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Road Tested: Why the hackb00k is a fail

A tweet this afternoon pointed me to a post by Dave "MacSparky" Sparks titled The Netbook Experiment, in which he talked about his disappointment with a Dell mini 9 netbook. Since I was about to send out a tweet to the world at large announcing the sale of my Dell mini 9, I found it fascinating that Sparks had a similar experience to mine.

I wrote about creating a hackintosh (AKA hackb00k) out of a Dell mini 9 in a long post back in October of 2008, and at that time I was fairly impressed with the low cost and capabilities of the device. However, after actually using the mini 9 for six months, I find it almost useless as a "real computer" and have decided that it needs to go. The moral of the story? You definitely get what you pay for, and a $499 computer is not going to be a productivity tool. Even if you delude yourself into thinking that since you're only going to use it for email it will be a worthwhile investment, you're wrong. If you want to know how I came to these conclusions, read on.
My first real work with the mini 9 began in November, when I decided to acclimate myself to its diminutive keyboard by using it during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to work on a novel. Sure, it was easy to carry, especially in the tailor-made Dell bag. Yes, it had pretty good battery life. It booted quickly with the 16GB SSD inside it. But other than that, it was a total pain to work with.

To begin with, I'm accustomed to using the trackpad on my MacBook Air with multi-touch gestures. After reading how some other hackb00k users had been able to get multi-touch gestures working, I applied the appropriate patches and gave it a try. Sure, it worked for a little bit, and then began to irritate me when the gestures would fail. I decided to use a cheap micro-mouse instead, which meant that two of the USB ports were now filled -- one with the cable for the mouse, and the other for the Sprint wireless broadband dongle that I use when I'm on the road. I suppose I could have used the Apple Wireless Mighty Mouse instead, but it just didn't seem right spending $79 for a mouse for a $499 computer.

Next, I found the keyboard almost unusable. I have relatively small hands, and even my little mitts had difficulty typing on the cramped keyboard of the mini 9. One problem I kept having over and over was trying to type an apostrophe (single quote). Every keyboard I've ever used to touch-type has the apostrophe in the same place -- just to the left of the return key in the home row (ASDF...) of the keyboard. On the mini 9, it was located down two rows near the space bar. Since I have been touch-typing for about 40 years, my finger kept hitting the Dell's enter key every time I wanted to type an apostrophe.

Key location wasn't the only problem with the keyboard. My fingers felt like they were tripping over each other when I was typing, to the point that I found that I was actually taking longer to type emails on the mini 9 than it took me to tap them in on an iPhone! Visit this link for some photos and commentary on the Dell mini 9 keyboard and other netbook keyboards. I suppose if you're a hunt-and-peck typist, the mini's keyboard won't bother you, but for those of us who know how to type it's awful.

When I ordered the Dell mini 9, I debated whether or not I wanted to get the solid-state disk option. I finally decided to give it a try for a few reasons. First, it allegedly provided even more battery life than a mini 9 with a standard hard disk. Second, it was supposed to boot faster, and third, I thought it was kind of a cool thing to try! Well, the only option available from Dell was a 16GB SSD (they now offer a 32GB model).

That was a big mistake -- I should have gone for the standard hard disk that was available at the time of purchase (Dell no longer offers a standard hard disk; only a SSD is available with the mini 9). 16GB is not enough capacity to load an OS, a complete office suite, and actually do some work. Fortunately, I was able to pop a 16GB SD storage card into the slot on the side of the device to store my work, but the SSD was quickly at capacity after a few OS and software updates were downloaded and installed. I suppose I could have spent $300 to pop a third-party 128 GB SSD into the Dell, but that would have defeated the purpose of having a "cheap" computer.

Next, the limited screen resolution (1024 x 600) of the mini 9 made it virtually impossible to use some Mac apps that have default minimized screen sizes that are larger than that. Those apps simply had to be removed from the device, and I was stuck with a somewhat crippled hackb00k that didn't have the software tools I normally use.

At this point, about mid-November, I ended up going back to using my trusty MacBook Air as my NaNoWriMo computer and loaded Dell's special mix of Ubuntu Linux onto the device. I like Ubuntu; in fact, I found it to be the most worthwhile OS to use on the mini 9. It's designed for the device so most, if not all, apps are sized for the small screen, and it's fast. However, it's not OS X, and I once again found myself reloading OS X as I prepared for Macworld Expo 2009 in early January.

I took both my MacBook Air and the mini 9 with me to Macworld Expo 2009, thinking that I would use the MacBook Air for video editing and the mini 9 for writing. Wrong. Once again, my fingers and the horrible keyboard on the mini 9 conspired against me, so I used the MacBook Air for almost all of my work.

As you may recall, the main reason I purchased the Dell mini 9 is that my wife thought that it wouldn't be a good idea to take the expensive MacBook Air on a trip to Africa that we had planned for February. By the end of the trip, both of us were wishing that we were using the MacBook Air instead. My wife quickly found out how hard it was to touch-type on the mini 9 as she began helping me blog the trip.

We also ran into capacity problems with the 16 GB SSD again. While I was using a tiny external bus-powered USB drive to back up our blog, photos, and video, the temp files that were being created by the various applications threatened to fill up the drive. I kept having to dig around the SSD to find things to delete in order to free up space.

Well, we made it back from the trip intact and without having the mini stolen. Basically, the last day of the trip was the last time I used it. I absolutely refuse to use a tiny keyboard again, so the Dell is going on eBay.

What about an Apple netbook?
Of course, one of the things we always hear rumors about is an Apple netbook. To quote Apple's COO Timothy Cook on April 22nd, "When I look at what is being sold in the notebook space today, I see cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens -- just not a consumer experience, not something we would put the Mac brand on." Cook went on to say "If we find a way where we can deliver an innovative product that really makes a contribution, then we will have some interesting ideas in this space."

Most of the appeal of the Dell mini 9 and other netbooks is that they're cheap. Although you can't turn a bare-bones one into a hackb00k, the bottom price for a Dell mini 9 is $279. That's even less expensive, and in my opinion less useful, than an iPhone 3G. The entry-level Dell mini 9 has 1 GB of RAM, a 4 GB SSD, no wireless connectivity of any kind, no built-in camera, Ubuntu Linux, and the same tiny screen and keyboard. Apple's Cook is right -- there's no way that Apple could put their logo on something like this without giving the entire line a bad reputation.

There are a couple of ways that Apple could go, and they've been debated endlessly. First, Apple could just keep the MacBook line as the "Apple Netbook," since it is the least expensive laptop although not the lightest. Of course, even a $999 white MacBook is over three times the cost of the entry level Dell mini 9, but you're getting so much more! That $999 buys you a pretty impressive 1280 x 800 screen, 2 GB of RAM, a 120 GB hard disk, a SuperDrive (there's no CD/DVD drive in the Dell mini 9), the iSight, iLife, and much more. How many times do we have to repeat it -- you get what you pay for!

Next, Apple could make the iPhone the "Apple Netbook." It may not have a huge screen, but it does have over 25,000 apps that have been written for it, as well as wonderful connectivity. If iPhone 3.0 adds the ability to use Apple's small, but useful Wireless Keyboard with the iPhone, the combo would make a very useful netbook. The total cost for iPhone owners? Just $79 to add the keyboard. As for useful software, apps like Quickoffice make compatibility with MIcrosoft Office possible, and there are more apps coming out every day.

Finally, Apple could decide to come out with a groundbreaking product that combines the touch screen and thin profile of the iPhone with the power of the full-fledged Mac OS X. It would need to be a larger device, just so you could comfortably type on it, and would probably need haptic feedback to create a virtual keyboard that is as comfortable to use as a real one. If this device could run all Mac OS X software at a reasonable pace and had an entry price level less than that of the white MacBook, that would come close to the "interesting ideas in this space" that Timothy Cook was referring to.

In my personal opinion, I think that netbooks are a fad that is going to pass. Sure, they're cheap. But cheapness means making a lot of sacrifices, and I think others will find that netbooks are just too limited to be everyday useful tools. If Apple can balance a reasonable price tag with "coolness" and functionality, they could own the market for lightweight and relatively inexpensive computing.

I'd be interested to hear from other TUAW readers who have netbooks. Are you happy with the devices? Are the limitations driving you crazy? Leave your feedback in the comments.

Thanks to Dave Sparks at MacSparky.com for the inspiration for this post.

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