Updated: November 6, 2010
When it comes to computers, I'm a bit promiscuous. The more the merrier. And so it happens that I bought myself yet another piece of hardware, an Asus eeePC netbook. Why, you may ask, since I already have the rather powerful LG and HP notebooks running high-end graphics and a plenty of RAM?
The answer is simple. When you travel, you can't afford to lug extra poundage with you. What you need is a lightweight, small-size, ultra-portable mobile device. Even more importantly, you want a device with a long battery life. Most laptops manage only a handful of hours at best, they heat up like a furnace, and they can't quite fit onto a plane's food tray. And smartphones simply don't cut it, being really too small and annoying.
Of course, it's not all about practically. It's about fun, elegance and the illusion of affordability. Shelling out just a few hundreds of dollars for a computer sounds like a good deal, no matter how you look at it. When you combine size, battery life, price, and your irrational need to spend, you end up with a netbook.
All right, you're convinced. Now let me showcase this thing.
My eeePC is a Seashell series, done in elegant dark red. Really stylish. The thing feels robust and the cover has a kind of a suede feel to it. The keyboard is sturdy, with good spacing between keys, allowing for fast, rather error-less typing.
The machine has an Atom 450N hyperthreaded processor clocked at 1.67GHz, 1GB 667MHz DDR2 RAM, a basic Intel graphics chipset, and a 250GB 5400rpm disk. You also get 1024x600px resolution, Wireless N, three USB ports, a VGA port, and a smart-card reader. Fairly standard, yet fairly decent. It cost me 325 US dollars, paid in Oregon, where there's no state tax. Booyakasha.
Now, even after declaring the little thing at the customs and paying VAT, I still managed to save approx. 150 dollars compared to local price, which is what I call a bargain.
Still, I had to admit this was my longest-debated purchase of electronics. A friend of mine and I spent literally two days touring shops, checking prices, comparing specs. There was another great machine offered, an HP thingie with a 1368x788px resolution, a 7200rpm disk and 1.8GHz 455N processor, available for 379 dollars, alas it was out of stock that day, except an all-pink monstrosity. Overall though, the Asus machine felt sturdier and a tad prettier, even though with a bit lower specs. But still ... Anyhow, that gives me a sort of a reason to go financially promiscuous in near future.
Now, what happens when you press the power on button?
And the operating system is ...
Oh, so you may be wondering what this thing runs. You can see above that there's a little Windows 7 logo. The machine came pre-installed with Windows 7 Starter edition, which is definitely not what I intended to use. In fact, I did not even bother with the first boot.
My choice for installation was Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.04, which is Lucid Lynx optimized for Atom processors. At that time, this was the latest release, and now I'm considering installing and trying Maverick, since it really looks great, especially the netbook edition. but more about that experiment in the future.
Like my previous trial with MeeGo, getting USB to boot was not simple, but I managed it more easily this time. I had to be quick with my fingers, because the BIOS menu was disabled and whatnot. Eventually, I unveiled it, got UNR to boot before the Starter edition and I was on my way. Half an hour latter, the machine was purring with Ubuntu, all dandy and posh.
UNR discovered all of the hardware without any problems, including the very neat, very Mac-like two-finger scrolling touchpad. But there were a few small hardware issues.
All of the function keys worked, except the Fn + F3 touchpad toggle. It did not work. Furthermore, it was impossible to disable touchpad clicks while typing in the mouse preferences, which made for a rather awkward experience. I solved the problem by adding an ACPI Linux override option to the kernel line, plus using the Eee Control system utility to manage the function keys. This produced a tiny collateral issue of not showing the monitor lighting level notification, but another GRUB tweak fixed that. Now, it works as expected, with one tiny exception. Suspending the machine with the touchpad disabled will cause the touchpad to remain toggled off after resuming the session; external mouses (mice) keep working just fine. And I would appreciate an ability to exit the eeePC utility without killing the process; a right-click option would be nice.
The Eee Control utility is very handy, allowing all kinds of fine-tuning for your hardware. You can also configure the hotkeys any which way you like, although I recommend you go with the symbols displayed on your keyboard to avoid confusion. You can also throttle your CPU for extra power saving, in case you're running on battery.
Left and right clicks, respectively, and as you can see, no exit option.
Not all is lost. Far from it. UNR 10.04 is a blast! It's fast and responsive. Firefox opens in about 1 second, suspend & resume 2-3 seconds most. Youtube plays smoothly. Video plays well in moderate to high definition; things become a bit jittery only when you go wild with resolution and bitrate. You can multitask pretty well, with several programs open and running elegantly.
Another strong point. Asus advertises their battery life at 10.5 hours of use! I was wondering if this were just a gimmick, but it seems like it's not. With Wireless turned on, my eeePC manages approx. 5-6 hours. With Wireless turned off, it can do 8.5-9 hours. With even more rigorous power saving, including throttling the CPU down and using the monitor at its lowest brightness level, with just average use, you can most likely scrape the 10 hour mark. Very good.
The 8.5 hour notification is not just a number; it's been battle tested.
Overall, eeePC is snappy and revvy when running UNR Lucid, taking fairly minimal resources. Even for someone who dislike low-end machines, I find the performance to be extremely good, including network speed.
On top of all that, you have three years of support, all-system updates and tons of great programs, including the standard Ubuntu repertoire. For frequent travelers and socially conscious, there's a handful of applets for your favorite services, including micro-blogging, chatting, Twitter, as well as Cheese. If you need more, then you have the Ubuntu Software Center at your service.
The level of customization is also quite high. You can login into the Netbook session or choose the classic Gnome, which lets you add/remove applets from panel, change the basic looks and more. For example, I replaced the desktop background with the Mac starscape one, which kind of adds a surprise element. A great opening line with ladies of the opposite sex.
It's a Swiss army knife, by all means.
There you go, part hardware, part software review. But the two go hand in hand together. For me, eeePC is a very good purchase. Loaded with Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.04 Lucid Lynx, it's a powerful, flexible travel tool.
I am most pleased with the speed; totally unexpected considering the processor power and the hard disk. It's on par with bigger, meaner machines when it comes to daily stuff like media, basic multitasking, suspend & resume. And it has a phenomenal battery life. If you need a netbook, then you can't go wrong with the above combo. My grade: 10/10.