Two Day Computing

created: 1236944031|%e %B %Y, %H:%M
TAGS: eee gadgets linux

It's taken a long time to arrive but finally, here is a full-featured portable computer that runs for two full days on a single battery charge and costs about $475. A hands-on report…

The computer is an Asus Eee 1000 portable, with an extended battery. The software is Linux, wrapped up as Eeebuntu. Here is a screenshot showing the power consumption at 6.4W, and battery life of 13 hours.

eee1000.png

I bought the Eee 1000 at J&R's in New York this month, list price $375 plus sales tax. The machine is a top-of-the-line Eee model, with all the features that are sometimes dropped off cheaper Eee's like the 1000HD. The main reason I bought this machine was that it did not have Windows, and came with a 40GB SSD instead of a cheaper, more fragile moving hard drive. At this price, the SSD is a must-have for a portable computer: 25% of portable computers die because they are dropped.

The battery is a "13000mAh" thing off Ebay, posted from Hong Kong and costing $75. In fact it only holds about 10500mAh. They offered to replace it, but 10500mAh is still fine. It's a large "hammer-head" battery but it fits the Eee 1000 neatly and acts as a prop. Check Ebay to see what these batteries look like and cost.

Xandros… ah, Xandros. I used to use this when I first switched to Linux for my desktops, mainly because Xandros used to be Corel Linux and they were one of the first firms to really invest in Linux in the late 1990's, so they kind of earned a soft spot in my heart. Xandros also has a file manager that worked really well, especially with Windows file shares. Today, Gnome and KDE have caught up.

On the Eee 1000, Xandros does two things very well. It boots and suspends/restores incredibly quickly. Boot time is about 15 seconds. Second, it does something magic with the network card, picking up dozens of networks where other Linuxes pick up a handful.

But for a serious user, Xandros sucks. Their repositories are old, and since the main reason for using Linux is the vast amount of great free software, this is really a pain. Xandros works for my five-year old daughter. It does not work for me.

So I tried a variety of EEE-friendly Linux distros. It's easy: download an ISO and use unetbootin to burn to a 2GB USB stick, then reboot and press Esc to get the choice of booting from the USB stick. I tried several distros, with unhappy results. [www.mandriva.coom Mandriva] (supposed to work well with the wifi) did not boot properly. Easy-Peasy, which used to be called Ubuntu-eee and which I've used before, installed fine but just acted weird (like running the installer each time it booted), and showing a horrid green pixelated "Easy Peasy" logo on the desktop. Besides, the name really does not work for me. Then I tried Eeebuntu and this is what I'm now using.

There is a bunch of stuff I had to do before the system was what I'd consider properly set-up. None of these are vital but they all make it better:

  • use manual disk partitioning so the system goes on the 8GB SSD and /home goes on the 32GB SSD (the 1000 in fact has two solid-state disks).
  • tweak the file systems to reduce SSD write accesses as explained in this blog posting by Ter.
  • fix the "software sources" to include the normal Ubunbtu repositories
  • install Kate (better than Gedit), Gimp, and a bunch of other good tools
  • install powertop
  • go into gconf-editor and fix the top panel to auto-hide to 0 pixels, with no animation, and with shorter (200msec) delays to appear and hide.
  • remove the bottom panel

Now, the Linux works both as a netbook remix, with the easy access desktop, and a proper full Ubuntu, with the panel menu.

Eeebunbtu uses the array.org kernels and has a decent driver for the RaLink 0781 wifi card. Now, here is where I start to dislike Xandros. They have closed drivers for the RaLink card that use undocumented features. Presumably money changed hands. All very well, but when Xandros get 99% of their software for free, it is unethical to try to get a competitive advantage by exploiting secret knowledge. RaLink do provide open source drivers but they are buggy and imperfect. In the end, this is bad for Asus: users have a choice between three imperfect worlds: Windows XP with its viruses and malwares, Xandros, with its childish limitations, and Linux with its weak wifi drivers.

Asus: please use only hardware that is fully documented and fully supported in Linux.

However, the wifi works acceptably and better than some other portables. Now, to get that 13 hours of battery, I switch off the wifi, dim the screen, and exit Firefox. When I'm on the road, I'm mostly writing, so I need my text editor (Kate).

Unbelievably, the 1000 draws only 6.4 Watts in this state. For comparison, my Thinkpad X60 draws 9.8W (and gets 7 hours from its battery) and the Eee 1000HD draws 11.5W (and gets around 6 hours from the hammerhead battery).

Highly recommended.

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