but I think we could all grasp moving icons around on our desktop, something I haven't convinced it to do yet. 

Even so, Things Are Grand

Even with the glitches, things are grand. Most things have improved, including:

  • Responsiveness - the HP now hums along beautifully. 
  • Speed - No longer does the HP feel like it's struggling to keep up -- programs open quickly, desktops change fast, application switch is quick, and the machine is even able to render some 3D effects reasonably well.
  • Compiz - The closest thing I can compare this to would be Windows Vista Aero, but Compiz is really a bit more than that. You can have the things Aero gives you, and so much more, and the HP handles many of these with aplomb. Not everything is within its capabilities -- this is a built-in video card --, but for the most part things are nice and smooth. 
  • Audio - Somehow the drivers supplied with XP made the audio sound like crap. High-pitched, tinny, lacking any punch. I originally chalked that up to the small speakers in the chassis, but the same applied to listening by headphones. So then I assumed the chipset was just crappy. But the Linux drivers have surprised me -- it's not excellent sound, but it's WAY better than under Windows. There's actually some bass involved, and it doesn't sound like I'm listening over a bad telephone connection!

Our Future Together...

Granted, I've only used this on my netbook for a short time. It's possible the same freezing problems will creep up on Linux too, but I doubt it. It's possible I'll run into some sort of horrible bug that'll ruin me on it forever, but again, I doubt it.

My only wish was that Adobe released Lightroom on Linux. Because if they did, I'd seriously consider switching on my primary computer as well -- I'm that impressed. While Vista x64 never really bothered me (x32 is horrible, though), I've never been all that impressed, either, and it quite often feels like molasses, even on a 2+GHz machine with dual cores, 4GB of memory, etc. Ubuntu on that thing would literally fly... :-)

But until then, I'll live in Windows on my primary computer, and keep Linux on my netbook.

My New Best Friend

image Okay, this post is totally not related to photography. At all. Instead, I wanted to introduce you to a new addition to my tech family: the Sony MDR-NC60 Noise Cancelling Headphones.

I had recently the opportunity to try out Bose’s new noise cancelling headphones, and was thoroughly impressed with the noise-cancellation. The first time you put them on, it nearly felt like you were going deaf. There were only two cons: a painful price ($299), and a lack of bass response (though mid- and treble-tones sounded wonderful).

And so, having discovered the joys of noise-cancellation, but wanting a little more in the bass department (I’m like my Dad in this – the more bass, the better) and not wanting to drop quite as large a chunk of cash, I went and found these babies, and for less than the Bose, they deliver excellent noise cancellation and good audio quality – especially bass.

The Sony MDR-NC60 headphones run on a single AAA battery, but you can run the headphones without if you don’t want or need the noise-cancellation. This is nice if you happen to run out of batteries, as you can still listen to your music (other NC headphones require a battery to play music). A battery tends to run about 30 to 40 hours – get a good set of rechargeables and you won’t be always spending money for new batteries.

The headphones also feature a special “monitor” button. When the headphones are cancelling noise, this button, when pressed, will enable you to hear the conversation around you (muting the music) – great for flying when the flight attendant comes by asking if you want something to drink! (Note: this button does not work if NC is turned off.)

For those times when you don’t want to listen to music, but still want the benefit of cancellation, you can actually take the audio cable and unplug it from the headphones so that it doesn’t get in the way. I can see this being useful in a lot of situations, though I’d make sure not to lose that audio cable!

Audio quality is quite good, though as with all NC headphones, there is a little bit of distortion, especially when playing loud music or when playing pure tones (like piano solos), but otherwise audio is quite good. Along with the noise cancellation comes the benefit of not having to blast your music, and so distortion at high volume is less of an issue. Also, depending upon the external noise conditions, distortion may appear even on quiet music; but this is common in all NC headphones.

While cancelling noise, bass response is excellent, but not overpowering. Midtones are rendered well, and higher tones are rendered with good clarity. (In many ways, you’ll hear things you never heard before in your music – especially if you’ve previously used only cheap headphones.)

When Noise Cancellation is off, the audio quality changes a bit; the bass response drops a bit, but the headphones are more able to render louder and purer tones. In other words, when I want to listen to a piece of Bach, I’ll turn NC off; otherwise NC is on all the time.

Build is quite nice; you don’t have the feeling that these will fall apart on you anytime soon. They are also very comfortable, being over-the-ear headphones, but the band itself is also very soft. My previous set of headphones would cause my ears to hurt after a time; these have no such effect.

The headphones come with a nice carrying case to protect them, as well as to carry the extra accessories that come with the headphones, like the adapter so that you can plug into airplane audio ports. It also has a nice little pouch useful for carrying along extra batteries. While it isn’t a hard case, it should protect against most typical issues (like dropping). Crushing, on the other hand… well… just don’t sit on it.

One thing to be aware of is the way noise cancellation feels. Due to the way NC works, you may feel a pressure on your ears – as if you were at high altitude. For some, this is uncomfortable, so I’d advise you to try a pair first and see if it bothers you. For me, the sensation was something I quickly got used to, and now barely notice it. But for others, it may be a different matter.

These are a tad pricey; you can get them at most stores for about $200, although if you look in the right places (like Amazon), you can find them at some very nice prices. And given that they are at least $100 (if not more) cheaper than the Bose equivalents and perform just about as well, I’d say they’re well worth every penny. All I know is that I love mine, even if they have nothing to do with photography, cameras, or expensive lenses!

Want a pair? Check them out at Amazon: Sony MDR-NC60 Noise Cancelling Headphones (List Price: $199.99, click-through for Amazon’s price.)