The Linux Netbook Experiment – Part I

Last month, I speculated on the possibility that a large company like HP (which owns the Linux-powered, Palm-developed WebOS operating system) would start releasing consumer products – netbooks in particular – packaged with Linux instead of Windows.

Imagine my delight when I started looking into the configuration options of the new HP 1503 netbook today, and discovered that it can be purchased with either Windows, FreeDOS, or Linux! To sweeten the pot, selecting a non-Windows option subtracts $35 from the price.

I had speculated that Ubuntu Linux would be the distro of choice, but it turns out that HP offers SUSE Linux, which is a more bare-bones flavor of Linux, specifically designed for “enterprise” clients who don’t want a bunk of junk cluttering up their systems. I’m a minimalist by nature (although a pack rat by necessity), so this suits me fine.

I had been toying with the idea of buying an inexpensive netbook and going through the standard process of installing Linux in a partition. However, the fact that I could get a sleek little netbook, with Linux preinstalled, convinced me to pull the trigger and spend a little more.

Now the experiment begins.

My hypothesis is that I – a fairly typical creative professional who normally works on Apple systems – can get a lot of valuable work done on a computer that:

1) Runs exclusively on Linux;

2) Has a modest screen (10.1″) and processor (Intel Atom N455 – 1.66 GHz);

3) Is small enough to be completely portable;

4) Costs half the price of the cheapest MacBook.

I’m a fan of Linux, in theory, and netbooks, in theory. The idea of having an ultralight, open-source workstation that practically fits in a jacket pocket has a visceral appeal to me that’s hard to explain. Now, I want to see what happens when I actually get to take home my crush. How much can I get done with this bad girl? I already use Open Office and Firefox, so word processing and web browsing are non-issues. Cyberduck, my FTP manager of choice is available for Linux. I’ve used Blender 3D on a Mac, but not on a small laptop, and I haven’t gotten around to working with Scribus, the open-source alternative to InDesign, or Cinellera, the open-source alternative to Final Cut Pro, or Gimp, the open-source alternative to Photoshop.

Will it wind up being an expensive memo pad? Or will I be able to easily update my websites, work on my eBooks and video projects from anywhere?

I suspect that the video capabilities will be the most limited; I won’t be able to work with my Final Cut project files, and the computer just doesn’t have the horsepower to grind through HD video. However, I should certainly be able to use it to transfer and evaluate video files on location, and as a convenient visual aid for meetings and pitches. More to the point, I believe that I will be able to do just about anything else that I normally do on a quad-core Mac Pro. Just a little more slowly, and perhaps with a slightly different set of tools.

My order won’t be shipped until around September 25. So, around the end of the month, I’ll be able to post an update to the experiment. Wish me luck!

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