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Louis Davidson

My new (fairly) tiny PC

Ever since the early days of laptops, I have looked for the “perfect” device. Something with excellent battery life, very portable, and useful for writing. I like to write, you might have noticed. I also like gadgets. The goal being that whenever I get an idea, I can get it down quick.

My first try was to acquire some form of PDA device. I have tried almost ever version of Pocket PC, including the one the looked a lot  like a PC, though much much smaller (It was made by Phillips, I think it was called a Handheld PC).  None of these has ever exactly hit the mark, though they all have had good points. My current Samsung i760 phone does pretty well, but not great for writing long stuff though it does a very good job at quick note-taking/short writing device because it is with me 99% of the time. I can whip out a few paragraphs, and on rare occasion a full blog post, but no matter how good of a thumb typist I might be, it is generally overly tedious to do more than a page or so on the device. Include the fact that the form factor makes a little text seem much larger than it actually is, and it just isn’t even vaguely a good enough writing device. (I am hoping the next version of Windows Mobile 6.5 or 7 will give me more satisfaction, but who knows.)

On the laptop side, I have always used one as my work computer. The problem there has always been weight to power to battery life ratios, I have a DELL M4400 with a 3 cell internal and a 12 cell slice battery, and I still only get about 4 hours, tops.  All that battery makes it heavy. Really heavy, like Van Gogh with a side of Escher mixed with a bit of Dal.. oh wait, that is a different kind of heavy. I mean it weighs like 9+ pounds. The Dell is a very solid workhorse, dual core, 4GB, 1920X1080 video, but it is just a big old thing to lug around (and no, quad core was just too much when I got it a year ago). The only real feature that makes it a great mobile device is backlit keys. This is the feature I truly love, (and the awesome resolution) but it is just too much trouble to lug this thing around just to write a blog post…It is great when I travel for business, as the 1920X1080 video rivals even decent workstation video, and at home I have a writing tablet that it is attached to that make it a great workstation (plus I use it to remote control a quad core 8GB workstation a lot of the time.)

So recently I resolved to get a machine that is small, powerful enough to run Word, Live Writer and an edition of SQL Server that I could use all day long. So I started looking towards the mini / netbook class machines. When I started this post, I had just purchased a HP MINI, 110-1125NR netbook as the answer. I was pretty impressed with it, but I struggled a bit with the resolution at 1024 x 600. Even the keyboard was quite nice and I got used to it in a few hours (I never thanked my dad nearly enough for making me take typing!) I installed Office 2010 pre-release, SQL Server 2008 Express Edition, Windows Live tools, and it all ran pretty nicely.  I carried it around PASS for the most part, though I didn’t have everything completely set up on the new mini so I had to lug the monster around.  I did do most of my Powerpoint editing on the device which worked pretty nicely.  And this was with 1 GB and Windows 7 Starter edition, which had one limitation that irked me… the inability to change your desktop theme. That is going to annoy many netbook users, as their entire goal is a status symbol thing. I do like having vacation location pictures on my desktop, but I would have lived with that…

When I got home, the wife coveted the new device, and as I was keen to up the resolution, I gave it to her and I got to search again. My theory is that way more than 50% of the delight in any task is the anticipation, and so it was fun.  I narrowed it down to a 11.6’ Gateway machine with an Athlon processor, the same HP device, just upgraded to the HD video, and a Toshiba Satellite T115-S1105 (The Dell machines seemed pretty nice too, but still had to order it custom to get what I wanted.) Battery life on the Gateway was just 5 hours, and I wanted more battery.  The HP had to be ordered, and to get it right made it more like 450 than the original 350, then tax and shipping made it too expensive. The Toshiba won out as it had ridiculous 9 hours + battery, DDR3 memory, 2 GB of ram (with an open slot available for another 2 GB), N wireless, and a 250 GB hard disk, 1366x768 video, HDMI output (excellent for hotels with LCD TVs) and Win 7 Home Premium instead of Starter. All for 479 from Amazon.

The keyboard is very nice, and I didn’t have to get used to it much at all. It has a nice trackpad, a Pentium class processor (single core, low power… A Celeron Edition is available for ~30 less too), and runs quite nicely.  I don’t have any really large databases on the machine, as I mostly test syntax and stuff for forum posts and blogs when I use SQL Server on the machine. The only con is size. The step up in video size makes the machine seem almost laptop sizes rather than a mini PC size. It only weighs 3.5 pounds with a 6 cell battery, and they make a 12 cell…18 hours between charges? Might have to get into that. I am even getting 6 hours with the addition of my USB device from Verizon. The lack of a DVD drive is an expectation of something with 9 hours of battery on 6 cells, and frankly with the excellent MagicCD tool and the fact that everything I need I generally get from the web either in Isos (from MSDN) or installers from the web.

Since a device like this will often need to entertain you as well as let me write (sometimes simultaneously), I have tested a lot of the video sites. It does streaming video great from the Move family of players (ESPN360, ABC), as well as Silverlight (Netflix) in excellent HD quality. Hulu video is decent, but not at the highest quality (low quality is smooth, and looks good enough on the 11.6 screen). With VideoLAN and Zune both, video looks great.

Like all computers, it of course comes with a bunch of weird bloatware apps that almost immediately get removed, but also a few useful ones.. The coolest that is worth sharing is the hard disk protection service. It includes a 3D viewer that lets you watch the heads of the drive move, and shake the PC a bit and the heads/platters move to a safe position:

  • image

  • Cool stuff, though frankly I haven’t even thought about the hard disk heads in quite a long time. I know the Dell I have also has something like this to protect against a drop harming your precious data. All in all it seems like it is going to be a good friend for a few years to serve as my writing notebook and travel companion. Since I can keep it lean and not install most of the stuff you need to program/do your job, it should be fast enough for most anything. I have already noticed that I carry this laptop far more places than any of my previous ones, due to portability, and battery life. So if you see a guy sitting in a restaurant with a computer with too many stickers on it like so:

  • 1122090437

  • Stop and say “howdy”.

  • Published Wednesday, November 25, 2009 11:30 PM by drsql

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    dan said:

    Thanks for sharing, very interesting - always nice that someone does the legwork !  still too heavy though...

    November 26, 2009 4:31 AM

    Raj said:

    How much Microsoft pays you for advertising?

    I'm a PC and Bing.. loll...

    looks silly

    November 27, 2009 5:35 AM

    drsql said:

    Dan, too heavy? Maybe it is because all of my laptops have been 8+ pounds, but even the MacBook air is 3 pounds. Fact is for less than 500 bucks, I don't think I could ask for any lighter/better. And most cheap computers come with less resolution (even 1500 Macbook air is 1280 by 800 with a 5hr battery).

    Raj, pay me? They pay me the same amount that Lucasfilm pays me for te Yoda sticker :) Actually I bought both of those stickers myself. I am finding that I use bing about as much as I use Google. Google is still a reflex, but Bing has a nice way of organizing answers that is realy nice.

    But yeah, I tend to make it look a bit silly, but they are good conversation starters.

    November 27, 2009 8:28 AM

    Glenn Berry said:

    It's always nice to hear someone else's decision process for buying a new laptop. I had a Toshiba NB205 Netbook that I carried around at PASS (for tweeting and checking e-mail), but the 1024x600 resolution is harder to live with. I lucked out and got one of the free Acer Aspire 1420P units that Microsoft gave to PDC attendees, and I like it much better than the netbook.The Acer is my new tote-around machine.

    November 30, 2009 12:41 AM

    drsql said:

    Wow... they gave you a PC? I would like to add that into my decision process in the future... Get free PC, check! What is the battery life on that PC? Looks pretty awesome, comparable to my Toshiba in ways, but with quite a few other goodies (like a touch screen, for starters.)  The Microsoft site claims dual core, but the Acer site says Celeron low power. Either way,great stuff!

    December 3, 2009 12:03 AM

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