Having a play with the HP mini-note

You might have read here my post on the rumours of the HP 2133 Mini-note. About a month ago I managed to coerce one of the first 5 in Australia from the hands of the HP sales team here in Sydney. Because I didn’t want to annoy them and destroy the supplied Vista installation, I was limited to how much testing I could do with Linux on this. We did setup an 2GB SD card with Ubuntu that worked quite well. Certainly the Ubuntu desktop was a lot smoother in terms of performance than Vista. I also had a go with the SuSE image that comes with the Mini-note, though didn’t want to let it install to the hard disk. Again it ran quite well.

As far as a mobile device you can actually use it is way up there. The keyboard is really as big and useful as they claim, certainly better than some of the competition. Having a full aluminium shell makes it feel very solid, and should standup to everyday knocks and just shoving it into a bag – its main target market is college and school students, so it needs to hand. The screen is very clear – but of course being only 9″ diagonal wide-screen, I’m not sure I could use it as my main screen every day – the VGA port would definitely be made use of.

I took it along to the monthly SLUG meeting and follow-on dinner to give it an informal spruik. It provoked quite an interest and envy – I expect it might make a few people’s wish list. Unfortunately I had to give this one back. I think it is quite likely this form-factor is on the rise, particular as performance actually becomes useful, and battery life allows one to work on the road (though at the moment a spare battery is a necessity to cover a full working day). There is only so much you can do with a PDA or a Smartphone – a ultra-mobile mini-notebook with good networkability and running a nicely integrated version of Linux may well “make it”.

The photo below show it running Ubuntu next to my regular laptop (with a 15.1″ 4:3 screen).

HP 2133 next to nc6320

HP’s incy-wincy-little notebook

HP 2133
Well it seems the rumours were right – HP have launched their EEEpc competitor, the HP 2133 Mini Note PC. (OK, they are my employer, and yes I have been looking at some of the internal info for some weeks). It is definitely being marketed at the education market, but clearly any user with a need for a proper PC and wants absolutely minimum weight will clearly like this.
It is very cool that one of the standard options (in fact the cheapest) is to purchase it with SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop installed. I am wondering whether it will be a standard SLED install or have a mobile UI similar to what Asus did with Xandros on their baby laptop. I will certainly be keen to see this running with SLED (though I am sure we can shoe-horn Ubuntu onto it). This option also comes sans hard disk (it will have 4GB flash instead) so I expect it will have better battery life than the standard Vista version with the spinning disk.
If I do get to have a play on one, I’ll let you know what I think.

OLPC spruiking

As soon as people found out I had an OLPC XO it seemed I became flavour of the month. – they all wanted to see it. My first engagement was the monthly talk at SLUG. I prepared 15 slides for a presentation that introduced the mission of the project, a few photos from a pilot in Nigeria, and a walkthrough of the hardware and software components. I then did a demo using the Build 385 qemu image as well as the XO itself. Anyway I got a lot of interaction, and lots of people wanting to have a play. Most were pretty supportive of the project. One though didn’t think they would last very long and would soon be wrecked by the kids not knowing the value of that. While I didn’t think that rang true, I didn’t have much to back my defence at the time.

That changed today however. A while ago I volunteered to spend some time on the Linux Australia stand at CeBIT. Anyway, as I now had an XO I was encouraged to bring that along. Here it also got a lot of interest. Quite a few people had heard of the project, but there still was a lot that hadn’t. What was really funny was that every second person wanted to know what happened the wind-up handle! (Which of course, disappeared from the design when it was found that it put too much stress on the unit, and also was difficult for young kids to use). I
managed to pretty well talk myself hoarse – I certainly enjoyed the spruiking.

What also was very encouraging was talking to a Nigerian fellow who currently lives in New Zealand. I queried him about the concept that the kids would wreck the machines. He said it would be absolutely the opposite! These kids would guard their machines with the life – particular if they have little else of value. He spoke of seeing kids that had exercise books that they would write on school with a pencil. Then, when the term or subject was finished they would diligently erase their writing eventually resulting in books almost worn thin. So I really do think in general they would be well looked after.

My 3rd engagement should be a little more laid back — to the smaller gathering at this month’s SCLUG meeting.

A surprise in the mail

I received an email just before Easter that was a bit of a surprise. It was from laptop.org asking for my postal address. It said that they wanted to send me an XO! I’d nearly forgotten about the submission I wrote during LCA to the OLPC developers list. Jim Gettys encouraged those that thought they might be able to contribute practically to the project to write a submission. Three were given away at the conference.

Anyway, I feel pretty privileged to have received one about 2 weeks ago. Jeremy certainly has been pretty enthusiastic about it. It might even inspire to him to learn Python – most of the applications (called “activities” on the OLPC platform) are written in Python – at least as the glue to talk between the user interface and any hard-core logic.

There has certainly been a lot of thought put into the OLPC to bring it this far. As almost everyone has said, the screen is quite brilliant. Being LED backlit for darker rooms, and being able also be used without backlight in bright sunlight is, well brilliant. Having a built-in camera is quite important as well. They have a dual mode touchpad/graphics tablet that allows normal mouse cursor movement to be controlled with the finger, but also allows absolute drawing and tracing using a stylus (you have to fashion your own) on a larger tablet.

I have spent a fair bit of time understanding how the software is put together. While it is basically built from Fedora, I understand that a lot of things have been done to conserve power. It performs admirably well for having a 433MHz CPU, 128MB RAM and no swap. I have learned a little about how Sugar activities are packaged into bundles. I even loaded up a HelloWorld.Activity. The production XOs look like they are going to have the faster and less battery-hungry Geode LX (rather than the GX) as well as double the RAM.

I’m very keen to my family contribute to how it can be used to foster music amongst the kids that will use OLPC. Tamtam is a great application already – I would like to see how it can be better used for teaching music fundamentals. (Of which I only know a little – hence my very musical family are going to have to help me out.)

A colleague of mine who has quite a few OLPCs, mainly for testing the wireless stuff out, told of the absolutely clever analog input port the OLPC has. Not content with a regular AC microphone input, it can be configured in two other modes. One is a straight DC input that can measure between 0 and 3VDC. I immediately thought of kids in Africa being able to hack electronics together from old radios and the like and using the OLPC as a simple oscilloscope or voltmeter. The other analog input puts 2.5V and allows you to measure across this. This means a simple potentiometer can be read. Great for all sorts of science experiments, but also a good way of providing another interface to control the Tamtam musical instruments.

Unfortunately I have been all too busy to do much with it. Anyway it looks like I’m going to have to be a bit of an unofficial local ambassador for the project. As soon as I mentioned to SCLUG that I had one, they wanted me to speak at the next meeting. And I let it drop to the SLUG president as well, so he has asked me to speak at their next meeting.

Oh, and I am writing this post with my OLPC XO of course!

LCA2007 – End of Day 2

We have had a pretty good 2 days so far at LCA. As I expected, I flittered between the Virtualisation, Gnome and Debian mini-confs. I learned a lot from Jon Oxer’s talk on Xen Image Manager. Probably most interesting was learning about recent glue tools such as ATA over Ethernet ( a poor man’s iSCSI), drbd ( A Network RAID-1) and Unison (a better rsync). Anyway it certainly has some good ideas for building reasonably sophisticated data centres on a budget.

We also heard a little about the OLPC project from Chris Blizzard’s keynote – and catching up with James Cameron at morning tea meant that we could actually have closeup look at the one he has been testing in the bush. olpc

At lunch I was able take a ride on Geoffrey Bennett’s open source segway clone.


Jono Bacon exemplified the value of open source development, talking about the audio editor Jokosher that spawned as a result of the need to fill a niche for a multi-track editor that mortals could use.

Anyway a pretty good days so far!