The Asus Eee PC: An Ultra-portable laptop PC with GNU/Linux pre-installed

The Asus Eee PC: An Ultra-portable laptop PC with GNU/Linux pre-installed


I don't know when I was last so excited about a Christmas present, but when this little laptop arrived on my doorstep on Christmas Eve I was drooling with anticipation--even if I had bought it myself.

Four days of intense Googling to locate a UK website with one in stock nearly melted down the Google server farms but in the end I managed to locate (a white) one on a Friday and by Monday morning I was tearing at the wrapping with the intensity of an excited five year old and, as I hope you will agree, with good reason.

I don't believe in keeping good news to myself so I'm going to share my experiences with you over the new four weeks or so, the creative inspiration of the muses notwithstanding. The paen of praise to the little wonder will be in four parts. Part One will deal with technical specifications, Part Two with getting a full (advanced) desktop up and running with the default installation, Part Three with installing an alternative GNU/Linux distro and Part Four with tips tricks and hacks.

I've rarely if ever read a review of a piece of software or hardware that was given unqualified praise by the reviewer and the Asus Eee PC will be no exception. If I don't find some fault with it, then you can be sure that someone else will, so with that caveat let's get have an initial look at the meister-machine.

The specs mam, just the specs

As a mobile road warrior the Eee PC does not require a top-end specification. If you want to run processor and memory-intensive applications stick to a well specified and relatively expensive machines. At approximately two pounds in weight and just over £200 in price (about $400(US)) this is an ultra-portable laptop that undercuts virtually all of the opposition in both categories. It's dimensions (8.86"W x 6.30"d x 0.79"h) mean that it is sufficiently small to fit in a very small briefcase or a ladies' handbag. It comes (currently) in Galaxy Black or Pearl White, with four more colours to follow, with a BIOS, speakers and a webcam built-into the lid, a seven inch LCD screen (800x480) which is crisp and bright and with keyboard options to adjust brightness and volume levels, three USB(2.0) ports, a VGA out connection, a Kensington lock, a slot for SD cards, R11 and RJ45 connections and headphone and microphone sockets and a configured touchpad. The cooling fan is very quite and rarely kicks in. The keyboard is of course small but once you have used it for a while it becomes easier.

The processor is an Intel Celeron mobile-M ULV 900MHz (in reality running at 630MHz due to the speed of the front-side bus setting but this can be changed), complimented with a default 512MBs of DDR memory and a 4GB solid-state flash drive (with 8GB model to come). The factory default comes with a customized version of Xandros. The Easy Mode default boot time is fifteen seconds. Yes, you read that right, and even after you have enabled the Advanced Desktop the boot times are still very fast--about thirty seconds. Shut down, approximately 10 seconds.

You can't really complain about those specs with the possible exception of the processor, though, unless you are running a really big processor-intensive application, this should prove adequate for those you will run on the move: e-mail, surfing, playing music, watching movies or composing text. For those of you who owe it as a point of geek honour to hack the hell out of the factory defaults, it is possible to tweak the processor speed to the full specification and if you feel that the memory is not adequate for your purposes you can upgrade that for most models of the Eee Pc. Beware the "surf" models with soldered-in memory but don't worry about the warning on the underside about voiding the warranty if you open the RAM door because Asus have cleared that up as they also have done to answer criticisms that they violated the terms of the GPL by releasing the source code. Upgrading to 1GB of memory is simple but if you wish to upgrade to 2GB you will need a Kernel that supports this feature. In either case, as there is only one slot, upgrading is a relatively expensive option - unless you can recycle the spare memory in another machine.

Everything bar the kitchen sink

Before I look at the software side of things, just some words of fulsome praise about the capacity of the Eee PC to handle everything I could throw at it. Despite the fact that GNU/Linux has make immense strides with automatic hardware recognition (wireless cards excepted perhaps) I was still delighted that I couldn't phase the little machine: External USB drives, USB flash drives, Iriver (H340) MP3 players, Archos Freeview TV and recorder, USB keyboard, external monitor (including a 20 inch LCD Television in PC mode). It recognized them all without breaking sweat. When you're out and about some of these will not be applicable but when you're home it nice to know that it can handle so much.

Wireless with clout

It's very arbitrary to single out one piece of hardware but the item that impressed me most was the built-in wireless card (Atheros 802.11g). Why? Because it works out of the box and can be enabled or disabled from the keyboard (Fn+F2) and because it has a range that leaves my pluggable Belkin wireless card on the starting block for speed and range. It recognized my D-Link Router straight off and as my neighbours across the road kindly left their routers in their default configurations the Atheros card duly picked them up and I did a spot of piggy-back surfing. Out and about it was picking up wifi from over one hundred metres. If you are not impressed by that then you might be interested in the fact that the 802.11g wireless card can be replaced with an 802.11n card (see the weblink in the next paragraph).

Full-frontal hardware hacking (without the staples)

The Eee PC is, as you may have gathered, eminently hackable. Months before I managed to get hold of one, hardware hackers were hard at work literally taking it to pieces and doing all sorts of things. There are many sites detailing this but if you have to choose one, then point your browser here to view the ultimate meta-hacking site experience for internal upgrades: Fitting Bluetooth, an FM transmitter, GPS with antenna, card reader, power switch, USB hub, flash drive and more.

Conclusion

This has been the briefest of forays into the basic hardware specifications of the Asus EeePc. It is not definitive, or intended to be so. I hope that it has whetted your appetite to discover more for yourself and if it has then perhaps you will join me for Part Two to explore getting the advanced desktop up and running and experience the full on GNU/Linux desktop.

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Comments

Terry Hancock's picture

Given that these machines have very similar specs to the OLPC laptops, I wonder if one could install Sugar on them and achieve a near-match to the OLPC XO platform (for those who can't get one)?

blaine's picture
Submitted by blaine on

Hi Gary. When do expect to publish part 3 of this series?

I realize that you'll probably cover this in part 3, but I am really being inhibited by my current laptop so I need to get a new one ASAP. I see very little about OS support (default or "other") on the Asus site. Could you opine on whether you think OpenSuse would install successfully, esp. for wireless and audio hardware support? Based on past experience, I fear that the drivers will be only work with the supplied OS. I've had nothing but trouble with wireless on Linux; and even in 2008, sometimes audio just will not work right.

Do you know what forms of wireless security are supported, 128 bit WEP, WPA?

I don't expect detailed answers, since you probably intend to cover this stuff in part 3... I just want your advice on whether it's worth attempting. I don't mind digging in and figuring this stuff out, but I don't want to put up $400 if I won't ever be able to get OpenSuse working on it with audio and wireless. I am handy, but I don't have time to write write my device drivers from scratch.

Gary Richmond's picture

Hi Blaine,

Firstly, sorry about taking so long to get back to you but I have been very busy with other stuff and I tend not to look at my articles again once they are done and dusted! (something about a dog and its vomit).

Yes, I will be covering this all in Parts two and three. In the meantime, as the EeePC comes preinstalled with a customised version of Xandros I can tell you that the wireless card worked "out of the box" (and that wasn't the only thing as you will discover in a postscript in Part Two). Getting the wireless card working with other customised versions is important to the hacking future of this little machine. Suffice it to say, a lot of great work has been and is being done out there and most of these customised versions for the EeePc seem to have made that a high priority as well as ensuring that other hardware works too. As they say, stay tuned for all sorts of good news!

There will be lots of useful links to help you with both the default (Part Two) and alternatives to Xandros (Part Three). Off the top of my head I think I came across something about installing OpenSuse on the EeePC and I will try and include something about it in the third piece.

Regards

Gary

Author information

Gary Richmond's picture

Biography

A retired but passionate user of free and open source for nearly ten years, novice Python programmer, Ubuntu user, musical wanabee when "playing" piano and guitar. When not torturing musical instruments, rumoured to be translating Vogon poetry into Swahili.