There is a lot of talk about how tablets might kill off netbook sales. I thought about buying a tablet to replace my broken netbook but then I found another rather interesting option. The Samsung NB30 Touchscreen in some ways occupies an uncharted land between netbooks and tablets. It is a netbook, but you could also think of it as a tablet with a keyboard. This machine fitted my requirements a bit better than a tablet and I felt that it would offer me a bit more flexibility. In my last blog post I examined how to set up Ubuntu on this machine, in this post I want to reflect on my first week using it.
Firstly, why not buy a tablet? After thinking about it for a while I just felt a tablet didn't meet my needs. I'm not just a consumer of the Internet but I write blog posts and computer programs too. My success with on screen keyboards is mixed and while I don't mind having one on my phone the idea of writing longs bits of text with an on screen keyboard didn't appeal. I also wanted to be able to run full scale applications instead of lightweight “apps”. By this I mean things like OpenOffice and full desktop programs on a machine that still was as portable as a tablet. Also, I still have my Eken M001, so I can still experiment with tablets anyway.
I was intrigued by the NB30. Here was a device that would give me the convenience of a netbook and allow me to also experiment with touchscreen interfaces. Priced at £275 this is a bit more expensive than the budget netbooks but cheaper than many tablets or a decent laptop. The specification includes a 10.1” touchscreen display with a resolution of 1024x600 pixels, 1GB RAM, a webcam, 250GB hard disc, splash proof keyboard (perfect for coffee shop use) and the best feature is the long life battery capable of powering the device for about six and a half hours, possibly more. A lower specification version of the NB30 is available too, this has no touchscreen and a smaller hard disc, so if you decide to get one be careful to get the right version.
The netbook came with Windows 7 Starter Edition, but this operating system doesn't bring the touchscreen to life. Supplied is a demonstration program that neatly shows off multitouch, but this isn't integrated into the main experience of the user interface and it is interesting to note that one of the reviewers on Amazon's product page for the device doubts whether there was much point having a touchscreen on it at all. This is a bit of a shame, but for me this was not a big issue as I intended to install Ubuntu Netbook Edition on it anyway. Interestingly the new Ubuntu Unity interface (below) built into the this edition is designed with touch in mind, although it is still a work in progress so as a touchscreen experience it is not as mature as operating systems like Android.
The big buttons on the left on the Unity interface made me want to leave the mouse pointer behind and interact with the screen directly. Several elements of the Unity interface work wonderfully in this way, some do not yet so the experience is a little incomplete. The large left buttons offer shortcuts to programs and also how running programs. Right clicking on an icon for a running program shows an option to make the position on the left bar permanent. The whole way that you browse files and find applications has been redesigned too, with nice big icons and full screen displays.
A nice feature is that if you search for a program by name it will show it if installed and also show matches from the repositories. If the program is not installed you can press the icon for it in the available section and this will seamlessly start the Ubuntu Software Centre and will guide you through a simplified installation process. This felt very streamlined and is a welcome feature, once thing that would be great though is the option to open the program from Ubuntu Software Centre after the first installation. Files and folders can also be searched and navigated with a full screen interface too. There has obviously been some great thinking that has gone into this interface and some of the ideas are very refreshing. It was also nice to see that it is easy to switch between the Unity interface and the traditional desktop interface from the login screen.
Unfortunately a couple of things let the touchscreen experience down. Most significant is the difficulty in scrolling. The scrollbar in the Unity interface is very narrow and on the right edge. This is trickly to be able to select on the NB30. I couldn't find a way to enable scrolling of the screen using a familiar swipe action which would have been the perfect solution. Also the buttons on the windows (close, minimise, maximise) are too small to easily close without the mouse pointer. So the touch experience is incomplete at the moment, but this is to be expected as it is very early days and Unity only made its first appearance in Ubuntu 10.10 which was released about a month ago. I am very much looking forward to seeing how it develops. One thing that is a bit of an issue is the speed of the Unity interface, I've found it can be quite slow at pulling up a list of files or applications.
Most software isn't directly aware of the touch screen environment yet. This only presents a problem if you are trying to use gestures to do things like resize windows. Fortunately when you touch the screen it is treated as it the mouse were moved to that position and the left button clicked. It is also possible to drag items around the screen just as you would with a mouse (this was great fun with Google App Inventor for Android!). You can also simulate getting a context menu with a long tap to the screen by going to Assistive Technologies → Mouse Preferences → Accessibility and ticking Simulated Secondary Click. Then you can touch the screen for a few seconds and when you remove your finger you should get the context menu. Some websites are available in touch friendly format including Facebook at: http://touch.facebook.com.
The NB30 has for me been a good compromise between netbook and tablet. I'm still experimenting with the touchscreen, but finding already it is changing my habits (something I found out when I tried to touch the screen of another Ubuntu machine to log on). It isn't the fastest machine, but it makes up for it in battery life and convenience of size and this makes it a great option for when you are out and about. So far I am very pleased with it and using Ubuntu Netbook Edition makes it a fun and practical device.