Netbook Experiment Report #1

the netbook experimentIn case you hadn’t read my article from Friday, I’m conducting a little experiment this week – I’m seeing what it’s like to use a “netbook“ computer (a Dell Latitude 2100, to be specific) as my primary machine for the whole week. I’m trying this out as a response to Jeff “Coding Horror” Atwood’s article, in which he rebuts my argument that the computers we typically classify as “netbooks”, occupy a neither-here-nor-there, worst-of-both-worlds middle ground between smartphones and laptop computers.

As I promised in that earlier article, I’d report on my experiences. This is the first of a number of such reports that I plan to file throughout the week.

Jeff Atwood Replies

Jeff saw my article and replied in Global Nerdy, warning me that I’d be disappointed with my particular netbook’s performance due to its Intel Atom processor:

I can guarantee you’ll be unhappy with the Atom CPU. It’s OK for light web browsing, but that’s it. That’s all. No mas.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, that Intel shows zero interest in making the next-gen Atom faster. Pineview is much better power wise but nil improvement in performance.

The good news is that the CULV Pentiums — like the dual core model in the Acer Aspire 4100 I wrote about — are about 2x faster than the Atom and surprisingly power efficient. Totally acceptable for medium duty laptop stuff.

The key to being satisfied with a netbook is to get out of the Intel Atom ghetto that Intel wants to keep them in…

Visual Studio Express 2010: Too Slow

visual studio 2010 icon As a Developer Evangelist for Microsoft, one of the tools I use most often is Visual Studio, the integrated development environment that’s typically used for developing applications for Microsoft-based platforms, from the desktop to web applications hosted on Windows Server, to mobile apps for Windows Phone and Zune to console apps for the Xbox 360. I currently run both Visual Studio 2008 and Beta 2 of Visual Studio 2010.

Visual Studio 2010 (along with the free Express versions) is the first version of Visual Studio to be built using WPF – Windows Presentation Foundation – the relatively new graphics framework for Windows desktop applications, which makes it easier to give apps the sort of modern appearance that users have come to expect these days. Visual C# Express 2010 and Visual Web Developer 2010 are based on the full version of Visual Studio 2010, and the combination of WPF and the fact that they’re beta 2 and not yet fully optimized proved to be too much for the netbook. I spent a lot of time waiting as they loaded, created new projects, switched views and built apps – more time than I thought was reasonable. I’ve since uninstalled them.

Visual Studio Express 2008: Works Just Fine

visual studio 2008 icon On the other hand, Visual C# Express 2008 and Visual Web Developer 2008 work just fine. I’m having no trouble building apps in ASP.NET MVC, Silverlight or XNA and experiencing no slow-downs. It remains to be seen if the final versions of Visual Studio 2010 with their final optimizations will run without the slowdowns.

I’ll post more updates as I have more experiences!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


The “Mythbusters” Poster

I love this “Drew”-style poster featuring the cast of Mythbusters:

mythbusters poster

If you’ve been to the movies sometime within the past 30 years, you’ve probably seen a poster by Drew. You can see a catalogue of his posters that were released here; there’s also a page of his “posters that never were”.

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.


CUSEC 2010: Montreal, January 21 – 23

CUSEC 2010 logo

For the latter half of this week, I’ll be at CUSEC – the Canadian University Software Engineering Conference – the annual Montreal-based conference by and for Canadian university students interested in topics on software development and engineering. For a conference that’s aimed at students, it punches above its weight class, having hosted some big name speakers including:

This year’s speaker list is pretty good. Among them are:

  • Douglas Crockford, Senior JavaScript Architect at Yahoo!.  If you truly want to understand JavaScript, listen to this guy! When people were dismissing JavaScript as a toy language – a strange concept in these Ajax-powered days, but this really was the case – he wrote articles like JavaScript: The Wrrrld’s Most Misunderstood Programming Language and other must-read pieces, all of which live at He’s also the author of the book JavaScript: The Good Parts, which is required reading for web developers. I had the pleasure of meeting him and seeing him speak at the Ajax Experience conference in Boston in 2006, and he’s both a great presenter and guy to hang out with at apres-conference events.
  • Greg Wilson, Assistant Professor at U of T. Greg is many things: much-sought-after provider to academic advice and support at U of T, co-editor of Beautiful Code, DemoCamp Toronto steward, and now, the guy behind the best presentation at the Stack Overflow DevDays Toronto: Bits of Evidence: What We Actually Know About Software and Why We Believe It’s True. It was the presentation so nice, he’s doing it twice – this time at CUSEC. Don’t miss this one!
  • Reg Braithwaite, Superprogrammer-at-large. Whether you know him as “Reg” or “raganwald”, you know that he’s got some seriously big-ass ideas about programming. Very few people push Ruby metaprogramming to its limits the way he does. Every time I see one of his presentations, I come out a little bit smarter.
  • Pete Forde, Unspace. Pete’s one of the “corporate speakers”, a designation that probably makes him feel very uncomfortable. He’s one of the guys behind the Toronto-based development shop Unspace and behind two of the best conferences I’ve ever attended, RubyFringe (2008) and FutureRuby (2009). It’s anyone’s guess as to what he’ll talk about, but it should be good, and we can only hope that he begins it with a dance number, like he did with his presentation at the Mesh 2009 conference.
  • Leigh Honeywell, Symantec. Leigh has forgotten more about security than I will ever learn, and she’s also one of the founders of HacklabTO, the Toronto “hackerspace”.

I had the opportunity to speak at last year’s CUSEC and had a wonderful time both speaking and hanging out with the students. I love the conference vibe – the energy, brainpower and passion of the attendees is palpable, and it makes me optimistic for the future of tech in Canada. I’m only too glad to be able to attend this year, and I’m honoured to be invited to host their DemoCamp event, which will take place Thursday evening.

I’ll be filing reports from CUSEC, so watch this space!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


jQuery 1.4 Released / 14 Days of jQuery

jQuery logo: "Write less, do more."In case you hadn’t heard the news last week, the newest version of the jQuery JavaScript library, version 1.4, has been released! Even with the new features, it’s still tiny: the uncompressed development version is 156KB and the minified production version is a svelte 23KB when gzipped.

To celebrate this release, the jQuery folks have created a site called The 14 Days of jQuery, where they’ll post all sorts of supporting articles on the jQuery 1.4 for 14 days, starting on the day that was both the release date of jQuery and its birthday, January 14th. So far, they’ve posted the expected download links to jQuery 1.4 as well as a Q&A session with some of the jQuery team, a jQuery podcast with John Resig, a contest for the coolest use of jQuery, a presentation of how to get involved in the jQuery community and more.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


Multitasking in the “Mad Men” Era

square root

Here’s a great video from 1963 featuring the great-granddad of today’s web servers and cloud computing systems. It was just posted by Boston’s Computer History Museum titled Solution to Computer Bottlenecks. Filmed in May of that year, it features MIT Science Reporter John Fitch – who has a classic 1960’s announcer’s voice – interviewing MIT computer scientist Fernando J. Corbato, the guy behind Corbato’s Law (“The number of lines of code a programmer can write in a fixed period of time is the same independent of the language used”).

The subject of the film is the then-new approach of timesharing, which Corbato describes as “connecting a large number of consoles to a central computer”, which made the great (and very necessary – it even gets mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers) leap from batch to interactive processing possible. Here’s the video; enjoy all the retro-tech goodness:

This may have been really deep nerd stuff back in 1963, but today, it the sort of thing that you might see covered in a grade school class. Even if you’re not a programmer or IT pro, I think you’ll find it entertaining.

Some Gems from the Video

A computer terminal in one’s office isn’t unusual in this day and age, but back in 1963, such a thing must’ve been incredibly super-1337. Here’s the console in Corbato’s office, which he introduces by saying “Here’s one of the consoles we might be using in the future.” Even to the reporter of that era, it looked like an ordinary IBM Selectric typewriter:

1963 future console

The general principles of digital computers haven’t changed much since those days. Corbato describes memory as “a bunch of pigeonholes” that store numbers, some of which function as data, some of which function as instructions.

memory pigeonholes

The concept of a CPU, the program counter stepping through memory and looping already existed in 1963:

cpu program counter

He describes the new setup “a set parallel consoles which are not all near the computer in fact, most of them are remote…and let the users use these with a reaction time of a few seconds instead of a few hours.”


He says that eventually they’d like to switch from “typewriter” consoles to "graphic displays”, but at the time there were still some kinks to be worked out.

One of the “elaborate advanced ideas” that he hints at but says is beyond the topic of the film is going beyond hooking up dumb terminals to the mainframe and attaching smaller computers to it as well, such as the DEC PDP-1 and 1620:

advanced elaborate ideas

When discussing the hard disk and its capacity (9 million words), Corbato has to explain to Fitch that it isn’t a big whirling disk on which you store tape, but a platter coated with a magnetic material like tape. This is old hat to us in the 21st century, but at the time, disks weren’t household items:

hard disk

At the time, disks had been around for about a year. Corbato confesses that there are still some problems with them: they “haven’t figured out how to keep things from getting mixed up”.

And on it goes with ideas that are still in use today: programming languages (“a particular synthetic language which is largely technical, and which is to some extent algebra too”), the organization of different programs in memory at the same time, multitasking with a scheduler that determines which program gets the processor’s attention at the moment, file loading and management by the operating system, the concepts of “brute-force solutions”, context switching (which they can “keep down to 10%”), input validation and even the phrase “it’s a feature”.

The line of Corbato’s that I love most is his prescient statement about usability and demand: “We’ve really made the computer extremely easy to use here. And so it’s very clear that in the long run, we’re going to increase in the need for computer time by a large amount.”

This video is all sorts of old-school awesome. If you’ve got nothing to do on your lunch break, check it out!

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.


A Little Netbook Experiment

“The Horror! The Horror!”

coding horror logo “d00d,” began the capitalization- and punctuation-free email I received on Sunday, “coding horror atwood is totaly [sic] waling on ur azz”. Curious to see exactly how Jeff was “waling on my azz”, I pointed my browser at his blog, Coding Horror, one of the “800-pound gorillas” of the tech blog scene and found his latest article, titled A Democracy of Netbooks.

In A Democracy of Netbooks, Jeff rebuts an article of mine from late last May, Fast Food Apple Pies and Why Netbooks Suck. The thesis of my article was that netbooks occupied an unhappy, “worst of both worlds” middle ground between smartphones and notebook computers: a bit too big to fit in your pocket, a little too small to do a lot of work on, and sadly underpowered. As I summed it up, “netbooks are like laptops, but lamer”.

Jeff argues that netbooks are the opposite. He says that by virtue of their low cost, they’re a democratizing force that provide computing and communicative power to all. Unlike smartphones, you’re not at the mercy of a phone company’s monthly fees or contracts (and remember, I’m in Canada, the only country in the world where 3-year mobile contracts exist). “Netbooks aren’t an alternative to notebook computers,” he writes, they are the new computers.”

Unfortunately, Jeff missed my follow-up to Fast Food Apple Pies and Why Netbooks Suck, in which I explained the motivation behind the article:

I feel that there’s a little too much excitement about netbooks at Microsoft. I think that part of it stems from the old company mantra, “a computer on every desktop and in every home”. The PC is the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg, and the closer that a device is to the PC, the more Microsoft “gets” it. I feel that Microsoft sees the netbook as an exciting new space, where I see them as smaller, less powerful laptops. I think that eventually, as technology catches up, netbooks will simply be considered “computers” – just on the small end of the PC size spectrum, and that Microsoft should treat them as such.

The article is also an open letter to Microsoft stating my concern that netbooks are a dangerous red herring distracting us from where the real potential in mobile computing is: the smartphone. It’s an area where Microsoft had an early lead and dropped the ball. It’s an area where I feel that Microsoft is showing a lack of vision, from Steve Ballmer’s ill-considered dismissal of the iPhone (“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”) to Windows Mobile 6, which feels as though it was half-assedly slapped together by PDA designers frozen in an iceberg in 2000.

Still, I’m glad that Jeff found my article worth writing about and happy to see that it’s started some discussion.

Ooh! Free Netbook!

As the hardware sponsor of the Canadian version of Techdays – Microsoft’s cross-country, seven-city tools and technology training conference – Dell provided us with a number of computers, including about a dozen of Latitude 2100 netbooks. They performed yeoman service as hosts for a rotating slide deck that we’d display between conference sessions, in both the presentation theatres as well as in the hallways.

Here’s what they look like when artfully posed by a photographer for the marketing material:

latitude 2100s

By the bye, those bodies are rubberized and have a cross-hatched pattern.

Here’s one of the netbooks in action, quietly working as Dylan Smith makes his presentation at TechDays Winnipeg:

dylan smith and netbook

…and here are IT Pro Evangelist Rick Claus, me and IT Pro Evangelist Rodney Buike striking a “Charlie’s Angels” pose with the three colours of netbooks we were provided:


On December 16th, 2009 at 4:00 p.m., the very moment that TechDays Winnipeg ended, the netbooks were retired from conference service and all the evangelists team got to pick one. Although I’d rather have been assigned the “Dellasaurus” – a 17” monster with quad-core chip and 16 gigs of RAM — I’m not the type to turn up his nose at being assigned another computer. I chose one of the Kermit-the-Frog-green ones.

The Experiment

dell latitude 2100

Thus far, my netbook has been relegated to ebook-reading duty and little else, but in light of Jeff’s article, I figured that this might be an opportunity to put it to the test. What if I were to set aside a week to use the netbook as my one and only machine in my day-to-day work and life? Would I be pleasantly surprised, driven mad, or neither?

Starting on Sunday and continuing through to next Saturday, I will use the Dell Latitude 2100 exclusively. This should be an interesting test, as I will be working in a number of places:

  • At my home office
  • At HacklabTO, the Toronto “hackerspace” where I’m a member and which I often use as a coworking space
  • At a meeting with a client
  • On the road: I’ll be flying to Montreal to attend CUSEC (Canadian University Software Engineering Conference) as a sponsor representative and host of DemoCamp. This should be a good test of the netbook under the conditions where it’s supposed to shine.

By the way, does anyone know what the Canadian domestic flight carry-on restrictions are in the wake of the Underwear Bomber?

Here are its specs:

  • Processor: Intel Atom N270 running at 1.6GHz with 512K L2 cache and 533MHz bus
  • Chipset: Intel 945 PM/GS Express
  • Graphics: Intel Integrated GMA 950
  • Display: 10.1” WSVGA 1024 by 600 LED display
  • Other Goodies:
    • Integrated webcam
    • Single-touch screen
  • RAM: 2GB (1GB on-board plus 1GB in the memory slot)
  • Hard Drive: 160GB, 5400 RPM
  • Wifi: Intel WiFi Link 5100 802.11 a/g/n mini card
  • Battery: 3-cell (there’s a 6-cell available)

When benchmarked using the Windows Experience Index, it yielded a base score of 2.0. Here are its Windows Experience Index subscores (the index rates components on a scale of 1.0 to 7.9):

  • Processor: 2.1
  • Memory: 4.5
  • Graphics: 2.0
  • Gaming graphics: 3.0
  • Primary hard disk: 5.3

Since the netbooks were being used as secondary PowerPoint machines for TechDays, they already had the following installed on them:

The software selection above is probably the sort of thing that most office workers (and students, the market at whom the Latitude 2100 is aimed) would use from day to day. In addition to these apps, I installed some of the tools of the developer evangelist trade:

I’ll report on my experiences using the netbook as my primary machine regularly and tell you about the good, the bad and the ugly (or beautiful, because one never knows).

I have only one question: Jeff, do you want to try the same thing?

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


Colin Melia’s Pitch for His MIX10 Presentations

vote for colin meliaOttawa-based developer Colin Melia has been a big help to me with TechDays. He presented at TechDays Ottawa, helped organize Demo Night in Canada, and posted a simple Windows Azure deployment exercise that I’ve found quite helpful and useful.

I’d like to return the favour by promoting the three sessions – that’s right, three – that he submitted to MIX10 in their open call for content. They are:

  1. Everything You Touch Turns to Azure
    Feel the rush of power as you learn how to wave your hands and connect directly to your throne in the heavens – OK well you may have to settle for learning about Windows Touch in WPF/Silverlight and the Windows Azure Platform.  This is the future – make sure that everything you touch can turn to Azure.

    The session shows how the building blocks of Windows Touch, WPF/Silverlight applications and the Windows Azure Platform can be brought together to create a small yet engaging end-to-end experience.  Attendees should gain insight into the benefits and design of Touch-aware applications on Windows 7 as well as the benefits of backing user experiences with the Windows Azure Platform.

  2. Get a WIF of This
    Writing services that understand multiple authentication systems is cumbersome and completely yesterday. Claims-based authentication and authorisation is the way to go. We’ll take a dive into how claims work and what Windows Identity Foundation provides by exploring the key components, but more importantly by building our own identify provider, a claims-based service and a Silverlight application that makes use of it.

    WIF recently RTM’d but the identify framework it cements is one of the most overlooked components when it comes to Internet-based application design.  Attendees should leave with a sense of how to create WIF components or WIF-aware components, as well as knowledge of the necessary design considerations.

  3. The Cloud and the Silver Lining
    You need a place to host your Silverlight applications as well as the WCF RIA Services and database that back them.  This session shows you not only that the Windows Azure Platform (featuring Windows Azure, SQL Azure and other services), is a great place to put them, but also how to create the connections between the pieces.

    This session digs into the mechanics of a real-world application using Silverlight and the Windows Azure Platform.  Attendees should leave knowing how to easily test against and deploy to the Azure Platform, as well as how communication takes place between the component layers. 

I’d like to see Colin speak at MIX10. He’s a good speaker, he’s chosen some interesting and relevant topics, and he’d be a Canadian presence at MIX. If you agree with me, please vote for his sessions on the MIX10 Open Call for Entries site by Friday, January 15th! (If you want to see a list of all the proposed sessions, they’re here.)

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.