A couple of weeks ago, we decided to go out shopping for a Netbook for Jyoti. Details of her experience can be found on her site. But there is a whole other side to the story.
Starting with the purchase process. After having read about netbooks and gotten first hand experience and reactions from several users, one thing that was clear was that although pretty much every brand has stepped into making them, ASUS stands out as the leader, in terms of features, build quality and most importantly battery-life.
After having made several inquiries on various models, we thought it best to go and see some in real life and actually touch and feel and see some of the differences. We must have seen at least 7 brands that I can recall.
We started with the Samsung NC-10, which has a very good spec, but in appearance for some strange reason they have a chrome lined body, made the machine look quite tacky. From what I have read and heard the NC-10 is actually a very good machine, if Samsung decides to change the look a bit, who knows it may be a killer product. At Nehru Place it was selling for about Rs.24,000/- including a free Samsung cellphone. In fact, we were asked if we wanted the price with the free phone or just the netbook.
Moving on, we went around several shops in Nehru Place and saw, an Acer Aspire (had to walk out of the showroom since the sales people were just not interested in talking to us), Dell, HP-Mininote (which for some reason was in a box, and the sales person refused to open it till we bought it??), LG and finally the Lenovo IdeaPad S2. All of them seemed to have some minor issue or the other, but the common factor on all was the fact that they all had only 4-cell or lower battery packs.
Finally, we quietly went back into our favourite little hardware store (an authorised AMD shop) and asked for the EEE-PC 1000H. Tax included it came to Rs.20,400/- this was for an atom processor based, 1GB RAM, 80GB HDD and most importantly a 6-cell battery. Of course, we got the unwanted Windows XP-Home (at least, I did not want it). But overall I was happy with ASUS and our dealer since I knew I would get some form of support. The warranty on these netbooks seems to be one year, so knowing your dealer or knowing a good dealer may help.
I should have probably taken some unboxing photos, but what came out of the little box was quite impressive. There was the netbook of course, then a tiny little power supply and power cord, a nice little neoprene case, a recovery DVD (which I needed sooner rather than later) but unfortunately no “online” storage. Apparently, ASUS provides upto 10GB of online storage along with many of their models but no confirmations if this is available in India. Sad, a 10GB online storage would have have been kind of nice, specially to transition from a desktop.
Now for the real fun part, here I thought, the ASUS netbooks are well tested with Linux and it would take at most 2-3 hours to just put in Ubuntu, leave the XP home as is and carry on with data migration and help Jyoti transition into using some FOSS!
Well, it was not to be, first of all Ubuntu went and totally screwed up the boot sector, leaving me with a dead XP (somehow it did not matter to me). Now we couldn’t have that could we. Even if the XP never gets used, it should at least be in working condition. XP came pre-installed with all drivers for all the devices including the webcam, WiFi, audio and everything worked, it also had “Star Office” and Microsoft Works installed which was quite surprising. Now I was faced with a real problem, blow the whole machine out and start over or try and fix it. Of course, I tried to fix it. I tried every trick in the book but I just could not get XP to boot again.
I then decided may as well do a fresh install of XP, that way I could also control the disk space used and the partitions, I would have to install all the drivers and software again, but that would not be too hard if I shared the DVD on the network or better still copied it to a USB drive. I hunted for methods to install XP via USB, came across several posts and the comments on most of those which lead to better solutions. One of the first posts I came across was from Roderick van Domburgâ€™s Cache He does mention that the article was written in 2006 and that there may be better or easier options. To me it seemed very clear and precise and was easy to follow. However, while reading one of the comments, I saw a link which headed off to one of the EEE-PC guides and thought that one might be more relevant. It actually worked quite well, I had a working bootable USB in less than 20 minutes.
Booting with XP on the USB threw up an interesting option, since it detected the presence of an existing installation, it offered choices for fixing it. Nothing really fixed it but I was able to boot into the dead XP.
I finally gave up and got hold of an external DVD drive, booted off the rescue disk and ran a factory restore. That was really easy, it worked like a charm and in about an hours time I had restored the netbook to its original state.
In the meantime, I also started looking for what might be an ideal distro for the netbook. It seems that Ubuntu is a good choice, but there were many variations out there based on Ubuntu. One of them was called eeebuntu and the other that I finally used was called “easy peasy“. Essentially, they are Ubuntu with a a few critical modifications, the first of which is the replacement of the linux-generic kernel with the “array” kernel. It is possible to just install a regular Ubuntu and then replace the kernel, add a few tweaks like the “net book remix” and you’d basically be at the same point as easy peasy, so I took the easy peasy way out.
This time round, gparted, did not mess up the boot sector and installation was quite smooth, I installed easy peasy from a USB key. Several methods of making a bootable USB key with a linux distro on it and well documented at pendrivelinux.com. I used a simpler method since I have a running Ubuntu, System -> Administration -> Create USB startup disk, just point it to the where you have the ISO and creates a bootable distro in a matter of minutes.
After the install, a quick reboot showed me that XP survived and I now had a dual-boot EEE-PC.
The storeee does not end here, I then needed to migrate and transition data from a Windows desktop. The browser was easy, Internet Explorer was replaced with Firefox, all bookmarks duly imported and no issues there. The bulk of the data, documents and spreadsheets all work fine with OpenOffice.org, but the killer was going to be email! Jyoti was using Outlook so I had to get the data out of there and preferably into Evolution and not Thunderbird since it would look and feel a little closer to Outlook and would also have synchronisation with a Palm T5.
Its a three step process and a tedious one at that, first get the data out of Outlook by installing Thunderbird on the Windows machine and importing everything into it, mail and contacts. Next find and move the data to the Linux machine, the data hides in “Documents and Settings\Username\Application Data\Thunderbird” grab this folder and move it to an external storage or directly onto the netbook. Final step and the most painful of the lot, import the messages into Evolution, this has to be done folder by folder and Evolution doesn’t know about existing folder names so you have to create those as you go along. The nice thing is that since both Thunderbird and Evolution use the mbox format its not really a big worry.
I did come across a package called Outport but was not too happy with what it gave me at the end. I did use it to convert the calendar entries which it handled well. But I still have not been able to export all the notes and there are many of them.
In the end, everything seems to work and we have a happy customer. Interestingly enough, all the work I did to save and recreate the XP partition, currently seems to be wasted and I am hoping it stays that way, Jyoti has not even booted once into the XP partition. 😉 If we keep doing this, I think we can convert several more people to Linux without too much problem, that is if we really wanted to do that. I personally don’t convert anyone, but leave the choice to them, after educating them.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that my 80+ Dad got quite excited about netbooks, notebooks and Ubuntu, he even took a CD back to Bangalore to install on his desktop. I can feel a few support calls coming my way, but I’d be glad to take them!