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Friday·06·June·2008

One month with Debian Lenny on the EeePC //at 19:15 //by abe

from the small-is-beautiful dept.

I ogled with an ASUS EeePC since it was announced, but didn’t want to order one abroad. So I waited until they became available in Switzerland. Digitec is the official EeePC importer for Switzerland and seeems also to be the moving power for yet to come the Swiss localisation of the EeePC. But initially they only offered imported EeePCs with German keyboard layout, but since I really got used to the US layout, I didn’t want to buy ay new laptops or keyboards with German layout.

When asking them about US layouts they told me they won’t import from the US and that their competitor Steg Computer is importing US models. But I wasn’t comfortable with Steg and EeePCs also were more expensive there, so I hesitated ordering at Steg.

So it was quite unexpected for me when US models showed up on digitec’s website. (Interestingly I never received any mail from their advertised EeePC newsletter, not even when they added 2G models t their repertoire.)

So at the end of March (and therefore later as most other geeks ;-) I ordered an ASUS EeePC at digitec. For me, white laptops look like Macs (and Macs are for sissies or masochists ;-) — so I had no problems to decide that I want a black EeePC with US keyboard layout. 2G was to small for my purposes (and also not that much cheaper) and 8G not available. So I went with the 4G, since Debian doesn’t need so much space if you choose the right packages (i.e. neither or at least not that much of GNOME or KDE ;-). I preferred the 4G over the 4G Surf because of the bigger battery capacity (and not because of the webcam which I consider funny but useless:-).

Initially the delivery date was set the 28th of March. Then it was subsequently set to “beginning of April”, “mid of April”, “end of April” and “beginning of May”. It finally arrived on 8th of May. In the meanwhile there were reports that even the 4G has been equipped with the smaller battery of the 4G Surf because of some battery shortage after some battery plant burnt down. But fortunately the delivery problems with black 4G US models doesn’t seem to have its reason there and my 4G has a 5200 mAh battery (at least according to its label and ACPI).

I also ordered a 2 GB bar of Corsair ValueSelect RAM so that I can pump up the RAM of my EeePC by factor four (for about 10% of the price of the EeePC itself) resulting in having half as much RAM as disk space. Well, I guess, I won’t do suspend to disk in that configuration… ;-)

The original Xandros based Linux only noticed 1 GB of the installed 2 GB as already noted on many other places in the web. But that doesn’t really matter, since it only lasted until I found out how to restore it from DVD in case I want to sell the EeePC later (e.g. for getting the successor). It’s fine for novices, but Linuxes feel strange if you can’t even get a console or a terminal with a command line. ;-)

The Debian EeePC installer worked fine except that it argued over a checksum error on our mirror which wasn’t reproducable after the installation anymore. I’ve chosen the EeePC to be my first (nearly) pure Lenny installation — compared to the three machines running Sid (i386, amd64 and kfreebsd-i386). It though has a few packages from experimental (mostly xulrunner-1.9) installed.

As window managers I have installed ratpoison, FLWM and FVWM. ratpoison — best described as screen for X (although you can’t detach and reattach) since it’s my personal preferences for being productive without big screen resolutions and flwm for a low-resource window manager which can be used intuitivly by both, geeks and non-geeks (and still doesn’t look like Windows at all ;-). And FVWM is installed because it’s my default window manager on all machines with bigger or multiple screens – to be able to compare it with my usual environment.

As web browser I’ve got Opera as primary browser (as everywhere else, too) and Conkeror (the EeePC is the test-case for upcoming Debian package of Conkeror) as well as links2 and lynx on the (nearly) text-only side on it, although I need them seldomly.

As office programs (as I would ever need some ;-) I’ve got AbiWord and Gnumeric installed since I already use a few GNOME applications (e.g. Network Manager, Twitux, etc.) and OpenOffice.org would take up 170 MB more disk space (then including OOo Draw and OOo Impress) and Siag Office is no more in Debian since years. (Initially I had OpenOffice.org installed instead of AbiWord and Gnumeric until I noticed that I need some of the GNOME libraries anyway.)

I also decided that I will need LaTeX then and when so TeX Live also got its chunk of the 4 GB of disk space.

I also have a bunch of games on the EeePC. Unfortunately there are a few games which don’t work well on the EeePC due to it’s resolution being smaller than 800x600, so I deinstalled them already again, e.g. I can’t play Cuyo on the EeePC but flobopuyo. Sauerbraten segfaults, but Doom (prboom with freedoom WADs) works fine. Further non-working games unfortunately include Battle of Wesnoth and XFrisk.

Still, although quite some parts of GNOME and GNOME Office, TeX Live, ScummVM with Flight of the Amazon Queen and Beneath a Steel Sky, GNU Emacs 22, Iceweasel 3 (aka Mozilla Firefox 3), Icedove (aka Mozilla Thunderbird) and the Iceowl (aka Mozilla Sunbird) are installed, only 2.3 GB of the available hard disk space are used by the installation (i.e. without my home directory).

Oh, and btw: Although except the very compact and a little bit wobbly keyboard the EeePC doesn’t feel really small to me (I’ve got quite small hands), but when I sat down in front of my 14” ThinkPad T61 after a day or two with EeePC, the T61, — especially screen and keyboard — felt huge as if it would be some 17” or even bigger notebook. ;-)

ThinkPad vs EeePC ThinkPad vs EeePC ThinkPad vs EeePC ThinkPad vs EeePC

OTOH I still think that a 1920×1200 (which means nearly four xterms in a row) resolution on a 14” notebook would be a good idea, especially compared to the 1440×900 (which means nearly three xterms in a row) my T61 has. ;-)

Personal Resumée after one month

Pro EeePC
  • It’s geeky. If you show up with it, people want to lift it to see how much it weights and try the tiny keyboard. They’re surprised that 800x480 aren’t that small and that the performance isn’t that bad.
  • Very compact and robust. With the T61 I always fear that its edges are too close to the the outside of my backpack and could be damaged that way.
  • The price of course: CHF 499 at digitec (plus CHF 54 for the 2 GB RAM)
  • Runs Linux ex factory. So yu don’t have to expect that many driver hassles.
  • RAM upgrades are very straight forward and do not void the warranty. (BTW: The sticker over one of the screws which probably should prove the integrity can be removed and placed again easily… :-)
  • The weight. 0.92 kg can be easily held wit one hand, also because of less leverage effect as with full-size laptops.
  • The SSD despite it’s size. Being such lightweight you accelerate the EeePC unmindfully even when it runs. But it doesn’t matter, at least not to the hard disk. And it boots very fast, especially after the usage of insserv.
  • Intergrated Ethernet network interface. (Hey, the MacBook Air hasn’t a builtin one, not even an external shipped with it! ;-)
  • Three USB sockets (the MacBook Air has only one which is usually taken for the Ethernet network adaptor — Ok, with the EeePC usually one is taken for the Bluetooth dongle, but then are still two sockets left… ;-)
  • Great contrast on the builtin screen.
  • External VGA output. You have to configure X.org to make the virtual screen big enough (e.g. 2048×2048 instead of the default 800×800).
  • Despite its size quite a lot of space for modifications inside the case. Especially a bluetooth case mode should be no big deal.
Contra EeePC
  • The keyboard: keys smaller than usually (ok, wouldn’t work otherwise ;-), very wobbly, no precise contact depth (pressing Shift and Fn with one finger often doesn’t press Fn right), not all keys on the same plane, unusual offsets between the key rows (the number row has about half a key width offset to the left) or position of keys (I often hit Ins when I want Home, Del when I want Backspace or Fn when I want Ctrl, the ~ key is between Esc and F1, Up is between Slash and Right Shift, etc.)
  • The position of the power button: It’s exactly where I want to put thumb when holding the EeePC solely with the right hand. And yes, I already accidentially switch it off several times because of that. For luck the button doesn’t work at all when the lid is closed, because you still can reach it easily while it’s closed.
  • The mouse button(s): It only has two buttons which are one part you can press more to the left and more to the right side. And if you press it in the middle you randomly get either a left or a right click. You have to press it very hard to get both clicks at the same time. (e.g. to emulate a third middle button). Three separated mouse buttons would have been way better.
  • It has (only) a touchpad. I definitely prefer thumbsticks as the ThinkPads have, but got used to it, though. I have seen worse touchpads, too.
  • The noisy and not very precisely beared fan, which seems to strife its environment when the EeePC is being accelerated. Whih happens quite often because of its size and weight and because the SSD doesn’t mind acceleration. The fan does mind – and you hear it. :-(
  • Some programs need minimum 800x600 resolution to work well.
Pro ThinkPad (in direct comparision)
  • Thumbstick.
  • One of the best laptop keyboards around.
  • Three easy to distinguish mouse buttons.
  • Even ressource-hungry programs like Liferea work fine.
  • Quite big screen resolution (1440×900).
  • Bigger battery, space for additional batteries.
  • Could be a workstation replacement.
Pro Lenny on the EeePC
  • The installer image of the Debian EeePC Project works out of the box. All necessary drivers are available, if you include the non-free repositories and the eeepc.debian.net repositories.
  • Stable enough for daily use. (IMHO Debian Testing – and even Debian Unstable – is more stable as many other distribution’s stable releases, e.g. those from SuSE.)
Con Lenny on the EeePC
  • My favourite feed reader Liferea has changed its cache format since the version in Debian Etch, so I can’t sync Liferea caches between my Debian Etch running T61 and the Testing running EeePC. Well, fortunately the version of Liferea in Debian Etch still works on Debian Lenny, so I just downgraded the package to the version from Etch and set it on hold. I don’t use it on the EeePC though since it needs way too long to start (about 10 to 15 minutes compared to 1 to 3 minutes on the T61)
Summary

I’m very happy with the EeePC and I didn’t expect that it would replace my 14” ThinkPad in so many (but still not all) situations. :-)

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