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Computing to go…

Posted Jan 09 2011 9:42am

A couple of mornings ago, I was able to stay in bed – of necessity, I hasten to add, after some weeks of illness I can barely stay awake during the day – and still be able to write and publish a blog post (the dioxin post). This is how it came about…


Portable computing, in the form of tablet PCs, is going to bring about the death of Windows, and conventional PCs – so say tech hacks, especially in the Apple-obsessed Guardian with, apparently, little grasp of how many PCs, running Windows**, there actually are in the world (including many tablets), and it’s complete nonsense. That’s not to say portable computing doesn’t have its merits, but let’s try to retain a little perspective.

**I’ve used Windows since 3.1, I’m about to upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium, and I’ve just not encountered the fragile, buggy, crash-prone, monster that Mac and Linux types would have you believe is the Windows reality,** though I will say that the earlier versions didn’t suffer fools gladly and were easy to inadvertently trash, especially if you’re that bane of IT departments, the random mouse clicker.

**I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s NOT as represented by users of rival (ha!), operating systems.

I have a desktop computer, and it’s my only computer, which is a tad worrying as, if something inside it goes bang , I’m screwed (odds are it won’t, but it could). A smartphone is all very well for email and a bit of casual browsing in the pub, or even Twitter, but it simply can’t hack it  when it comes to serious online shopping, especially for bits to resuscitate a dead PC – I needed a backup computer.

A laptop would, I think, be overkill for my needs. I needed something light and, especially with my budget, that ruled out most laptops. Smaller is good, too.

A tablet PC never even crossed my mind, as they lack two things absolutely essential in a portable computer – a keyboard** (the screen is the workspace – I don’t want it cluttered up with a virtual “keyboard” and covered in sodding finger-marks, or have to poke at it with a hi-tech stick!), and a protective lid. Anyway, have you seen what they’re charging, especially Apple, for what is pretty much a smartphone on steroids?

**As far as I’m concerned, that applies to all computers, and smartphones too – mine has a slide-out qwerty keyboard.

So I thought about a netbook, which is about as pared-down as it gets while still being a fully-functional computer in a standard laptop configuration. The only thing pared down about the one I bought is the size; it’ll do most of the things my desktop machine will do, the only limitations being those of its 10” screen – but then, I’m hardly going to be running Photoshop on it, am I?

They’re also a cheaper than laptops (mostly). They tend to have minimal memory as standard, half or 1GB but, as long as it’s expandable, that’s easily fixed, and some have a very small hard drive – OK for Android, not so good for Windows.

Which one to buy, though? That was more of a problem than you might think. If you want a laptop or even, god help us, a tablet, vendors will fall over themselves to swamp you in information, enabling you to make an informed choice. Not so with netbooks.

Netbooks seem to be the poor relation of the computer market, and many sellers just take a “here it is, take it or leave it” stance, providing only the most basic of information, and ignoring questions from potential buyers who would like more information than bugger all (specifically ebuyer!).

I decided early on that I wouldn’t entertain a screen of less than 10”, plus the biggest hard drive I could get – everything else was negotiable.

The first consideration was could I live with the ergonomics and, to an only slightly lesser degree, the cosmetics, as so many look a bit toy-town (seriously – they look like kids’ toy computers).

Toshiba have an Android-based model which is absolutely gorgeous, skinny and light, with an 8GB solid state HDD (too small to be seriously useful, even though Android doesn’t take up the space Windows does, though probably OK used just as a netbook, and the 512MB memory isn’t expandable – whether that’s adequate for Android I have no idea), but the price took it too close to laptop territory. And it did look rather fragile.

To cut a long story short – I spent several days on this, online – I finally opted for the Acer Aspire One 531h (refurbished, as new ones are as scarce as hen’s teeth since, despite being introduced only in 2009**, it’s been phased out already – no idea why, but possibly the price – see below, as it’s a cracking machine, and netbooks with near-identical specs are still being produced).

**Mine was built in either January or May last year, depending on whether the day or the month comes first in the date, 2010-05-01 (I suspect May).

Somewhat bizarrely, Acer have two models with the Aspire One 531 designation rattling round the online marketplace (the newer one with the “h” suffix), and though the earlier model had an 8.9” screen and is much chunkier it was, by all accounts, a ground-breaking machine, but  finding information about the later model – even Acer’s website isn’t exactly a mine of information – proved difficult, until I hit the reviews, which were almost universally enthusiastic. This one is typical**.  So I bit the bullet and ordered one, and I’ve now had it for a few days.

**The gripe, in the review, about the keyboard is a mystery – the problem (which it’s really not if you pay attention to your typing), doesn’t appear on mine.

Quite a few online stores have the refurbished Acer Aspire One 531h, at more or less the same price, but not always the same condition. One store, for example, prominently described it as “As new” but, at the bottom of the description, easily missed, said “May have some cosmetic damage”. What? Look, if a thing is damaged, no matter how slightly, it can no longer be called “as new” – because it’s bloody not.

So I wound up at Laptopsdirect , which, as it turned out, was where I started, who have it in red, Grade 1 – as new. Checking out their definition of “as new” showed that it was:-

  • Box opened only
  • Product is ‘as new’ and complete, with no visible signs of use

Which is as it should be, though “box opened” actually meant re-boxed in a bog-standard cardboard box, not the original, which, based on that, I expected. Still, it’s the machine that matters, and as far as I can tell, despite the refurb tag, it’s never been used.

So I ordered one, £234.89 delivered, including 12 months warranty. (List price when available, was £349 – a decent saving.) It comes, as standard, with 1GB of memory, so a 2GB upgrade is already installed. I really don’t see a problem with the 160GB HDD – my old laptop only had 40GB and I managed perfectly well.

The 1.6GHz processor is fine, too – my Toshiba laptop had a 2.9GHz processor, fast but the damned thing consistently ran hot, so much so that it eventually trashed the machine. On the netbook, the cooling fan whirrs on startup but, in use, is silent (it’s working – you can feel the airflow from the vents), and the machine never gets more that just about warm.

The battery plugs into the back, below the screen, and actually forms the rear part of the case.

The machine is being run in max power mode – I see no point in crippling its performance, or peering at a dim screen, to stretch the battery life – if I can get 3 or 4 hours out of it, that’ll be fine, and the indications are that it’s doable.

It came with Windows 7 Starter, which is OK, and ran quite nicely on 1GB memory but flies on 2GB, and is quite sophisticated enough for what it’s expected to do. It has a weird scoring system applet, which looks at your hardware and assigns it a score. This means, it says, that any software, as long as it has the same number as the score, can be installed. What rubbish! Anyway, increasing the memory from 1GB to 2GB only increased the score by 0.1, which is a nonsense given how vital memory is.

Being a cynical bugger, I’ve a feeling stumping up £75 for Win7 Home Premium would ramp up the score dramatically!

What I couldn’t live with, on the small screen, was Win7’s bloated, fuzzy, appearance, and very quickly switched to the Windows Classic theme (think Windows 3.x) – much crisper, and takes up less space onscreen. Dialling down screen brightness by about 50% was essential, too.

I’ve installed Firefox, along with Thunderbird for email. The new T-bird version’s setup is much slicker than the old one, though it’s just as unutterably crap as it ever was at importing my contacts list, backed up from Outlook – thankfully, if I’m away from home, I’ll only need a handful of addresses which can be input manually.

Later I might  well selectively install Office 2003 (so I can have Outlook and Word), rather than the ad-supported version of Works that’s installed though, to be honest, the Win7 version of Wordpad looks pretty damn good. I’ve tried, for years, to like Open Office, but I just don’t, on any level.

The reviews I read complained about battery life, but mine has the optional long-life battery, allegedly good for about 7 hours. We’ll see. It’ll need half a dozen or so discharge-recharge cycles before reaching its maximum capacity.

Fax software is installed – a bit mysteriously, as there’s no modem. I’ll find a software modem somewhere, as I use fax to order my meds.

Then it was off to Amazon for a suitable bag to tote the thing, along with any associated bits (only this red and black Belkin bag seemed actually worth having**), and a Liteon external DVD-ROM drive (netbooks don’t have optical drives).

** And as it turned out, even that’s pretty poor, with no room for accessories and  a rubbish handle and shoulder strap!

I’m not overly fond of touchpads, though this machine apparently has a rather good example of the type (and so it proved in use – very precise, but I still don’t like them), so, I have a spare trackball I can use.

I’ve been using a Logitech Marble Mouse trackball for years – vastly superior to mice (despite the name, it’s not a mouse), as it doesn’t move at all, so it doesn’t need the room a mouse does, and it takes only small  movements of fingers and thumb to operate, which greatly reduces the risk of RSI.

McAfee Internet security was installed, and promptly binned in favour of avast! a-v, which I’ve been running on my main machines for years, and which has kept me totally virus-free – it does pick up on quite a lot, but they never make it to my hard drive.

In addition to connecting to my home network, I also wanted a mobile broadband account, as the netbook would be much more use than just as a backup machine, being much easier to carry than a laptop, weighing in at just 1.2kg with the long-life battery (I had a laptop for years, and I loved the thing, but god, it was heavy, especially when travelling).

I didn’t want to commit to a monthly contract at this stage, especially as it would lock me in for at least 18 months, so I settled on a PAYG account, from 3 . A 3G 1GB/1 month package was £20, while a 3GB/3 month package was £30, which was better value so I opted for that. 3G mobile technology works pretty much anywhere – no need to hunt down hotspots as you do with wi-fi though, admittedly, wi-fi is faster – which is no use if you have no signal, of course!

That will give me time to figure out what my usage is likely to be, and whether a monthly account is worthwhile, which I rather doubt.

One of the reasons I wanted a netbook, and mobile broadband, was to get out of my flat with it. It’d be rather nice to grab a quiet table and a pint in the pub, and just sit there and do my thing – read the papers online, research for, and even write, blog posts.

Come the summer, I can take it out into the garden, too because, while I have no problem with being stuck in front of a computer, I’m getting awfully sick of being stuck in this shoe-box of a flat.

All things considered, it’s a good buy, and I’m very happy with it.

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