January 5th, 2010

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08:02 pm - Cheap Chinese netbooks: THE REVIEW
My friend Trey was looking for a netbook for his wife this Christmas. It needed to be as cheap as possible (her restriction, not his) - she actually wanted "a $150 netbook", which wasn't really possible. So, I ended up hitting eBay and discovering that it was FLOODED with interesting Chinese-manufacture no-name netbooks.

After pointing Trey at the most promising looking vendor (and promising to put a clean install of Ubuntu Netbook Remix on it once it arrived), he managed to score a "Tengjun Mini 1006" for $243 including shipping. (For reference, that's at least $100 less than a Dell Mini 10v - my personal favorite netbook - and $38 or so cheaper than Wal-Mart's price for an Acer netbook.) I was itching to get my hands on that thing to play with it! Today, it finally got here.

The build quality is pretty decent, all things considered, but it isn't really up to the standards of the netbooks currently distributed in America. In particular, where the Dell Minis are fanless, this netbook (which I am pretty certain is just like every other Chinese netbook of its class you'll find flooding eBay and places like alibaba.com) has a conventional fan-blown heatsink system. This won't bother you if you're only used to regular notebooks, but if you've already gotten accustomed to modern Atom-powered netbooks, it will seem pretty weird that you hear a fan running (and the amount of heat generated will seem off-putting too).

The keyboard isn't as nice as that on the Mini 10v, but it's probably about up to par with the Acer or Asus netbooks. It feels cramped, and in particular the placement of the right shift just above the right-arrow key is bizarre and leads to typos, but otherwise it's workable. There was also an issue with the power supply port on the netbook; if you don't really screw the plug in tight it will detect as "charging" to the operating system, but won't actually charge the battery!

I also had some issues with the wired network interface - it worked, sort of, but it connected to my switch at only 10mbps! To be honest, though, that could have been an Ubuntu problem instead of a hardware problem. The NIC was Realtek, so I hadn't looked twice at it until I tried plugging it in and found it lacking... and I didn't investigate further, because what the hell, who plugs in a netbook anyway?

On the plus side, the included Atheros 5007EG wireless NIC is a distinct improvement over the Dell-branded Broadcom cards used in the Dell Minis. It picked up the office wireless with no problems, despite being a floor, a garage, and the width and length of a fairly sizable office building away from the router. It was also detected and installed in Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic) Netbook Remix with zero issues, which was a very pleasant surprise! The touchpad worked without any problems, and detects as a Microsoft PS/2 mouse. The buttons are rather stiff, but feel like they should survive quite a lot of use. The display is unremarkable in the "works fine" sort of way, and the Intel 945 chipset video is just as serviceable in this netbook as it is in the Dell Mini 10v. Sound is quite acceptable (in Trey's words, "I was surprised at how loud this thing can get!"), and works without any finagling in Ubuntu.

Also on the plus side, this netbook has a FULL SET OF INDICATOR LIGHTS. The Dell Minis and many other netbooks do away with hard drive, network, battery, and other indicator LEDs and just have a single power LED on them. Which is fine when everything's working, but purely SUCKS when things are running slow and you want to know "is the hard drive running?" So, kudos to the Chinese (re)manufacturers for getting that right!

Now onto the stuff that purely cracked me up... that is to say, the "Windows" operating system it came preloaded with.

Awesome. Note that it claims to be Windows XP, but has the Vista/7 start button... and, although you can't see it from this screenshot, the Vista start menu and spinning-frisbee-of-hate "wait" cursor, among other things. This is a real junkyard dog, most likely built from a leaked pre-Vista development build if I had to guess. YLMF also worked extra-hard on being "peculiar" in that they'd randomly carved the 160G disk up into six (!) different partitions. Wtf?

Incidentally, if you think the text in that "Support Information" dialog box is odd, you should see the manual that came with this thing - it's 30-ish pages of things like "netbook is not for the unsupervised child use, and in this case adult may need to nurse aside" along with dire warnings of "spark and fire make", among other things. A CD also came with the netbook - possibly with a copy of the "YLMF OS" on it, possibly not; I wasn't too keen on putting it in the drive of a Windows workstation to find out. Maybe I'll bring it home tomorrow and look at it in an Ubuntu box.

Hey, if you're gonna pirate Windows, why not go ahead and pirate Office while you're at it? In for an inch, in for a mile! (I bet that "arabian horse" guy registers a lot of copies of MS Office...)

Trey was initially kind of excited to have a fully working (more on that in a bit) copy of Windows, so at first he wasn't sure he wanted to replace it. "The wife's already used to Windows, so..." I pointed out that it was thoroughly pirated, and of course there's always the question: who's gonna find out? Well, Microsoft is gonna find out, eventually - one day, you go to apply Windows Updates, a copy of WGA sneaks onto the machine, and the hacks that worked around it come apart and you're left staring at a screen that tells you you aren't allowed to log into your computer. Suddenly Ubuntu was a much better idea again! Just for grins, I tried running Windows Update on this beast to see if it would EVER work:

In fact, "YLMF" hacked it to make even authenticating to Windows Update impossible; this is handy for keeping people from accidentally bringing WGA into the machine, but unfortunately also means you never get any security updates... which means a heapin' helpin' of malware, and sooner rather than later.

Ten minutes later, all software-related problems were fixed. And once he'd had a chance to play with it a little, Trey realized that UNR was just plain BETTER for a netbook anyway - it's faster, it's better organized, no malware issues, comes with everything you need, and no worries about pirated this, that, or the other.

All in all, at $243 this thing is neither a terrible buy nor a great buy. Wal-Mart is selling Acer netbooks for $280, so basically you're trading away a fanless heatsink setup and a legit copy of Windows (which only matters if you planned to run Windows in the first place) for $37 savings. That's if you're shopping the cheap end to begin with, of course; if you want the best then you're probably looking at a Dell Mini 10v with upgrade to SSD and - unfortunately - aftermarket upgrade from the Dell wLAN to an Intel 5300 half-height, for more like $450 by the time you're done.

(4 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture] From: marys_second
Date: January 6th, 2010 - 12:23 pm
Where in the hell did they find 10Mbps NICs to throw in those things?

[User Picture] From: enotnert
Date: January 6th, 2010 - 10:13 pm
I love chinese netbooks. . . People bring them to me at work to fix a load (you know chinese profs). . .

Had one that just flat out died on the mobo level, but person wanted some important research data off the hd. Tried to figure out how to open it, no dice. Tried to find a repair manual. Dice but only in korean.

I don't have any korean profs to translate.

[User Picture] From: jimbojones
Date: January 14th, 2010 - 01:04 am
So did you ever get it open?

[User Picture] From: enotnert
Date: January 14th, 2010 - 01:16 am
nope, it was a side thing I was doing as a "do not keep the IT guy bored" scenario, but she wanted it back in perfect condition, and I wasn't willing to pry without the "you might not get this back in one piece" clause in full effect

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