Sunday, 22 March 2009

Eee Remixed

Readers of this blog will know that I consider my Asus Eee PC 701 netbook to be one of my better purchases. Although quite a weakling as far as computers go it offers excellent mobility and acts as a good second computer when you need one. Add the fact it's running Linux to the equation and you get a PC that is very secure and offers lightning fast reactions when booting up and surfing the internet; you just can't ask for anything more. Sure, the 701 uses old Intel Celeron CPUs (the newer netbooks use the much quicker Intel Atoms), but with Linux at the helm it's fast enough for what a netbook is supposed to be doing in the first place.
Thing is, all was not well in paradise. You see, the Xandros Linux distribution used on the Eee PC was not being actively supported: security updates to the operating system and to its packaged software, most notably the Firefox web browser, have effectively stopped arriving almost a year ago. Continuing to use the netbook has turned out to be dangerous.
Hope was not lost, though: Ubuntu offers a Linux distribution that is well supported, with updates pushed at the user, and is also much better than Xandros. The trade-off, though, is that Ubuntu was not designed for the Eee PC 701's meager capabilities; although not as demanding as Windows, it is certainly no walk in the park for the 701. The [partial] answer comes in the shape of Ubuntu Netbook Remix, UNR, which is supposed to be somewhat lighter (but not much; it's designed with the Intel Atom in mind). More to the point, it is designed to be more netbook oriented in the sense that it caters for netbooks' lower resolution and smaller screens by offering an interface that is simple and easy to operate (check the attached screenshot).
So I've decided to go for it and install UNR on my Eee PC.

Question was, how?
It's not like I'm a Linux master that knows how to deal with these things, and it's not like Ubuntu fits the 701 like a glove. Lucky for me, the Linux community tends to be open and helpful, and there are plenty of accessible resources out there on the web that tell you how to do these things.
To start with, you need to install Ubuntu (the regular version) on the Eee PC. Explanations that tell you how to do so can be found here. I used a USB stick for the installation and within something like half an hour I've had a plain vanilla Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex working.
Thing is, that was when problems started. It's the usual Linux plague: devices and such are not recognized and special measures have to be taken for drivers and such to be located. [For the record, Windows Vista is just as problematic in this regard, and Widows XP only manages to get away with it because most manufacturers designed their hardware with XP in mind]
The first problem was getting the wireless to work. That was sorted using the explanations here. However, silly me has sorted wireless first and only then downloaded all the system updates that came out since Intrepid Ibex was first released, which overrode my fixes; I had to redo them. I therefore recommend doing all the system updates first before setting your mind on solving any of the other problems. Those same system updates also solved other minor problems, such as shutdown orders not really shutting the Eee PC down.
Next on the agenda was sorting the microphone and audio in general in order to be able to use Skype for video calling. That took some trying, but eventually I've stumbled on the very detailed solution here that took me home cruising.
Screen size was still a problem, and many Ubuntu windows were just too big to fit the screen. The advice on un-constraining windows to the top of the screen found here did the job.
With Ubuntu working well the time came to perform the changes necessary to turn out-of-the-box Ubuntu into UNR. I have found the following explanation here to be the best for the job; it was written with a Dell netbook in mind, but it worked on my Eee PC (as well as on a Lenovo netbook, judging by user feedback). It should work on any PC running Ubuntu as it is not hardware specific.

So, now that I have the Ubuntu Netbook Remix installed in my archaic Eee PC 701, what do I make of it?
Well, it's not the greatest thing ever. UNR is not an operating system on its own, it's just a nice facade that fits over Ubuntu, and often enough you find yourself in some limbo between the two. However, Ubuntu's user interface is highly customizable, and one can make what one wants to make out of it easily enough. It's fairly easy to find a formula to suit you.
Most importantly, UNR makes the most of the limited screen real estate a netbook offers, and Ubuntu is probably the best supported operating system on the planet. Ubuntu is also the most secure operating system you can run at home, and that's not something to be trifled with.
On the not so positive side, my Eee PC's Celeron does struggle with Ubuntu; it's either idle or on 100%; yet it is very much usable. That would not be the case if I was to have a go at Windows XP (where, once you add the necessary anti-viruses and firewalls there will be no room for anything else) or Windows Vista (which demands much more than what even the newest netbooks are capable of). And let's not forget that this entire UNR operation of mine is perfectly legal and didn't cost me a cent. Try that with Microsoft!
Overall, I am happy with the transition. And I'm very proud of being able to manage it on my own (sort of).


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Moshe Reuveni said...

Welcome and thanks for the compliments. I'm looking forward to future feedback.
For the record, note I am no Linux expert; just a user.