For a few months prior to September, my old laptop (a giant Toshiba Satellite) was on the fritz. The power button wouldn’t work. The battery couldn’t charge (or keep a charge when it actually did get charged) because the adapter/charger didn’t fit right, so I had to jiggle it around until it sat just right and then try to keep everything from moving to make sure it would stay powered. At the end of September, I replaced it with my new Asus Eee PC 701SD that runs a customized version of Xandros Linux. It’s been some time and I have had a chance to adjust to my new “netbook” and have customized it to suit my purposes. I figured I should share my opinion with others who might be interested.
Obviously, the small size of the machine needs to be addressed. My particular model has a 7″ screen. Being such a tiny laptop, the size is a big adjustment. But for me, it’s been wonderful. See, I have tiny hands and could never properly type on a regular-sized keyboard because my fingers don’t reach that far. The miniature keyboard on my Eee is perfectly sized to fit my small hands. In addition, it’s easy to take my computer with me and not feel like I’m lugging some giant expensive piece of equipment with me. I love the 7″ size … but there are also 8.9″ and 10″ versions which may be more suitable for others who have larger hands or difficulty seeing. The small screen isn’t difficult for me to use and read, but I can see how it would be difficult for some people to use the tiny screen.
When it comes down to the operating system, the consumer has a choice. Microsoft Windows XP is available, as is a customized version of the Xandros distribution of Linux. I have read that XP runs well on Eee’s, but I have no evidence for this as the Eee that I bought runs Linux. For most users, I would strongly recommend purchasing the Eee with XP due to the learning curve involved with Linux. That said, I am glad I am using Linux again. Before you decide to buy an Eee with Linux installed there are some things you need to consider. While there is an “Easy Mode” that includes tabs with links to various applications, websites, features, and settings, it is only really appropriate for children or people who have never used a computer before. Click here to view a screenshot of Easy Mode.
An alternative to using the “Easy Mode” is to enable Advanced Mode. Steps for this process can be found here: http://wiki.eeeuser.com/howto:getkde. Parts of this process can be relatively easy, but if the easy methods don’t work, the other options require a basic knowledge of the Linux file system, shell commands, and package utilities. Depending on your exact version of the OS, you may need to even do a little hacking and internet research to figure out a solution to your specific problem, as I did. Enabling the Advanced Desktop Mode was worth every minute of time and ounce of brainpower that I used to get it to work because I now have a nice, normal desktop without clutter. If you are new to Linux, though, you want to make friends with someone who knows a lot about it in case you have trouble and invest in a couple of basic books to serve as guides.
Another altogether different way of getting a more normal desktop is to install a different OS. The great thing about this is that there are many Linux distributions that have been customized to fit the Eee’s small screen and work with its limited hardware ability. Just pick your favorite distribution (ex. Ubuntu, Mandrake, SuSe, Fedora) and type it into your favorite search engine with “Eee” and you will see a good list. The catch here is with the 701 SD’s in particular. The previous version (without the SD label) has an Atheros wireless card which is pretty universally supported by Linux. The newer version with the SD specification runs a Realtek 8187Se wireless card. There are drivers for this card on the Linux distribution that comes pre-installed. However, it is difficult to find other Linux distros that support the card out-of-the-box. I may have found a working driver and instructions here, but I have yet to try this out as I did get the default OS working with KDE so as of now I don’t want to mess with things too much and install another distro. Feel free to give it a try, though, and leave a comment below to let everyone know if it works or not and any particulars about your system/distro/software that may have enabled it or made it more difficult. Other than the wireless driver problem, the other Eee customized distros seem preferable to the preinstalled one due to the advantage of more customization capabilities.
The other important aspect of using the Eee is the software that’s available and that runs well. I’m going to outline what I am using and why. The web browser I use is Firefox. Firefox has good support for common third-party plugins like Flash, Acrobat reader, and other multimedia extensions. It is also easily customized with themes and add-on tools that make browsing a better experience. I also use Firefox’s sister app, Thunderbird, for email. It was a little frustrating at first, because it didn’t leave much screen space for actually reading and composing email, but I found a great theme (MicroThunderbird) and customized the toolbar at the top of the window to only display icons (and the small ones, at that) and there is now adequate space on my small screen. I was using Opera for both tasks because it integrated both functions into one program. But I found Opera didn’t recognize Flash, despite having installed the plugin properly. It also used up an inordinate amount of screen space, so it became cumbersome. For the office suite, I am currently using OpenOffice. This is preinstalled with the operating system and, despite the problems other people have reported with OpenOffice taking up too many system resources, I have had no problems with it. If, however, you are looking to use your Eee to create documents that others will open using MS Office software, you will probably want to look for a more compatible option. One option I have found for word processing is Adobe Buzzword. It’s a great online word processor that allows for saving as a Word document or a .pdf. That can be useful when creating something like a resume. However, that doesn’t solve the problem presented with an incompatible spreadsheet or presentation. For this I plan on trying ThinkFree. Their product is available online and as a purchased software product on your computer. It can synchronize your compuuter’s documents with your online storage account. It runs on Windows, Mac, or Linux and is supposed to have the best compatibility with MS Office among its alternatives. They also have a version customized to run on the small-screened netbooks that keep popping up. I will review this seperately once I have given it a sufficient trial run. In the meantime, if you have any experience with ThinkFree, please leave a comment about it below. I am using a note-taking software called BasKet Note Pads as a replacement for OneNote, which I became pretty reliant on while working in the Windows world. I did experiment with a couple other similar programs, but found I intuitively understood BasKet much more quickly than the other ones. There are plenty of powerful graphics editors available for Linux, but due to the system resources needed for running them, I am pretty much doing my editing online at DrPic.com. If I need something more powerful i can just run to my desktop machine where I have Adobe Photoshop Elements installed. It has all the tools I need and more.
If you need software above and beyond that list, you can certainly find a Linux application that does what you need it to. The Linux community stretches across the globe and chances are someone somewhere has written that application – and it’s either going to be free or very low-cost. The Linux community also provides plenty of online support for newbies and experienced users.
Overall, I think the Asus Eee line of computers, and my 701 SD in particular, provide great value and usability for the average person. There is the additional bonus of having a webcam and microphone included. At a cost of around $300 (what I paid for mine) you really can’t go wrong. If you need extra storage space there is a slot for an SD card. There are a total of 3 USB ports. There is also an ethernet port and monitor port, so you can plug in to your wired network or use and external monitor (or your TV, if it has that capability). My Eee is my favorite gadget, and I can’t wait until the Asus Eee Top comes out so I can replace my Vista box!