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Review of the EeePC 701

I have just bought a EeePC 701 [1], I chose the old model because it’s significantly smaller than the 90x series and a bit lighter too and it had Linux pre-loaded. Also it was going cheap, while I am not paying for it I give the same attention to saving my clients’ money as to saving my own. I ruled out everything that was heavier or larger than an EeePC 901 and everything that cost more than $700. That left only the Linux version of the EeePC 901 (which I couldn’t find on sale) and the EeePC 701 as my options. I also excluded the EeePC 900 because it is bigger and heavier than the 701 but has the same CPU (and therefore can’t run Xen).

In terms of it’s prime purpose (a SSH client) 96*22 characters is the size of a konsole screen with the default (medium) font size when the window is maximised, that is 5% more characters than the standard terminal size of 80*25 but the smaller number of lines is a problem. When using the small font I can get 129*29 which I find quite comfortable to read (it would be impossible for me to read withut glasses – which means having almost average vision for someone in their 30’s). Then I can get 129*31 if I dismiss the tool bar at the bottom of the screen and could probably get another couple of rows if I removed the tabs that Konsole uses to switch between sessions. That would only be viable if using screen extensively as a single session without the ability to switch between programs is not particularly useful (I don’t think that ALT-TAB is adequate for switching between terminal sessions). When running Debian I can get 130*32 with the same font due to smaller window controls, but I’ll write more about converting to Debian in another post. Note that while the OS that ships with the Linux based EeePC machines is based on Debian, it is heavily customised and has some notable differences from a typical Debian install. It has some proprietary software, and uses unionfs for the root and /home filesystems.

The first issue is that Console (the KDE terminal program) can only be accessed from the file manager (via the tools menu or ^t), the machine clearly doesn’t have defaults for someone like me. In principle it’s a multi-user system that can be fully customised, but in practice it’s configured as a single-user machine. Once you have a Console window open you can run “su -” and the root password is the password for the “user” account.

I wonder whether I could get more than 42 rows or more than 140 columns of text that is readable. If so then I could have two console windows fully displayed on screen.

The screen is bright and clear, this is essential as the number of pixels per character is going to be low for any reasonable amount of text to be displayed on screen.

The password that you set when you first use the machine also works for “su -” (in fact that is the only real use as I expect that almost everyone will choose the automatic login option).

The display comprises a significant portion of the weight, if the screen is fully open (about 150 degrees) then it will tip over. Even when the screen is not as far open it will tip due to bumps if resting on your lap on a tram. It’s a pity that the screen is connected at the very back of the base, if the attachment point was a bit closer then it would balance better and also be easy to hold with one hand. The depth of the machine combined with the angle at the back makes it impossible for me to get a good one-handed grip from the base, so typing while standing on a moving tram or bus will be extremely difficult (unlike my iPaQ which I can use at full speed on any form of public transport). Inidentally it would be good if there was an attachment point for a wrist-strap, every camera and most mobile phones have them so it would be good to have the same safety feature in a laptop to facilitate use on public transport. Another reason for not using it as a PDA is the fact that it takes about 7 seconds to resume after hibernating (when the lid is closed).

The PSU is almost as small as that of a mobile phone! This is a major benefit as in the past I have often stored a Thinkpad PSU at a client site for 9-5 jobs as it is heavy enough that I didn’t want to carry it on public transport. The EeePC PSU is light enough that it won’t be unpleasant to carry, and small enough to fit easily into a jacket pocket.

The OS installation is very well done for the basics. It’s easy to launch applications and there is a good selection of educational programs (including the periodic table, planetarium, typing, letters, and hangman, drawing, and a link to www.skoool.com). It’s a pity that they organised the folders according to the area rather than the age, but generally the OS is very well done. Most of the reviews focus on the speed of the CPU, the RAM expansion options, etc, but miss the fact that it is a really nice machine for using as-is.

It is a much better machine for teaching children than any of the machines I’ve seen which are sold specifically for children (see my previous post about an awful computer for kids [2]). I believe that you could give an EeePC to any 3yo and have them doing something useful in a matter of minutes! The ability to freely install new software should not be overlooked when considering a computer for children to use. Someone who buys one now could use it for a few years as an ssh client and then reinstall the original OS and give it to a child as an educational toy.

It has a program to create OGG video files from it’s built-in camera and mic, at this moment it’s the only device I own that can create OGG files (this is a good thing). OGG compression takes a really long time, the Atom CPU in the 901 and 1000x series would be good for this. It’s a pity that the microphone is directly below the mouse buttons, it clearly records the mouse click used to finish recording. The version of mplayer which is installed to play OGG files can also play FLV files downloaded from youtube with youtube-dl (althrough the file association is not set). When I tried to play a MP4 file from ted.com it only gave audio (the video works on a full Debian/Etch installation).

There is a full set of office software, OpenOffice.org, Thunderbird email client, and all the other stuff you might expect.

I find that the biggest problem for using it is the size of the keyboard, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to touch-type properly on it. Not only are the keys small but the positions of non-alphabetical keys are slightly different from most keyboards. Another problem is that the space-bar needs to be pressed near the centre, I usually like to press near the end but that doesn’t work. Those issues are all trade-offs of the small size. My T series Thinkpad is reasonably portable and has a great keyboard so I have the serious typing while travelling angle covered.

One real mistake in the keyboard design is the lack of a LED to indicate whether caps-lock is enabled (there are four status LEDs, adding number five couldn’t be that expensive), this is a real problem when using the vi editor (which uses letters as editor commands and is case-sensitive). It will also occasionally cause problems when entering passwords. There is a caps-lock indicator on screen, but that is in the toolbar at the bottom of the scren (which I like to dismiss to gain an extra two lines of text). It would be good if I could display the status of the caps and num lock keys in the right side of the title-bar of the active window (the only bit of unused space on the screen).

The cooling fan makes an annoying buzz. It’s significantly louder than Thinkpads which dissipate a lot more heat.

The other problems are all software, which is OK as I plan to reinstall it. Firstly it is using Debian and shipped with the broken openssl library. There is a GUI for installing upgrades, but it recommends rebooting after installing each one! Naturally I didn’t choose to reboot, I installed the security update #1.

Then I clicked on the button to install a BIOS update. It told me that it had to reboot to apply the update and gave only one button (OK), I tried closing the window but it rebooted anyway (fortunately the vi swap file allowed me to recover this post – which I am entirely writing on the EeePC).

Aftere booting up again I discovered that the libssl bug still wasn’t fixed and that there was a second udate to apply! Why can’t they have a “apply all updates” button and also have it not automatically reboot? This must be the only Debian-based distribution that forces Windows-style reboots.

But that said, while they made some mistakes in their software it generally provides a good user experience

6 comments to Review of the EeePC 701

  • I have a few small comments. First off the 90x is about exactly the same size as the 701, because of the bezel around the 701’s screen. So I don’t know if I misunderstood your post, but I thought you meant that the 90x was bigger. Second I’ve read in a few places that the 900 would have it’s cpu running at 900 MHz, even though it’s the same as in the 701 where it runs a bit slower, to me that would seem as a definite plus (even though it’s possible to have the cpu in the 701 run at 900 MHz).

    I have a 701 myself too, but I planned on replacing it within about half a year, so I got one with pink top and gave it to my girlfriend, who currently is an avid Mac user. I planned on upgrading to a 901, but I’ve changed my mind and want to go for the MSI Wind now… The thing I really dislike about the eee pc 70x/90x series is the keyboard, especially the shifted row you pointed out. I expect to do a lot of programming on my netbook, so I don’t want to miss every special character I type. And the keyboard’s a bit bigger too.

    About the default OS on the 701: I think it’s fine if it can give you what you want. I think the same about ubuntu. If you want something special then you got to fix it yourself. For instance my girlfriend needed more than pre-shared key wireless security, so the wireless modules needed to be replaced, wpa supplicant had to be replaced and there’s no gui to change network settings that were not supported by default. Luckily some people ran into the same issues and created packages or tars for the modules and wpa_supplicant that work with the default eee pc kernel, because I wouldn’t like having to compile a kernel for the eee pc (acpi patches and more). It took me some time to get OpenOffice to do spellchecking correctly, or actually it took me some time to get the dictionaries installed. Besides these issues (issues my girlfriend ran into, I don’t use it that much) I think the default OS is quite alright for the average joe.

    I hope that when you have debian running you can tell some more about it, I think debian is a very good choice for a custom OS on the eee pc. Personally I think I’d use XFCE with a VTE based terminal (evilvte, xfce’s Terminal, gnome-terminal), should do fine for a lot of work on the go.

  • Since I rarely use Caps Lock, but frequently use pipes and backslashes, I remapped the key, see http://wiki.eeeuser.com/howto:fixpipeandcapslock

    Now I don’t care that there’s no Caps Lock indicator LED, since I have no Caps Lock key!

    Fingers crossed the libssl bug will be fixed by a new update soon.

  • etbe

    Michael: I’ve just reviewed the wikipedia page and it seems that the 900 is 5mm deeper than the 701 and weighs 70g more. While 7% greater depth and 3% greater weight isn’t a lot, that combined with a significantly higher price makes the 900 quite unappealing.

    The 900 has more flash storage and RAM. I just bought an 8G SD card which gives a total of 12G of storage (vs 20G for a 900) and the 900 has 1G of RAM (I’ve only got 512M). But I expect that I could upgrade the RAM in my 701 and still have paid significantly less than I would for a 900.

    One thing that I didn’t consider before I purchased is that a built-in camera might actually be worth using. So the higher resolution camera in the 900 series and above is a benefit.

    Jonathan: Interesting idea about removing caps-lock.

    As for libssl, I’ve just installed Debian on my EeePC so the security support that ASUS offers is not of no direct interest to me. I suspect that few people who use the default OS on an EeePC will be using ssh.

  • sbdep

    WRT the reboot after package upgrade, that came about due to an underlying bug in unionfs. I am not sure if that is still required in the 900 or 901’s.

    The bug relates to a unionfs corruption when installing packages. Since you are installing to the writable portion of the unionfs mount and not the read only portion, it seems that there is a bug when updating executables that causes the fs to get a corrupted view of the file, causing segfaults every time you use the updated application, until you reboot to get unionfs to resync it’s view of the filesystem.

    The 900s and 901 use aufs instead of unionfs which does not have this problem. Although I am not sure if the application updater requires the reboot basd on the model, requires it unconditionally.

    I do now that there is work ongoing to add better/more wpa/wep encryption modes to the system, and I believe the 901 has more support since they have an updates version of the OS package set, whereas the 900 is based on the same package set as the 701.

  • etbe

    sbdep: Rebooting to work around a bug is fair enough. They had to get their product to market and that meant not fixing all bugs before release, I’ve been in that situation before. Suggesting an unnecessary reboot for a consumer device aimed at Windows users also isn’t so bad as there is a cost to having various models act differently (Linux users can figure out which models need a reboot and act accordingly).

    However it is still bad to have packages installed separately, if there was an “upgrade everything and reboot” button (which clearly indicated the issues) then I would not complain as much. Also there is no excuse for the unconditional reboot on upgrading the BIOS.

    As for better wireless support, when running the EeePC distribution my machine went so slow as to be unusable (the mouse cursor didn’t work properly) when scanning for wireless. They definitely need to improve things in this regard (I’ve just installed Debian but not tested out how it works in this regard).

  • dam

    Since you are (naturally) going to install Debian on it, take a look at http://wiki.debian.org/DebianEeePC . Even if the standard Debian install should work (unless you need the wireless — it requires madwifi), the wiki contains many useful tips and could save you some research.