A Week with an Eee PC

2008.12.19 in code, personal, and thoughts

Just after Thanksgiving, I ordered an Asus Eee PC 901 from Amazon. I had a few reasons for this rather large purchase: first and foremost, I want to work on Wayland with Robb, but need an Intel graphics card (we're planning on making this our RCOS project for next semester); it's fun to tell people I bought a new computer just to obtain a crappy graphics card; in addition, Kaylee's starting to show signs of age (being a year and a half old, and stuffed in my backpack and banged around daily... college life is not easy on a laptop, just ask Robb's, or Anthony's...), so I thought I should take a little stress off that machine; also, a little tiny laptop makes more sense in the classroom, gets out of the way more, and it's just plain adorable.

The machine I got is the Linux version, of course (more about that later). Intel Atom at 1.6 GHz, 1024x600, 9" matte display, keyboard about the size of my fingers, 20 GB SSD, 6-cell battery (lasts about 5 hours, though without wireless it's more like 8, and without X, 9), 802.11n, bluetooth, etc.

So! What have I found?

I love the keyboard. I wasn't expecting to so quickly adapt, but it's just fine for me! I'm writing this post on it, I write code on it, typing is no problem whatsoever. The small screen is no problem, either — it's led to me thinking a bit about how I use a computer, and I'll show you what's come of that later... it's plenty bright, too. The wireless card is extremely strong (comparable to, or perhaps better than the Thinkpad T61, worlds better than my MacBook Pro)... the camera is acceptable but I really don't care about little integrated webcams. The build quality is perfectly acceptable, it's no aluminum MBP, but it's not as flimsy as, say, the poor parts of the T61 (everyone I know with a T61 has parts flaking off... unsurprisingly, if you play with it for a minute). The design is ... poor, but not as poor as your run-of-the-mill laptop. To be honest, the Dell Mini 9 design is far superior, just in terms of jutting bits and the overall material consistency. For some reason, Carol prefers the Eee's design over the Mini, but she also has a sunshine-yellow, cursive-font Amarok... (just teasing!)... here's what it looks like, and it's a reasonably adequate explanation of the feel of the design of the Eee, if the Mini 9 is iTunes: (and mind you, we still love Carol, just like we still love the Eee!)

The SSD is awesome, though it could have been significantly more awesome. It turns out Asus ships different SSDs in Europe vs. America; Europeans get transfer speeds of ~80MB/s, which is only slightly slower than Jayne's epic hard drives. However, my Eee (and many of the other American Eees) only gets  ~30MB/s, which is closer to the speed of the T61's hard drive. Nothing horrible, but certainly nothing to write home about, either. None of these speeds compare at all to the >200MB/s that people are getting with the new Intel SSDs, but those cost twice as much as an Eee by themselves! (someday, someday, I keep promising myself... two years, perhaps, with my Nehalem laptop :-D) In any case, it's really really nice to be able to swing the machine around without worrying about moving disks, especially with it being so small and light! (it's really too bad that there's still fans... and more unfortunate yet that the Atom runs warm...)

The trackpad is no problem, though I of course have the same problems with it as I do on my MacBook Pro: I cannot obtain an acceleration that I can deal with. I wish there were a magical "match OS X's mouse acceleration" button, but there's not... perhaps there will be in Wayland's input system. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

The Xandros install that ships with the machine is a piece of crap. Whoever thought that shipping Xandros was a good idea... needs to talk to whoever wrote the epic Ubuntu-based launcher that ships on the Mini 9. Anyway... after taking ten minutes to determine whether I had accidentally ordered a Windows XP Eee, Robb and I spent a few more minutes laughing quite hard on the floor in our room before grabbing an external CD drive and installing Ubuntu.

I've since hacked up my Ubuntu install quite a much: instead of a full GNOME, I'm using awesome, a tiling window manager, scriptable with Lua. This way, windows take up the full size of my display, always... I have nine "tags", which I currently use purely as virtual desktops, but which actually carry a bit more recombinational power that I have yet to learn to make use of. I keep Pidgin on the last tag, Thunderbird on the second-to-last, Firefox on the middle one, and tend to work on the beginning tags, heading right. This has worked well for me so far, though I think it's rather unconventionally simple compared to the crazy flexible way most awesome users work.

I've constructed a tiny kernel that has just what I need, and massively edited boot and shutdown scripts. Boot is between ten and fifteen seconds now. Halt/reboot is like three, as it's basically just a sync and power down. I'd be able to do five second boot if I had one of the 80MB/s SSDs, but ... I don't!

There's a bunch of buttons built into this silver line between the keyboard and the hinge — I've got them set up to a) play the Jayne song, from Firefly b) xkill c&d) turn on and off the VGA port, auto-detect its resolution, and (if turning it on), set the background to a plain color, for "presentation mode". They're pretty cool, even if I don't usually like extra buttons. I use GNOME-Do for most other launching tasks...

The new hostname is Simon, of course, what with the Eee being a PC (so it must be male), but rather effeminate, and fitting in with my recent Firefly naming scheme...