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Life on the move… (techy post)

Posted by markharrison on July 26, 2008

Well, it’s time for another of my irregular techy posts.

At home, I have a fairly sophisticated office (3-6 servers, depending on how you count virtual hosts, 3 laptops, a variety of operating systems.)

On the road, however, it’s a different story.

I bought a Dell Inspiron 9400 about 2 years ago. It’s a huge beast, with a 17″ widescreen screen that really was a desktop-replacement PC. It also runs Windows Media Centre 2005, which I needed because I was running the training courses on Harmony, which had a plugin for that version of Media Centre, and running a training course from a laptop is much easier than running around with a desktop setup.

The trouble is, a laptop big enough to have that size screen takes up a lot of space, so I was pondering the replacement.

On my desk, I have a Mac Mini, which I am liking more and more as time goes by – it has a lot of stuff that “just works out of the box” – not just the normal stuff, but quite esoteric things like terminal SSH clients. Even better, the quality of free third-party applications for the Mac seems very high – so I have not only mainstream things like instant messenger (Adium) and Skype running, but also fairly odd stuff like FTP clients (the oddly-named Cyberduck) and a MySQL admin tool (Navicat Lite) that seem to be pretty painless. I was already using on the Windows boxes, so a move to NeoOffice – the Mac version – was painless, and Firefox is about as cross-platform as anything you can possibly think of. [As an aside, I could do with a free code editor that did highlighting like notepad2 does on Windows – suggestions welcome.]

Because of my experience on the desktop of stuff “just working”, and a similar experience with my iPod which works a lot better than the Rio it replaced every did, I was tempted by the Apple route.

The problem is, of course, the size. The MacBook Air is very, very thin (in the sense of wafer-thin-mint-M.-Creosote? thin) but the screen was too big (as in, imposing) to really be something I could use easily on a train on plane. The standard MacBook was better, but I’ve heard too many stories of people getting them, and then buying MacBook Pros because the standard models aren’t fast enough, and the MBP has the same size issue.

Enter the ASUS EEEPC. The downside is that the screen is only 7″, and runs at a miserly 800×600. But the upside is that the machine is, well, the size you can build a machine to if you only have to fit in a 7″ screen. It runs a version of Linux (Xandros) under the hood, which gives an odd-looking but easy-to-use interface. Oh, and it has built in wifi (but not Bluetooth) AND a wired network port, so I could use it anywhere in the house.

So that was part one – a machine that I could use anywhere… including in meetings without the “I’m building a wall of laptops down the desk” problem I often see.

Part two was Internet access. I use Google Mail (known internationally as GMail, but here in the UK as Google Mail, apparently for copyright reasons) as my main email client. I find the rules engine outstanding (better than either Outlook or Thunderbird) and the Ajax interface is good enough. (Plus, if I really wanted a rich client, I could point one at it, though I don’t find a need to at the moment.) I also use Google Reader extensively (I subscribe to a whole bunch of Economics and Property blogs.)

Mobile Internet access has got a LOT better since last time I tried. (1997-2000, when I ran IT for a “small” JV (only 17 countries!) between two enormous giants.)

I ended up, on the recommendation of a fried (thank you, Patrick) with the Vodafone “mobile broadband” solution. It arrived within 24 hours of ordering, and pretty much just worked. While linux isn’t officially supported, there are not only plenty of results from Google about which buttons to press (which was, frankly, a lot easier than in Windows!) but several of the Vodafone support people seem to answer esoteric Linux questions on their forums, albeit with a “this isn’t an official answer, but try XXX” feel. I didn’t need any esoteric answers, but the fact that they were clearly making the effort was a reassurance point.

So, it pretty much just works.

Mobile Internet, albeit on a small screen (but not as small as an iPhone)… and a solution that has a keyboard I can touchtype on🙂

One Response to “Life on the move… (techy post)”

  1. The current core 2 duo MacBooks have excellent performance Mark. I do all my video editing on mine these days even. And if you’re fine with the Eee PC then performance isn’t really a major factor for you anyway. The 300s are available now with a much nicer 9″ screen and the newer Atom CPU is supposed to give a 5 hour battery life, although all of this at a cost of course. I’ve had to stop myself buying one at the airport Dixons store several times now🙂 they are perfect for an on-the-road email and browser machine that you can throw in a carrier bag. Also liking the Vodafone Modem too – my review of it here –


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