Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Netbooks, Linux and the Lenovo S10

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Hardware vendors have been missing the netbook boat ever since I can remember– there has been demand for a small, portable, inexpensive, fast-booting computer ever since the World Wide Web became popular. You oldtimers might recall when that happened, way back in the last millennium around 1995 or so, when AOL disks rained down upon us from the heavens. For all I know, grizzled old Unix geekbeards nurtured a pent-up longing for netbooks as well. Netbooks, if they had existed, would have been perfect for the geekbeard Internet: plain text over slow dialup connections doesn’t need much computing power or high-tech displays. Monochrome LCD displays have been with us since the early 80s, and color in the late 80s, so I wonder if, in a truly innovative and competitive computing marketplace, we could have had netbooks and other portable computing devices way back when.

And The Bandwagon Lumbers Into Gear

But, as the saying goes, it’s no use crying over spilled milk. Just lick it up and move on. The OLPC paved the way; it was intended to be an educational tool for children, but adults everywhere were enchanted and wanted one for themselves. This even made an impression on the inert titans of tech, who ponderously diverted from their doomed path of Jabba’s Law, which is “Bigger! More Lard! More Crapware! *Belch*”, and were sufficiently alarmed to waddle into action. In typical robber-baron fashion, both Intel and Microsoft crashed the OLPC party and tried to co-opt it. So Microsoft is trying to shoehorn Windows XP onto the OLPC, and Intel is trying to steal OLPC’s customers for their Classmate PC.

I should note that in desktop PCs, laptops, and servers, we get an amazing amount of bang for our hardware buck. Five hundred US dollars buys a desktop system that not too long ago would have been an expensive, high-end server. And thanks to Linux and Free/Open/NetBSD we can actually run nice sleek efficient software that doesn’t require all that horsepower just to get out of its own way.

Eee PC Astounds the World

Meanwhile, back at the real innovation ranch, ASUS was quietly going about its business inventing the Eee PC (easy to learn, easy to work, easy to play). The first Eee PC hit the shelves in fall 2007 and was an instant hit. Configuration varied by country, and depending where you were on the planet at any particular moment you could find it in white or black, with varying sizes of solid-state drives, with Linux or Windows XP, with a modest CPU, small RAM, and built-in wired and wireless network interfaces. Their initial target retail price in the US was $199, but it ended up costing from around $245 to $399 depending on configuration, and ASUS sold skillions.

The Eee PC is very Linux-hackable, so there are many specialized netbook Linux distributions that run well on it, and it supports stock distros as well. The gang at ZaReason, my personal favorite Linux OEM vendor, think highly of the Eee PC and sell boatloads of them.

Fast-forward to now, and everyone is selling netbooks, almost (but not quite) like hotcakes. And thus we arrive at the subject of this review, the Lenovo S10 IdeaPad, which I have had in my possession for a couple of weeks now, and have enjoyed greatly. This is on loan to me thanks to the nice folks at Phoenix Technologies, who sent it to me to show off their instant-on Linux-based environment, Phoenix HyperSpace. It also came with Genuine Windows XP Home, SP3.

I’m a Thinkpad fan from way back, though anymore I think it’s a misplaced loyalty because Lenovo treats Linux like the perv uncle and keeps it hidden away, and plasters “We recommend Windows!” all over the place. It took some detective work to find the S-series IdeaPad netbooks on, and forget finding one with Linux. I about Googled my fingers off and found a number of reviews and announcements that claimed it had either SUSE Linux or Linpus Linux options, but I never found them. In fact I am getting very tired of vendors who claim to love the penguin and Free/Open Source software, and then make it impossible to actually purchase any OEM Linux computers. That is why I stick with independent vendors like ZaReason. They tell the truth.

Even so I had high expectations for the IdeaPad. This model has the following specs:

  • 1.6 GHz single-core Intel Atom CPU
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 10.2″ diagonal-measure 1024×600 WSVGA LCD display
  • 160 GB HDD
  • Webcam
  • Microphone
  • Broadcom wireless 802.11b/g
  • 3-cell 3-hour lithium-ion battery
  • Express Card slot (for 3G modem and other cool addons)
  • 4-in-1 media card reader
  • Kensingston security lock slot
  • Two-button touchpad
  • USB 2.0 x 2
  • External VGA

There is no optical drive. Of course you can connect anything via USB these days, so if you want one you can have one. There is an optional six-hour six-cell battery. With Windows XP Home (that’s the ancient crippled one that cannot connect to a Windows domain) the suggested retail is $399.

Windows XP was good for about 3 hours on battery, and suspend and hibernate worked fine. The Phoenix HyperSpace environment lived up to its claim of extended battery life and delivered a little over 4 hours.

At first I thought I would install Linux on it and see how it works. Then I decided not to because there is no Linux option in the US, so to heck with them. I know some people who do run Linux on this little machine in various configurations– some dual-boot, some with Linux-only, this distro, that distro– and it runs well. Everything works, even the card reader. So for you fine readers who want by whatever means to run Linux on this little cutie, be assured it will do just fine.

Doing Surgery

Like its big sibling Thinkpad, it is easy to open up and get inside the guts. The overall build is solid, with good fit and finish. It fits nicely in the hand, and tucks under the arm like a book. The hinges seem stout; it opens easily one-handed, yet stays securely closed without the usual type of latch. A nice touch is a Home key instead of a Windows key, so perhaps there is hope. It has an actual hardware switch to turn off the wireless radio card, and useful status LEDS for power, hard drive activity, and wireless.

Excellent Screen

The display is the real prize of this little computer. It is very sharp and bright, so that even my fading old eyeballs can read tiny fonts. The colors are bright and attractive, and while I didn’t try any super-FPS (frames per second) games on it, screen redraws were smooth.

The keyboard is smaller than standard, and it is only OK. I have small hands so a slightly smaller keyboard doesn’t bother me, but the keys are too flat, without enough differentiation between them, and there are inadequate cues for touch-typing, like perceptible bumps on the F and J keys.

Another drawback is it doesn’t sit on my lap nicely like a bigger machine because it’s too small.

The Verdict

A very sad, regretful thumbs down, because as much as I like this little computer I hate how Lenovo mis-markets Linux, and I refuse to pay for a Windows license when I don’t want one. It’s a stupid ripoff.

I wish, I wish, I wish that hardware vendors would quit letting Redmond call the shots. It is dead easy to roll and deploy a customized image of a standard Linux distribution. Even the good commercially-supported Linuxes like Red Hat and Ubuntu let you do this. There are a number of freely-available utilities for doing this for all Linuxes, and system administrators and power users do it all the time. Use the distro repositories, let users use the standard sophisticated built-in Linux utilities for software and updates management, quit wrapping all that Linux goodness in dopey proprietary crud, and freaking relax. It is astounding how these giant tech companies overcomplicate Linux by trying to build their own “simplified” interfaces and custom repositories, which only creates confusion and disappointment, and then forget to make sure that the limited netbook hardware set and important software functionality all work.

I would even settle for a naked netbook with no bundled software, but I reckon it will be a cold day in monopoly hell before that happens.


You can’t keep a good Linux geek down, so here are a few useful netbook sites:

Linux Laptop Wiki
Linux Netbook

This article was first published on LinuxPlanet.

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