10.20.2008

Two Months with my Asus eeePC

Back in August I replaced my aging 15.4 inch Sony laptop with an Asus eeePC 900. This is somewhat of a review of my experience so far; wrestling with various operating systems and my impressions of the hardware.


Specs
The particular eeePC 900 I purchased from Newegg has the following specs:

Celeron M processor clocked @ 900Mhz
4 GB Solid State Drive for OS
16GB Solid State Drive for data
Xandros Linux
1 GB DDR2 RAM
1024x600 8.9-inch screen
webcam/microphone/vga out/sd reader

Operating Systems
First try...Egg
I decided to give the pre-loaded, linux based, Xandros OS a chance. The very first impression I had of it was quite positive. It booted EXTREMELY fast. In fact, the fastest boot of any operating system I have ever seen; 20 seconds. Once I logged in I quickly found my way around the simple tab based interface. It reminded me a little bit of Geo Works (an operating system that was on my first computer; a Laser 386.) I did my best to connect in my work email, extend firefox, customize it a bit and get some use out of it. I quickly became frustrated with the disappointing options for adding software and customizing the existing software. Besides the quick boot times - I really did not find anything good about the operating system that came on it. I didn't expect that I would like it; I simply wanted to give it a chance.

Correction - one more almost cool feature was the VoiceCommand application - though I found myself talking to my PC too much and felt a bit odd.

Second go Around - Caterpillar
After a week or so of Xandros - I decided to load Ubuntu 8.04 onto the eee PC. Ubuntu has been a solid performer for me on the desktop. It's a full featured operating system and comes with everything you need out of the box to be productive- this I will not deny it.
I easily loaded a live CD onto a flash drive and installed from there. Install went smooth and I think almost everything worked out of the box after a few minutes of applying some quick patches.
However, Ubuntu has become a very FAT distribution. Package dependencies are a bit of a nightmare. On my little eee PC this was simply too much. Boot times were disappointing and trying to remove extra packages was a nightmare with Ubuntu's heavy dependencies on tools that make the average Linux user's life easy. Those tools I started to hate more and more. Then I ran into some trouble getting my microphone to work and in a moment of desperation, I decided to try another operating system.

Third experimentation - Pupa
When I gave up on Ubuntu for being too fat I decided to give Windows XP SP3 a chance. For this, unfortunately, I was forced to buy an external CD-ROM drive. I ran into some trouble getting the eee PC to boot into an image of the Windows installer on a thumb drive. No big deal, I needed one anyways.
I decided to go with a slimmed down image of XP SP3 using XP-Lite. The install went smooth. Of course, nothing worked out of the box (networking, acpi, etc). Asus was nice enough to include a CD of the Windows drivers necessary to run on this machine. The driver install process took up almost 1.5 hours of my time. Once I got past that, the computer ran pretty well with XP. It booted quickly, seemed pretty stable, etc. I used it with XP for close to a month. One day I decided to tether my Blackberry Perl with the laptop to receive internet wirelessly. I loaded the huge program Blackberry Manager and proceeded with a sync. Failed. Many many failures and re-installations. The software slowed my computer to a crawl. It was pathetic. Then I was reminded why I don't use Windows - it gets way too slow once you add software. After some more disappointments - and lack of the basic Linux networking tools that I have grown to need, I decided once again to switch.

Fourth Iteration - Butterfly
For the final chapter of my eee PC, which I named Wall-eee after Pixar's latest masterpiece - Wall-E I decided to go with Debian Lenny. Lenny is Debian's upcoming release and is still considered "testing". Installation was not difficult since I already had an external CD drive. Out of the box, wired and wireless networking did not work. Wired networking was easy, wireless a bit more work but simple using module-assistant. I decided to go with xfce4 as my desktop enviornment. Finally, I felt right at home. I was in full control of the packages that were being installed - nothing extra, nothing fancy. Some of the applications I use on Debian are:
* xfce4-places plugin - quick access to folders, documents, and removable media (writen by my brother Diego)
* date-time plugin - a panel plugin that gives you better control of the (you guessed it!) date and time and shows a calendar - again partial to this because my brother maintains it.
* finch - an ncurses based front end to libpurple (pidgin). It's very lightweight and allows me to connect into AIM, Gtalk, MSN and others. It has full support for sending/receiving files - just console based so it's not "pretty".
* Unison - a 2 way file synchronizer that works over SSH using rsync - very useful for work.

Although configuration of Debain can be quite a task - I feel security in it's stableness and maturity. I have faith that when I change something it will stay the way I left it. In Ubuntu - there is little guarantee of that since they attempt to have everything pre-configured and re-configured to suit their taste.
With Debian, my eee PC boots in around 45 seconds. I improved on this by trimming some fat from boot up services, removing extra boot time packages - like some loggers and not using GDM as a start up manager (just log in and run startx). Next I will compile my own kernel with all needed packages compiled in, I will follow up what my boot time is after that.

Hardware
So far I have focused on the software with little mention of the hardware. I am absolutely in love with this piece of hardware. It's exteremely solid. The only moving part that I am aware of is the CPU fan, which seldom runs. The screen passes my hing test (I can pick the laptop up by using the screen and the screen hinge does not move). The camera and microphone get some good use using Skype or a softphone. Plenty of USB ports (they saved my sanity during Hurricane Ike by charging 2 iPods and my phone). The power adapter is very small. The machine weighs close to nothing. I carry it around everywhere. It's small size comes in handy when working on a 66 block or something where I'm referring to documentation (holding Wall-eee) and using a tool with the other hand. Battery life is comparable to my Sony - around 1.5 to 2.5 hours. Not impressive but not bad either. I'm sure I could squeeze more out of it by tweaking with the screen brightness, turning off wifi, throttling the CPU, etc. The keyboard is pretty easy to get use to - not full size by any means but I can type on it with relative ease.

In the end, I would recommend this PC to anyone who needs a super portable PC. If you have to do any extended work on a laptop - this thing is not for you. The screen real estate is lacking. If you are constantly moving around, booting up, changing network configs, running diagnostics, working in a cramped server closet - this thing is your best friend.