Hardware Review: Chuwi MiniBook
The little UMPC that could · November 8th, 2023
Could do what? Does Will mean replace his droid?! No probably not, he'll probably use that until it dies. Oh look, yep that's literally the droid next to the Chuwi in this photo. Literally inseparable. Well fine, what do we mean by could then?
Well to be serious I mean that in terms of portability, and power, and function, that it probably could be a realistic replacement for the droid. Even if I insist on continuing to carry it around with me everywhere. It isn't quite as portable, but it's certainly easier on the eyes. You can realistically type on it without hurting your hands (to degree), and it's powerful enough to handle modern web tools. Like the AWS console. Almost specifically exactly the AWS console. Lets unpack that a bit by first talking about the droid.
Addressing Shortcomings on my Droid4
I do a lot of things with my droid, and that's no exaggeration. I maintain most of my packages, including test builds. I write blog posts like this one. I build web apps with friends using Lapis. I even, until recently, did a nontrivial amount of Terraform and Ansible work directly on the droid. And that has worked excellently for years! Sure the 1gb of ram is limiting. And the 2c arm cpu takes a while to build things, or process complex terraform changes. But I'm a pretty patient person, none of these things were a deterrent to my insistence that I use the droid for everything.
So it became my media platform, where I manage and consume podcasts using shellcaster. Where I read RSS feeds and keep up with my friend's blogs, and tech news. It became the most flexible and robust MP3 player I've ever owned, letting me leverage shell scripts & recfile databases to manage my playlists, and tagging systems. Heck, 90% of the time I'm on IRC on any of the servers I spend time in, it is from the droid. Even if that means SSHing into it from another system.
It had become so much! I even found unique and creative ways to jam my photo processing pipeline into the droid's capabilities. By forgoing Gimp & Darktable I was able to leverage exiftool, imagemagick, & dcraw to process RAW files from my x-T20 and produce good enough color and black and white jpgs. At least enough to tell whether I wanted to move those images over to a more powerful computer to continue the editing process inside of those tools.
But then Psykose left, and when they did, we lost a lot of well maintained packages. And suddenly things like the AWS cli were being disabled on armv7, because it was difficult to maintain the patches needed to make it compatible for 32bit cpus. And then Hashicorp changed their licensing terms to non-open source and we started dropping BUSL licensed packages. Suddenly a major component of what I do and need no longer works with the system I love.
So the Chuwi
That brings us to today, to the Chuwi, I bought this thing mid year last 2022. Spent just enough time playing with it, fussing with small configuration tweaks to get the fans working, and the screen rotation right on Alpine. Then I stashed it, in lieu of my burgeoning Droid role. Why maintain two primary light weight devices when one does almost all of it, and realistically the AWS cli is a solid replacement for my one pain point?
Well hindsight, here we are!
Out of necessity I pulled the Chuwi out again. I need a way to work with Terraform and Ansible. I need the AWS cli and the web console. And I now need to maintain a personal apk repo for the Hashicorp tools I use, which will be ultimately easier to do on x86_64 than it is on armv7. Maybe if I get free time I'll do it anyways, but for today this is the solution. All of that brings us to, the actual hardware review.
A damn fine netbook
- Celeron J4125 4c @ 2.7
- 6GB RAM
- 128GB emmc
- 128GB m2 SSD
- 2 USB ports, 1 USB-C port, 1 Micro SD Card Reader
- 1 mini HDMI port
Let me first just say, I actually kind of fell in love with this little computer. It is just powerful enough with it's 4c Celeron CPU, while still remaining extremely lightweight and low power. I can easily run 8-10hrs on a single charge if I'm just working in a terminal, and even handling tons of compilation maintaining packages I can still easily get 4-6 hours. Realistically that's not something I do on the go. But for simple web browsing, accessing even heavy web apps like the AWS console, the 6GB of ram & strong enough CPU make it all possible to fit into the "emergency travel laptop" niche that I mentally delegate UMPCs to.
But Will, UMPC's have terrible keyboards that are cramped and a massive PITA to type on. Obviously you don't care about your hands or wrists because you insist that the keyboard on your droid is good, but I can't handle that!
Honestly, me neither. The keyboard isn't as nice as a brand new Lenovo Thinkpad. It will absolutely never compete with soothing balm for my wrist pain that is an ergodox or any split ortholinear keyboard. But it is good enough. Good enough for on the go, as a primary travel system, or in the case of an emergency. The keys are mushy switches, but they're quiet and have a good enough click. They're also large enough that you can touch type large documents, like this blog post, without inducing pain in the hands. But if you sincerely think that you can spend all day, cross multiple days, typing solely on this tiny keyboard? Then you are in for a world of hurt, which was my exact experience attempting to use it as a sole daily driver across the course of a week.
But that's fine in my mind. The netbook makes up for it with a crisp clear screen, a nice metal body that feels rugged and robust enough to toss into the bottom of a bag. And it runs Alpine, without wifi issues, with only minor graphical glitches which I'm positive stem from XFCE4/LightDM and not the hardware itself in any way. Hell, it can even boot Windows or ChromeOS Flex if for some reason you must suffer through those operating systems. That's a whole lot of flexibility in an 8in package. And the secondary m2 hard drive slot offers even more options if you want to dual boot your system. Just install Linux and whatever else to the second drive. Or install Alpine on both and run the second as a backup in the even the emmc dies, or vice versa.
The one thing I don't love massively is the little touch pad sensor node that sits between the space bars and the B/N key. Or the size of the miniaturized arrows keys or ,./ keys. They can be awful hard to press, and I find myself miss-pressing those a lot. And the sensor, while actually conveniently placed for touch typing, isn't quite sensitive enough for my tastes. I find that it is almost perfectly calibrated for minute adjustments, but scrolling from one side of the screen to the other, or in between workspaces on XFCE4 results in 5 large strokes across the sensor just to read the other side. It's a great feature to have though, and I'm glad it's here.
Frankly, the laptop is better setup to support a tiling window manager, and I've been meaning to put I3 on it, but since I never got around to it, and I had an hour and a half ferry ride in which to write this, I just stuck with what I knew. I'm almost certain that any tiling window manager would alleviate this specific pain point, and that in something like Ratpoison or I3 the mouse sensor would work perfectly fine.
So what's next then?
I don't think I'll ever fully replace my droid, it's just more convenient for light weight travel where the focus doesn't need to be constantly maintaining and building systems. But this netbook has a role to play, and I think I'd be spending more time trying to stubbornly support systems to only partially work, preventing me from spending my time doing something I enjoy more. And in the scheme of things, technology is meant to serve a purpose, meet our needs and enable our abilities. And to that end, the Chuwi does just that. It is a stalwart travel companion, just a little more capable than the droid is.
If I ever am to pick this up as a daily driver, I would need to consider a nice split ergonomic keyboard. Such as a wireless corne, or an ergodox. The entire laptop could nestle right in between both halves and the mini HDMI port would let me hook it up to a large external monitor which would be a delightful setup. IRC on the little screen between the keyboard, productivity on the main large external monitor. Likely the touch sensor would work fine as a mouse in that setup as well. I haven't tested that idea out, but I'll give it a shot and throw a screenshot at the end of this post when I do.