|Ubuntu on the HP-210 netbook
For the past week, I've been writing and updating this site with completely open-source software on a $300 netbook, and I couldn't be happier. For a drooling Apple fanboy like me, call this a grudging epiphany.
My three-year-old MacBookPro was beginning to lose battery life, and wasn't making it through (admittedly Tailgunner-length) Town Council meetings. Like everyone else, I'd heard about the iPad, and wondered if the Apple tablet would meet my reporting needs. Now don't get me wrong, the iPad is one sweet device, but when I stood in the Providence Place Apple Store for half-an-hour entering the opening pages of Gravity's Rainbow (my from-memory touch-typing test) the totally virtual flat-glass keyboard cut my speed in half, and my accuracy by at least 20%. I went back again, a few days later, and tried again. No joy. Touch typing on glass is like putting Wittgenstein on film, as Wendy Wasserstein might have it. In the abstract, a fascinating thing. And someday, we may be surprised to find it works (after all, one of my sf stories features a virtual keyboard overlaid on a digital piano). But today? Not practical.
And the other factor was the increasing maturity and sophistication of the open source operating system Ubuntu flavor of linux. I'd been running dual-boot on my MacBook for a couple of years, and finding fewer and fewer sticking points. The most recent release — version 10.04 "Lucid Lynx" came out last month, and for me, closed the gap completely. Ubuntu is now a totally mature, rock-solid, consumer-ready OS. The free Open Office suite is file-compatible with MS Office, simple everyday applications have been added (F-Spot photo manager, Rhythmbox music player), a new cloud-syching option perfected (UbuntuOne), and with the enormous linux community, there are tools available for any advanced task you might need (image editing, web development, programming) which can now be downloaded with a click from a software center app. Especially important for folks like me who live in social media, chat and broadcast (Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr) are built right into the operating system, with a slick new small-footprint client, Gwibber, that lets you track and post everywhere from a unified interface.
So last weekend, we headed over to Staples and picked up an HP-Mini 210; after trying a bunch of netbooks, I really liked the feel of the HP's lightly rubberized island-style keys. Installing Lucid Lynx from a USB stick was straightforward: It took a little google-fu to figure out how to set up dual boot with the existing install of Windows 7, and one command-line tweak to get the buttons on the touchpad working right, but that was it. Everything else I threw at it Just Worked, including connecting my iPhone to get photos, hooking up an external monitor and keyboard, plugging in SD cards, even sticking in a USB Bluetooth dongle. I can run my MacBook in a Remote Desktop Window, mount my two terabytes of hard disks, and open and save to my web server right from the text editor. The HP's 6-cell battery is giving me about 8 hours of runtime with browsing, tweeting, and text and photo editing.
Now my MacBook isn't going anywhere — it's still a clear winner for video (getting h.264 to work on Ubuntu is still proving tricky) and the recent release of Steam for OSX means I can play Portal (and Windows games to come!) in my copious free time. It's got the HDMI port that lets me hook it up to the big TV, and it's got hella compute power for compressing and burning DVDs and such.
And I may still buy an iPad, eventually, because it is so beautifully crafted for its sweet spot of digital media consumption. But for all the daily stuff, for creating content, I'm now pure open source, and not looking back.
Tips o' the hat: Doing all my writing and coding in Gedit, with awesome tweaks from Micah Carrick, TuxRadar, and Eckhard M. Jäger. Thanks!
Full disclosure: Our family owns Apple stock. And, no, we won't be selling it any time soon.