Asus 1008HA clamshell netbook review

The Asus 1008HA Eee PC netbook is one of the sleekest netbooks on the market.  I first previewed the Asus 1008HA “clamshell” in June, and I called it an inexpensive miniature MacBook Air.  The 1008HA comes with your slightly enhanced Intel Atom N280 processor, Intel GMA950 chipset, 1 GB RAM, 160 GB 2.5″ hard drive, Bluetooth, 802.11n and 10/100 Ethernet, SDHC flash slot, 10.1″ LCD screen, and Windows XP.  Street price for the Asus 1008HA is in the range slightly north of $400.

For this particular review, I’m not going to get into the performance aspect of this netbook in terms of video playback capability since it’s identical to the Asus 1000HE.  I explain in detail how well a netbook with this type of CPU and chipset configuration works in this Asus 1000HE review.

The good

The size, shape, and weight of the clamshell netbook was simply amazing.  It’s something you can just toss into a backpack or purse and it doesn’t even feel like you’re hauling a laptop around.  There are no breaks in the contour and even the Ethernet port uses a collapsible opening to follow the flow of the clamshell.  Even the power port is tiny so that it doesn’t ruin the contour.  For a netbook this light with a small and light battery, I was shocked that it was still possible to achieve nearly 6 hours of web surfing over Wi-Fi.  It’s one thing to achieve 6 hours with a bulging heavy battery, getting it in such a light weight form factor is a great engineering achievement.  The edge to edge keyboard is almost full size and they actually give you a full size right shift key (though I’ve long trained myself to only use the left shift).  The slight keyboard flexing problem I noted in my Asus 1000HE review doesn’t affect the 1008HA keyboard and it is fairly easy to type on.

The compromises

The beautiful clamshell design does pose some interesting compromises.  For one thing, there’s no immediate VGA port on the netbook because it’s too tall to fit into the side. What you do get is a dongle that connects to a miniature port hidden behind a contour cover on the side that’s tucked away underneath the 1008HA.  It’s quite a clever design that makes it so that you won’t lose or forget the VGA dongle like you would on a MacBook Air, but it does take some delicate work hooking up the dongle and VGA cables.  This is why I can’t wait for the day that we can drop the DB-15 analog VGA port altogether for a simple small and consolidate audio/video HDMI port, and that trend seems to be happening already with some of the newest netbooks.

The other challenge of the clamshell is that just plugging in a headphone requires you to flip open the side panel and leave it open while you’re plugged in.  The power plug is so tiny that I’m sometimes afraid that I might bend or break the plug although it seems to be fairly sturdy so long as you handle it with finesse.

The bad

Every product has bad points, and the Asus 1008HA is no exception.  But what kills me is that every netbook and even some notebook makers are doing the same thing.  For one thing, the glossy screen just makes it hard to see in a brightly lit room or one with many windows.  I know this is the trend these days, but the Asus 1000HE had an absolutely gorgeous screen with almost no glare.  Why the industry is hell bent on putting in a “feature” that might look nice and shiny when the netbook is turned off is beyond me.  I guess until consumers stop buying netbooks and notebooks with glossy screens altogether, our eyes will continue to be assaulted.  So for this reason alone, I would declare what I would otherwise consider a great product a bad buy.  I’m almost loathed to give any positive review of this netbook because I hate glossy screens that much.  It is possible to put a coating on the screen or an anti-glare sheet, but it’s still not as good as a screen that didn’t have the glossy surface to begin with.

The other show stopper for me is the single bar mouse button.  Reviewers and consumers alike almost universally hate this “feature”.  It’s almost as if some idiot product manager decided that they wanted to emulate the look of a single-button MacBook, but the fact that you can’t actually push down the middle of the button makes these trackpad buttons unusable.  There’s nothing more frustrating than pushing down the middle of the button only to find out that it’s not going anywhere.  The actual area you can push is only along the left and right edges of the bar.  The Asus 1000HE had it perfect and I don’t know why Asus felt it was necessary to ruin a good thing.

I don’t care much for the glossy body but that isn’t a show stopper for me.  But between the crappy mouse button and the blindingly glossy screen, it stopped me from buying a 1008HA.  So if you don’t like glossy screens and single bar seesaw buttons on the trackpad, this netbook is not for you.  Now I understand that Asus isn’t the only guilty party here and most other notebook makers are following some of these same nasty design principles.  All I’m saying is that I’m fed up with these bad design choices and you should be too.

The great battery life

The Asus 1008HA uses a non-modular lithium polymer battery that is molded to fit into the chassis to exploit every bit of space.  Most laptops use lithium ion batteries that are modular and quickly detachable, but lithium ion can’t be shaped as easily and they have to be cylindrically shaped which makes them bulkier.  More importantly, lithium ion has a much shorter life span and you can expect to lose around 7% of your battery capacity every year.  Lithium polymers cost more and they lack modularity, but they are more compact because they can take any shape.  Lithium polymer batteries also last twice as long as lithium ion which is probably good enough for the useful lifespan of the netbook.

The power consumption of the Asus 1008HA was surprisingly low.  I was able to achieve 5.82 hours while refreshing two websites every minute using a Wi-Fi connection and having the LCD set to 40% brightness.  With a 31 watt*hour battery divided by 5.82 hours, that translates to an average power draw of just 5.33 watts which is nothing short of amazing.  By comparison, this HP DV2 netbook based on an AMD Neo platform consumes 20.1 watts under a similar workload and similar LCD brightness which forces it to sacrafice significant battery life even while carrying a larger heavier battery.

Note: This 5.82 hour result comes in slightly short of Asus’ 6 hour advertising claim which shows that Asus is very honest with their battery life claims.  With the Wi-Fi off and LCD set to minimum brightness, I could achieve 8 hours of document editing or reading time which is a valid use case for business travelers on airplanes.  However, I think the more common usage scenario is Wi-Fi enabled web surfing and I think Asus’ claim of 6 hours not only meets legal requirements, but it matches user expectations.

For a netbook of this class with a standard Intel Atom N280 and GMA950 graphics chipset, it almost seems that Asus was able to drop the total power consumption by 25% when compared to other netbooks with the same CPU and chipset.  The Asus 1000HE which uses an identical CPU and chipset can drop down to around 5.5 watts while idling with the screen at minimum brightness.  The 1008HA somehow manages to drop power consumption down to 3.9 watts.  Even during standard definition DivX/XVID video playback with the LCD set to 40% brightness, I was able to achieve slightly over 4.5 hours which means the unit was drawing 6.9 watts of power on average.  I didn’t think that was possible to go that low until we got to the next generation Intel PineTrail-M platform.

Summary

  • Very good looking and desirable form factor with the exception of the bad glossy display and bad single bar mouse button.
  • Keyboard is very nice, possibly nicer than the Asus 1000HE because there is less keyboard flex.
  • Battery life was outstanding considering the small lightweight battery you’re carrying.  The Asus 1008HA is probably the smallest netbook you can find that gets close to 6 hours of honest to goodness usable battery life.
  • It performs like any other netbook with this type of hardware, and 720P video playback works fine so long as you’re using efficiently coded software.

Replaced lost cell phone with cheap Nokia 1661

nokia-1661-frontUpdate 11/9/2009 – Nokia is recalling the chargers sold with this phone made between June and August of this year for fear of electrocution!  You have to go to this site to exchange the charger.

I just picked up a new Nokia 1661 to replace my lost cell phone.  Unfortunately, I lost my Samsung Blast which was a nice slim phone and I had a 2GB memory card in it.  I’m 17 months into my contract, and I have to pay way too much money to get another phone from T-Mobile.  So I got a free SIM card instead and one of these pay-as-you-go phones.

The Nokia 1661 looks great, but the instructions are absolutely horrible on how to insert the SIM card. The way they make the slot look makes it very confusing, and even this online guide doesn’t show you how to plug the SIM in correctly.  The way it’s slotted makes it look like the SIM card needs to be slid down towards the middle of the phone, and that just doesn’t work.  Turns out you just push the SIM card towards the very top of slot towards the top of the phone rather than try to line up the SIM to where the groves makes it seem like it’s supposed to reside.

It seems like other people are trying to find the answer too so I’m posting this to help them out when they do a search.  Here’s a picture of how it should look after it’s fully inserted.

How to install a SIM into a Nokia 1661 cell phone
How to install a SIM into a Nokia 1661 cell phone

Here is an additional photo which has a higher resolution image you can click on.

The crapification of technology and products

This is a great story on wired.com on the “good enough revolution“.  To those of us who prefer quality, it will make you sad.  Here’s a real zinger though.

“Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford University, recently completed a six-year study of his students. Every year he asked new arrivals in his class to listen to the same musical excerpts played in a variety of digital formats—from standard MP3s to high-fidelity uncompressed files—and rate their preferences. Every year, he reports, more and more students preferred the sound of MP3s, particularly for rock music. They’ve grown accustomed to what Berger calls the percussive sizzle—aka distortion—found in compressed music. To them, that’s what music is supposed to sound like.”

OK, this is where I’m shaking my head and the music enthusiasts are rolling in their grave.  That twangy sound of a quick-and-dirty MP3 encoder always drove me nuts.  Now comes word that the youngsters heading into college have grown to actually prefer the sound of crappy encoding.  I suppose this isn’t all that different from the old timer’s preference to that old analog hiss, and it’s somewhat predictable.  Any kind of sound, even if it didn’t belong to the original sound effectively adds flavor to it and becomes part of the music.  So now if I prefer the sound of pure uncompressed 44.1 KHz 16-bit CD audio, or better yet 96 KHz 22-bit audio, then I must be an old fart.  I’m still shaking my head trying to wrap my fingers around that concept.

Why are people so wasteful with printers?

My wife just started going back to school again. Her teacher sent out a massive (100 or so slide) PowerPoint presentation. Get this… he told them to print it up and take notes in the margin. I am horrified. The only saving grace in this, is that I have a laser printer here. I can’t imagine what a student with an ink jet is supposed to do… spend $40 on ink every two weeks? To make matters worse, the teacher used a dark background. So not only is 90% of the surface area of each page 100% black (waste of toner/ink), but there is now no place to write the notes! I am going to tell my wife to print to OneNote next time, and take notes there. Either that, or I am unplugging the printer.

When I worked at the college computer lab, I would see this kind of thing all the time. The student who had to hit “Print” on every Web page they saw. The person who insisted on printing every time they made a minor change to a paper, even though they weren’t near handing it in yet. And so on. I see it in the business world too, but there is something magical about the world of academia that they seem to think that printing is both free and environmentally kind. It is neither, not by a long shot.

J.Ja

A rational discussion on the state of American broadband

I was getting tired of hearing all the exaggerated dire claims of how behind the U.S. is in terms of broadband deployment, so I wrote this article to put things into better perspective.  While there’s no question that improvement needs to be made, we need an accurate assessment of the current situation and we need realistic goals for where we want to go.

In response to some of the feedback, I’ve posted this updated discussion “We need to be reasonable about broadband usage caps

Blu-ray authoring becoming affordable

Just one and a half years after Blu-ray won the high definition format wars, authoring and reproducing content has finally become affordable.  Blank media now costs as little as $2.67 per single layer 25 GB blank, and Blu-ray burners cost as little as $160.  While that isn’t dirt cheap like DVD blanks and DVD burners, it has essentially crossed into the mainstream.  Blu-ray set-top box players now cost as little as $164 which is affordable and there’s a sufficiently large user base with PlayStation 3 consoles to make Blu-ray home movies or school recitals a reasonable possibility.  The price of the burners will likely settle below $100 and blanks will settle below $1 per blank within the next few years, but the prices are good enough to spur mainstream adoption.

On the video production and authoring front, you could use any current video editing suite to encode H.264 video optimized for Blu-ray, or you can even drag and drop an AVCHD video from your SDHC flash card into a standard data BD blank.  Ideally, the video source would be from a camera like the Canon 5D Mark II 1080P, but a consumer 1080P AVCHD or 1080i HDV camcorder should work OK when there’s sufficient light.  A Canon 500D (Rebel T1i) should provide some decent 1080P output at 20 FPS if you don’t mind an exaggerated low frame rate film look, but you always have the option of using 720P.

Now the question remains whether this is even worth the effort when it’s so easy to just look at a 2 Mbps video on YouTube or give someone an 8 Mbps AVI or MKV file on a flash drive or blank DVD.  That’s a tough question to answer because people seem to prefer convenience over quality. But as native 1080P LCDs get more common in homes, I think people will begin to appreciate the higher bit rates afforded by Blu-ray and distributing $2 blanks is still the most economical way of distributing high definition content.  A 16 GB SDHC flash card costs $27 which is totally impractical to give away compared to a $2.67 25 GB blank BD disk.  Moreover, optical media is a bit more permanent than flash media, and it’s a great way to back up all your home movies and pictures.

Peek, SMS and wireless email on the cheap

peek-prontoA product that has caught my eye since last year is the Peek Simply email device from Peek that gives you wireless email and SMS capability.  It’s an inexpensive device that costs $20 for the Classic model and $60 for the “Pronto” model more suitable to business users.  The Classic model gives you access to 2 email accounts and image viewing capability while the Pronto gives you access to 5 email accounts with image, DOC, and PDF viewing capability.

The Pronto also has Exchange compatibility and the email service is supposedly instant “push” email, but I called Peek to confirm that it’s a 90 second delay which probably means that Peek’s servers poll the POP3 or Exchange server every 90 seconds.  As for the Exchange “compatibility”, that’s for the inbox only and it grabs your mail by logging in to your company’s Outlook Web Access (OWA) server.  The sent email goes through Peek’s SMTP server which unfortunately means that mail sent from the Peek Pronto is not synchronized in the Exchange server.  Now if Peek can download email using your OWA account, there’s no reason they can’t send email using your OWA account so this might be something they might fix eventually.  Being able to sync on the inbox and sent folder is an absolute minimum requirement for me.  You can probably forget about any kind of calendaring compatibility and I doubt they download every message in your corporate inbox on your Exchange server.  You’re most likely not going to be able to search through your sent mails either so it effectively treats your Exchange server as a POP3 mail server.

While the screen is fairly large and detailed, you can’t surf the web because there is no web browser.  Besides, you’re only paying $15 to $20 a month (12 month or 1 month term) for the email- and SMS-only wireless service when full service wireless Internet usually costs $60 per month.

$15 per month is pretty cheap so it is an attractive service for people who want mobile email without buying an expensive smart phone and contract.  However, don’t even expect it to offer the same level of functionality as an iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, or Android phone.  It’s definitely good enough for SMS and consumer class email especially if you prefer carrying a plain old dumb phone that doesn’t crash and lasts days instead of hours.

The best cable TV tech ever

How many times have you wanted to wring the neck of an onsite technician, and ask him why he doesn’t know how to do more than read the meter and do the three things he was taught in his 30 minute training session? Probably most of the times you dealt with an onsite tech, if your luck is anything like mine. Thanks to budgetary constraints and “business reality”, companies prefer to take folks off the street, give them just enough training to read a meter or otherwise collect some information, and then look up in a book what the error codes mean. Today, I had a completely opposite experience, with a cable TV tech, no less.

I’ve been having some problems with my HD service from Time Warner. Sometimes most of the channels say “Cannot access this channel, please try again later” when I try to watch them. We’ve called into the office numerous times, they just reset the box (which takes 15 minutes) and that’s it. They decided to send a tech out to test the signal, even though a cable modem tech was here a few weeks ago doing the same. The technician that showed up, Michael, completely changed my impression of what a cable tech could be:

  • He called before showing up. This is insanely rare, as we all know, even when they are supposed to call before showing up.
  • He arrived precisely on time. I had a 1 – 3 service window, he was here a few minutes before 1.
  • He performed preventative maintenance that was not absolutely needed. He saw that my splitter outside was a bit corroded. Even though his meter showed signal strength well within the acceptable tolerances, he replaced the splitter anyways. Note that he checked the splitter in the first place; the cable modem tech from a few weeks ago did not do that.
  • He knew his stuff inside and out. Not only was he able to do his job, but he sat me down and told me about the ins-and-outs of how TV service gets delivered over the wire, and how it might be impacting my service. For example, he showed me how each channel is on a different frequency, and explained that they often change the frequencies to make room for new channels, but as they do that, the frequencies have less space between them and there is more chance for noise between frequencies to interfere with each other. He also explained that when they change those frequencies, if my cable box is not aware that it has changed, I could be having the symptoms I saw. He even explained (very well, I may add), how they multiplex some channels together on the same frequency, which causes problems. Finally, he made me feel reassured by letting me know that they were working on being able to use additional frequencies, which will allow them to stop the shuffling and keep more space between channels.
  • Learning non-core competancies. In my discussion with him, I learned that Michael is currently persuing a CCNA, even though it is completely irrelevant to his current job role, and from what I can tell, his management did not suggest it either.

Overall, Michael was an outstanding technician. I loved his attitude that he needs to learn more than what he “needs to know” in order to be the best tech possible. People like him are rare. In my experience, these are the people that make the best employees, regardless of their experience level. Every person that I hired with that attitude turned out to be a superstar employee. I wish Michael the best of luck, and I hope that Time Warner does the right thing and moves him to a department or role where he can continue to learn and grow.

J.Ja

“Inconceivable!”

I think we all remember the “Inconceivable!” routine from The Princess Bride. That’s about how I feel after the last few weeks. I have an extremely high end RAID controller in a box, a 20 port (16 internal, 4 external) device. It’s in a monster SuperMicro case, with 2 small drives for the OS, and 14 1 TB drives for storage. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been having a host of bizarre behavior, from the pair of new 2 TB drives magically disappearing and reappearing on the controller every 11 minutes (on the dot) to the system having LEDs and sirens as if there is a severe failure but the RAID controller software showing 100% optimal state. Update: Just to make it clear, we are (and have been) working with the vendor on this issue. When we find out precisely what the issue is, I’ll post a new item. Also, I forgot one angle of this when I first posted the story. These bizarre failings (not the two 2 TB drives, the other one) turned out to have been caused by (get this) bad sectors on the drives. But those drives (or the controller) are supposed to automatically handle and work around bad sector errors! And why would that kind of error blow out the RAID to the point where the controller is sounding alarms, but not to the point where the software is aware? “Inconceivable!”

Tonight took the cake, though. My on-site person deliberately broke the RAID. We had planned to do this; we wanted to take one of the mirrored drives and put it into our backup chassis to help diagnose a problem with the backup unit. One of my “Inconceivable!” moments two weeks ago, was when we wanted to move to the backup chassis, the system went into an endless reboot cycle, even though it worked fine a few months prior and hasn’t been touched since. The plan was simple: pull the drive, put one of our spares in, and let the RAID (it’s a RAID 1) sync. No big deal. Well, the system decides to BSOD, in a definite “Inconceivable!” moment. Let’s get this straight. A RAID controller that we paid $1,500 – $2,000 for (I can’t recall the number offhand) decides to panic so badly that the entire OS comes crashing down, over a simple hot swap of hard drives? Inconceivable!

After the reboot, users start complaining that they can’t get their email, so I get a call. Yet another “Inconceivable!” moment… I had just sat down at a restaurant to celebrate my wife’s birthday with about TWENTY friends and family. We look at the Exchange server (a VM on the machine that BSOD’ed). After some diagnoses, it looks like the Exchange databases managed to get corrupted and refuse to recover themselves. Once again… “Inconceivable!” I spent the entire dinner (including bathroom breaks, ordering, and eating) on the phone. My only break was when we ran some repairs that took a while, just long enough to have a few moments of conversation and sing Happy Birthday. I’m on the phone throughout the goodbyes. And of course, Thursday is the night when I usually do the food shopping. To make matters worse, I deliberately ran out of food this afternoon, so food shopping was not an option. Valuable troubleshooting time, and I need to be in the food store. On top of that, I can’t stay up all night and sleep in, because I’ve been watching our son in the morning as my wife has returned to work, and he wakes up  early. “Inconceivable!” So I must get this resolved before, say, midnight.

I eventually give up with my on-site guy, and resign myself to a very long night. My boss calls while I am in the food store, and he decides to give the recovery another try. See, the previous recovery attempts failed, with error codes that were not found on Google or Bing. “Inconceivable!” Well, the new recovery attempts all fail. At the last moment, we decide to try a different command line switch. The whole thing took an hour and a half, finished up (after fixing the corrupted database file), and after a restart of the Information Store service, Exchange is working just fine again.

So, to add up all of the “inconceivable” events:

  • The enterprise grade RAID controller wet its pants over a simple hot swap
  • A hard drive hot swap BSOD’ed Windows
  • A “power off” failure put the Exchange database in a state that it could not automatically recover from
  • This all happened on one of the three nights a year that I cannot be at my home office for, oh, four hours, and during the one three week period of the year that I can’t stay up all night and sleep during the day
  • None of the obvious recovery choices worked

Obviously, “Inconceivable” does not mean what I think it does!

J.Ja