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Eee and ting

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Jan. 15th, 2008 | 01:13 am

Executive summary

I bought a 2 gig Asus Eee PC the other day. I like it a lot. You, if you have the option, should probably buy the 4 gig version, but I didn't.

Physically speaking

It's not a big thing, the Eee, as you can see from the pictures. The screen is smaller than the lid, too, since it has speakers on either side of it - resolution is 800x480, a peculiar ratio, but not so far away from the standard ones that you can't find wallpaper. It doesn't weigh an awful lot either, but it has a satisfyingly solid feel to it. One consequence of the light weight and the fact that the battery is mounted at the back is that if you put it on a table and tilt the lid back, you are in danger of it toppling over if you're not careful - the lid isn't that much lighter than the main part. So keep your hands on the keyboard if you do that.

Does it being small make it hard to use? At first I felt that the keys were a bit small for my big fat fingers, and I still make a few typos - the layout is slightly peculiar, too, for compactness - but you get used to the size quite quickly, and it has a nice crisp feel, even if a few of the keys round the edge seem to be poking up a bit. The screen is not huge, but it is extremely crisp and clear. If you insist on using the Eee all day, I predict that your wrists will drop off and your eyes will turn into cheese spirals, but it's not meant to be used for marathon coding sessions. A few hours is fine, and that's it's niche anyway; it's hardly a desktop replacement unless you are a Borrower.

I'm not a huge touchpad fan in general and the Eee's hasn't converted me, though it's not particularly bad. It's small of course, and it's a pain to move from keyboard typing hand position to touchpad using hand position, unless you are dextrous enough to use your thumb, which I'm not. I try to use keyboard shortcuts as much as possible. The touchpad does have a scrollbar bit on the side, which works... sometimes... and you can set it up for horizontal and 360-degree scrolling should the mood take you. NB On a Linux system, it would be nice to have a way to middle click that doesn't actually require you to take both hands off the keyboard and use both your thumbs to press both sides of the click bar at once (or at least it requires it for me).

Startup time isn't PDA-type instant, but isn't bad. In fact, I made a video of it. As you can see it takes around a minute from touching the power button to loading a page in Firefox. Waking from sleep is fine as well; it takes a little while to find the wifi again, 15 second or so, but that's it.

The initial environment

Boot it up for the first time and you get a couple of setup screens, taking about a minute to complete (basically, pick a name and a password - it doesn't even ask you for a username, it just creates an account called "user") and then you are straight into the standard front menu. This is ridiculously simple to use - tabs with big fat icons on them for a number of different programs with obvious names.

You can't accidentally remove this menu as, by default, it stays there behind your other windows. There are a few links built into it to things like Google Docs and common webmail locations, as well as some open-source educational programs - and it runs OpenOffice, too. (By default, this machine comes with considerably more software than a default XP install.) The window title bars and the buttons are deliberately themed to look like XP, and even the colour options available mirror XP. I can't see even the most neophobic Windows user finding it at all difficult to use this setup, or feeling the need to install Windows on it unless they had a very specific program that they needed.

I didn't take any screenshots of this "basic mode" since, as you will no doubt expect if you have ever read any other entries on this blog, I was eager to crack on and make the system mine. If you want to see some I suggest page 2 of the excellent Ars Technica Eee review.

By the way, bear in mind during the following that, as long as you don't completely reformat, the default setup can be reinstalled at any time by pressing F9 when you are booting. (It's stored on a separate partition.) I had to do this after borking the Eee somehow so that it wouldn't boot properly - I don't know how, I fell asleep and the battery ran out overnight and in the morning it didn't work - and it's very, very quick, equivalent to resetting a phone to factory condition. So don't worry that you might completely hose it and have to go through a horrible reinstall procedure.

General performance

Is it fast enough? Oh, definitely fast enough for me. I wouldn't try compiling a kernel on it but there are no noticeable speed issues with Firefox, OpenOffice and other fairly chunky programs, and it will play Flash and normal video better than my old G3 iBook will.

You don't get very much of the 2 gigs on the disc to play with - a few hundred meg - though I've not found that to be much of a problem so far. I would be more comfortable with a larger drive, but, eh, I can live with that. I'm not planning on using it for music or video. There's always the option of plugging in a fat SD card or a thumb drive to store documents on too.

As a note, the Eee does have a fan which makes a definitely audible noise, and it can get quite warm - not scorchingly so, but noticeably. It's not like a PDA in that respect either.


With a tiddly computer you want to be able to get data on and off it easily. First of all, it has three USB ports, so you can use flash drives should you want to.

Wifi - all you need to do is click on the icon on the taskbar to bring up a list of local networks, and if you want, you can save one as a default and tell the Eee to try to connect to that when it boots. I didn't encounter any signal issues while I was wandering around my flat with it, but that's not a terribly good test, so I can't say anything definitive there. I'm not going all over bloody London looking for signals so I can write a bloody blog post.

I have a Huawei 3G USB modem with a T-Mobile account, and it was ridiculously easy to get that working. Just plug it in and open the same utility, and you can add a new connection. It detects the modem and then all you have to do is tell it what network you're with; it has all the drivers already, and it fills in the correct details automatically. Easier than getting it working on a Mac come to think of it.

If you're tethered for a bit it also has an ethernet port, which I assume from general Linux experience works completely transparently. I've never heard of a Linux system having trouble there. Didn't try it myself, what's the need?

For the record, I am using two different methods to keep stuff in sync with my main iMac. Firstly, sftp to transfer stuff back and forward over the network, very quick and easy. Secondly, I use Subversion repositories for most of my work, and I've got a general "documents" one which I'm using here (this post is actually on it).


The basic mode was all very well, but I have a reputation as a penguin-fiddler to maintain here. I don't feel comfortable unless I have a terminal, for a start. Oh, what's this? Ctrl-Alt-T? Smashing. Actually, there are a whole load of hidden but enabled shortcuts - it even has multiple desktops for instance, switching between them with Alt+left/right arrows. This isn't a setup that goes out of its way to hide things by any means.

I had a quick look at the environment, and it's all much as you would expect from any proper Linux system. The distro, incidentally, is Xandros, and the window manager is IceWM by default. It's fairly trivial to install another WM but I like IceWM, and it's perfect for this sort of relatively low-spec machine anyway, particularly as it's so easy to configure and set up keyboard shortcuts with as long as you don't mind some simple editing of text files.

At this stage I looked at the user wiki for the Eee which is really, really good. I'm not going to bore you too much with the precise details of what I did, but there are a few steps that I consider vital here.

  • Restoring a proper environment. Obviously the basic mode launcher thing had to go, and I wanted to have things as close to a standard IceWM setup as I could. If you follow the steps listed to restore the start menu and restore more IceWM bits you will end up with something really quite different.

  • Installing some new software. This is definitely vital - as standard, the Eee comes with the basic things mentioned, a bash environment and several KDE apps, but that's not enough for me dammit! It has apt-get but the repositories that come as standard are pretty useless. So, follow the instructions to add new Xandros repositories. I haven't as yet put in any general Debian repositories; for the moment I seem to be okay.

    I added a few bits of software which I consider essential - FreeMind (and thus Java first), Subversion, Icedove or Thunderbird as you may know it. I've not gone overboard on this as I don't want to hose the thing again. However, they all seem to be working, and I have all of the standard command line tools you'd expect as well.

  • Fixing the font size. As mentioned in the Ars Technica review the default font sizes are a bit huge, and need changing. However, this isn't hard to do, the solutions being listed there. Actually, the whole review there has lots of good tips on modifications to make.

  • General menu- and preference-tweaking. I went through all the options I could find in the IceWM preferences file and altered ones that I felt like. So, for instance, there are only two workspaces now, and I might cut that down to one since I almost never use them; the built-in IceWM mail checker is now active and has been set to launch Icedove, though it seems not to like it when it launches and doesn't have a network connection, and after that refuses to check at all until you restart IceWM, so I may remove it.

  • Theme installation... I used an IceWM theme called gertplastik which has a compact, regular look to it. For both Firefox and Icedove I used the Whitehart theme.

I'll stop now.


I'm really fond of the thing. I can do actual proper work on it, and have done, writing project code and making mindmaps and adding notes and committing it all via SVN... I can play on the internet... I can do my mail... I can do it all wherever I am.

I'm aware that I am probably getting the best out of this because I already know a bit of Linuxing. I'm not afraid to hack around with the dot-files and I'm comfortable with the terminal and bash and apt-get and the filesystem when most people would go "eh?" However:

  • the modifications I've made aren't hard to do at all, believe me, no matter who you are

  • the wiki and the forum on eeeuser.com are really good, better than you usually get. I think this is because the users range from absolute beginner through to proper Linux geek with a distribution that is a bit more linear than your average Linux site.

  • you can't really screw things up, because there's always the option to completely reset the system to factory with F9.

I would thus encourage people to play about with it. Even if you only ever use the basic mode, though, you still have access to an awful lot of open-sourcey goodness, and the entire internet.

This isn't a full-size laptop, clearly, but it's got almost the power of one. It's not for extended periods of work (I suppose you could use an external monitor and keyboard if you already have one) but it doesn't pretend to be. It is, however, absolutely cheap as chips for what it does, and if you've ever, ever thought "I wish I had a computer here" this is what you want.

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Comments {3}

Rabbi Mindbender

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from: elijahdprophet
date: Jan. 15th, 2008 02:43 am (UTC)

Excellent review. I have been wanting to learn about this linux thing all my leet haxor friends are on about, I've also been looking for a good portable solution.

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get privacy for $5 via aussieintn

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from: aussieintn
date: Jan. 15th, 2008 03:36 am (UTC)

I'm waiting for the next generation, but I definitely must have one.

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from: anonymous
date: Jan. 15th, 2008 11:14 am (UTC)

Oh hell, now the OB will want one and I don't have a way of refusing! Except that as we have two computers and a PDA already we don't need anything more. Except, I would quite like it myself .....


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