• android
  • chromebook
  • laptop
  • linux
  • netbook
  • Technology

Finding the perfect netbook-sized laptop

Falling in love with the form factor

Ever since I first got an android based ASUS Transformer model TF-101 back in 2011 I've been a fan of the tiny netbook sized laptop form factor. The Transformer could be separated from its (optional) keyboard but I never used the Transformer in tablet mode anyway, and the few times I did it wasn't for very long. The Transformer was quite heavy - a solidly built device that certainly outlived its usefulness - and tablets always have to be held or propped up in a suitable position, my hands would tire using it that way quickly. Besides, the keyboard had an integral battery which would keep the thing going for about 12 hours! The post linked above goes into detail about Android as a choice for OS if you're wondering.

asus-transformerI kept the Transformer relevant for as long as I could by flashing it with custom ROMs. After a couple years most manufacturers of android phones and tablets stop updating software for their older devices and users are left to fend for themselves against an onslaught of security breaches and malicious websites. The folks working to build custom ROMs for these older devices are doing so mainly because they want to use the latest software on their older devices and at least with Android (an open source project at its core) this is possible. I had very good luck running the Transformer on KatKiss ROMs and its still working fine running KatKiss 5.1.1.

note: Since Apple has monopoly over their devices, Apple users can usually keep their devices current longer - but ironically Apple has also successfully promoted a culture which encourages tossing the old devices and buying new ones every couple years even though the new devices are so similar to the older ones its almost incredible they are able to make the case! Customization, the removal of Apple's bloatware, or installation of open source apps isn't possible on these devices though.

The web is slowing me down!

The internet itself has changed over the years too and simply surfing the web takes a lot more horsepower than it once did. There are now sometimes upwards of 30 separate javascript connections being made out to other servers in order to create a single webpage (install noscript in firefox to review them); I routinely encounter mandatory ads that float over the page obscuring the text sometimes floating down the page as you scroll; videos are often set to play automatically when you load a page even if your little device isn't powerful enough to play it and you'll end up waiting for it to load before you can do anything useful; there's often a lot of CSS (sometimes 10 or more stylesheets!) and while I'm a fan of the new standards - these styles are very demanding to parse and require the latest and greatest browsers to display properly. I'm a fairly patient person but it was late 2015 and the Transformer just wasn't going to cut it anymore.

An old Gateway gets refurbed

IMG_20160322_114229A friend at work brought in a netbook sized Gateway from around 2009 which looked perfect. The processor was sorta slow, but compared to the nVidia Tegra2 in the transformer it was lightning. My friend had brought it in for help replacing the hard drive which had failed, and when I stuck an SSD in that machine and slapped Ubuntu on it I instantly knew I could use that machine. I was thinking about looking for a used one online, but didn't get very far and gave up.

The RCA Viking Pro (2015)

I've been using android in this format (a 10" tablet with attached keyboard) for so long that when I started looking around for a replacement thats what I went looking for. There really wasn't very much of a selection. I was, however, amazed to find a line of cheap Chinese tablets branded with the RCA trademark. I'm well aware that RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, went out of business in 1986 because that was a fairly big deal at the time. The trademark is maintained and licensed out to various manufacturers today, including rcaav.com which markets tablets made in China by Venturer Electronics in Shanghai and ALCO Electronics in Hong Kong. The tablets are very low cost and can be found in Wal-Mart or on Amazon (where I got mine) for under $100.

P_20160704_211326I think it was the cost that hooked me. Here's a device that looked a lot like the Transformer I loved, with a faster processor and twice as much flash disk space. It had a detachable keyboard (though I wouldn't need to detatch it as I've already explained), miniSD and USB ports, and it ran android 5. I didn't realize at first that it would be running an older version of android (5.0) than I was running on my Transformer via the custom ROM, but it wasn't too ancient and since it was fairly new there was some hope that it would get an update.

I used it for only a short time before I realized I would really need some kind of case for it. The Viking Pro is very cheap plastic and slippery - this was no over-designed and heavy duty ASUS Transformer. I opted for a faux leather folio cover which the page on Amazon describes as "Vegan leather" which got more than a laugh or two! The case keeps the keyboard and tablet snugly together as its carried and used, and while it makes it more difficult to detatch if you wanted to use the tablet on its own (which I have done more often than I did with the Transformer because its so light) you can still do it once you figure it out.

I've been using the Viking Pro for a few months now and I can say that I don't like the ultra cheap keyboard as much as I liked the ASUS Transformer keyboard, but at about 1/5 the price what do you want, really?

Lots of the programs I use on the Viking Pro are the same ones I used on the Transformer. I've discovered new apps over time - perhaps I'll list them out here soon - but I've been able to get most of my day to day work done on it. I can check email and calendars from lots of accounts, surf the modern web with some limited sluggishness on some sites, watch videos and stream them to the chromecast (which we keep plugged into the TV) with ease. I take notes on it at meetings, and play some light games. I play music on it from time to time but the sound quality of the speaker is horrible so only if I'm going to plug it in to a speaker.

Could a chromebook become my ultimate netbook?

It seems, however, that it has only taken some time for the rest of the world to catch up to what I already knew - in May Google announced plans to make the Play store available on chromeOS later this year which would bring android apps to the form factor I'd already been using for four years in a real way but for now this is only available in the development versions of ChromeOS.

P_20160704_211028I like the Viking Pro, but I really wanted something a bit nicer, preferably a netbook sized laptop no bigger than 11" with attached keyboard and good battery life. I came across the ASUS Chromebook C201 and was instantly struck by its classic Macbook styling (though, in miniature) and when I looked into it I was able to find a bunch of them USED on Amazon some for as low as $140. Since Chromebooks don't run Android and instead everything you run revolves entirely around the Chrome browser, I knew I wouldn't be happy with it unless I could get around that limitation. At that price I'd be willing to do a bit of work to see if I could get Linux running on it.

With Google's announcement of the Play store coming to Chromebooks (and this one is on the list) I figured that at least I'd be able to run some of the apps I love on it eventually. I didn't realize when I was looking into them that this model doesn't come with a touchscreen though so its unclear how much fun those android apps are going to be on the C201. Since I prefer to use a wireless mouse anyway hopefully it won't be too bad. This Google I/O talk describes what this wedding of ChromeOS and android might look like:

I was able to get Ubuntu Linux (with XFCE4) running with ease using crouton and have been enjoying using all the tools I'm used to using on my big boy rigs and switching back and forth between ChromeOS and Linux. Some cases in point: ChromeOS doesn't let you run Firefox which I prefer (for reasons I won't go into here), but I can use it fine under Linux on this device. ChromeOS requires you to have a cloud printer (which I don't have) to print. I was able to set up my printer just fine from Linux. There are just tons of tools I use every day that are free and open source - they don't work under ChromeOS but run fine on this Chromebook under Linux. The Chromebook side is fine for checking email and playing some videos (though casting them seems a lot clunkier than on android), but for anything more than that I'll be using this in Linux. I was not able to get desktop Minecraft running on it (I got close) because crouton doesn't support 3D hardware acceleration on Arm (the Rockchip is an Arm processor).

So far the ASUS C201 Chromebook seems well made (certainly more so than the Viking Pro, though nothing has broken on that device as yet), though nowhere near as sturdy as the old Transformer. The C201 is really thin and light (which is nice) but definitely flexes when you put some twisting pressure to it. My advice: treat it with kid gloves. Its Rockchip Cortex‚ÄĎA17 (some claim its actually A12) RK3288 CPU is no slouch and its able to run ChromeOS and a bunch of Linux applications with ease. It has two USB 2.0 ports (USB 3 would have been nice, but really I don't think it is necessary since it has a miniSD slot which can be used to run an alternate OS). Since I have an Arch Linux 64GB USB drive which gets a lot of use I was able to stick that into one of the USB slots and make symlinks over for some folders so I can store files and images over to that drive instead. Linux initially took up only about 1.5GB of my 16GB internal drive but with it set up with all the tools I like its up to about 3GB now. I've had no issues closing the lid and having it wake from sleep even with Linux running. I do have to deal with the annoying Development screen at boot, just hit Ctrl-D to bypass but if someone accidentally hits the space bar its "game over man, game over!"