Linux, politics, and other interesting things
I have just bought a EeePC 701 , 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 ). 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