I am now the happy owner of an iPad mini. Obviously I couldn’t let this happen without a mention. But… the Internet is full of reviews of the iPad mini already and doesn’t need another.
Instead, I’ll write about the gadget that the iPad will be replacing. The gadget that has been pretty much everywhere with me since I got it three years ago. This is my chance to say goodbye to the venerable Asus T91MT.
The T91MT is a small Windows 7 computer. It’s the size of a netbook, but has an 8″ screen that swivels to switch into a tablet mode. It has a touchscreen with multitouch support and a stylus.
I got it in December 2009, but it feels like I’ve had it for longer than that. It’s fairly beat up by now, so it looks like I’ve had it longer than that, too. I think the stickers are the only thing holding the case together at this point.
I loved this thing. As much as I am now loving the iPad mini (and believe me, it’s sweet), there is a part of me that misses the T91MT.
Why did I love this thing so much?
Photographers say “the best camera is the one that’s with you“.
I feel the same about computers. The T91MT is small enough that it lived in my bag. I didn’t need to decide when I’d probably need it or make a conscious decision to bring it. My MacBook Pro is a more powerful computer but is too big and heavy to carry around unless I’ll definitely need it. It doesn’t matter how capable the MBP is if it’s at home and I’m not.
Even when I know I need it, there are times when a computer that fits in combat trouser pockets or a small bag is convenient. There have been loads of times I’ve needed to give a presentation at the wrong side of London and appreciated being able to squeeze through a crowded Tube without hauling a full-sized laptop (and power adaptor!) around.
On flights and trains, an 8″ laptop is much easier to work productively on than a full-size MBP or ThinkPad.
I got the T91MT to replace the Celio Redfly, which (sort of) used Windows Mobile and had an 8″ inch screen. Before the Redfly, I briefly had an Asus EEE PC with a 7″ screen. Before that, I was using a series of Windows Mobile devices with a folding bluetooth keyboard. So I’ve been a fan of the 8″ mini-laptop for many many years. The iPad mini with the Belkin bluetooth keyboard is the latest iteration around a model of working that I’ve gotten used to.
And the touchscreen
In the age of the iPad and apps like Flipboard I don’t need to sell the idea of reading news or RSS feeds on a tablet.
It might not yet be the norm, but it’s close enough that you wouldn’t look twice at someone flicking though news items on a tablet in a coffee shop.
But three years ago, before the first iPad was even announced, let alone released, this was a bigger deal.
The T91MT could be a regular laptop when I needed to write, but when I wanted to read, switching it into a tablet was really nice.
Almost every book I’ve read in the last few years (and at least half of the RSS feeds) was read on the T91MT.
Touchscreen tablets are nice to read from. I wouldn’t have read this much on a normal laptop or a smartphone.
It was “proper” Windows
It has USB ports.
So when I started getting back into the video games of my youth, I bought a Sidewinder gamepad on eBay for a couple of quid. (I actually got two, so I could play two-player games with the kids).
With emulators for the SNES, SEGA CD, Mega Drive and Master System, there were a ton of games available. I finally went back and completed the games I never got to finish as a kid (helped by liberal use of ‘save state’ if I’m honest). I finished the Super Mario games. I finished Legend of Zelda (A Link to the Past – the definitive Zelda game). I finished the Desert Strike series. And tons more. I even got the kids into Sonic the Hedgehog.
When on holiday or away from home, being able to clear photos off a digital camera was a godsend.
I could open multiple windows and put them side-by-side. When I was learning “Seven Languages in Seven Weeks“, I could have the eBook open, a compiler/interpreter for whichever language I was learning installed, and a cygwin terminal next to it as I worked through the examples and exercises. Having it with me everywhere meant I could work on an example when I had a spare five minutes here and there.
In fact, just having a shell (mostly Cygwin) as well as being able to tinker with Python, Ruby, Prolog, etc. was cool.
Even three years ago, Windows 7 support for touchscreen was good – light years ahead of anything else like Ubuntu at the time. Internet Explorer and the Office apps all supported the usual panning, scrolling and pinch-to-zoom gestures you’d expect.
So what did I use it for?
The most important point was it was a notepad – the digital half of my brain. I used to use mostly bLADE Wiki but moved to Evernote more recently.
In meetings (development meetings, charity trustee meetings, school governor meetings, etc.) I had a searchable digital notebook containing the previous minutes, as well as my comments, thoughts and notes from all meetings going back years. This has been massively useful.
I also write a lot on it. For example, charity policies or funding bids. Half of the posts on this blog were written on the T91MT, too.
Plus all the obvious tasks.
This was my desktop, tweaked with big icons for a single stab of the finger to launch…
These are the apps that I was using every day.
It was a reader, both books and news. It was a media player (mostly LOVEFiLM’s streaming service for watching TV shows and movies). It was a games machine. It did all the day to day mundane stuff like manage our household finances and triage email. It was a communications device, with a front-facing camera for Skype calls, as well as Google Talk and MSN for IM.
Something for the Windows-haters
And all of this in a tablet that I could chuck in a small bag that I carried with me everywhere. A few years ago, before the launch of the iPad, I thought this was neat. Nowadays, this is almost common, and on devices that are technically much better. This was early-adopter territory, and the T91MT wasn’t without it’s faults.
Even with it’s SSD and using Sleep instead of Shutdown or Hibernate, it’s not instant-on. And that’s annoying for a mobile device.
The processor and memory are teeny and Windows 7 is a demanding beast. I needed to tune the hell out of it to get the performance to a usable state, turning off everything that I didn’t need, from desktop wallpapers to services like Search indexing. And I knew which apps I could open at the same time before it’d fall over in a big heap and spin a circle for ten minutes. That’s a blog post in itself: “100 steps to get Windows 7 to run on a tiny netbook without hanging every 30 seconds”.
The touchscreen accuracy is poor. It can cope with fat-fingered gestures, but anything more precise than that is hit and miss. (That said, for scrolling through RSS feeds or turning eBook pages, it was good enough.)
But I didn’t care. It was ugly, battered, cracked and… well… ran Windows. I loved this thing, and accepted it’s foibles and quirks.
The fact that I’d had to spent ages tweaking and tuning it to get it to work was almost made me like it more. It felt like mine, not another cookie cutter gadget.
You know how some people love their Moleskines? It’s not always just about the paper itself or anything else practical. It’s the feeling of attachment to something that has been with you, and the memories that it has.
This was my geeky equivalent.
I’m not sure what to do with it now… the iPad Mini has replaced it in almost every way.
There are a few things it can’t do… I can’t plug USB devices into it, like the card reader for my digital camera media, or my game pads. And I’ll miss being able to snap windows to the left or right with a single key press, to have two apps side-by-side. (That’s something that Microsoft Surface has got right).
But there’s nothing that justifies carrying it around as well as the iPad. With the Belkin keyboard case I can type happily with it. With Keynote and a VGA adapter I can create and give presentations from it. And there are apps for virtually everything I did on the T91MT.
Plus the iPad is so pretty.
Bye bye, T91MT.