Tuesday, June 02, 2009

More thoughts on the Asus EeePC 1000HE and Ubuntu UNR

So, as promised, I'm here to talk more about my new little laptop. Thus far, super happy. It's just the handy little thing that actually spurs me to use a laptop as they're supposed to be used. See, I started out a desktop guy, and only got my first laptop a few years ago. Thus, I wasn't really quick to start toting my computer around with me everywhere I went. I sort of plopped it down and used it in one location. Sure, I loved the ability to pick it up and move it around the house, but I tended to leave it behind when I went places. Even when I did take it with me, I would often find that I didn't use it that much. It was a good machine, but its battery life wasn't that stellar. When you only have around two hours of battery life before you need to find a plug, you tend to conserve, conserve, and finally just keep the darned thing in your hotel room.

Now, I'm a big guy with big hands, so I always assumed that I would prefer a large laptop with a full size-ish keyboard. In some cases, this is true. It took a while for me to get used to laptop keys altogether, with their short throws and sometimes squishy feel. That said, I have written a few hundred thousand words of various laptops, I suppose. I've also played through till the end of Diablo II: Lord of Destruction on my old one (an Acer w/ a Turion x2). More recently, I bought a laptop to replace a desktop in our downstairs office. This one was an HP Pavillion, also with a Turion x2 (hey, I'm an AMD loyalist, what can I say?). It's a big 17" monster, and works great as a desktop with a wireless keyboard and mouse attached. That said, when you slap it down at a table where you're talking to friends, they're pretty much hedged away from you. They just see your eyes over the top of the screen. Not exactly companionable, and with the characteristically bad battery life and portability of a big laptop, I knew that I wasn't going to be taking the HP on the road often. I don't believe it's ever gone further away from its little home that it took to hook it up the a printer.

Thus, I found myself looking for a third (oh, brother) laptop. When the netbook thing started, I was intrigued. Low price, tiny size, generally cute as a bug's ear. Love 'em. However, the 7 and 9 inch sizes tended to be just a bit too small for me to use to touch type. For a writer, without the ability to touch type, you're pretty much closed down. The computer is of no logical use, and is only a gizmo to tote around to no purpose. Then came the ten inch size. Just right. Still wee, but with big enough keyboards and screens that I wasn't squinting over my own knuckles to see the taskbar.

As has been documented here before, my first foray into netbooks was in the form of a Dell Mini 10. While it was certainly adequate to type and surf on, that was about all it could do. Due to a variety of issues, it just didn't fit my needs. One of those needs was to run Linux, so that I didn't have to be concerned with all the Windows security hassles. When I want a little 'net and word processing appliance, I don't want to have to worry about things like virus updates and spyware scans. That takes up too much time. It's like buying a pool just to skim the leaves out and scrub of the algea. No, sir. Don't like it. And the Dell wasn't compatible with any Linux distro, apparently. That, plus pokey performance and a growing feeling that the Windows partition wasn't particularly healthy, and it went back. I should have done my homework better, and I shouldn't have taken it on faith that, since people liked the Mini 9, that the Mini 10 would be the same quality machine. Bad execution of a great concept, Dell. You didn't fully bake that one before you started handing it out.

Okay, so I was then netbook-less. What to do? Well, lots of research. Reading a ton of reviews, comparing prices, stats, and so on. Settled on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, with the Atom N280. In blue, of course. Almost the same color as my Suzuki Burgman, which is a plus.


The Asus, from the very first, feels more substantial than the Dell. Before I turned it on, I went ahead and popped in a 2 gig memory stick (Corsair Value RAM, DDR2 667). Getting the belly plate off was a little fraught. It didn't come off very easily, but I'm hesitant to "he-man" anything. That, with me, generally ends in broken parts. I've found it better to finesse things off, if in doubt. Anyway, once the plate lifted, the RAM went in very easily, and the plate went back on with no issues.

The netbook started up and ran with no complants, recognizing the extra RAM without any fiddling in the BIOS. I spent the evening de-boning the Windows install and getting the programs I need installed (Openoffice.org, GIMP, etc.) In general, the Windows install wasn't bad. It had a fairly reasonable number of tasks running at idle (in the high 30's at the lowest), ran a reasonable Paging File size, (unlike the Dell), and was responsive. That said, I wanted to install Ubuntu Linux UNR as soon as I was able. On the Dell, the graphics had shot me down. Not so with the Asus. I'd done my homework this time.

Asus provides you with two equal partitions on the hard disk. I went ahead and put Ubuntu on the "data" partition, which comes to you blank. After initially being chicken and looking online to be sure that I wasn't going to cook the Windows install, I went for it. Easy as pie. No real difference from installing on any machine, other than going through the process of putting the disk image onto a USB stick. In my experience, the Windows disk imager didn't work, but I was able to do it easily enough by grabbing a package from the Ubuntu repositories.

Ubuntu 9.04 UNR works great. I think that the screen layout is easy to follow, and the methodology that allows each task to be a full-screen tab is easy to understand. But for a problem of my own making (shut down while updating), it's worked like a champ. Connects to wireless networks easily, has great range/reception on wireless, and Firefox 3 is, well, as strong as a small pony. I have no trouble streaming audio and video (with codecs installed, of course), up to and including watching Hulu video. High def would probably befuddle the Eee PC, but I think that would be mixing metaphors at any rate.

Now, a word about battery life. The ads indicate that I might expect to get up to 9.5 hours of life. This is with wireless disabled and with maximum battery savings enacted. With Ubuntu, I'm getting something on the order of 6 hours of battery life (I haven't disabled wireless). This is, to my mind, a very useful time period. I'm not worried about bringing my power brick along at this point. I did the whole ConDuit weekend without recharging or plugging in. I frequently use the machine without plugging in, even when I'm in my house. It's just not a compelling concern. I bet that I could get upwards of seven hours of life, if I were to twiddle with the settings some. I recognize that some of the power saving features are somewhat based in Windows, but I'm happy with the experience I'm getting. I've found that, using battery power, the netbook hardly becomes warm underneath.

Finally, the keyboard. It's generally quite good. After some practice, I can speed right along with the touch typing. I don't think I can quite hit the wpm that I could with the full 'board, but it's not bad. Problems: small right shift key and generally small 'board sees me touch the up arrow by accident. This is happening less and less as I get used to the 'board. I feel that the "chicklet" style keys lead to a stronger, more flex-free keyboard.

This netbook is a lot for the money paid. For about $430 including extra memory and shipping, I feel like it will really help me stay productive when I'd otherwise just stare into space. For instance, I took the Asus to the car dealership this morning when I went to get some work done on my vehicle, and I was able to do a bunch of typing, comfortably and without any drama. In fact, I outlined a whole book and wrote most of this article during my wait time. Pretty cool, huh?

Well, this article has turned into something of a white whale by now, so I'll sign off. Next time, I'll have a writing update and probably a link to a new disk from Magnatune. See you then.

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