The Lenovo S10 Mac

Out of both a belief that it could be quite practical, and a desire to have a cool new gadget, I recently took delivery of a new Lenovo Ideapad S10. This netbook has been on the market for about a year now, and NCIX had it on sale for $350. I added a gig of RAM and got the complete package for a total of $409, after shipping and taxes.

Today I’m going to provide a review of the netbook, particularly around its suitability as a conversion to the Mac. Mostly, I want to communicate that this baby works really, really well as a highly portable Macintosh.

Hardware

But first, let’s look at the hardware. Netbooks are pretty standard in this department: they run Intel’s Atom processor, and this one features a 1.6GHz N270. It’s a single core processor (as far as I’ve been able to discover, anyway), but it seems sprightly enough for standard tasks. More on this later.

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The S10 also comes with 512MB of RAM soldered on the motherboard. Whoooo… but there’s a single expansion port that takes up to a 2GB SODIMM. However, sources online indicate that the S10 can only address a maximum of 1.5GB, so even if you do put the 2 in there, it will still see only 1.5. Well, the 1GB upgrade that I bought from NCIX was on sale too, so that made the decision easy.

The machine features a 10-inch screen. This was important to me: other netbooks in the $350 price range (all dollars are Canadian, by the way) are currently in the 8-9 inch range, and I just didn’t like the look of them. At 1024×600 pixel resolution, those pixels are just too damned tiny on an 8-inch screen. I’m 35 years old (that’s to say, my eyes are entering middle age as well), and I use a 24-inch Apple Cinema Display as my main screen, so 10 inches is as small as I can go! The quality of the display is very good: fine response time, good colour, etc. Unless you’re some kind of display nut, you’ll have no issue with this one.

One of the first things I noticed about the S10 when I unpacked it, however, has proven to be a challenge: the keyboard. I knew it was going to be smaller than your average keyboard, but Lenovo made some unfortunate layout decisions. Two, in fact, that set my teeth on edge.

  1. The right-hand Shift key is the same size as the regular keys, and placed to the right of the up arrow key. I shook my head in disbelief when I saw this, and then I tried putting my fingers on the keyboard — I’m a touch typist — and understood why they did this. That Shift key is placed exactly where you’d find it at a distance relative to home row on a regular keyboard; when your right pinky finger reaches out for it, the distance feels right. But when I actually used it, I found that my touch typing is imperfect at best, hence the wideness of the regular Shift key. Do you know how often hitting an Up arrow instead of the Shift key causes problems? Think about working in Terminal, especially. I’m hoping that practice helps alleviate this problem.

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1. The backtick/tilde key is positioned to the right of the Esc key. Look, for many of you this is a non-issue: most people don’t even know what a tilde is, for chrissakes. But for me it’s a vital part of my keyboarding experience. You use the backtick/tilde key in two situations: to reverse the polarity of the Application Switcher (Command-Tab to go forward, then Command-Backtick to go back), and to cycle through an application’s open windows (Command-Backtick to cycle). The reason this key is used has nothing to do with the fact it’s a backtick or tilde. It’s because of the position of that key relative to Tab. Now, with that relationship broken on this keyboard, I have to grope for a key located one-in from the left. Mistakes abound. Hopefully some muscle memory will assert itself on this problem too.

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The trackpad is about the width of two postage stamps, but it’s surprisingly usable. I’ll talk more about this in a bit.

A couple final points on the hardware. The battery is a 3-cell lithium ion, which in my first test last night held its charge for three hours. I’m pleased with that. There’s also a webcam, but its quality is nothing to write home about. Fortunately, I’m writing to you instead.

A Word About the Size

Look, I could go find the physical dimensions of this thing to give you an idea of how little the S10 is. But that’s just numbers; let me try to describe what the size means.

I can stretch my hand across the keyboard and touch the Tab key with my pinky and the Return key with my thumb. It’s so light I can pick it up, with just my fingers, by the front left corner below the keyboard, while the display is open, and wave it around while I talk. It’s solid and rugged enough that it feels less like a pricy computer, and more like a telephone. And it’s just barely large enough to sit on my lap while I type.

But it’s small enough that I rarely do: I slouch on the couch with it sitting beside me, perhaps balanced between my leg and a cushion. It works in a surprising number of positions — and get your mind out of the gutter.

Practical use shows that I can use this computer pretty much anywhere, and while it gives me the capabilities of a computer, it feels like a much more casual device. Again, a telephone comes to mind: a piece of hardware that vanishes because you really can take it anywhere.

The Missing Link: Software

When I first booted the Lenovo S10, it showed its most crucial flaw: Windows XP. Or should I just say, Windows? It really doesn’t matter what version, I simply refuse to use it. As a full-time Mac user, I definitely preferred to get that OS installed on it, but having read deeply on the topic, I was prepared to admit that I may have to settle for Linux (and likely, Ubuntu). Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

I’m not going to go into detail about how I got OS X installed: by the time you read this the methods may have changed, as the hacker community is hard at work on a lot of these issues. I primarily used this thread on the s10Lenovo forum, minus the bits where you install Windows on a separate partition.

In a nut, this is how you do it:

  1. Install the Leopard install DVD onto an external USB drive. You do this with the Restore option in Disk Utility, essentially cloning the DVD to a hard drive. This allows you to boot from the hard drive into a Leopard install, and even if you’re not using it for this, installing the OS from a hard drive is dramatically faster than from disc.
  2. However, Leopard will only boot from a Mac. To trick it into booting from the S10 (or any PC, for that matter), you have to jump in with a bootloader. I used a 2GB USB key with a copy of Syslinux installed. It required a very brief trip to Windows in order to bless the install somehow, but the Lenovo booted right up into it. From there, I specified the Leopard hard drive to run from, and we were away to the races. It was a pretty exciting moment to see that grey Apple logo on my S10 for the first time:

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1. The Leopard install process is pretty straight-forward. However, it fails at the end because it can’t set the disk as a startup volume. Again, it’s the boot loader issue rearing its head. Until you get that resolved, you’ll be booting from that USB key.
2. The stock installation of Leopard is missing a number of vital components (at least for me): - Video ran at 800×600
- No sleep - No audio 3. Using a project from the Dell Mini hackers called DellEFI, I installed some of the missing drivers. Video, for example, was working great after restart. And it let me boot directly from the hard drive, so no more USB key.
4. Tweaking then occurred. A change of settings in a plist somewhere yielded the ability to sleep (this is huge, folks!), and a little more software got sound working. Finally, I got a piece of software that activated two-finger scrolling on the trackpad. Sadly, it isn’t that stable, but an alternative configuration supplied with the software allows you to set the right side of the trackpad for vertical scrolling, and I find that works very well.

The net result is a computer that has all the features of a Macintosh, with no functionality — that I’m aware of — missing.

In theory, I should be able to upgrade using Apple Software Update. However, it hasn’t been tested yet, so when 10.5.7 comes out any day now, I’m going to hold off till I hear from the braver souls out there.

Using the MicroMac

For the first time, I actually believe this machine is going to be stable and reliable enough to use. This is a big moment: it means I can spend the time to install applications, move data over, and actually get some work done with the damned thing. Here’s what I have planned:

While I have a MacBook Pro, I’m taking a big risk every time I take it away from my desk. Perhaps the dent in the corner, gained within the first two weeks of owning it, put this in mind. But when I go to a client meeting, or do some work at the Second Cup, or visit family, I really, really like the idea of having a computer that has all the important stuff, without it being a big deal if it exploded. Aside from the plastic shrapnel in my face.

I haven’t tried running Photoshop on this thing yet, but I’ve run Coda, Transmit, TextMate, Mail, Safari, NetNewsWire, Twitterific and iChat — at the same time — and it felt good. Benchmarks will show this beast is not that fast, but clearly, it’s fast enough.

I spend a lot of time using text editors and file transfer apps, and there’s more than enough oomph here to accomplish those things.

Now, I’m on one last problem: how to ensure the data I need is always going to be available on the MicroMac when I need it? This is a real head-scratcher. First off, I can’t just mirror my main Mac’s hard drive to the thing: there’s only about 50GB of free space on it, compared to my MBP’s 320GB hard drive. But I don’t need to to hold all my music and photos, either. Just my development sites, my Mail store, Safari bookmarks, FTP preferences, my working files directories… there’s several items that I would like synced across.

I asked on Twitter last night and received a couple responses. DropBox, for example, was rejected immediately because it assumes one folder where items are available on every computer. Cool, but not what I’m after. A couple suggestions came in for Rsync, and I’m liking the sound of that, because it’s available on every Mac, and I can customize it to my heart’s content. I just need to make sure that it syncs correctly: a deleted file on my main Mac should cause the one on my netbook to go, as well. Time will tell.

Conclusion

The fact that I’m now embroiled in all these implementation details should suggest something very clearly: I’m fully invested in this computer, and it’s obviously functional enough that you can use it on a day-to-day basis. As I marveled to my wife: it’s like having a MacBook Air, but without the cool look, super-thin profile, and $2,500 price tag. It’s easy to see why these netbooks have become so popular, and why people are clamouring for Apple to make one.

But clearly, with a little effort, you can have one for yourself today!