Writing on an Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook

Netbook Desktop

I often carry my eeePC 1001P around with me when I am travelling or going out to cafes to write (Yes, I really do this! I know it’s not cool but I stopped worrying about looking cool a very long time ago.) Worried about Windows security, I replaced the XP installation with Ubuntu Linux 10.10.

This has been something of a revelation. Ubuntu is a very light operating system and it boots and runs very quickly indeed even on older Intel Atom processors. It’s free and it comes with pretty much all the software you could possibly need to get some work done, including its own capable office suite (OpenOffice in the case of Ubuntu 10.10) and hey, you can even install Scrivener on it. (The Scrivener forum has links to downloads for Linux.) There are far fewer security threats for Linux than Windows (or even OSX these days). I am not going to tell you it is a perfectly secure OS because I do not believe there is any such thing but it is secure enough.

The machine itself is light enough to slip into a bag and not be noticed. (It’s about the same weight as a MacBook Air but cost less than 20% of the price.) It has great battery life (8 hours approximately). The build quality is high. The machine has a matte screen so you can read it in sunlight or under glare. Boot time is very fast– much faster than Windows XP used to be although I have not measured it with a stopwatch.

I have had some problems with my Linux installations on other computers. They have required tweaking and workarounds to get them working properly. On this machine Ubuntu 10.10 has worked more or less perfectly since the install with one exception– the screen brightness function keys seem to be somewhat out of sync. It reaches maximum brightness a couple of points below the maximum indicator on the slider and if you keep trying to increase the brightness the screen goes dark. That’s it– this is the only problem I have ever had with the machine. It’s certainly possible that there are other problems that I have not noticed but I can honestly say I have been delighted to use Ubuntu when writing.

I get a surprising amount of work done on this little netbook. Over time I have learned a few tricks to maximise productivity.

Install the Chromium browser. It takes up less space on the limited screen area with its headers and tabs. This leaves you with more space to read. Personally I delete the bottom panel and install Cairo Dock. This is set to autohide so that it vanishes when I am working on something.

Set your screen panels to autohide. For the same reason as above. You want to be able to see as much of your text as possible.

Make use of workspaces. Use one space for each program you are running. Learn the keyboard shortcut for switching between them. (Control + Alt + the left and right arrow keys.) Working on a netbook is all about making the most of your screen real estate.

Find a netbook whose keyboard works for you. This is often easier said than done. I found the Asus eeePC 1001p keyboard really works for me. I had another one from MSI which really hurt my hands.

Install Dropbox and set up as the default save folder for Writer or whatever word processor you choose to use. It’s the easiest and fastest way of making remote backups that I know off. It makes it easy to open the document elsewhere and just get back to work.

In Writer or your wordprocessor of choice reduce the number of toolbars to the absolute minimum. I usually just keep formatting. If I am hard at work I get rid of even that.

Don’t write for more than half an hour at a time if you are prone to any sort of RSI injuries. The smaller netbook keyboards tend to make things worse. I try to write for not more than one hour a day on a netbook keyboard.

Don’t try and do heavy editing on a netbook unless you absolutely have to. This is what monitors or laptops with bigger screens were meant for. You will go mad trying to manipulate large wodges of text on a small screen with a dodgy trackpad.

Learn to use keyboard shortcuts as much as possible or bring a mouse. Trackpads on netbooks are rarely very good.

OK– I admit it. I am still making some final changes and alterations to The Angel of Fire. I wrote this post some time ago and put on file against need. These days you will probably only be able to easily download the 10.04 Long Term Service release of Ubuntu or the new 11.10 release. I tried the Unity interface in Ubuntu 11.04 and I thought it was not quite ready for prime time. I will try again with the 12.04 Long Term Service Release. Next week, I hope to return to normal blogging duties and write some more about Tyrion and Teclis.

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Comments

  1. I’m about to upgrade Emma’s laptop to 10.10, and I’m tempted to try Ubuntu more fully on my own machine, except it’s a lot harder to dual-install it on a Macbook than it is on a more generic machine.

    My Macbook was bought in late 2009/early 2010, and since then, I’ve only just learned, the Macbook Air has become the ‘base’ model, which horrifies me, because instead of getting a laptop with a 13 inch screen – ie, my Macbook – for £849 you get a measly 11 inches. That means if I wanted something at least approximating my current machine, I’d have to shell out well over a grand. Given that, and given the increasing sophistication of Ubuntu, I’m strongly tempted to investigate the cheap laptop/Ubuntu option, should my Macbook ever give up the ghost.

    • I kind of like the 11.6 inch MacBook Air. It seems just about the perfect size for a portable machine to me but I have some doubts about the keyboard and my hands having tried it. My main concern with the netbook was working on a screen that size but it’s never given me any trouble for the kind of basic writing I do on it. I would not try complex editing on it though because there is not enough screen real estate. I have tried many variants of Ubuntu down the years and 10.10 is the one I am most comfortable with. I just could not get my head around Unity but that might be just sheer conservatism on my part. I would not hesitate to use Ubuntu for a work machine these days– in fact I do use it on some of my machines– it has all of the advantages of OSX that I need and it’s free. I run it on an Acer Travelmate that I picked up for £419( matte screen 13.3 inches, weight 1.65 kilograms, full size keyboard) and it works just fine except for a problem with the dedicated Radeon graphics card which I have to switch on and off manually. If you’re going to go the Ubuntu route, I would recommend sticking with Intel chips and no fancy graphics cards. I have never had a lick of trouble with Ubuntu under those circumstances. There is even a 13.3 inch laptop on Amazon that comes with Ubuntu– its priced at £225! The Meenee. It looks pretty slick.

      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Meenee-MNB737-Laptop-Bluetooth-webcam/dp/B004GGBUJY/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1321874460&sr=8-3

  2. Well, I’m installing 11.04 at the moment, and glancing around the net reveals a bunch of people not too crazy about it, apparently, compared to 10.10. Unfortunately, there’s no way to cancel the upgrade, otherwise I would. Here’s hoping there’s a way to downgrade it if it proves less than satisfactory.

    • The only real problem with 11.04 is that it was a bit unpolished. It’s a radical departure from the look and feel of previous versions but it seems to work OK. I was going to wait until 12.04 before I tried it again by which time I expected all of the rough edges to be sanded off. I have also considered using Mint which is another very nice and somewhat more conservative distro.

      If you get absolutely stuck I can provide you with a copy of 10.10 on CD– I think I still have my copy lying around somewhere.

      • Thanks for the offer – I was installing the update on Emma’s machine, but it’s a cheap laptop with a low-powered Atom processor, and it wasn’t quite up to 11.04’s demands. So I made a fresh install of 10.10 next to it, and I’ll delete the partition with 11.04 on it when I get around to it. Cd’s are just a pain in the ass now – it was simple to turn a usb drive into a temporary installable Linux image and install from there.

        May I ask if you’ve ever used Macbuntu? It seems like a fabulous idea, assuming it works.

        • I’ve never done a Boot Camp style partition on the Mac although I understand it is easily possible. I started my playing around with Linux on virtual machines on a Mac just to see what Linux was like. That’s the closest I got. On Windows machines I like dual-booting because it gives me a secure alternative to Windows when I am feeling paranoid about things like on-line banking and shopping and when I want to play around with Linux. Since OSX is Unix based, I never felt any real need to do the same with it. I used to Boot Camp Windows for games and Dragon NaturallySpeaking. These days I feel that a dual boot Windows/Linux machine is probably the best combination for me. I’ve still been tempted by a MacBook Air on occasion though!

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