Nicolas Alpi, Web developer

A blog about productivity, startups and me.

Netbook for Webdevelopers

I leaved HP 2 days ago, and in the same time I had to give back my laptop. This laptop was nice, powerful, but a bit heavy for my use (nearly 3 Kg).

I’m now moving into a full time freelancing position, for the first month I’ll start with a contract where I’ll work in the Jiva office. So I’ll need to carry my laptop everyday on my bike. But I also like to have a beer outside in the evening, so I’ll again carry my laptop everywhere with me. When I said carrying I mean on my bike, as it’s now becoming my principal mode of transportation.

I also like to have my 2.5" external hard drive with me, and sometime an external mouse.

At home and office, I’ll always have a second monitor + keyboard + mouse.

Looking for something to start with, for less than £ 400, I had 2 options :

  1. A cheap laptop, with a dual core processor, 15.4" display (1280×800) and would weight around 3Kg
  2. Looking around these crazy netbooks, with a weight less than 1.5 Kg, but will have a cheap ATOM processor

What do I REALLY need

Yes, that would be lovely to have a spaceship controller computer, but if I don’t need the its power, why would I spend a fortune.
So my question was, why do I really need?

First this is a secret for nobody, I’m a Linux guy, and would not consider having an Apple laptop. So all the Mac range is out.
Secondly, even if I spend all day on my computer, it’s for doing the same thing, web development!
So what to I do everyday, what software I use with my laptop

  1. Web development, conding on Gedit or Vim, services open apache/mysql/postgresql/passenger …
  2. Email (Gnome Evolution), Internet (Firefox, Opera, Chromium)
  3. While I code, I love listening to music in my headphones (using Banshee)
  4. Bluetooth / Wifi

I’ll sometime look at some videos, doing a bit of design with the GIMP, using Skype. Rarely play any games.
I never do any videos montage, music montage or anything like that.

So basically, I just need a text editor, 3 terminals, a music player and an internet browser. Playing time to time a Battle for Wesnoth.

I started looking during holidays for laptop/netbook benchmarks, and I already have an ACER ASPIRE ONE, with an ATOM N270 processor and a 8.9" screen. So I did reinstall it from scratch and installed everything I need for developing. The poor ATOM processor wasn’t able to cope with GEDIT + Banshee + Firefox all in one time, and was really struggling to give a smooth experience. So the ATOM processor was out for me.

The rare pearl

e1312 medion akoya

e1312

I found it in ALDI (I know it’s strange, but in the UK they are the only MEDION resellers). Medion, is a German brand, quite known in France. They sell cheap electronic stuff, usually good value.

So I found the Medion Akoya E1312 for £339 in ALDI with very good specs :

  • AMD Sempron U 210 (1.5 GHz) processor
  • 1 Go ram
  • 11.6" screen (1366×768)
  • ATI Radeon XPRESS 1250 3D card
  • Wifi n
  • External HDMI and VGA
  • 1.4 Kg with battery
  • 3 Years warranty
  • 30 Days money back
  • Windows licence
  • Full size keyboard, with real Home/PgUp/PgDown/End touch (not the FN + combination)

Was really promising, so I decided to give it a try, and using it from a few days, test it during the 48 Hours of the Rails Rumble competition to see how it can cope with an extensive use. If it doesn’t pass the test, I’ll use the 30 days money back to return it.

My Verdict

The pros
This netbook is just awesome. While it was on windows I tried the 3D card with trackmania nation, and the game just run smoothly. 720P HD video are perfect in full screen.
The keyboard is ok for little bit of work on the move, touch are quite big, so that’s good for my fingers, real Home / End and PgUp/PgDn touches are a plus.
The 1368×768 resolution is a really plus on this screen, the colour rendering is very good.

I had some problem for the Ubuntu Linux installation (see bellow) but now it’s all ok. Before the Rails Rumble I upgraded it to 2 Gig ram, and the computer did the 2 days without any restart, even if, in the average I had, 6 used workspaces, 2 Firefox instances, each with more than 10 tabs, 2 Gedit instances, 3 terminals, the GIMP, banshee + streaming radio music, all open at the same time, everything was running smoothly, and the heat generated by the processor was ok.
The suspend and hibernate are working out of the box under Linux.
The power cable has a little on/off button, really smart when you switch off for the night.
No paper inside the machine, so you can open it without breaking the warranty!.

The cons

I had to change the Wifi card for one with better drivers under Linux (but should be fixed soon in future kernel).
The 6 cells battery will give you (Wifi + Internet/Dev) a max of 2H45 under linux. But an optional 9 cells battery cost less than £ 70. The eco and the plane button help you to find the best option to keep the battery running.

So ?

I used this laptop for the Rails Rumble, without external monitor! I wanted to give it a heavy try, and give it back if any problems appears.
Finally the 48 Hours went really good, no headache, no particular problem with the machine.
So, my verdict is, if you are looking a machine to use on the go, or as a cheap development station, go for this machine, at £339, it’s really a bargain.
The screen resolution made it really usable, the Sempron processor is powerful enough when it’s it’s time to multitasking, and the 1,4 Kg (with battery) are wonderful in a laptop bag.

I’ve found a video with a test (under windows XP) with HD videos and 3D games. But it’s in German.

Linux tricks for the Medion E1312

1. 3D drivers

My trick would be to WAIT!. ATI dropped support for this range of 3D card, and they stopped working with the current version of Xorg. But they open the specifications so the open source driver developers are working on an open source implementation of it.
I tried multiple thing to install the 3D drivers, one was to downgrade Xorg to a previous version. Was working quite well, and the 3D drivers made every single game I tested working smoothly. But I had multiple problems regarding the downgrade to, my trick, would be waiting for Karmic and the new Radeon HD drivers with full 3D support (Available in the lastet git branch).

2. Wifi

Hum, I had to use Ndiswrapper to have my card working. But was unable to connect to a WPA2 network. I just changed the card for another Half size mini pci one. Works now like a charm.

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