Back before everyone (apparently) went tablet crazy, netbooks were the thing, weren't they?
Ultra-portable devices - that's advertising speak for "dinky" - running a Linux operating system on low-specification equipment made them both cheap and handy for all the Tweeting, messaging, Facebooking, Internet browsing, film watching and mindless games playing that is now being done on tablets.
For a while, netbooks were the only fast growing part of the PC hardware business. Unfortunately, it appears that Linux did not really cut the mustard with a Joe Public weaned on Windows, so netbook manufacturers were obliged to offer Windows versions, but unfortunately - as I understand it - Windows Vista (the latest version of the Microsoft operating system at the time netbooks were in their pomp) does not run at all well on low-spec machines. I think even Windows XP does not even run that well on a stripped down netbook (I knew keeping hold of those copies of Windows 95, 98 and Me would come in useful, but can I get the drivers?), so the netbook phenomenon never really escalated to the next stage.
Now, I am a computer veteran from the days of DOS, well used to command line switches and frigging about with configuration files to get that game of 1830 or Star Control II to work, but even I found Linux hard to get to grips with, so I can understand Joe Public's reticence to embrace it.
Nevertheless, about three or four Christmases ago, I got an Acer Aspire One netbook from Mrs Fiendish, which used a locked-down version of Linux called Linpus Lite, specifically designed to run on the lowest specified machine which had the innards capable of lighting up a screen.
A techie at work got one around the same time and the first thing he did was to get rid of Linpus Lite and install a new Linux operating system on it. Smug techie, I thought at the time. Wise man, I think now.
I should just mention in passing that if you are thinking of buying an Acer netbook or, indeed, any sort of Acer laptop, my advice is not to do so. My netbook's keyboard has a mind of its own, and the cursor randomly leaps up or down four lines of text when I am typing, which is a pretty major drawback for a journalist such as myself.
Mrs Fiendish also has an Acer and her keyboard does exactly the same when she uses it (or I use it, for that matter). I appreciate that a sample size of two would not get market research firms excited, but a 100% keyboard cock-up rate does not bode well. Maybe the Fiendish family just does not get on well with Chiclet/Scrabble tile style keyboards).
Anyhoo, back to the Acer Aspire One and its Fisher-Price My First Computer style operating system.
Aside from the annoying keyboard problems, for a long while I was fairly happy with the netbook. It had four main types of application: Connect
(browser, e-mail, messenger); Work
(Word Processor, Spreadsheet, Presentation); Fun
(media player, photo viewer, games); File
s (a file system).
The browser defaults to Firefox, but I managed to get Opera installed. I could not figure how to get it to show up on the Desktop though - Linpus Lite likes to deter users from lifting the bonnet and seeing what's going on underneath.
I did not bother with the e-mail because I use Opera's e-mail client, but the Messenger app worked well enough.
The Open Office apps were, if anything, even better than Microsoft's efforts because they used the old MS Office menu system which with I am familiar. I did make the mistake of updating Open Office at once point, after which I could not start any of the apps from the Desktop. A bit of right-clicking on the desktop sorted that problem out, as it brings up a menu system.
The Files system was nothing to get too excited about, but I have not got excited about file systems since I discovered GEM on the Atari ST.
In the Fun section, the games were rubbish (says the man who has wasted about 1,000 hours playing Tetris), the photo viewer was never used and the media player was very selective in the file formats it would handle.
The operating system is based on the Fedora flavour of Linux, and armed with that knowledge, it was generally possible to add new applications to the system (e.g. Opera, new versions of Flash), but as new versions of Fedora came out, the incompatibility gap grew.
This year I have been unable to upgrade to the latest version of Opera (it was installed - somewhere - but would not overwrite the previous version) or Flash, As any Apple fan will tell you, a world without Flash is one not worth living in ... ahem ... so I started contemplating switching to a new operating system. (Actually, the main deal-breaker was no longer being able to watch my daily dose of a certain US satirical news programme which Channel 4 does not want us Brits to watch any more).
Since I have already switched to Ubuntu as the operating system on my desktop PC, switching to a different flavour of Linux held no fears for me. Ubuntu works brilliantly on my ancient desktop machine. It is easy to understand, comes with a very decent applications download package and, bottom line, I do not have to frig around worrying about one lot of files being situated in one place and another lot of files from the same app being located somewhere else; I just put a tick in the check-box next to a piece of (free!) software I want - e.g. the Star Control II knock-off "Ur-Quan Masters" - and it just installs it successfully.
What really sealed the deal in terms of switching to a new operating system was the erratic behaviour of the Acer over the last year. It would just lock up for minutes at a time, making browsing a painful experience, streaming utterly pointless and shutting down/booting the system a breath-holding 20-minute experience on many occasions.
Now, I wasn't sure if the freezing up was hardware or software based. If it was a hardware problem then I was knackered anyway, but if it was a software problem - which the occasional 20 minute boot-up session suggested it might be - then it was time to bite the bullet.
Linux is more than a bit susceptible to the "Judaean People's Front? We're the People's Front of Judaea!" syndrome, so I was tempted to try a different Linux flavour on the netbook.
All I knew was that I wanted a system that ran really fast on a very, very low-specification system, and in the end I decided on Peppermint
, which, as it happens, is based on Lubuntu
, the light version of Ubuntu
. So, I am not straying too far from the familiar.
Having backed up every bit of data on the Acer I ever thought I would need, and tried, unsuccessfully, to take a disk image of the hard drive (just in case), I installed Peppermint after first giving it a spin on a "live disk", i.e. running it from a USB stick.
The installation was as smooth as a baby's bum. Everything worked out of the box - crucially, the wi-fi worked, though I am not sure the wi-fi on/off switch works any more - and it was easy to understand, seeing as it uses much the same "Start" button motif that Windows users have been familiar with for almost a decade now.
Changing the default application choices - Opera instead of Chromium, VLC instead of Guayadeque, Pidgin messenger for X-Chat, Libre office for Google Docs - was a piece of wizz and, in an horrific development, I have discovered a number of life-destroying games which I have foolishly installed, namely a Civilisation 2 clone and a Die Settlers Von Catan Internet client. Aaaaaaaaaaargh!
More to the point, the PC has stopped freezing up. In fact, the damn thing is flying like Concord on steroids. The keyboard problem is still there, but you can't have everything. Count me as one very happy customer.
I have now started using the thing more regularly again - got lots of satirical news shows to catch up on - and I really cannot see why I would want to use a tablet in preference to a netbook.
To my mind, the netbook has two main advantages: a keyboard (OK, a shitty keyboard, but I can work round its problems) and a hinged screen.
I know you can get stands for tablets so you don't have to sit there gripping the thing all the way through 133 minutes of Moneyball but they look a bit faffy; with the netbook, I just open the lid, adjust the angle of the screen to my satisfaction, tap away on the keyboard and then sit back to enjoy the show.
If you have an old PC sitting around at home not doing much, and it is destined for the tip, give Linux a try. If you are happy with altering the BIOS on start-up so that the PC boots from a USB stick, you can even "try before you buy" - except there is no "buy" in the world of Linux; it all seems to be free, though I confess I have come to like Ubuntu so much I would probably pay for it.
Oh gawd, what have I said?Peppermint operating systemUbuntu