Help me find my ideal subnotebook (if it exists...)
November 18, 2008 4:57 PM   Subscribe

I need some help picking a new laptop to replace my current laptop (early-2008 MacBook), as it no longer suits my needs. Full details inside.

I've been using an early-2008 MacBook (last of the BlackBooks) for the past couple months, and for the most part it's been great.

That said, I'm finding that I need more portability than the MacBook offers (the MacBook's fairly heavy), so I'm looking for a subnotebook/smallish notebook to replace it. I've also decided to start transitioning away from OS X to Linux (which I used for several years prior to OS X).

Here's a list of criteria for my new notebook along with the relative importance:
  • Long battery life (4 hours or greater.) Preferably using stock battery, but will use aftermarket or extended battery if necessary. Importance: 5/5
  • Full hardware support under Linux. Any distro is fine (barring Gentoo). And I do mean full hardware support -- that includes things like suspend-to-RAM, suspend-to-disk, all audio features (including IO jacks), etc. Doesn't have to be out of the box support, but I don't want to have to piece together a bunch of hacks that "usually work". I'm willing to spend a couple coffee-fueled nights getting everything set up, but the end result needs to be reliable and fully functional. Importance: 5/5
  • Lightweight. The lighter the better. Importance: 5/5 (less than 3 lbs), 4/5 (less than 2.5 lbs)
  • 802.11b/g. Importance: mandatory.
  • Usable screen size. IMHO, the Asus eee 701's screen is way too small to be usable. A 9 or 10 inch screen would be fine. Importance: 3/5
  • Usable keyboard. This is subjective, I realize, but for comparison's sake I should point out that I am completely incapable of typing a single word without mistakes on the 701's keyboard. I'm happy to try out a machine in person, so this isn't a deal-breaker for a recommendation. Importance: 2/5
  • SSD. Would be nice. Not necessary (provided the normal-sized disk isn't dog slow...). I can always add one later if the HD is replaceable. Importance: 2/5
  • SD slot. I'd like to be able to use SD cards for extra storage. I can always use an external drive, but I think SD/SDHC might be a bit more elegant. Importance: 1/5
  • Cost. $1000 or less. I looked at the ThinkPad X300 and X61s, but they ended up being too expensive for me, given that they didn't have solid Linux support. If they did, I would have bought one, as I'm happy to pay a fair bit for a good Linux notebook. How the laptop meets the $1000 or less price point doesn't matter -- if I have to write to a man in Estonia to request a magical coupon that will get me a gift certificate for 15% off when I purchase the machine on eBay on a Tuesday, so be it. Importance: 4/5
  • Durable. I'm fairly careful with my electronics, but since I'm often on the go, accidents sometimes happen. The ideal notebook should be able to survive a fall from a chair or desk to the floor (when closed) with no ill effects. It at least needs to be able to deal with the usual impacts that come from using your notebook in 5-10 different locations each day. Obviously this requirement is one of the "more is better" ones... Importance: 5/5
So that's my nitpicky list. :D Hopefully somebody knows of a subnotebook that fits these criteria. If not... well, any recommendations would be appreciated. I'm not _that_ hard-headed, so if my dream subnotebook doesn't exist, I'm open to other recommendations.

posted by -1 to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
MSI Wind? You'd need to install the SSD yourself, and wireless support on Ubuntu is a little hacky, but there's a SUSE option when you order.
posted by holgate at 5:19 PM on November 18, 2008


The only thing I am not sure about is Linux. Also, do some research in the CPP program and I am almost certain you will be able to get it for under $1k. I love mine.
posted by demon666 at 5:46 PM on November 18, 2008

Seconding the MSI Wind. In that article that holgate links to be sure to read the more nuanced article comments where they say that SSDs vary so much in performance that you can't really judge about SSDs as a whole. Some of Intel's SSDs for example are very, very, fast.
posted by holloway at 5:54 PM on November 18, 2008

I think the Wind has the same tiny screen as the EEE. The Wind's is 1024x600. You've made it hard by asking for light (under 3 lbs) and with a real screen. Add in full linux hardware support (tough even on the best choices) and you may have have wished yourself out of reality. Even the Wind's relatively bog-standard hardware has linux limits.

I do really like my Wind though. But the stock 3 cell battery doesn't come anywhere close to 5 hours. I get 2 if I'm lucky.
posted by chairface at 8:10 PM on November 18, 2008

Why don't you get a 900 or 1000 series EEE? (9- and 10-screens, respectively).

In my opinion the keyboard is unusable on even the 900 series, but they might work for you if you can find one to try out (the ones I saw at Target had a plexiglass plate bolted over the keyboard, lame). If not, the keyboard on the 1000 series should be fine with a short adjustment period, as it's 95% of the standard size.

I just pulled up this one first of the list searching for EEE and it seems to have everything you want except that it's a 3.19lbs: EEE 1000H. I can't tell whether it comes preloaded with Linux or not.

The s101 is the same basic package in a much slimmer form factor, it's under 2.4 lbs but I didn't see anything about a SD slot. There are simple little USB dongles for that.
posted by moift at 8:34 PM on November 18, 2008

Have you browsed the Lilliputing Product Database? It's a good way to compare subnotebooks.
posted by PueExMachina at 9:07 PM on November 18, 2008

Very ungeeky, non-technical opinion: I pick up and fondle every subnotebook I find stores, and so far the Acer Aspire One is the only non-"cheap" feeling model I've found. The keyboard feels real, non-toylike, and the overall case/construction/finish is just much more polished and solid-feeling.

Specs? No idea. :)
posted by rokusan at 9:35 PM on November 18, 2008

I got an Aspire One A110L (the 8GB SSD one with Linux) a couple of months ago, and since then I've been using it almost exclusively over my previous $500 "budget" laptop. Thoughts:
  • I'm using the stock 3-cell battery, so the battery life isn't very good (a little over two hours) but the higher-end versions come with a 6-cell version, which should roughly double that.
  • The screen is the typical 1024x600, 9". It's high enough DPI that it doesn't bother me, but it does require a bit more vertical scrolling than I'm used to.
  • The whole notebook weighs just under 1kg, which is below the point where I even notice it -- it's lighter than any of my textbooks.
  • Thanks to the SSD and no-moving-parts design, it has to be the toughest computer I've ever owned. Back in October I accidentally dropped it 6 feet onto a linoleum floor while open and running, and it survived without a scratch. On the other hand, it means I'm stuck with a tiny filesystem and slow write speed (less than 4MB/s sustained).
  • The keyboard is hard to quantify. I have reasonably small fingers, and after a couple days I was completely comfortable with it. Minor nitpick: the Home and End keys require a Fn key combo, which is irritating until it becomes automatic.
  • The Linux versions come with a mostly locked down "Linpus" distribution derived from an old version of Fedora, but I've been using Arch Linux with only a couple minor glitches, which were mostly resolved by some patient tweaking. Wifi, RAM suspend, audio and webcam all worked with no hassle. The only thing I haven't yet gotten working is the Ethernet port, which must be possible since it works with Linpus.
  • Way below your price limit -- Amazon has them on sale for $300.
So there are a few downsides, but overall I'm extremely happy with mine. Good luck with your search!
posted by teraflop at 10:34 PM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

EmperorLinux sells Lenovo x-series with linux on them - they say they are "fully functional" and have "full hardware support".
posted by JonB at 11:39 PM on November 18, 2008

Best answer: I bought an X60 (Core Duo 1.8 ghz) for $400 on ebay, and I'm very happy with it, but it's a crap shoot for sure. I used this to get a good discount (anything Buy-It-Now on ebay!).
posted by alexei at 12:31 AM on November 19, 2008

Response by poster: I took a look at the EmperorLinux laptops, but unfortunately they're way out of my price range. I can find the X61s and X300 for close to my price range via various coupons on Lenovo's site and cashback deals on eBay, but from what I've read Linux support is not quite flawless (ALSA doesn't "just work", there are regressions with newer kernels, etc.)

The Aspire One A110L looks interesting. I'll check it out (the durability appeals to me), but if the SSD is really that slow I may have to forgo it (or upgrade it.)

So far the ASUS Eee PC S101 looks the most promising. From what I've read the battery life is excellent, but some people complain about the keyboard. I'll try to find one in person and see if it's usable.

Thanks for the recommendations thus far. As always, Metafilter has proved an excellent resource.
posted by -1 at 3:16 AM on November 19, 2008

Response by poster: I just realized that EmperorLinux distributes the source for their custom kernels. This may be a useful asset if I do end up getting a Thinkpad...
posted by -1 at 3:20 AM on November 19, 2008

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