Review: Ubuntu on the Eee PC

If what we’re hearing in the trade sites is correct, the brand new ultra-mobile Eee PC 901 will be released in the next few days. However, the price point is supposed to be close to the $650 mark, which is a far cry from the sub-$400 sweet spot of the 701. Still, I’m eying that one carefully for my road kit, given how well my own 701 has performed. This is a little follow-up to my original mini-review.

Well, it didn’t take me long to realise that I wasn’t very fond of the Xandros Linux distribution that comes stock with the Eee PC 701. Don’t get me wrong: it’s great for newbies to Linux or for those users who want a static system that “just works” without feeling the foolish desire to tinker or to be on the bleeding edge. But, for better or worse, that’s not me.

Most of my frustration was the result of a significant portion of the file system where the operating system and installed programs are stored — to protect newbies from “messing up” the operating system, it’s read-only. Yup, can’t screw up what you can’t change. But I didn’t realise my inability to write to it at first, and was wondering why all my free space was rapidly disappearing whenever I upgraded the built-in applications. It seems that the old versions remained hidden and inactive, while the upgrades started taking up huge chunks of the valuable two gigabytes of storage space. For example, an upgrade of OpenOffice.org didn’t take up a dozen more megabytes, as it would seem: instead, it took up a few hundred megabytes. Lesson learned: don’t bother with any significant upgrades.

I don’t like a Linux box I can’t mod. So I backed up my personal files onto a 4GB SD card, downloaded and burned the eeeXubuntu distro and made a bootable USB stick. Very neat. Held down the escape key, booted, made the whole built-in drive an Ubuntu partition, and –about a half-hour later– enjoyed a freshly-installed system where almost everything worked perfectly without further tweaking right out of the box. (I followed this Ubuntu Community page for the last touches, although a lot of users seem to prefer the Eee Ubuntu Support scripts at Google Code.)

I only had one problem and it concerned networking. At home with my LinkSys wireless router, the Eee PC wireless worked perfectly, but at work I decided to share my MacBook Pro’s wired network connection via its Airport. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the Eee PC to accept WEP encrypted –it only worked when I set it wide open (which I was loathe to do). I didn’t actually need to use the Eee PC at work, so this wasn’t too big a deal.

Well, the much-anticipated Ubuntu 8.04 “Hardy Heron” came out a couple weeks ago, and I watched the numerous warnings against upgrading from the Eee PC users in the forums. I decided to take a calculated risk. Most of the posts seem to have come from newbies, and not from people who’ve used Linux for several years. So I called up the Update Manager, clicked “Check”, and ran the upgrade. 14 hours later (did I mentioned I have a painfully slow and unstable connection up here in the far North?), the update was finally complete. I recompiled and modprobe’d the wireless drivers (specifically the MadWiFI module), restarted, and almost everything worked fine. Just in case, I ran this handy script from x2on to help along any potentially missing bits.

So, here I am, sitting in the new Ubuntu on this very inexpensive and very small laptop, tapping away within Emacs. No doubt I’ll install a few more toys (there’s several thousand to play with) before I’m completely satisfied, but far from being a big ordeal, it’s been refreshing to unleash my inner geek for a change.

Derek Alexander North/South Top Zip Shoulder BagBonus bag-addict note: I was digging through my collection of bags that my wife refuses to admire, and extracted a small Derek Alexander North/South Top Zip Shoulder Bag. It not only fits the Eee PC and its power supply and mini-mouse perfectly, but contains plenty of room for the two Moleskines and index cards I usually tote around, along with a selection of fountain pens and mechanical pencils. Not bad for something less than a third of the size of most regular laptop bags.

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