Linux Air: Hitting the road with the Eee PC

by Peter Watson

As a computer-oriented Australian planning a six week trip to Canada and the USA, I was dreading the prospect of long-term lack of access to a computer. While I already owned an excellent Fujitsu Lifebook, it was designed for power, not portability, and the prospect of toting its 7 pounds around the countryside meant it wasn't an option.

Enter the ASUS Eee PC, a low-cost but fully functional PC in a tiny package of about 8.5" x 6" and weighing only two pounds. It's interesting for several reasons:

  • It comes with WiFi, Ethernet, a web cam, microphone and speakers.
  • It uses a "solid state" hard disk -- basically a 4 GB flash card, so there are no (internal) moving parts.
  • It has three USB ports, an SD card reader, and an external video connector.
  • It comes pre-installed with the most user-friendly version of Linux I've ever seen.
  • It doesn't include a DVD drive.

By connecting an external DVD drive, you can use the included DVD to install Windows drivers, should you want to side-grade to Windows XP. I was actually considering doing that before I bought the Eee PC, but I probably won't bother now. The installed software works, it's user-friendly and there's plenty of it. There's even software installed to synchronize my Palm PDA! And OpenOffice has handled all the Microsoft Office files that I've thrown at it.

The Eee PC boots in seconds due to the solid state disk and by default starts into a simplified tabbed user interface. A full-function KDE GUI shell is hidden away underneath; however you need to install a small patch to enable it. (It probably took about 10 minutes including the web search that told me I needed the patch!)

Although 4GB sounds tiny for a modern disk drive, the default OS installation takes only 2.5GB -- including a hidden system-recovery partition that can restore the entire software image! Since you're unlikely to need to install extra applications, that leaves 1.5GB for user files. If you want to carry extra music or movies, it's easy to add an SD card or USB flash drive to increase the storage.

The only catches I've found so far are ones you would expect from the dimensions: the keyboard and screen are correspondingly small. The keyboard layout is fairly standard, but fast typing can be hit-and-miss. The 7" screen has a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels. Though screen widths of 800 are common, the depth of 480 means some web pages and applications display less than optimally. However, they are always usable, and the result is far better than the average Internet experience on a phone-based pocket computers and PDAs.

The Eee PC will make life much easier for my wife and me on our trip. It will be far better weight-wise, and infinitely better than not having any PC at all for six weeks. We can save our photos, do internet banking with far less risk than in Net cafes, backup our Palm PDAs, track our expenses in a spreadsheet, etc, etc. I'm loving it already!

Peter Watson lives in Melbourne and works as a software developer for Fujitsu Australia. He bought his first Apple II in 1981, and he now has a house full of (mostly usable) computers, much to his family's disdain. He rarely writes programs at home for fun any more, but has been known to comment about his work that (on the good days) "I get to write software, and they pay me as well!" Peter's hobbies include rock climbing, lasertag and travel -- ideally, all on the same trip!

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon