Nov 072010
 

After about a year, here we are with the third installment of “The Harmony Of Industry And Nature”. It is again the Infineon plant in Villach, but this time not taken with a wide, but with a long lens. It’s what I saw this morning from my balcony, slightly, uhh, enhanced 🙂

It was a wonderful day and we spent it driving around in Carinthia. I made some images, but in the end I liked none better than this image.

Other than that, I bought a computer. A cheap computer, I might say. The cheapest, in fact.

Did I tell you that I was contemplating buying an Apple iPad? Well, I was. Funny, huh? I’m always saying that I don’t like Apple as a company, don’t like their strategy of locking their customers in, don’t like their strategy of turning computers into customer appliances, and then I go and consider buying one of their products???

Well, I did. The iPad is really sexy, or at least if we allow for the notion of sexiness in the realm of computers, the iPad is the only real contender today. There is simply some magic in this device. If you have never tried it, please do. Try to scroll with a flick of your finger and marvel at how responsive the iPad is, and how direct your control of it is. Marvelous! You conduct, the iPad sings.

And then hold it in what photographers call “Landscape Mode”, turn it to “Portrait Mode”, and be fascinated by how this device adapts to you, instead of letting you adapt to its quirks.

Magic. Pure, shiny magic! Wonderful! Marvelous!

I don’t like Apple, and I was pretty glad a few weeks ago, when I found, that Archos has a new device, the 101 Internet tablet, and that this tablet, running Android 2.2, would be pretty much the antithesis of the iPad. Open, Linux-based, also with a capacitive touch-screen like that of the iPad, with half the weight, but for about half the price.

I was firmly determined to buy the Archos, mainly as a surfing and reading device, until … well, until I tried a Samsung Galaxy today. It’s about the same specs as the Archos, only priced in the range of the iPad, i.e. more expensive than the Archos. Feature-wise the Archos is the same, in terms of quality it can’t possibly beat the Samsung, especially because they share the exactly same version of Android.

It was a disaster. Yes, it works. It has a similar user interface, but it simply does not feel “magic”. Not at all. Yes, you scroll with the same movements of your fingers, but when the iPad follows the smallest of your movements effortlessly, the Android-based Galaxy feels much more indirect, even stumbles or sticks at times, needs another gesture, and that is enough to completely break the illusion.

Full of despair my eyes turned back to the iPad. Could it be?

It could. Holding the iPad again, flipping pages, resizing things, it felt magic again.

Now look at this: I am totally fascinated by something made by a company that I absolutely dislike for their totalitarian control of computer users, or as they see it, “customers”. I don’t want to be turned into a customer. Still, this magic attracts me, but this is not the whole story.

It’s the gestures that attract me. The smear on the glass I find rather distracting. It’s the way the image turns, when I turn the device. That attracts me (and that works on the Samsung just as well), but when I turn the iPad to portrait mode, I find the fonts too small and the page hard to read. Thus I would like the iPad to be bigger.

At the same time I think the iPad is too heavy. Not a little bit too heavy, no, much too heavy to be held comfortably in one hand and for an extended period. And that’s still not all. It’s extremely inconvenient, that you can’t put down the iPad in any other position than flat on the table. It does not stand by itself, so you either need an external stand where you use it, which is stupid for a portable device, or you are forced to hold it all the time.

So, in many respects the iPad is just an impractical, incredibly restricted device, blemished by greasy smears. The pleasure in using it is not the pleasure to read pages on it, it’s only the pleasure of seeing and feeling how pages can be turned. Don’t get me wrong, I still marvel at that, but for anything more than turning and resizing pages, for anything that I actually want to use a computer for, this device gets in my way.

Realizing that, I took one step back and thought about the whole category. If Samsung, Archos and Google manage to make their Androids as slick and as responsive as the iPad, they will have the advantage of a more open system, but it will still have all the problems of the category. The devices will be too small and most probably heavy, the touch screens will still be greasy.

I am absolutely sure that these devices are great for some people, but I doubt that they are great for me. So, what is a device for me? I have a laptop, it is expensive, it weighs only 1.5 kg, has a resolution of 1366×768, has excellent performance and I can carry it around within the apartment. I just don’t do it.

Actually I’d like something that I can have around, that is cheap, that I can use for browsing, something that’s connected via WiFi, but nothing more. It would be fine if it were extremely light (as the Kindle), while having color, and if it has a touch screen, I want it to be not greasy. I also would like it to be non-reflective.

I recognize that I won’t get that today. Instead I’ve made an experiment. I have bought a netbook. It’s an “emachines 350“, the new low-cost brand of Acer. It sports an Atom 450 processor running at 1.66 GHz, 1Gb of memory, two USB ports, a reflective 1024×600 display and a 160 GB SATA hard drive. The whole thing weighs 1.2 kg, batteries included. That’s almost twice the weight of the iPad (almost, not really), but with the iPad already too heavy, I don’t care.

Contrary to what the emachines website says, it was offered in two flavors: 299€ with Windows 7 Starter, and only 229€ with Linpus Lite Moblin, a Linux system that has been crippled with a “customer” interface.

Well, of course I bought the Linux system, and the first thing was, to install Xubuntu 10.10 on it, my favorite “light” Linux distribution.

I downloaded the ISO image from xubuntu.com, but with the netbook having no CD drive, burning it to a CD would have been pointless. Instead I used Linux Live USB Creator (running on my Windows desktop) to make a bootable USB stick with the OS installer and the downloaded ISO image on it. Thus I only needed to reboot the netbook from USB, and then I could install the distro of my choice and make this thing a real computer.

The first problem was, how to reboot that thing. Looking around in Moblin’s user interface, I finally found how to start a terminal (under “Settings”). Below the GUI it looked more or less like a normal Linux, although there was no “shutdown” command. Thankfully “reboot” was there 🙂

While it rebooted, I saw “Press F2 for setup”, and that’s what I did after the second attempt, and in BIOS setup I put the USB stick ahead of all other devices in boot order. And really, it booted from the stick, and from there it was just a normal Ubuntu installation. The graphical installer would have made the device dual-boot, but I knew I would not want to go back, and so I let it wipe the whole disk.

My wireless USB mouse worked out-of-the-box, so did networking, and the rest was just setting up my account and the user interface as on my other Linux machines. Neat.

The result of all these efforts is not an iPad killer. There is no touch screen and I am tempted to add a Logitech M505 cordless mouse. It’s one of their mice that use a miniature receiver, that can stay in the USB plug without any danger of breaking, because it is so short.

Again, this is not an iPad replacement, the screen will never rotate, regardless of how you hold the device, but it is actually much more. It is a full computer, I could even do programming on it. I can run Google Chrome, my favorite browser, and all my bookmarks, settings and extensions are synced automatically. Everything just works as on any other of my computers, and that’s how I like it.

The Song of the Day is “Harmony“, the last Song on Elton John’s 1973 masterpiece “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. Hear it on YouTube.