Breathing New Life into an Old Netbook

Lately I had been getting a bit frustrated with the performance of my old netbook, so I decided it was time for an upgrade to a SSD.

Lately I had been getting a bit frustrated with the performance of my old netbook, Ryo-Ohki. Oh, it’s still a great little computer, but it was beginning to show it’s age… or rather, I was starting to notice it. Basically, I was getting frustrated that everything took so long to start up – Windows, Ubuntu, Firefox, etc.

The two typical ways to speed up an older computer are to:

  • Add more memory (RAM)
  • Add a bigger (or faster) hard drive

Generally speaking, what you upgrade depends on what is being “stressed” in your computer at the moment. For example, if you have plenty of hard drive space, but only 1 GB of RAM, you’re probably hitting your RAM limit more often, which means you should upgrade that first. Likewise, if you have only a 250 GB hard drive, but dozens of large programs (Photoshop, Office, etc.) and a large collection of music, movies, and pictures, then you’re probably hitting your hard drive’s space limits, so you should upgrade that first.

In the case of my netbook, RAM was not the issue – while it does only have 1 GB of RAM, it can only hold (at most) up to 2 GB – and I usually only have one or two programs open at a time, and they are generally not RAM-intensive (just a browser or video player).

Instead, the real limit for my netbook – and, increasingly, the limit on almost everyone’s computer these days – was the hard drive. While my hard drive of 160 GB was technically rather small, I don’t have a lot of files, so the problem wasn’t the amount of space – the problem was the speed.

Hard drive speed isn’t just a limiting factor for netbooks and laptops, either – hard drives have been the slowest thing in computers (of any type) for years now.

SSD drive iconFortunately, the past few years have seen a new type of hard drive appear which helps us get past this hard drive performance problem – the Solid State Drive, or SSD.

Solid State Drives are sort of like giant USB memory sticks; they are the same sort of chip-based non-volatile (i.e., it doesn’t lose its contents when the power goes off, like RAM) memory that you see in USB drives or even in memory cards for your digital camera.

The benefit of an SSD is that, being totally digital, they have no moving parts, and since they are purely electronic, there is no mechanical delay in reading data from different parts of memory (like there is with a regular hard drive, which has to spin a disc and move an arm to a particular part to read the data). Basically, an SSD can be as fast as the memory chips that make it up, and the interface used to connect it to the rest of the computer… which means they can be made very fast.

The downside to SSDs is that they are relatively new technology, and therefore the price is still quite high. You can easily buy a regular hard drive with 1 TB of disk space for about $99 (possibly even less these days), which works out to about $0.10 per GB of disk space. On the other hand, SSDs are currently hovering around about $1.00 per GB of space – that’s about 10 times the cost per gigabyte.

I’ve been mulling over SSDs before, and while they aren’t quite practical for my desktop computer (with its huge disk space requirements), I thought they might be a good fit for my netbook. So I started price-stalking a few different models, and eventually one of them went on sale for the very reasonable (for an SSD) price of $120 (for a 120 GB SATA II SSD), so I snapped it up.

Since the new drive was slightly smaller than my old one (which was 160 GB), I didn’t even bother with the idea of transferring my old installation over to the new drive. Spending hours trying to resize two main partitions (one for Windows, one for Ubuntu Linux) plus all the recovery & swap partitions was just not very appealing to me. Plus, my netbook doesn’t really have anything on it – all my files live on my desktop, after all – so reinstalling the operating systems was not a big deal.

So, I popped out the old hard drive and put in the new one. This involved exactly 6 screws (2 to open the cover, 4 to secure the drive in a tiny little bracket) and took all of 5 minutes.

Even though my netbook is a little on the old side, it recognized the SSD without a hitch. All that was left now was to boot from the USB drives I’d prepared with Windows 7 and Ubuntu and then reinstall my programs.

Windows 7 was the first thing I installed (I prefer to install Linux last, so that it installs GRUB as the boot loader/OS chooser, which I like), and the installation itself took relatively little time (about 20 minutes.)

After that, it took several hours to download and install all the Windows Updates – and this version of Windows 7 I installed already included Service Pack 1! (To be fair though, some of these updates were for Microsoft Office as well.)

Installing Ubuntu went much faster, thanks to its ability to download updates as you install it (hint, hint, Microsoft?).

After installing the OS, I installed the few programs I use (Firefox and Chrome, Skype, Dropbox, and VLC media player, basically) and then I was up and running!

When everything was done, I had my new SSD cleanly split 50/50 between Windows 7 and Ubuntu, and everything was back up and running just fine.

Now though was the moment of truth. I’d rebooted many times already, but always to let some updates install… now it was time to see how fast this new hard drive could be.

Long-time readers will remember I did some completely pointless benchmarks of my computers a while back. The numbers I came up with from those tests showed that my netbook booted into Windows and Ubuntu to a fully-loaded desktop, ready to use, in 1 minute and 30 seconds and 47 seconds, respectively.

With my new SSD, those numbers have fallen to 1 minute even for Windows 7 and just 27 seconds for Ubuntu – a 33% improvement in Windows startup time, and a 42% increase in Ubuntu startup time.

Also, opening new programs is now much snappier (although not instant), and in general the computer just “feels” more responsive.

Keep in mind as well that my netbook, being a little on the old side, can’t really take advantage of the full speed of the SSD – the SATA interface is probably SATA 1, unlike the SATA II or SATA III interfaces that newer computers have. (The SSD drive itself supports SATA II, but it works just fine with SATA 1, just not as fast.)

While these startup times aren’t exactly “stellar” by modern computer & SSD standards, they are a significant improvement over my netbook’s old performance. Now the major limiting factor in my netbook’s performance is actually the old Atom CPU and the somewhat-sluggish graphics adapter.

Still, the SSD reduces much of the “lag” that my netbook used to have – and that’s always the way it is when upgrading a computer with more RAM or a faster hard drive. These things don’t really make the computer any faster, but they do reduce the things that used to slow it down (a subtle but important distinction).

In the end, the SSD was a good (and cost-effective) way to lengthen the service life of my little netbook. It may not be the fastest thing around, and new netbooks (and “ultrabooks”) are almost certainly faster, but I also spent a lot less than the cost of a new netbook/ultrabook.

Upgrading to an SSD is a great way to extend the life of any older computer – assuming that you don’t mind having to re-install all your programs and data. If you don’t want to do that, then you’ll need to buy an SSD that is the same size (or larger, if you can afford it!) as your old hard drive so that you can just copy (or “clone”) your old drive onto the new SSD. But at the current price of SSDs and the typical size of an average desktop or even laptop hard drive, that might be a very, very pricy option… at least for the next few years.

To put it another way: if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up!

SSD image credit: Thrasos Varnava (via Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial, no derivative works license), USB drive image credit: Crystal Icon Set

Bringing back the classic “netbook remix” in Ubuntu 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot)

How to bring back the old-style “netbook remix” user interface in Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot.

I’ve talked before about how to bring the netbook remix user interface back to Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal), but since 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot) came out, Unity has become even more the default – so much so, that you can’t even get back to the classic GNOME desktop (which you need to set up the old netbook remix UI).

I’ve been using the new Unity UI on my netbook since this update, and it’s… OK. It’s better than it was in 11.04, for sure, but it’s still not quite what I’d want for a netbook. (The bigger icons in the netbook remix still win when it comes to ease of clicking.)

Fortunately, there IS (in theory) a way to bring back the netbook remix, although it takes a bit of work.

First, you need to bring back the classic GNOME desktop. To do this, open a terminal and issue this command:

sudo apt-get install gnome-session-fallback

Once you’ve done that, you should be able to follow the steps outlined in my original article. Be aware that this time you’ll need to follow the links to manually download the packages for maximus, the go-home applet, the netbook-launcher, and the window-picker applet. And you may need to install some additional packages as well to get it to work – just watch whatever the Ubuntu Software Center’s UI tells you is required as a dependency, and then go get that.

For those who are too lazy to go to my previous article to get the links to the required packages, here they are:

I hope that this works – I’ve been able to restore the GNOME session, but haven’t taken the time to re-download all the packages required. For me personally, I’m giving Unity a try (since the netbook remix is no longer technically supported). But if this works for you, then more power to you.

Bringing back the classic “netbook remix” interface in Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal”

How to bring back the classic netbook interface of the old “Ubuntu Netbook Remix” (UNR) in the latest version of Ubuntu.

The other day I saw the news that the latest version of Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal” had been released. So, like any self-respecting geek, I updated my netbook (which runs Ubuntu).

The upgrade was smooth and easy, but one thing I noticed right away after rebooting was that nothing looked the same.

The thing is, Ubuntu has committed to using the new “Unity” interface for Ubuntu, and they have also folded the netbook remix stuff into the main “Ubuntu” release. What this means is that, starting with 11.04:

  • Ubuntu uses “Unity” by default, even on netbooks
  • There is no longer a separate “netbook remix” for Ubuntu

Now, don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the “Unity” interface, and I like the idea and the execution of it is pretty great… but I disagree with the idea that this is the perfect interface for netbooks.

First off, the “Unity” interface is rather graphically intensive – it has some neat 3-D effects as you mouse over the bar – and this just really kind of bogs down a netbook. Now, maybe newer netbooks have more powerful graphics cards, but I always think of Linux as being great for older computers too, and the “Unity” interface just doesn’t cut it on older hardware.

Now, you can always switch back to the Ubuntu Classic UI (by using the Logon Screen app, or by just choosing at the login screen itself), but even that is a bit of a compromise, especially for netbooks. The netbook UI was optimized for small screens, where every inch of screen space was valuable.

ubuntu classic desktop
The "Classic" desktop isn't that great for small netbook screens

So, I set about trying to find how to bring back that classic “netbook” look that previous versions of Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) had. After some experimentation with a virtual machine (and, in the extreme, trying out some other Linux distros to see if they were more netbook-friendly) I found the way to do it.

Before we begin, I suggest that you switch to the classic UI before beginning – that way you won’t need to worry about fiddling with the “Unity” launcher bar thing.

There are 4 packages you need to have before you begin, so fire up the Synaptic package manager (or a terminal if that’s your thing) and make sure these packages are installed:

These 4 packages are what basically make up the older “Netbook Remix” edition of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu package manager - showing "netbook-launcher-efl" package
Selecting the "netbook-launcher-efl" package for installation

The first thing to do is to go to your startup applications in Ubuntu and add netbook-launcher-efl and maximus to your startup applications.

Ubuntu preferences menu - startup applications
Selecting the "Starup Applications" app from the "Preferences" menu
ubuntu startup program - add netbook-launcher-efl
Adding the Netbook Launcher to startup
ubuntu startup program - add maximus
Adding Maximus to startup
Ubuntu Startup Applications Preferences
Startup Applications

Next, add the window-picker-applet and go-home-applet to the top panel in Ubuntu. You may also want to remove some of the other panel items that are up there currently, and then re-size and re-position the panels so they look like the old netbook remix. If you have a panel at the bottom of the screen, remove that as well.

ubuntu - add to panel
Adding an applet to the panel
ubuntu - delete this panel
Deleting the lower panel

Finally, reboot the system and voilà! The look of the old Ubuntu Netbook Remix is back!

ubuntu - netbook look and feel
Ubuntu Netbook Look and Feel Restored!
ubuntu - netbook look - with windows open
Maximus and the window picker app keep things organized on small screens

I really like the netbook interface – I think it’s the best fit for netbooks, especially not-very-powerful ones like mine. The maximus package keeps windows from having a title bar (it gets merged into the panel at the top, where the window-picker-applet takes care of showing you the app’s name and giving you a close button) and of course keeps windows maximized all the time (which is the only way you’d ever want them to be on a netbook’s small screen). Plus, the netbook launcher is just great for launching the few programs you use on a netbook. The icons are huge and easy to click when using a little touchpad, and the graphics are smooth but not overdone.

Screenshot of Ubuntu on a Netbook
Ubuntu with these netbook changes on my little netbook

It’s worth mentioning that during my experimentation, I tried out a few other options, including some different distributions that claimed to be good for netbooks. One distribution I found called “EasyPeasy” was based on Ubuntu and was basically the classic “Netbook Remix” that I remember. However, it seems to lag behind Ubuntu in terms of releases – it was still using Firefox 3 for example. Still, if you’re just getting a new netbook, you might want to try EasyPeasy from the start, as it comes “out of the box” with the netbook look & feel.

However, if you want to stick with the Ubuntu you know and love, these steps will bring back that classic Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface, just the way you remember it.

(Update: if you’re using Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot, I’ve got some extra steps for you here that should do the trick.)

I Love Living in the Future

We are living in the future, and it is awesome!

Sometimes I have to just stop and be amazed at the things we can do these days – things that would have seemed like futuristic science fiction when I was a kid (or even when I was in college).

For example, just this weekend I was doing some cleaning around the house (cleaning up the bunnies area) and I wanted to have some relaxing, chillout music on while I worked.

For me, the easiest way to accomplish this was to boot up my netbook, hook it into my livingroom stereo (via the same cable I use to hook up my iPod), and just play some streaming music from Shoutcast (the Digitally Imported Chillout Dreams stream, to be exact).

So that is exactly what I did.

netbook + wifi + streaming radio + home stereo = awesome

Simple, easy, and straightforward – and it doesn’t take a whole bunch of complicated steps to get going, nor does it take very long (just long enough for my netbook to boot up – which is pretty fast – and to load the radio stream).

It is just amazing to me that this little computer can sit there, pulling music literally from thin air. And of course, the fact that streaming Internet radio gives me an almost unlimited library of music to pull from doesn’t hurt, either.

Now, while this was pretty darned cool, it did make me think of something that was… not so cool.

I have a Windows Media Center Extender right there, just to the right of the Wii in the picture. And the whole point of the Media Center Extender is to do exactly this sort of thing. So why wasn’t I using it?

Well, the short answer is because it’s too slow, too hard, and it doesn’t work with the streaming radio stations I like. The Media Center Extender takes a long time to boot up (longer than my netbook), the interface is slow and clunky, the remote control is awful, trying to enter text is an exercise in frustration, and getting streaming radio to work on it is… well let’s just say “not easy” and leave it at that. You need to add special add-ins to the Media Center PC (not the Extender), which of course must be downloaded, installed, set up in advance, etc. In the end, it’s just not worth the effort.

(In it’s defense, I don’t think the Media Center Extender was ever meant to work with streaming radio from the Internet – it was meant to stream music from a local Media Center PC instead… but really, if it can do that, it should be able to do both. But I digress…)

Anyway, despite the failings of the Windows Media Center Extender, listening to streaming music in my home while I clean is pretty darned neat.

The future is pretty awesome. I love living in the future!

Acer Aspire One: Life So Far

Taking a look at the Acer Aspire One D150 after living with it for a few weeks – and the verdict is good!

I’ve been living with my new Acer Aspire One D150 netbook for a while now, and now that I’ve actually used it for a bit, I have some observations to make.

First, let me say that using this netbook with Ubuntu Netbook Remix is awesome. The UI is like something out of science fiction, and even from a cold boot it starts up way faster than Windows does. However, there have been a few glitches.

First was the built-in microphone – it just didn’t work for some reason. Fortunately, the support community for Ubuntu is freakin’ huge, so I was able to track down an answer fairly easily – I just needed to upgrade to the latest ASLA drivers for the sound card.

It’s worth noting, however, that Acer themselves doesn’t exactly help with troubleshooting problems with these netbooks. The actual model number for my netbook is D150-1577. If you can figure out what that all means, then you’re cleverer than I am. I figure the “D” stands for the fact that this is a disk-drive based model (as opposed to a solid-state drive), but the rest of it is a bit of a mystery to me. The “D150” bit seems to be the general model, with the 1577 saying something about what specific revision of that model it is. But I’m guessing here – it might be something else; who knows?

The problem is that these different model numbers (and there are a lot of them) actually do mean that the computer underneath is different – different sound card, different wireless chipset, and so forth. So when there’s a problem, it might be with certain models – or it might be a similar problem on different models, but what works for one person with one particular model might not work for you, with a slightly different model. Whether this is true of other brands of netbooks I don’t know, but it’s certainly true of the Acer Aspire One netbooks.

That aside, this really is a sweet little machine. The  keyboard is easy for me to type on (I’m actually writing this article on my netbook, and my typing speed is not appreciably affected by the slightly smaller keys) and the touchpad, although small, is easy enough to use. The touchpad button is one button with two “ends” that you click on, so it’s not quite as easy to click as two distinct buttons would be, but it’s not hard to use, either. Most laptop buttons are rubbish anyway, in my opinion – your mileage, of course, may vary.

The truly AWESOME look of Ubuntu Netbook Remix
The truly AWESOME look of Ubuntu Netbook Remix

The advertised battery life of around 5 hours is right on the money – I’ve gotten very consistently that sort of life from it, with the wireless turned on all the time. And it is so lightweight – just under 3 pounds with the 6-cell battery – that you hardly even notice it’s on your lap.

Of course, all the glowing things I’ve had to say about this netbook stem from the fact that I’ve been using it under Ubuntu, not Windows. In fact, I’ve hardly ever switched over to the Windows installation I left on it, except to play a game of Alpha Centauri with my wife this past weekend.

Ubuntu really is a great replacement for Windows – it was incredibly easy to install (and it even kept the original Windows installation on hand for me, in case I need it for anything). In fact, installing Ubuntu was even easier than installing Windows (and I’ve installed Windows more than a few times over the years). It boots up fast, everything works (with the one exception of the microphone) and it’s just great to use. And having a huge repository of really excellent (and free!) software readily at hand is a great bonus, too!

All-in-all, you really can’t go wrong with the combination of the Acer Aspire One and Ubuntu Netbook Remix. Of course, if you’re in the market for a netbook, I strongly urge you to try out the keyboard on several different models if you can – given that most netbooks have pretty much identical specs (CPU, RAM, hard drive space) these days, the comfort of the keyboard and the touchpad will probably be the biggest deciding factors for most people (well, that and price of course!). Fortunately, Ubuntu Netbook Remix runs just fine on almost all of the major tier-one netbooks, so you can take your pick, and then combine whichever one you choose with what is quite possibly the sweetest OS for netbooks out there today.

You really won’t be disappointed!