Monday, 3 March 2008

The best second computer ever

After living with the Asus Eee PC for a month and a half now, I think it's time to say what I have to say about it. In typical fashion, I'll start with the bad.
1. Screen: The screen is too small. Not just in physical size but in resolution, too: it's 800 by 480 pixels mean that not much can fit in vertically, and websites that cram themselves so that you wouldn't need to use the scroll bars suffer (such as Google Maps). On the other hand, the horizontal field of view is not that great either, so you need to use the dreaded horizontal scrolling with most websites. In short, most websites would have you scrolling about just to make sure you're watching everything there is to watch.
2. Heat: The little Eee PC is your own personal heater. Whatever you put it on will get cooked; sort of makes you think how long the Eee will live if you use it in hotter climates.
3. Size: It's small size is a bit of a pain when you want to seriously use it. The keyboard is not exactly friendly to fast typing.
4. Battery life: I've never seen me a laptop with a battery that lasts as long as the manufacturer says it would. The one on the Eee PC is not that bad, but Skype (always a demanding application, especially when video is enabled) will drain the battery after just somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half.

I don't know if you've noticed by now, but the list of shortcomings has one thing in common: They're all issues that are to do with the Eee PC's superb mobility. In trying to make it small and portable, Asus has made it a bit annoying for serious usage. Then again, they did make the most portable serious computer I am familiar with: the Eee PC is indeed a computer you would take with you anywhere you want to go with a computer. Yes, you can even take it with you to the toilet (I admit I haven't done that. Yet).
I am, however, going ahead of myself. Let me count the Eee PC's distinct advantages before summarizing:
1. Reaction time: It's all up and running within 20 seconds of you turning it on. It shuts itself immediately after you ask it to shutdown. And in between, it reacts just as fast as your average Windows machine, usually much faster. It's so agile that you turn it on just to check what the weather is like outside before you go out, because it's much easier than looking out through the window. I even turn it on while having breakfast for a quick email check before going to work (where the internet is mostly blocked).
2. Ease of use: The name "Eee" supposedly stands for Easy, and you have to hand to to Asus - they've got it right! With all the applications you would want already installed and clearly labeled, all you need to do is turn it on and click the thing you want. Even my mother would manage that, but more on my mother later.
3. Safety: Running Linux means you're as safe as you can be without the need for anti viruses, firewalls, anti spam measures, electronic warfare, chaff dispensers, flare guns, and/or the Phalanx anti-missile system.
4. Stability: Unlike its Windows running counterparts with whom I've spent the best of my last 10 years, the Eee PC's Xandros Linux distribution just works like a charm. Things don't get stuck, things don't crash, and you don't get mysterious error messages; things just work, they work well, and they work quickly. As I have mentioned before, even wireless connections seem much more stable than they do on Windows machines: We have been known to Skype for more than an hour straight with no disconnections, something unheard of in Windows domain.

I don't know if you've noticed by now, but most of the good things about the Eee PC are to do with its operating system. I'm positively amazed at how good Linux can be, and I'm negatively amazed at the way the vast majority of us have been suffering the pain that is the Windows experience so long without realizing there is a better world out there (and it's absolutely free).
I don't understand those that buy the Eee PC and install Windows on it; that is the best thing you can do if you want to turn the Eee PC, which is by all accounts on the challenged side of the hardware equation, into a very unfriendly and slow machine. Sure, if you want a physically light and cheap Windows machine the Eee PC would do, but in my opinion you will have yourself an expensive paperweight rather than a good Windows machine.

The long and the short of it is that I find the Eee PC to be the perfect second computer. My desktop is still the main powerhouse, running demanding stuff and stuff that requires me to sit next to the computer for longer exposures. However, when I want to check the internet while on the sofa, on the floor, or outside; or when I just want to Skype a grandparent from where Dylan just happens to be, the Eee PC is just perfect. It fits the bill to perfection.

Now, I promised to return to my mother, so here goes:
Generally speaking, I am not the world's most typical computer user. While I'm not the most professional one, I do know more about computers than your average computer user. The average user is interested in doing simple things with the computer, things like checking emails, surfing the web, and from time to time do a bit more like Skyping. The Eee PC, my choice for the best ever second computer, would fill up the needs of the average computer user like a glove on a cooler day: the only setup required is in setting up the network definitions (either wireless or cable network), and after that... Well, after that even my mother can find herself computing.
Surely, I hear you saying, the Eee PC is not that unique. And you're right: Install Xandros on your average desktop and it would do the same things. Problem is, how often does someone like my mother stumble upon a desktop with Xandros installed on it? Especially a version of Xandros that has all the applications she will ever want to need already there, a simple click away?
You want another example? Here goes. Dylan's other grandmother, Jo's mother, has suffered at least two computer related setbacks as far as I know: She didn't open a Jajah account because her Windows based laptop warned her of some risk that wasn't there, which was enough to scare her off; and she didn't open a Flickr account allowing her to view all of our "Family only" photos on Flickr because somewhere during the creation of her Yahoo account she got a similar warning. In both cases the warning was meaningless, probably the result of using products like Norton Anti Virus; thing is, while I know these are meaningless warnings, she doesn't. She just stopped using the computer in those particular contexts.
Had she used an Asus Eee PC none of this would have happened. All the while, her internet surfing would have been smoother and more secure than ever.
My point? What I consider to be the best second computer ever would qualify as most people's best computer ever.


Uri E. said...

I'm not sure you're safe as much as you think you are. I know at least one guy who's home Linux machine was hacked into.

And a laptop from work is much better than any ultra mobile device you buy on your own. Kinda like a company car.

Of course, you're not allowed to install Skype, but hey, life is tough.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You're absolutely right about security. Nothing is safe is someone wants to hack their way in; it's a question of relative safety.
I disagree about the laptop from work. Sure, they're nice, given that they don't cost you, but on the other hand - you can't really enjoy them. Skype is a must but it's just a start; what about bit torrent? And what about just being able to do with the computer whatever it is you want?
At the cost of an Eee PC (it cost me $260), it's the best bargain most people, who usually happen to be people that don't get a laptop from work, can have.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Lest we forget portability:
The Eee PC weighs a kilo and is A5 size. I was able to stick it in my backpack together with my SLR, camera equipment, Nintendo DS, PDA, chargers, and who knows what else - and it wasn't heavy. Try that with your work laptop.

As for laptops vs. desktops: Yes, your work laptop is free. It's also ergonomic hell and it will be easily outperformed by a decent desktop.
Which is why I consider the Eee PC my second computer and a computer that should do just fine for the causal user.