Netbooks + Ubuntu: On fence about form factor; OS solid

Last week, I bought a Dell Mini 9 preloaded with Ubuntu. The idea: Check out a  netbook and take Ubuntu for a spin.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Last week, I bought a Dell Mini 9 preloaded with Ubuntu. The idea: Check out a  netbook and take Ubuntu for a spin. The early reaction: Netbooks can be handy,  but they can also cramp your hands with those dinky keyboards. And aside from some early problems with connecting to my wireless network Ubuntu has proven to be a capable operating system.

First the form factor. Dell's Mini is a tale of tradeoffs. I brought it to Starbucks and tucked it into the pocket of my heavy winter coat--it has been  about 30ish on the east coast. It's light and would be easily carried wherever you needed to go. And I didn't feel like the Mini crimped my computing style--I spend most of my time in Firefox anyway. The keyboard, however, just doesn't  agree with me. Ultimately, I'll probably plug it into a keyboard and monitor for any task beyond generic browsing and email checking.

I also discovered that Dell's customer service was pretty decent. As Jason Perlow noted over the weekend, I went to Jason first for Ubuntu help. I wanted the Mini to work right out of the box and Ubuntu delivered--except for the wireless  connection (click to enlarge Dell's opening Ubuntu screen). Jason walked me through an upgrade, which I did just for the experience and Dell customer service gave me the tip that I had to specify that the wireless connection was 64/128 bit instead of just 128 bit. On XP and Mac OS X this wireless connection navigation just happens. I don't care to--or want to know--about the mumbo jumbo in the background. I just want it to work.

Here's the IM transcript to show my initial reaction (edited to take out a little  bit of profanity):

dignan  (1:55:41 PM) : hey I need help dignan  (1:55:47 PM) : I got a dell mini with ubuntu dignan  (1:55:55 PM) : and the thing will not accept my WEP key dignan  (1:56:04 PM) : netbook without net equals doorstop perlow  (1:56:06 PM) : is it the latest ubuntu dignan  (1:56:11 PM) : I don't know perlow  (1:56:11 PM) : or the older one dignan  (1:56:13 PM) : I think so perlow  (1:56:20 PM) : I doubt its the latest perlow  (1:56:29 PM) : Ubuntu 8.10 is not even a month old perlow  (1:56:49 PM) : they made a ton of wireless improvements in the new version perlow  (1:57:01 PM) : does the thing have regular internet connectivity dignan  (1:57:04 PM) : well I'm about to send this thing back perlow  (1:57:08 PM) : thru an ethernet port perlow  (1:57:12 PM) : so we can update it? dignan  (1:57:12 PM) : yeah perlow  (1:57:35 PM) : what kind of encryption do you use at home perlow  (1:57:39 PM) : regular WEP? perlow  (1:57:46 PM) : you should probably be using WPA-2 dignan  (1:58:00 PM) : let me try that perlow  (1:58:00 PM) : WEP can be cracked by a total amateur 12 year old perlow  (1:58:12 PM) : you need to set your router to WPA2-PSK dignan  (1:58:24 PM) : i'm not doing all that right now dignan  (1:58:28 PM) : I want to set it up once dignan  (1:58:34 PM) : so I walk in and poof it's there perlow  (1:59:29 PM) : I have no experience with the netbook edition of ubuntu or what the hell dell did to customize it perlow  (1:59:36 PM) : if you can pull up a prompt dignan  (1:59:43 PM) : so it picked up the Ethernet easy enough perlow  (1:59:50 PM) : and type in perlow  (1:59:56 PM) : sudo apt-get update perlow  (2:00:03 PM) : and then sudo apt-get upgrade dignan  (2:00:08 PM) : I missed the first one perlow  (2:00:09 PM) : after it finishes the update dignan  (2:00:16 PM) : where does that type in perlow  (2:00:27 PM) : should be under accessories as terminal dignan  (2:00:42 PM) : terminal right perlow  (2:00:47 PM) : you can also try ctrl-alt-f1 if it was actually a PC perlow  (2:00:53 PM) : that would bring you to a command line perlow  (2:01:07 PM) : so if terminal is there perlow  (2:01:16 PM) : I would sudo apt-get update perlow  (2:01:22 PM) : then sudo apt-get upgrade perlow  (2:01:30 PM) : after it finishes the patches perlow  (2:01:33 PM) : reboot the box perlow  (2:01:38 PM) : and try your wireless again perlow  (2:01:43 PM) : if THAT does not work perlow  (2:01:49 PM) : we can do a apt-get dist upgrade dignan  (2:01:59 PM) : it's updating now perlow  (2:02:02 PM) : which will bring you to ubuntu 8.10 assuming they have a netbook version perlow  (2:02:14 PM) : after the update you do sudo apt-get upgrade perlow  (2:02:23 PM) : that downloads the packages and installs them dignan  (2:02:26 PM) : says now reading package lists done perlow  (2:02:29 PM) : the update just updates the database perlow  (2:02:37 PM) : sudo apt-get upgrade now dignan  (2:03:26 PM) : typed in yes and it's doing a bunch of stuff perlow  (2:03:32 PM) : good perlow  (2:03:47 PM) : it should download a ton and patch it to the latest level of 8.04 perlow  (2:03:51 PM) : thats heron perlow  (2:04:00 PM) : the latest PC version is 8.10 or ibex perlow  (2:04:07 PM) : I dont think they did a netbook one yet dignan  (2:04:26 PM) : so now I have system restart perlow  (2:04:31 PM) : yes dignan  (2:04:49 PM) : now here's the deal dignan  (2:04:56 PM) : if you weren't around I'd be screwed dignan  (2:05:03 PM) : how could you leave that wireless stuff out perlow  (2:05:08 PM) : well, doesnt Dell support its products dignan  (2:05:22 PM) : well yeah, but they wouldn't walk me through that in 10 minutes perlow  (2:05:24 PM) : this is not some thing you downloaded, you bought it from Dell as an ubuntu unit perlow  (2:05:30 PM) : well, that IS a column perlow  (2:05:38 PM) : if dell cant support it's a major issue dignan  (2:05:52 PM) : but the point is I didn't call perlow  (2:05:54 PM) : first lets see if the wireless works after we updated dignan  (2:06:05 PM) : I'll take out the ethernet perlow  (2:06:19 PM) : how old is your router perlow  (2:06:31 PM) : if its a 3 year old linksys you might need to update your firmware perlow  (2:06:57 PM) : to make a lot of wireless crap in my house work, I had to buy a new router perlow  (2:07:05 PM) : the older linksys doesn't cut it dignan  (2:07:15 PM) : mine is dlink dignan  (2:07:20 PM) : whatever verizon gave me dignan  (2:07:31 PM) : fios perlow  (2:07:35 PM) : oh for fios perlow  (2:07:44 PM) : so its gotta be brand new then perlow  (2:07:47 PM) : you cant touch it perlow  (2:07:50 PM) : its provider equipment dignan  (2:07:59 PM) : right year old dignan  (2:08:06 PM) : asking me for wep key again perlow  (2:08:12 PM) : can you update the firmware on it or do they do this automatically perlow  (2:08:15 PM) : so plug in the wep perlow  (2:08:26 PM) : now, what format are you plugging the wep in perlow  (2:08:40 PM) : you cutting and pasting from what you have in the router config screen? dignan  (2:08:55 PM) : Wep 128-bit passphrase perlow  (2:10:08 PM) : did it take the key? dignan  (2:10:29 PM) : still not taking it dignan  (2:10:36 PM) : the macbook downstairs takes it dignan  (2:10:40 PM) : and so does the laptop dignan  (2:10:43 PM) : on xp perlow  (2:11:01 PM) : before you throw this thing away perlow  (2:11:03 PM) : I would call dell perlow  (2:11:07 PM) : make them help you perlow  (2:11:32 PM) : I will say this, that the ASUS netbooks are very well integrated dignan  (2:12:20 PM) : calling now perlow  (2:12:20 PM) : lets try one more thing perlow  (2:12:26 PM) : well perlow  (2:12:27 PM) : call them dignan  (2:12:29 PM) : sure perlow  (2:12:32 PM) : if that STILL doesnt work perlow  (2:12:39 PM) : we'll do a dist-upgrade dignan  (2:12:47 PM) : k perlow  (2:12:56 PM) : if dell cant make it work we'll do the dist-upgrade perlow  (2:13:04 PM) : but I would still return it and get an asus perlow  (2:13:19 PM) : also the sylvania unit is supposed to be very nice dignan  (2:13:25 PM) : I can go to toys r us and get one perlow  (2:13:32 PM) : exactly perlow  (2:13:36 PM) : for what, 269 bucks? perlow  (2:13:42 PM) : the Asus uses Xandros perlow  (2:14:04 PM) : which is a very windows-like linux that was specially customized for the netbook dignan  (2:15:44 PM) : going to india dignan  (2:17:08 PM) : she seems ok (Ed note: I had an offshore debacle with HP on printer support two weeks ago so someone offshore with a clue was greatly appreciated) dignan  (2:17:25 PM) : but between my lenovo dignan  (2:17:26 PM) : and this dignan  (2:17:31 PM) : I've had it perlow  (2:17:32 PM) : I hear ya perlow  (2:17:51 PM) : dell should not be rolling out products that arent ready for prime time perlow  (2:18:11 PM) : ASUS spent a lot of time and effort on the eeePC to make the thing work right perlow  (2:18:32 PM) : you dont just throw ubuntu on a netbook reference hardware and expect consumers to be able to use it dignan  (2:19:16 PM) : this needs to just work perlow  (2:19:24 PM) : totally perlow  (2:19:46 PM) : If apple did a netbook in the 400 dollar price point they would rule perlow  (2:19:53 PM) : with ipod OS perlow  (2:20:01 PM) : iphone OS, whatever dignan  (2:21:53 PM) : ok got connected perlow  (2:22:00 PM) : what was wrong dignan  (2:22:03 PM) : 64-128 hex code perlow  (2:22:07 PM) : jesus dignan  (2:22:13 PM) : instead of 128 perlow  (2:22:21 PM) : still, that  should be addressed by the software perlow  (2:22:35 PM) : Dell should have caught that in product development perlow  (2:23:07 PM) : I mean if you cut and paste a code, the software should be able to try it both ways perlow  (2:23:14 PM) : and get you on perlow  (2:23:37 PM) : your average consumer has no idea what the difference between a 64-bit and 128-bit hash is perlow  (2:23:45 PM) : or even hexadecimal dignan  (2:23:51 PM) : nope that said the service was ok dignan  (2:24:26 PM) : it just connects now perlow  (2:24:54 PM) : you didnt change your distro perlow  (2:25:10 PM) : all you did was a manual step that you could have gotten via the software update utility in the menus perlow  (2:25:17 PM) : but I wanted to ensure that you did it perlow  (2:25:31 PM) : and the only way I knew you could do it for sure is via the prompt dignan  (2:26:04 PM) : yeah perlow  (2:26:44 PM) : I think the greater issue here is while Dell's tech support is OK, did they do enough customization of the OS to prevent mass returns by frustrated end users perlow  (2:26:56 PM) : and is their product more friendly than Asus perlow  (2:27:03 PM) : if the answer to both is no perlow  (2:27:08 PM) : then dell has more work to do dignan  (2:27:31 PM) : it's interesting though, I only bought this thing to try ubuntu dignan  (2:27:41 PM) : and see if fantasy football and other stuff works dignan  (2:27:46 PM) : like my streaming quotes dignan  (2:27:47 PM) : etc perlow  (2:29:19 PM) : well, from a customer perspective perlow  (2:29:30 PM) : people dont buy netbooks to try ubuntu perlow  (2:29:35 PM) : they dont know what ubuntu is perlow  (2:29:48 PM) : you know what ubuntu is dignan  (2:29:48 PM) : yeah but it is a prominent choice in checkout dignan  (2:29:55 PM) : and it's cheaper dignan  (2:30:03 PM) : so i bet some folks wind up with it that shouldn't perlow  (2:30:05 PM) : when you buy this thing perlow  (2:30:21 PM) : what exactly does it say, Linux OS, user friendly, etc? dignan  (2:30:28 PM) : it's an experiment perlow  (2:30:29 PM) : or does it say "Netbook with ubuntu" dignan  (2:31:08 PM) : http://www.dell.com/content/products/productdetails.aspx/laptop-inspiron-9?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=dhsST=dell%20mini%209%20(exact)&dgc=ST&cid=34900&lid=871959 dignan  (2:33:17 PM) : so you can detour to ubuntu easily dignan  (2:33:25 PM) : I'm going to give it a few days dignan  (2:33:35 PM) : my hands are too damn fat for this keyboard though

So after that relatively rough start, I'm getting used to the Dell Mini. I'm comfortable with Ubuntu, opened Word documents and tackled generic tasks easily.  I'm still the fence about the netbook form factor and whether you need a device that fills a niche between the laptop and the smartphone. Stay tuned.

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