The HP Mini 311 Review – Part 3 – The How

This is the last part of my multipart “review” of my recently acquired HP Mini 311.  This is probably the most difficult to put down since at this point, it’s changing on a regular basis.  The How, is how things are going to be done, and how things are being done.  For example, i am currently typing this using windows Live Writer in Windows XP on this machine.  However I’ve spent MOST of the time using this machine in Ubuntu.

So I’ll start at the top with Windows Live Writer, since I already brought it up.  This is a program I’ve been wanting to use ever since it was first released.  The beef I always had was, keeping everything organized in one place.  Probably the primary reason I wanted a computer like this in the first place was for writing.  So far it has proven to be an excellent tool for this.  Now, i will give you that, because I use a “two fingered method” of typing, the transition to the slightly smaller keyboard hasn’t been much of an issue.  If you’re used to touch typing on a full sized keyboard, you may have some issues.

It is perfect for this use however.  It’s light weight enough that I can carry it anywhere in my bag.  Which means, for example, if I’m out eating somewhere, or at the park during lunch or whatever, i can easily pull it out if I feel like typing something up.  This has, so far, only amounted to a translation to writing more blog posts for my various outlets for such activities.  I plan to try to transition this into more long form writing.  It’s something i used to do that I do enjoy and have lots of good ideas for, but I can generally never find the time.  Being able to type virtually anywhere is a blessing for this.

Part of this type anywhere ability, I’ll admit, is the battery.  Not the battery size or anything, just that it’s there and works.  I’ve had a few used laptops over the years and none of them had a decent battery.  So using the computer say, while sitting in bed, required I dig out the cables and find a spare outlet nearby etc.  It was a hassle.  At this point I’d estimate that I plug this machine in maybe once a day for an hour or so, usually while it’s sitting on my office desk.

Back to Windows Live Writer.  It was probably the first program I installed since it’s an excellent tool for blogging.  The interface is intuitive, the ability to easily attach multiple blogs is great and in general, it’s something Microsoft should be proud of. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a Linux equivalent.  There are Linux blogger tools that are similar, but none of them are quite as robust.

Which leads me to the second part of the How, Ubuntu.  I’ve got a long and sordid history with Linux.  I do use it fairly regularly however… sort of….  Most of the Linux based set ups I “use” are “set it and forget it” style set ups.  An FTP server for work.  A file server at home.  Occasionally I log onto these machines via VNC and putz around with settings or play around with CURL but for the most part, they are autonomous creatures,  I’ve tried using various flavors of Linux “full time” but generally I have little long term success.  The other issue is that I’m not going to inflict that general irritation on my family with say, my main home machine.

This is where the personal portable, touch it and die Netbook is handy.  I can dual boot with ease.  I’m still not really ready to go all in and wipe out my XP install or anything, but I do use Ubuntu way more than I do XP. 

Again… sort of….

I’ve also been experimenting with VirtualBox to run a virtual session of Windows XP on top of my Ubuntu install.  Can you wrap you head around that?  I have an “underpowered” PC that can boot to either Windows or Ubuntu, and inside Ubuntu, it can also run Windows.

This allows me to do things I can’t do with just Ubuntu, like run Windows live writer (eventually).  Or play DOS based games like Diablo 2 or Grand Theft Auto.

Ubuntu however should get a post all of it’s own so I’ll save more of the details on that for later.

The HP Mini 311 Review – Part 2 – The What

So I wrote up a rather lengthy “review” or at least partial review last week for this new machine I’ve been using.  The thing to note is that, for the most part, I didn’t mention much actually pertaining to the device.

That’s where this post comes into play.

After careful consideration, I went with the HP Mini 311.  In my research, I’ve found that for the most part, most Netbooks have essentially the same specs.  There are quite a few options if you’re willing to spend more than $500 but for anything less you’re going ot get more or less the same formula.

  • N270 or N280 processor
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • 160 GB hard drive
  • Windows XP SP3 or Windows 7 Starter (DON’T GET STARTER)
  • Webcam
  • 3 USB Ports
  • VGA Port
  • 9-10” screen
  • Etc.

The Mini had two main advantages that swayed me to pick it and one minor advantage.  The minor advantage is really minor, I like the way it looks.  It has a nice two tone black and silver chassis that isn’t obnoxiously colored but isn’t too boring.

The major advantages come in the visuals.  Firstly, it has an 11” screen.  This makes it slightly larger than your average Netbook but not as humongous as a laptop.  The footprint is almost identical to a standard 8.5”x11” sheet of paper.

Secondly is the nVidia Ion Chipset.  Basically, instead the of integrated Intel graphics chip most Netbooks have, this has a separate chip made by a company that more or less specializes in graphics chips.  According to CNet’s benchmarks, this machine scores a massive factor (think hundreds to a thousand) times higher than most netbooks in the graphics department.  A bit of research actually suggests the Ion is a rebranded downsized version of the GeForce 9400 chipset, which is conveniently the same card i use in my desktop machine.

So what does this mean?  Two things.  Firstly, it runs video better than most Netbooks.  Secondly, I can play some 3D games.  No, I’m not going to be playing with screaming FPS and ultra graphics settings but it’ll still work.  I’ve already tested this with the two most graphically intense games I play, Team Fortress 2 and Second Life.  TF2 will need some settings tweaks (I only spent like 5 minutes testing it out) but it’s doable for a quick game.  SL is definitely usable and reasonably smooth is less busy areas.

As for other aspects, the wireless rage is decent, much better than my old laptop.  The speed is good, I’ve loaded this thing down fairly heavily and haven’t seen a huge dip in performance (more on this in Part 3).  I’m even dual booting with Ubuntu, though there was a bit of a hassle making that work smoothly.  Battery life is decent and works for 3-4+ hours easy.

In short, I’m pretty satisfied with my experience so far.  I’ll go into more detail on exactly what that experience entails however in the next post…

The HP Mini 311 Review – Part 1 – The Why

DSC00020 Even back when the only option available was the OLPC, I knew I wanted a Netbook.  Ok, actually I saw the OLPC for the “mostly a toy” that it is, but the concept of a cheaper “unerpowered” PC was something I’d been pushing for a while.  Even with a desktop.  The idea being that computer parts just get cheaper, and my old Pentium “Whatever” is still good enough for most of what I need to do, why can’t hardware manufacturers continue producing “old models” and sell them for half the cost of the “current generation”?

A Netbook isn’t quite this.  It’s not like the Atom Processor is a Pentium 4, though I imagine there’s some similarities if you break it down.  I’ve also pushed the idea of a smaller more modular PC.  Granted, that a Netbook isn’t more modular.  Anyway, I do think it would be a great idea to build a PC that is essentially just a bank of USB ports inside.  Need to upgrade the processor?  Just swap out the stick.  Maybe add a second one, or a second GPU.  Need more Hard Drive space?  Stick a few more flash drives into the bays.  Basically, I see it as sort of like Star Trek’s Isolinear Chips.

But I’m running off topic…

After a long wait, I have finally managed to purchase a Netbook of my own.  I generally don’t make too many large purchases and when I do I tend to procrastinate forever on if I actually want it or what else could I buy.  The plus is that I tend to end up pretty well satisfied after excessive research.  Not always though, see my LifeDrive, which failed too early in it’s life.

The original plan for the longest while was to go for the MSI Wind u100.  Many reports suggested it packed the best bang for the buck in it’s price range of around $300.  I really wanted to get something with Nvidia’s Ion Processor inside however.  The Intel GMA graphics chips are supposed to be alright but I was hoping for that extra kick.  The intention being that I could potentially use the diminutive machine to play some games.  I don’t expect to be able to play the latest whatever on PC at blazing speed or at full graphics settings but an occasional putzing with TF2 or the ability to log onto the online world of Second Life would be a huge benefit.

Which brings up a point with choosing a Netbook, expectations.  In my research I’ve seen many MANY people suggesting “Netbooks suck”, “Too underpowered”, “Get a real Laptop for $100-$200 more”.  The thing is, I wanted a netbook for many of the reasons people seem to be badmouthing them.  I don’t WANT to spend hundreds of dollars more for a 14-15” laptop.  Not to mention a $500 Laptop is pretty low on the low end and likely the build quality is going to be crap next to a $400 Netbook.  We have several people using Laptops at work.  The $2500 Microns we used to use were extremely sturdy and robust and lasted for 5-6 years.  We’ve got $500 Dells that are almost falling apart that are in rough shape after only 2 years.  The point is, buy cheap, get cheap.

There’s also the size factor.  Ideally, I wanted something that would fit in my “Nerd Bag”.  I have an old full sized laptop.  The bag for it is huge and the thing is heavy enough that it makes my shoulders hurt lugging it around.  I want something light that’ll fit in a bag that’s convenient that I’d be more likely to carry around with me.

As for underpowered, I’ve been using this device for roughly a week now.  No, it doesn’t play TF2 as well as my desktop PC.  No, I’m not going to load up Adobe Premier and make it render a 2 hour video.  No, I’m not going to watch massive HD videos at full screen.  What I can do is type.  I can write blog posts such as this one.  I can listen to iTunes.  It’s got several USB ports and runs Audacity just fine so maybe i can finally start doing that Podcast I’ve been meaning to do.  The point is, this device is an excellent tool. for what I wanted it for and for what I expected from it. 

It’s also helping me become once again more comfortable with the keyboard.  I grew up on DOS.  I’ve been working on various Linux projects on the command line for a while, I used to be able to zip around Windows easily without using a mouse but I’ve gotten rusty at it.  The fact that I simply don’t like touch pads in general (not just on this device) has helped me harness a skill I’d lost to help my overall computing habits.  I’ll argue against the Linux mindset that the command line is superior to a GUI, but I’ll argue for the idea that the keyboard is more powerful than the mouse for productivity.

Anyway, I’m getting a bit long so I’ll wrap things up a bit here.  In the end, chose the HP Mini 311.  I don’t recall exactly where I first came across this model but it has more or less everything I wanted.  The reality is, a LOT of these machines have identical specs.  160 GB Hard Drive, 10” screen, N270 Atom processor, 1 GB of RAM.  For a bit more than the Mini, I got the Ion Processor and an 11” screen.  The Mini 311 also has a slick 2 tone color pallet going for it.

But I’ll get more into the details in Part 2, “The What”…

Review – Kodak Easyshare Z710

My only previous Digital camera was a Kodak CZ7430. It was a nice, simple camera that served me well for about two years and 6000 photos. Unfortunately, it took more of a beating than it really should have and started flaking out on me.

Still, I’ve used several other Digital cameras from relatives and work.

Originally I wanted to upgrade to a Sony Alpha dSLR since it’s compatible with my film camera’s lenses. However that proved to be more cost prohibitive than expected. I also received this camera in the mean time as a family gift for Christmas.

I’ve been using this camera for about 3 weeks now and I will say I’m very satisfied with the results I’ve gotten. I most appreciate the 10x Zoom capabilities since I do a lot of photographing of small toys and action figures. This camera will produce a 3072 x 2304 pixel photograph with top notch quality all the way through.

It also works well for non-macro photos of course and the zoom is certainly useful for taking detailed photos of distant subjects.

In addition to photos this camera will record video with a maximum resolution of 640×480. While that isn’t huge, the quality on the video is passably usable for casual use. If you’re really wanting quality digital video I’d recommend a regular camcorder however. Also of note on the video, this camera eats through batteries pretty quickly while recording video. While the batteries I had on hand were not the best quality, They were dead after recording a half hour of video.

I do have a few gripes. The LCD image tends to be a bit grainy in live view mode, especially in the eyepiece view. I’d imagine this is to help conserve battery power but it can be a bit distracting when trying to judge the quality of the picture you’re about to take.

There is a lack of Anti-Shake built in for this camera so if you’re trying to take photos at a great distance or in low light without the flash you’ll want to invest in a tripod.

The lens cap doesn’t stay on well at all. It has these two squeeze clips holding it in place. It takes hardly any jarring to get it off and turning the camera on while the cap is attached will cause the cap to pop off.

The flash pops up automatically any time the camera is turned on. This is kind of annoying since you may not always want to use the flash. I find the easy way to remedy this is to simply hold the flash down with one finger.

Another minor complaint, compared to most point and shoot style cameras, this one is kind of large. My old CX7430 would fit into my jacket pocket easy, this one is a load in there (and these are big pockets). Still, it’s smaller than my Minolta film camera and likely smaller than the Sony Alpha I had been looking at.

So in conclusion, this is a really nice camera with a really nice zoom function for a decent price, but ti has a few convenience style issues going for it. Still, I’d recommend it.

More photos taken with this camera…

Review – PalmOne’s Life Drive

I like computers, a lot. For a long while I’ve liked the idea of a computer I could take anywhere. Something small and handheld, laptops are still too large and require frequent charging. I’m not sure when I picked up this idea, maybe it had something to do with that show Lain. The characters all seemed to carry these rather sophisticated hand held computers they would use to log onto the internet from anywhere.

Enter the PDA. Hey, look, that’s sort of like having a little computer… only… not.

32 meg of memory, 128 meg of memory, what the heck am I supposed to do with that? It’s black and white too, not to mention it won’t connect to the internet. It’s essentially a glorified address book. I don’t want a 200 dollar address book, I want a computer that fits in the palm of my hand.

And so that dream was put on the back burner until PDA technology managed to catch up with my needs.

Hey, what’s this new device? The iPod? Put out by Apple you say? What? Gigs of space to play MP3s? Why all those other MP3 players are limited in space. I could barely stick an hour and a half’s worth of music on that, I may as well use a CDR. But this iPod, now that’s capacity. All my favorite tunes will fit on that thing. It’s a bit pricey though. Do I want it? Do I not want it?

Enter the LifeDrive.

I found the LifeDrive originally while browsing on Amazon for Tablet PCs, PDAs, and Laptops. Ironically, the day before I had been talking to my dad about PDAs and he mentioned hearing about some sort of new large capacity device on the market. He couldn’t remember the name at the time I had been browsing Amazon.

So after learning of this device I headed out to find some user reviews and recommendations. There had to be a catch or a drawback. In the end it seemed there were only a few. Most reviews reported delays of 1-2 seconds when opening applications. Since I wasn’t exactly used to other “lightning quick” Palms, I decided that it wasn’t much of a concern. The other was the lack of a user changeable battery. Then again, the mechanically inclined could replace it with a third party battery if it should ever die.

After months of waiting and flip flopping, I decided to go ahead and purchase the device. Circuit City had them on sale for twenty five dollars less than the 500 dollar asking price, it wasn’t much, but it every little bit helped.

On a semi related note, I ended up purchasing from a Circuit City outside of my hometown. The clerk in Springfield was completely unhelpful offering only the advice that he “does not like the Palm OS at all”. It was pretty annoying.

I brought it home and after opening the package was disappointed to find that the device required charging for 4 hours before it would be ready to use. No big deal, a little more waiting wouldn’t hurt. Soon I would find out if I had spent my money well or if I’d just picked up a 500 dollar paper weight.

Now, I had considered at this point going on a sort of step by step log of my experiences with the Life Drive, but I’m thinking it might make for an easier read if I just touch on the highlights in detail.

We’ll start off with Solitaire. Why? Because it’s probably what I use the most, though I’ve lately ‘discovered’ that I can archive articles and such on it for later reading. Solitaire is pretty much the only worthwhile game included on this device; my primary complaint is that the engine used tends to generate impossible deals. According to the stats, I’ve played 304 games of Solitaire, though some of those were played by others, and of those 304 games I’ve had 24 wins. The longest loss streak is 54 games; the longest win streak is 2 games. It has some slightly irritating auto-play features that don’t help, though they can be partially turned off. Anyway, if you want to play Solitaire all the time, there are certainly cheaper alternatives.

Aside from Solitaire, I tend to use it for its music features secondarily. I’ve loaded quite a few MP3 files on it and regularly play tem while at work. It sounds decent enough coming out of the desktop speakers I’ve got though it also includes an internal speaker if you’re desperate. The included Pocket Tunes player is decent enough, though it could use a few more play list options. Specifically, I don’t see a way to append the play list on the fly. Also it comes with an annoying shortcut control option set to on by default which causes the player to pop up all the time while tying to use the writing pad.

Another nice feature is the contacts list. You can add all the necessary information about any number of people to your list of contacts. They can be broken down into categories for easier sorting. You can even add a small icon snapshot to each contact (i.e. a photo). This information comes up nicely organized. I do have some issues with the standard layout of the fields, and there isn’t a way to change them. Since I don’t use this primarily for business related activities, I don’t care much for having the business related information quite so accessible.

Speaking of organization, the more I use the calendar, the more I like it. It has a lot of nice features for quickly adding reoccurring events. On the monthly view it creates little color coded icons on each day. It automatically picks up birthdays out of your contacts list. It’s pretty neat.

What about word processing. You probably won’t be writing a novel on this device. The interface is slightly awkward. I imagine if you used it a lot one could become exceptional at it, but initially it’s rather clumsy. I’ve been primarily using the “writing” style input, that is, you write in a little box and it detects what letter you’ve written. I often end up with the wrong letter and have to backspace. I’ve given up spellchecking anything of any length on the device, I can do that more quickly once I dump it off onto the desktop. It’s great for jotting down ideas, not too good for the final draft. It does feature the ability to read and write Microsoft Word documents, though I had trouble opening at least one file. You can also use the memo feature to make short notes or lists if you’d like.

There is also a note pad sort of feature, sort of an electronic post it note if you will. I’ve found this feature isn’t nearly as nice as the standard memo feature and I’ve pretty much just used it to make little sketches and doodles. The functionality for this is iffy as well however.

One major feature I’ve not had too much experience with yet is the WiFi internet access. I spent maybe an hour once when I had access mostly surfing Google and trying to access my Livejournal. Google has a nice palm version that pops up automatically but Livejournal seems to have an excessive amount of formatting that doesn’t translate too well onto the Palm. I’ve also tried a few AvantGo sites as well as a local copy of my personal website that indicate the Palm has difficulties parsing some CSS code. Lameazoid hangs off the left side of the browser with no ability to scroll over.

The WiFi also eats battery power. Browsing for an hour will almost kill a full battery. I’ve recently discovered the third party AvantGo service that downloads local copies of websites for later browsing when Hotsync is enabled. It works pretty well so far and is certainly easier on the battery charge. It’s also a lot faster, the WiFi runs at almost modem speeds.

There’s one last large scale feature I’ve used to be covered, the Camera Companion. When you insert your SD memory stick from your camera into the Lifedrive, it will automatically copy off new media. This is infinitely useful while on the road. My 128 meg card has more or less increased in size exponentially. If I need more space I can dump everything off and delete files from the card with ease. It also has a lot of options for organizing photos into groups.

One major complaint I have however, the “new media copied” is based on files in the camera companion directory. Basically this means if you organize your photos onto the LD, then copy files again, previously copied files may show up again. I would prefer it keep track of the last file copied (sort of like my desktop PC does) and simply copy from that point on. Better yet, remember the date and time of the last backup and copy only newer files.

I suppose this would make a good bridge into the hardware itself. The SD card slides into a slot on the top of the Lifedrive. It is ejected out again when you press on it. The store demo featured a bank to fill this slot but I am pretty sure my Lifedrive didn’t come with one. This slot is located next to the power switch and the IR port. The power switch has two functions, slide it one way to turn it off, and it springs back to the middle “ready” position. Slide it the other way and it locks the LD into its current state. This keeps it from turning on by accident as well as allows you to keep say, a picture or text file up for an extended period (the device has a power saving timeout feature). There is also a small activity indicator light on top of the device.

The right side has no buttons or ports, though the stylus slides down into a slot on this side (from the top). The stylus is decent enough, the spring for it is actually in the stylus itself and allows the end to pop up allowing it to be pulled out easily. Down the left side you’ll find a shortcut button for the voice memo feature as well as the microphone for the device. I’ve had poor results in the performance of the voice recorder myself though it’s not a feature I really need. I was also trying to use it in the car while driving down the road. There is also a button on this side that switches the device from regular to wide (sideways) viewing. Along the base is a headphone jack, a small reset button that works well with the stylus, and the PC-LifeDrive interface plug. The power charger plus is also on the bottom and can be interfaced through the Hotsync cable for easy charging while hooked up to the Pc and (presumably) while in a cradle.

The face controls, the primary controls contain two major parts. There are 5 physical buttons and a direction “circle” located near the bottom and then there is the obvious touch screen. The Touch screen serves as the primary interface, though the buttons are extremely useful in assisting with regular operation. The 4 outside buttons have preset icons and shortcuts but they can be configured to run any application the user may desire. By default they will open Home/Favorites, the Photo Manager, the Directory structure, and Pocket Tunes. Personally this default set up works great for my purposes though I could see the calendar or memo feature possibly being useful on one of these buttons. He other physical button is the center surrounded by a directional control ring. This allows one to navigate and activate menus with ease.

The primary interface however is the touch screen. This can be used with your fingers is you’d like but the included stylus works much better. The Home menu and favorites menu serve as a launching point for most applications, they are fairly similar in design except the favorites menu uses larger icons and is limited to 24 shortcuts. I’d say chances are you can narrow down your list of programs to under 24 except the enormous capacity of this device’s micro-drive means you won’t really need to uninstall much. Basically you’re likely to easily accumulate a ton of useful apps. There is also a standard menu bar always present along the bottom edge of the screen for things such as WiFi, Bluetooth, activating the writing pad, etc.

It’s not quite Windows but the Palm OS is fairly similar and easy to use. It’s reasonably customizable too. You can change sounds (though I prefer to keep them off), there are several color schemes to choose from, you can even set the background image for several apps such as the tasks list and the favorites menu. One complaint though, the background images will not resize to fit the screen properly on their own.

I do not have any previous experience with Palm PDAs, but I can say I really enjoy the LifeDrive. The more I use it, the more and more uses I find for it. I imagine I’ll find it infinitely more useful once I get my home wireless network set up. Eventually I hope to use the LifeDrive as a remote to control multimedia throughout the home (music, TV etc), a task I understand it is fully capable of (with the right program set up). Anyway, if you’re looking for a handheld and can afford one, I highly recommend the LifeDrive.