I bought my first Linux computer last month, a tiny ASUS "netbook" that cost about $200. I had multiple reasons for the purchase, the most important of which was to understand the current state of the Linux software market. Prompting this interest were a number of factors: Google's announcement of its Chrome operating system, my avid dislike of Windows Vista, and Apple's reluctance to offer a notebook that costs under $999.
My interest as a video producer, of course, was purely academic-I don't expect that Adobe or Apple will release a Linux version of their production suites anytime soon. As a journalist and blogger, however, I had already bought a Windows-based netbook in 2008, primarily because I had about 30 hours of travel lined up for the fall. My 17" HP Compaq 8710p is a workstation-class notebook, which works great in hotel rooms and presentation halls, but it is impossible to open in coach. I figured that the productivity enabled by a netbook would pay for the device in a matter of months, and it sure did.
My first netbook was an Acer Aspire One with a 1.6gHz Intel Atom CPU and with 1GB of RAM, a 144GB hard disk, and an 8.9" 1024x600 screen, which was about the same size as the Toshiba T1200 I used back in the late '80s. I was going to buy an HP netbook, but that came with Vista. When I found out that I could get the Aspire with XP, that sealed the deal.
Later in the year, I made the mistake of loaning the Aspire One to my wife, and it then became the community computer that hangs out in the TV room for browsing, games, email, and the like. I have one daughter who breaks consumer electronic devices simply by being in their proximity, so I figured the hard-drive-based netbook was not long for this world.
Around the same time, Google announced its Chrome operating system, which some commentators called a "death blow" to Microsoft. Then came the Buy.com pitch for the $200 Linux netbook configured with an infinitely more durable 20GB solid-state drive. With another 30 hours of travel staring me in the face this fall, I had to do something to preserve my Aspire One. I took the plunge.
As you would expect, I had lots of questions going in, primarily around software. How would I navigate around the interface? What would I use for a browser and email? What about word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations? Would the Linux-based computer be compatible with the gaming sites my kids often visited, or with ESPN's site for that matter? How easy would the software be to use, and would there be an OS learning curve related to common activities such as saving and retrieving files or shutting down applications that crashed or locked up? In almost all respects, I've been pleasantly surprised. The first thing you see when you boot the computer is a six-tabbed interface with Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings, and Favorites tabs. Click on Web in the Internet tab and Firefox opens. The computer instantly connected with my home-based wireless LAN and was on the internet in moments.
Click the Work tab and you see a suite of OpenOffice.org tools that mimic Microsoft Office's functionality, including Documents, Spreadsheets, Presentations, and File Manager. The first two look and act just like their Office counterparts, right to the Word Count functionality accessible from the Tools category in the main menu. One night, my daughter completed a report in Documents, saved it as a .doc file, and emailed it to me to print. The document opened up in Word perfectly and printed normally on my HP LaserJet.
Tab three is Learn, with a broad range of games such as Typing, where you learn to touch-type in a Space Invaders-style scenario where you stop a dropping letter by typing it. The Play tab has games, along with a very basic media player, as well as music, photo, and video managers, webcam software, and a sound recorder. The fifth tab, Settings, contains date and time configuration, disk utilities and diagnostic tools, and hardware configuration applets. The final tab is Favorites, where you can drag your favorite apps for easy access.
Basic usability is fabulous; my wife and kids have no trouble navigating around and finding the applets that they need. I had no trouble getting the computer configured, closing crashed applications, or transferring files around. Dig below the surface and things can get drecky fast, however. For example, to install Firefox 3.5, I had to open a terminal window and unzip the .tar package, which didn't go too smoothly. To be fair, I've also had to open occasional terminal windows to uninstall programs on the Mac and periodic DOS windows on the PC too.
Overall, the point of this exercise was to see how real this Linux stuff is, and for general-purpose, day-to-day computing, it's pretty real. While I don't think it's an immediate threat to either Microsoft or Apple, it's a lot closer than it used to be. I'm hoping that Microsoft took that into account when planning its recovery from the Vista debacle, and that Apple factors it into its low-end notebook product plans. It's pretty interesting that I got a solid, reasonably functional netbook computer for just a few dollars more than an iPod Touch.
Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a contributing editor to EventDV and Streaming Media.