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Happy15th Birthday,

Posted by markharrison on May 26, 2011

If, like me, you are into both property and technology in the UK, there is a high chance you’ll have come across, Mark McCall’s excellent website.

I’ve been involved with the UK HA scene since 1997, co-founded (and sold) two installation companies along the way, and been a Director of one of the UK’s largest retailers in that space.

Over that time, Automatedhome has been a truly excellent resource, and I am honoured to have been asked to contribute an article to their “15th Anniversary Specials” series.

The first article in the series, by L Y Chiu of Cytech has just gone live. Congratulations also to Lu Yung and the team at Cytech for their contribution to the industry over the last 15 years.

Posted in Technology | 1 Comment »

ebooks vs. paper books

Posted by markharrison on January 5, 2011

Let me start with a confession: try as I might, I can’t bring myself to be rational on the subject of book formats. I am a bibliophile as well as a lectoholic.

I’m wrestling (again) with the question of how I should consume books. Let me think as a reader first, and I’ll come back to my viewpoint as an author later…

There are, as I see things, four broad ways in which I might buy a book:

  • I could buy it on paper (the so-called DTV / Dead Tree Version)
  • I could buy it in a format that locked it to one publisher’s software, but allowed it to be read on any device I own that runs that software
  • I could buy it in a format that allowed me to read it, restriction-free on any device (PDF/EPUB being the obvious example, but there are others)
  • could buy it in a nasty proprietary format that locked it to some specific reader software on a Windows PC

However, I can dispose of the last two options fairly quickly (at least, from my own perspective), albeit for very different reasons:

The “PDF/EPUB version”  – There are over 33,000 books available for free download from Project Gutenberg – primarily because they are out of (US) copyright. As such, if I want a classic book, like Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations“, this is a fantastic place to start. That having been said, the vast majority of things I want to read have been published sufficiently recently that they aren’t available for free, and the vast majority of publishers do not sell DRM-free books.

Then there’s the “why would you bother?” option of having a DRM-loaded book that could only be read with a special reader software, and normally locked to a single PC. This fundamentally fails the “I don’t work that way” test. I want something I can read on a plane, on a train, in bed, on the tube, in the bath… and a Windows laptop fails at least two of them (your mileage may vary.)

So, let’s consider the mainstream ebook options, vs. the traditional paper book.

The economic case

I have just looked up the four books I’ve ordered since Christmas:

So, the first part of the economic case is the cost. Let’s compare a brand new copy (from Amazon) with the Kindle edition (Amazon’s ebook format):

  • Never get… Hardback: £10.39, Kindle: £9.35 (no softback available yet)
  • The Art… Paperback:  £6.93, Kindle: £6.58
  • We feel fine… Hardback: £17.57, Kindle: £N/A
  • Spiritual Machines… Hardback: £16.43, Kindle £N/A

OK, our first issue is that only two of the four are actually available on the Kindle platform. However, for those that are available, Kindle is saving 50p – £1

But the “lifetime cost” of the book is important, so let’s consider the “total cost of ownership” of the books.

What if I want to lend the book to a friend?

Amazon introduced a new feature, in fact about 10 days ago, where I can “lend” my Kindle ebook to another Kindle user. There are some limitations (like, I can’t do it from the Kindle – I need to go to a real PC – doh!) I regularly lend books. However, this is only equalling the functionality I have with a paper book – I can lend that to anyone I want to – they don’t have to have a Kindle. I know only a few people who regularly read ebooks, and actually, as far as I can remember, Kindle isn’t their platform. This may, of course, change, but at the moment a clear win for the dead trees.

What if I want to sell the book once I’ve read it?

As far as I’m aware, I can’t. Once I’ve read my Kindle book, as far as I know, I can’t sell it back to Amazon (nor any other third party.) Nor can I give it to a charity shop and have them sell it.

Aren’t I failing to take into account delivery costs?

I have Amazon Prime. For a fixed annual fee, I can have “next day” (ho, ho, ho) delivery on pretty much any book from Amazon. It’s not better than 50% reliable in terms of “next day”, but it does mean I don’t pay shipping. As we saw above, only half the books I wanted to buy are available as ebooks, so I’d still be in a place where shipping costs existed, to the extent that I, personally, would probably stay with Amazon Prime anyway.

Can I buy second-hand?

As well as buying new, I average about 100-150 second-hand book purchases each year. Some are collector’s items, selling for more than the original price, but most are in the £1-3 range from a bunch of second-hand sellers, either locally to me, in Hay on Wye, in charity shops, or through Amazon marketplace.

In most (all?) cases, I’m buying that way, either because the books are not available new, or because it’s cheaper to do so than it would be to buy new. In some cases, the books are as cheap as a penny on Amazon. (And in some, brilliant, cases, I’ve picked up books I wanted for one penny that were eligible for Prime delivery – a book for a penny including delivery!)

Cost of an ebook reader

Actually, I’m prepared to accept that ebooks actually work out cheaper here! A Kindle would cost £100-150. That buys about 3 IKEA Billy bookcases… each Billy stores about 240 books, so a Kindle costs the same as (cheap) bookcasing for 720 books. This is about 2 year’s shopping for us, so we could buy a Kindle every couple of years, and hope they lasted.

Yes, an iPad would be more expensive, but would have other uses, and the ebook readers are only going to come down in price. However, the marginal saving is only of the order of 20p / book.

Economic Conclusion:

For me, ebooks would work out, in many, many cases, to be more expensive than paper books.



Where can I read a paper book? Where can I read an ebook? Where do I want to?

I have the following list of places I can read either:

  • On a plane, at cruising altitude
  • On a train
  • In the back of a car
  • In the front of a car during daylight (on the basis that reading lights distract the driver, I’m excluding the passenger seat)
  • In my study
  • In bed (I’m of an age where reading ebooks in bed is acceptable, sorry to those who consider it a breach of protocol)
  • In a hotel room
  • At the beach

However, there are places where I could read a paperbook, but not an ebook

  • On a plane, during takeoff and landing
  • On the loo
  • In the bath
  • In a working kitchen
  • On a bus in Central London (books don’t get nicked on buses, computers do, your perception of risk may vary!)
  • On a tube (ditto)

I am hard-pressed to think of somewhere I could read an ebook where I couldn’t read a paper book.

There is, of course, balancing this, the fact that, with an iPad / Kindle / iPhone on me, I could read anything I owned (in the right format) wherever I was – paper books limit me to the ones I have taken with me to wherever I am.

However, for my own lifestyle, I’m going to award this one to the paper books again.


I read a lot before going to sleep. I find it (much) easier to get to sleep if I’ve been reading on paper rather than on a screen. Win for paper books.

Reference / Lookup

The combination of text-search, and ebookmarking features do beat the combination of index (not all books have one) and bookmarks. That having been said, for reference books, I find the Post-It page markers very useful.

More to the point, however, with an ebook reader, finding the right book would resolve to “finding the reader.” With 5000+ books in the house, finding the right book is sometimes problematical:

  • Fiction is straightforward – group by category, sort each category by author. The only problem you sometimes find in bookshops (which have an order of magnitude bigger a problem) is category confusion, say, between sci-fi and fantasy, or between humour and crime (Jasper Fforde, you know I’m writing about you here!)
  • Non-fiction is far, far, messier. Yes, the Dewey Decimal system lends itself well to libraries that span the whole gamut, but those like mine that concentrate in a particular area are more problematical. Is this book about “property”, about “negotiation”, or what? Is this investment or economics? By author is fine for the books with an obvious author (Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Napoleon Hill, etc.), but remind me who wrote “Creative Capital” (a biography, not an authobiography, of George Doriot). Actually, by publisher is looking increasingly useful in my life, but that’s another story for another day.

So, overall, I’m going to give the win to the ebooks here.


The “Rational Conclusion”

For all the reasons above, I have to vote to stay with paper books.


P.S. …

Everything above has been self-justification, or at worst, sophistry.

My decision actually boils down to a simple fact – I love books.

Books aren’t just about the content. They are about how they make me feel, and the memories.

  • “Midnight at the Well of Souls” is, for me, as much about Inter-railing through the summer of 1991, and sitting on the Brindisi-Patras ferry, as it is about Nathan Brazil.
  • The Art of Kitchen Design is about meeting Johnny Grey at the Grand Designs Show, both exhausted at the end of long weekends on our respective stands.
  • “Family Food” is about my (then 5-year-old) son standing on a chair, holding a hand-blender in a dish of peas, saying “I’m so clever” while daddy is flipping between three different things to check timings

To trigger those memories involves looking at the book, listening to the rustle of pages, feeling the creases, finding the bus ticket that was used as a bookmark ten years ago…it’s a visual thing, a kinaesthetic thing, even an auditory thing.

There is an Epicurean streak in me… paper books give me a pleasure that no ebook reader I’ve yet encountered can match.

Posted in Book Review, Technology | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

Top Gadgets 2010

Posted by markharrison on January 2, 2011

Every couple of years, I post about what bits of technology I actually use. The last one was Top Gadgets 2008.

I’ll come back to the 2008 list (and even the 2006 one) in a moment, but first, the top things I started using in the last two years.

The 2010 list

1: The iPhone. I held off against SmartPhones for a long time (read my rant in the 2008 post!), but finally got an iPhone 3GS late in 2009. It has, as you’d expect, the Mac-like qualities of “Look, the thing just works”, and “Joy to use.” I got a long (2 year) contract, since I don’t change handsets often. Maybe come the end of 2011, I’ll change it. Maybe I’ll see whether there’s a deal I can get on my monthly charges to stay with it, though I am vaguely keeping an eye on the way that Android is developing, and maybe that will be the best option. Ask me again in a year’s time. The app I most use is the built-in web browser, and it’s that “always connected to the Internet” that has made a difference, but see below as well.

2: GoogleMail. We’ve run our own mail server for at least 8 years. We used a variety of front end software (Outlook Express, Thunderbird.) A while back, however, I registered a GoogleMail account, mainly  because I intermittently needed something that I could access from client sites which blocked access to my own mail server. Over time, Googlemail’s front end has matured, to the extent that I now find it better than any desktop mail software I’ve used. So, we each registered GoogleMail accounts, and our trusty server stopped storing all the mail, but got set up just to forward any mail we got to the right Google account. When we got the iPhones (see above), this also meant that we immediately had access to our mail from them.

3: Evernote. Yes, that’s right – two of the top 3 positions are taken not by hardware gadgets, but by web-based software. The old model of “Software” being something that you install on a particular computer, and can then only use on that computer is gradually fading, at least as far as my life is concerned, with the “Software As A Service” (SaaS) model taking over. If the only “installation” required is going to a web browser and typing a URI, then great! Evernote is a “big bucket” into which I’m putting things – photos I snap on the way, articles I write that are works in progress, chapters for my next book, things I see that I need to remember. Yes, there is software that installs on my Mac for the odd thing, but mostly I use the EverNote iPhone app. (There is also an Android app.)

4: Bookcases. There is a quote, which I believe is originally from Brain Tracy, that reads “Poor people have big TVs, rich people have big libraries.” The Mark Harrison quote, which I now have my children saying, is “There’s always room for another bookcase.” In the process of writing this blog post, I’ve run round the house, counting, and made it 50, (which does include custom-bookcases made for specific places, but does not include shelves mounted to the wall, or a window-sill full of books.) The majority are IKEA Billy, representing a lot of bookcase for the money, but we’re gradually moving to custom-made to fit particular spaces. At some point I will write a longer post on the subject, explaining why I’m resisting the move to ebooks. The antilibrary (Google is your friend, but again, another post for another day) is also growing nicely.

The 2008 list (where are we now?)

1: The Mac Mini. It was only going back to this list that made me realise how long I’d had it. It’s the computer I’m typing this on, and I’m still glad I got it.

2: The Drobo. The Drobo is still in use, and storing everything I need. It’s been joined by a DroboShare, that means it connects directly to the network rather than onto a computer (and shared by that.) This we have found great.

3: The ASUS EEE Pc. I’ve not used this for a year. I have found that most of the things I needed it for on the road can be done with the iPhone… and for those that can’t, there’s always a computer witha  full sized keyboard somewhere (client office, friend’s house, airport club lounge…)

4: The DVD Duplicator. Still works every time.

5: A normal, non-smart Nokia handset… see iPhone above.

The 2006 list (long term update)

1: The (2006 model) iPod has found a new lease of life in a docking station in the kitchen (we mainly eat in there as well.)

2: The Dell laptop is still in use. As I reported back in 2008,  the battery has long since failed, so it’s now in use as if it were a spare desktop PC.

3: The Domia Lite / Bye Bye Standby system. Still working well, still in everyday use.

4: The “Skype headset”. In 2008, I reported that I’d lost it, and now used Skype for text chats, rather than voice calls. This is still true.

5: Desktop software choices… Firefox, yes… OpenOffice, yes…

6: The aircon is an interesting one. We decided to make a concious effort to reduce our carbon footprint back in 2009, and planted up the south wall of the house with a bunch of climbing plants that would cast shade on the front windows during the summer (when the sun is high in the sky), but allow direct sunlight through in winter (when the sun is lower in the sky, and therefore comes in under the level of the plants.) This has worked remarkably well, and while we used the aircon in 2009, it was less than in 2008. In the summer of 2010 (which, to be fair, wasn’t that hot), we didn’t need to turn on the aircon at all! (We’ve taken it a step further over the winter of 2010/2011 and put masses more insulation in the loft, which has had a noticeable effect keeping the place warmer in winter, and hopefully will keep the upstairs cooler next summer as well.)

7: Yet another year with paper diaries – I do use iPhone reminders a bit now, but still paper diaries are that little bit faster when it comes to trying to arrange a meeting and need to scan a bunch of possible dates.

8: Really Useful Company 35 litre crates on custom shelving in the garage. Still there, still holding stuff that either we have a legal obligation to retain for years, or like Christmas decorations that is needed once a year or so.

9: The Satnav. For various reasons, we’re using them less. I think because we work far more virtually now, and don’t visit unfamiliar sites as much.

10:  The cars. The LPG  Volvo Estate is still a useful thing for carrying around stuff. In December 2009, however, it disgraced itself when the lock broke, and it took 10 days to get the replacement part (from Germany, for some reason.) We took the opportunity to buy another Morgan to replace the one that some fool crashed into in 2007. So, we are back to a three car family – the Volvo, the new 4-seater Morgan, and the 30-year-old Morgan Plus 8 that still runs stunningly, and puts a smile on the face of everyone who sees it.)

Posted in Technology | 7 Comments »

Top Gadgets 2008

Posted by markharrison on December 30, 2008

It’s odd, but despite becoming Europe’s number 1 real estate blog, the post that attracted the most comment off-line have been the occasional “technology in the real world” ones.

I realise that it’s been two years since I wrote a Top Gadgets post – so while we had Top Gadgets 2006, there was no similar thing last year. Later on in this post, I’m going to go back and see which of the 2006 list I’m still using…

However, firstly, my top gadgets 2008.

I only really have 5 to make it onto the list this year (since some of the most useful things are still from the 2006 list.)

1: The Mac Mini. You know how irritating those Mac users get, forever banging on about how much better their computers are compared to Windows PCs. Well, I spent about ten years arguing with them that, while I was willing to believe this was true, their PCs cost so much more than ones with the Microsoft O/S that the point was moot. Then Nik Butler made the simple observation that I didn’t base my car choice on specs and price, but on a whole bunch of intangibles, and that I should consider the Mac Mini as a sort of Jaguar. I tried a Mac Mini, and I’m hooked. We’re now a 2-Mac family, since Mary has a Mini also. In the words of Tom Peters, it’s about design! (It’s also about productivity, and, less tangibly, how I feel when using it.)

2: The Drobo. I wrote a long review of the Drobo back in September. Basically, it’s an external enclosure that takes up to 4 hard drives, and applies a RAID-like algorithm to them, so that even if one drive completely fails, your data is safe. High-end servers have done this (expensively) for years, but this takes cheap, standard, SATA drives, and just works.

3: The ASUS EEE Pc. At the opposite end of the computing spectrum to Apple lies ASUS. The EEE Pc is a small laptop, with a tiny screen, and a fiddly keyboard… that is nonetheless the size of a hardback novel, runs on battery for “sufficiently longer than I need that I really can’t tell you how long it lasts”, and has built in wifi. It also creates far less of a psychological barrier than a big laptop when I’m in a meeting, and I can use it on a plane or a departure lounge. OK, it runs Xandros Linux, but it comes with Firefox (qv), and OpenOffice, so does pretty much 90% of what I need. As a result, I don’t really have a “real laptop” any more.

4: The DVD Duplicator. Bought from the ever-reliable APR Media, this beast has saved me a whole bunch of time, since I can just stick in a DVD or CD in the top tray, up to 5 blanks in the lower trays, and press the “duplicate” button. It meant that, this Christmas, we were able to get the playgroup nativity DVDs out to all parents who pre-ordered before Christmas… wheras last year we had to write them from my laptop, and they didn’t come out until the new year. (The playgroup is a charity of which I’m a trustee, and the Christmas nativity DVDs are a big fundraiser for us.) Plus, work-wise, it’s made a huge difference to our ability to run off 50-60 CDs for corporate orders.

5: A normal, non-smart Nokia handset that is just wonderfully designed and optimised for talking to people. I do not have a smartphone. I do not want a smartphone… for the same reason that I don’t have voicemail. My clients know that I’m busy, that when I’m working for them, I’m focussed on their needs, not on checking my email in case other clients want my time… but that cuts both ways. If it’s important enough to interrupt me, phone me! If it’s for general info, and can wait a few days, email me! The last thing I want, however, is for clients to believe that I’m just sitting around waiting for their crucial message to come in – hence, no smartphone, no voicemail.

Now, what happened to the 2006 list:

1: The iPod. Hardly use it any more – I tend to read on the train, and use the car stereo.

2: The Dell laptop is still in use, but the battery has long since failed, and the replacement cost of batteries is, well, ludicrous. Hence, it’s now in use as if it were a desktop PC.

3: The Domia Lite system. Still working well, still in everyday use. However, I ought to point out that the system is now known as “Bye Bye Standy”, and the energy-saving features are what are promoted.

4: The “Skype headset”. Honestly, I’ve lost it. From time to time, I wish I could find it, not least because my brother has a Skype-enabled mobile. I, however, use it for IM rather than voice!

5: Software choices… Firefox, now on version 3 is still what I’m using (even on the Mac) – I used Flock for a while, which was great, but not optimised for what I do. I’m also running NeoOffice, a Mac version of OpenOffice. (I’m told that OpenOffice 3 for the Mac is probably better, and still free, but what I have works, and I’m loathe to change it.)

6: The aircon unit now has a friend, so we have aircon upstairs and down. Truth be told, we only ran it for a couple of weeks in 2008, but who knows what 2009 will bring.

7: Another year with paper diaries 🙂

8: Really Useful Company 35 litre crates. These have moved out to the garage. We had someone build some shelving that takes about 20 of them. Works very, very, well.

9: The Satnav. How did I live without one? We now have his and hers.

10:  The cars. Both of the 2006 cars have gone – the Morgan 4-seater was, alas, written off when someone drove into the back of it in September 2007. The Bentley just got too expensive to justify – it was costing over a grand a month to keep running, so we now have a Volvo Estate that runs on LPG (49.9p/litre.)

Posted in ASUS, Drobo, EEE PC, Just for fun, Open Source, Technology | 4 Comments »

Drobo – More technology that just works.

Posted by markharrison on September 24, 2008

Time for another of my irregular posts about technology.

Like many people who run their own businesses, it’s more than me who needs to get at our files, so we need some kind of “server”. Of course, the machines sold as servers cost an arm and a leg, because what you’re actually paying for is resilience, not only, but mainly in hard disks (on the basis that moving parts are the bits that fail, and a typical PC has moving parts only in the fan and the disks) – if one hard disk fails, the machine flashes up a warning, but keeps on working, because the data is stored in more than one place.

The technology that does is called RAID. RAID stands for “Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks”, which is all very well up to a point… except that the majority of server manufacturers seem to think that the word “Inexpensive” is intended as a gag, and use expensive SCSI or even SAS disks.

Apart from using expensive disks, the other problem with nigh on all of these RAID solutions is that you need to set the “disk arrays” up once, and then not touch them. It’s typically hard (read, expensive, specialist IT support person) to make arrays larger.

Those of us with normal PCs use the much cheaper IDE disks, of which the most recent generations are called SATA1 and SATA2 (the previous generations were called things like ATA-133, ATA-100 and so on.)

So, wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a solution that did three things:

  1. Use the cheaper SATA disks
  2. Allow you to upgrade it easily, just by adding an extra disk
  3. Sit as an EXTERNAL drive, connected by USB or FireWire, rather than being something that involved taking apart the PC [Yes, I know that nice servers have caddy-mounted disks that can be removed without a screwdriver, but these fall into the “expensive” end of servers]

Enter Data Robotics – who make a product called the Drobo.

I was put on Drobo by two different people I trust. Firstly, Nik Butler of LoudmouthMan had raved about it when we met up a few months ago.  Nik’s got a long-term supportability mindset, as a result of having worked in IT for many years, so I knew that anything he recommended was going to be good. However, he is willing to spend long periods getting stuff to work in the first place, so a recommendation from him didn’t give “just works” cred. Enter Mark McCall of AutomatedHome, who’s no technological dunce, but does have an “I don’t want to waste time getting stuff working – I like it just to work” mindset. His review of the Drobo also gave a thumbs up.

This meets my three requirements, and it has a funky feature that most high-end RAID arrays don’t – you can upgrade it very easily.

Basically, it’s a black box that plugs into your PC – it works whether you run Windows, Linux or use a Mac. The version I bought last week is the newer one that has a Firewire option, although I use USB. The front is magnetic (I assume), in that it pulls off without any fiddling, and slips back into place nicely. Once the front is off, there are four slots, and you have to put a (SATA) hard disk into at least two of them. The good news is that the drives slide straight in – there’s no messing with cables or finding that you need a power adaptor cable because the power supply in your PC has the wrong fitting!

I put in a couple of Seagate drives, because I’ve had good experiences with Seagate in the past, though there’s no particular reason why the drives should be from the same manufacturer – Drobo lets you mix and match.

Because it’s copying the data onto multiple drives, the combination of two drives, each 500Gb, only gave me a total of 500Gb usable space… but the reassurance that I would never have to shell out hundreds to a data recovery firm again (I only did once!) to get back data after a disk crash makes me OK with that.

Another nice feature of the Drobo is that to upgrade the capacity, I just need to insert an extra disk, and (after flashing its lights for a while), Drobo just sorts it out – no new drivers, no reconfiguration – just insert the drive and wait (oh, and you can use the PC while it’s doing it – just don’t pull the disk back out until the light’s stopped flashing.)

A result of this means that the economics are upside down compared to traditional RAID arrays – with them, you tend to buy the biggest disks avaialable, because the expensive part is the downtime and technician time required to upgrade. With Drobo, I stuck in a couple of 500Gb disks because they were enough, and cheap… and I can buy a 1Tb disk to add when prices have fallen another 50%… and a 2Tb disk after that when prices have fallen again…

… at that point, the Drobo’s slot will be full, which is where the REALLY clever bit comes in… To upgrade beyond that, I can simply pull out the smallest drive, and replace it with a bigger one… and again, Drobo will just sort everything out.

Overall, it’s an amazing bit of kit – it’s “Apple-like” (in a good way), in that the packaging is well thought out, the instructions are very, very straightforward, and the product’s straightforward enough that actually I was able to plug it straight in WITHOUT needing to use the instructions 🙂

Full marks to Umesh at Data Robotics UK, who answered my questions, and was helpful throughout. I bought mine from CanCom, who were likewise good on the phone pre-sales, and delivered well and fast. The hard disks came from regular Mark Harrison supplier –
Overall, well recommended.

Oh, and as an aside – it’s plugged into my Mac Mini, which I’m finding great. My only reservation about plugging it into the Mac had been that the Mac formats the drives in a Mac-specific way, rather than in standard NTFS, like the Linux and Windows boxes can use. Hence, with only one Mac in the house, I had been tempted to put the Drobo on a Windows PC… However, Mary announced that she’d like a new PC, and would prefer a Mac, so we’re now a two Mac household… This of course means that if mine were ever to fail, I could just plug the Drobo into her’s 🙂

Posted in Drobo, Technology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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 🙂

Posted in ASUS, EEE PC, Technology, Vodafone | 1 Comment »