I’ve been going to more events that require a laptop. My day-to-day workhorse is a ThinkPad T420i that is pretty heavy and now has awful battery life. I also have my old T43 that’s even heavier and has even worse battery life, so I figured it was time to get some kind of small laptop that I could easily carry around and that could hold a charge for more than 15 minutes. The other thing was that I didn’t want to spend a lot. I was hoping to bring this in for around $200 (I once found a refurbished netbook on Overstock for that price so it’s become my go-to netbook price-point).
I considered a Chromebook, but as cheap as they are, it still felt like a lot to pay for a web browser. In general, there really aren’t many netbooks or small-scale laptops bouncing around. But then I remembered there had been an Ubuntu netbook — the Asus 1015E-DS03. I liked the idea of buying something that would be able to handle Linux without any tweaking. I also liked the price. I was able to bring it in refurbished for right around $200 (unfortunately, it now seems to be out of stock).
It came with Ubuntu 12.04, which I didn’t even bother configuring. I installed Xubuntu 14.04 on a thumb drive and paved over 12.04 immediately (or once I finally got the USB installer to work — the 12.04 Startup Disk Creator was a little wonky and Unetbootin wasn’t much better). Once I was able to boot off of the USB drive, I was up and running in less than an hour.
I don’t have much to say about Xubuntu 14.04. It’s great, just like 12.04. The menu is more compact and easier to search and the settings menu moved, but those are about the most dramatic changes I noticed. Synapse is no longer maintained, so I’m working with Kupfer, which isn’t as great, but is fine (Synapse is much better at finding files and in figuring out which programs I use most frequently).
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big hardware guy, but I do have some thoughts on the Asus hardware. It’s small. It’s very small. I have abnormally thin fingers and that keyboard makes me feel like Orson Welles. Another inch wider would have been great. The 10.1″ form factor is probably about as small as you can go before the monitor becomes squint-inducing. On the plus side, my 14″ laptop now feels gigantic — almost like a dual-monitor.
It doesn’t have a TrackPoint, which I miss like crazy. The touchpad is fine, but it’s not something I’m used to. Also, because the keyboard is so small, my palms often bump it while I’m typing, sending the cursor away. When I play guitar, certain chords will sound off because my hand is accidentally muting strings, so I have to adjust my grip and kind of stand my fingers over the fretboard so everything can ring. That particular skill has served me very well with the 1015E (it also makes me think I’m a lazy guitarist). Luckily, Kupfer does a pretty solid job of letting me avoid the touchpad.
I wouldn’t want to spend hours every day working on the 1015E, but for meetings and short bursts of work, it’s great. It’s fast. It’s responsive. It boots quickly. It’s not instant-on, but I’m never in a situation where I’m like ‘I need to use this computer now and I can’t wait 10 seconds for it to turn on!’ And I love that it’s a full-blown operating system, rather than just a browser. I took the Asus to a Python workshop and it was super convenient that I had Python right there, rather than having to deal with a web-based emulator or booting into developer mode.
I know the netbook concept is over, but it’s a real shame. Small, portable, fast machines like these, at a price point where you’re not devastated if something breaks or goes missing, are very useful. Not everything can be done on a phone or tablet — especially text- and research-based work. If you’re looking for something cheap to haul around or use as a backup machine, and if you want something Linux-ready, seek out an Asus 1015E. It’s not as nice as a MacBook Air. It’s probably not even as light. It’s not as tough. But it’s also just about a quarter of the price and because it’s Linux, you can tweak your desktop experience so that it’s workable on a piece of hardware that isn’t ideal.