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ultrabook or Air?

Technology — August 2012

My little Acer Aspire One netbook is increasingly feeling underpowered, so I'm contemplating getting an ultrabook.

I have a full desktop computer with a decent monitor, but that sits upstairs and only really gets used for graphics or anything else that needs grunt (e.g. R), running video and audio downloads, for managing my web sites, and as my primary file server - it has a pair of RAID-1 1TB drives and is backed up regularly.

When working downstairs, or in the Bodleian library or in cafes, I've been using a little netbook, a first generation Acer Aspire One, which was originally intended just for travelling. It's a nice little machine, but it's been a bit frustrating, largely because the SSD is incredibly slow on writes: sometimes it locks up completely for five or ten minutes, and a Fedora distribution upgrade can take 40 hours or more. The slow SSD interacts badly with having only 1GB of memory. Also, the screen is small and the battery lasts only just over two hours.

I bought a fast SSD and extra memory to upgrade the machine, but that failed when I couldn't get the motherboard out - the screws had corroded on.

So I've been thinking about getting an ultrabook. The main requirement here is that it be light, ideally no more than 1kg, and robustly built, so the best candidate seems to be an Asus UX21a or, since that's not yet available in the UK, perhaps an 11.6" Macbook Air. The Air works nearly completely with Linux and is what Linus Torvalds uses.

The downside is that the Macbook Air is rather expensive, around £850, and the UX21a, US$1000 in the US, is likely to be as or more expensive in the UK. So this will probably be the first thing I buy myself if I manage to get a day job - especially if I can salary sacrifice it.


  1. I always thought ebay will get you what you wanted at a much lower price than full retail amount.

    I have never used ebay or Amazon for the simple fact that I don't have a card of any discription. I am not sure how it works.

    I don't have a notebook and when I tried use one without a mouse I found my PC skill level was not up to it. I am thinking of getting a second hand one on my next trip to China.

    In the hotesls and hotels where I lodged, there was always wi-fi internet available in Hong Kong as it is in China. Many hostels also provide terminals free of charge or at low cost like A15 cents / 15 min.

    Occasionally, I had to use an internet cafe in China. Internet cafes are huge in China. They each houses over one hundred terminals. Some seatings are little more expensive. Lighting is low, and there is no smoking ban. It is not a nice experience. If there are windows, I'd sit next to one because I cannot touch-type without looking at the keyboard.

    Some internet cafes really do serve meals.Enterprising operators would allow a caterer in to take meal orders, which would then be delivered to the users. It is perhaps part of the whole set up.

    Personal ID is required in order to log on. Having a foreign passport as I do does not guarantee acceptance. Sometimes, I have to use a proxy.

    Comment by DL — August 2012
  2. For new, current-model laptops, ebay isn't much use. If you want to get a cheap secondhand laptop, though, that would be a good place to look - though you should be able to get one cheaper in China, especially if you know someone who knows where the good deals are!

    I like to take my netbook with me when travelling, as I don't trust hotel or Internet cafe computers - and it's much nicer being able to use the Internet from my room.

    Comment by danny — August 2012
  3. Can't DIY? Are the bit parts not available on retail, too specialised, too expensive, tooling needs, patent-protected...and so on?

    Comment by DL — August 2012
  4. A lot of these laptops have batteries, SSDs and memory that are soldered in place and can't be upgraded. But general DIY has long been impossible on a laptop - you can't really make one from pieces they way you can a desktop computer.

    Comment by danny — August 2012
  5. As a recent convert to the MacBook Air, albeit of the 13" variety, I just can't imagine going back to more primitive laptops. Who can argue with 7 hours of battery life? Linux can be run, either bootable or with VirtualBox, but I've found that with tools like Homebrew - https://github.com/mxcl/homebrew - that Linux is not particularly necessary.

    Comment by LarryK — September 2012
  6. Attempts like Homebrew are pretty feeble next to a full Fedora or Ubuntu repository! I'm not switching OSes at this point, anyway, so if I got a Macbook Air I'd run Linux on it.

    Also, the newer ultrabooks are just better than the Apple products in many ways - the 1080p screen on the Asus Zenbook Primes, for example, has yet to be matched by Apple.

    Comment by danny — September 2012

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