L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

28 January 2008 Blog Home : January 2008 : Permalink

Asus Eee PC Review

My boss thought we should stop lugging around our large heavy laptops and try for something less shoulder injuring so he got me an Asus Eee (and now that I've given it my approval is getting one for himself). As the pictures below show, my eee came from a very nice and helpful Taiwanese via ebay (my bosses one is going to be a more official Swiss German version). We bought mine on ebay because it avoided a good deal of hassles with French keyboards (which are horrible), rumoured delays in shipping and the price, which was probably cheaper (slightly) when shipping etc. was included. As a bonus though I get to have Chinese characters on my keyboard and a paper manual I can't understand.
So what is the eee like as a device? Surprisingly useful given that it has an 800x480 resolution screen and a keyboard that is about two thirds the size of a regular laptop one.

I'm runing the Xandros linux distro that it came with at the moment although I'm probably going to stick Xubuntu on it shortly to improve performance (and because playing is fun).

The really good thing about the eee is that there is a large and knowledgeable user community - in addition to a whole load of blogs and reports that google finds there is also the eeeuser.com website and associated wiki and forums, all of which are filled with helpful hints and tips. As a result, customization is straight forward and petty annoyances are mostly avoided. However I'm going to describe the bog standard eee first because to be honest you don't really need most of the customization options and you certainly don't need to remove the OS as I'm about to do.

When the eee starts up it puts you in a mode where most of the things you want to do are available but classified as "Internet" "Work" "Play" etc. This is good and covers my work and internet needs pretty well (I haven't looked at the games and learning sections). You have firefox for web browsing, thunderbird for email, skype as well as open office and adobe reader for all those tedious document tasks. There is also the very excellent Xandros file manager which does one thing that I haven't noticed in my *buntu playing - namely provide a tool to automount samba fileshares. The file manager is also the way you get to a console window to let you do all the other stuff you want to do.

What is missing from the initial eee screen is a "start" button. Hence the only way to start applications is to press the "home" button on the keyboard which minimizes the running applications and lets you see the background. Another thing that is AWOL is the multi-workspace support and a third is the lack of a link to a regular text editor. Fortunately adding all those is about as trivial as can be (instructions), and at the same time you can add some other repositories such as the Xandros 4.0 one and do some other minor tweaks.

What you can't fix is the screen height issue and the fact that for some dialogs the OK button is below the bottom of the screen. Take Kalarm as an example program - although the effect manifests itself with others too - and see this image of the 480 pixel screen. Only when you plug in the external monitor (800x600 by default - it may be possible to increase this) do you see the rest of the dialog. You can try and drag the dialog up but it doesn't work unless you know the trick of pressing the ALT key as you click on the dialog and drag it. In fact this screen height issue is probably the one thing that really irritates me most about the eee. This is especially because it looks like you ought to be able to fit an 800x600 screen in instead of the 800x480 screen that ships. Those extra 120 vertical pixels would be a 25% increase in screen area and they would make a lot of activities (from writing to surfing the net to displaying powerpoint presentations and excel sheets) a lot better.

Other than screensize I can't see anything to gripe about really. The keyboard is surprisingly good - my main problem is that I'm used to a swiss/german QwertZ keyboard and my Chinese eee has a US QwertY keyboard - although the requirement to press FN for pgup pgdn home and end is slightly annoying. The video, wifi, ethernet and USB ports all work. There is a modem port that is blocked out - its going to remain that way for me because I can't imagine using a modem these days. The wifi and ethernet networking functions are easily enabled, configured etc. My major problem was in failing to spell my WPA key right - one of those trifling PEBKAC faults that can't be blamed on the product. One other minor gripe is that the File Manager option to auto reconnect network shares doesn't play well with wifi so that the stored first network share always fails because it is attempted before the wifi has got itself started. The only real irritation here is that it doesn't allow you to "retry" the mount attempt but just fails after telling you that the problem occured.

One of my expected uses for this will be to read ebooks. The eee is about the same size as a smallish hardback or thick trade paperback. I've tried reading some Baen HTML ebooks on the eee and they work out fine. I'm sure I could read them unframed to get a little more text per page but the framed version is perfectly adequate for me at present when firefox is put into full-screen mode. RTF ebooks and PDF ones are read by open office and adobe respectively. What is missing is support for other ebook formats - particularly MS Reader and Mobipocket. This is not the fault of Asus, it is the fault of Microsoft and Mobipocket, neither of whom produce a linux version of their reader. The eee does support some other ebook formats, but I don't have any books in those formats to test if its support is any good or not.

Without tweaks the eee plays most of the music I want apart from a few files I have in realplayer format (adding support for this to the eee is not something I expect to be difficult), and likewise seems to play movies and video clips just fine (again there may be codec issues I haven't discovered but fixes for these are pretty easy to find).

The only other thing that I may find to bitch about is the battery life. So far it seems like 3 hours is about as good as it gets, although I suspect that switching off wifi will add a bit to that. To be honest there aren't many times where I expect to need more than 3-4 hours of battery usage but I do find the reported existence of a higher capacity battery intriguing because I can certainly see a few cases (transcontinental flights) where being able to get 8 hours of usage would be good.

I'll be sure to post more positives and negatives as I find them, but so far this is very definitely a winning product, which no dount explains why it seems to be hard to get.