asus eeePC 901 first impressions

It’s small and has a nice screen and it runs linux, so I had to have one.

hardware

The device is smaller but heavier than I expected. The keyboard is also smaller than expected, although it fits my non-stubby fingers well. There’ll still be the occasional mistype until I get used to the size. And the right shift key is in the “wrong” place (not next to the / key, as on most other keyboards). Battery life is at least 4 hours per charge during normal use (tested by running it for 3 hours and noting that it still had 30% charge left, so take from that what you will). See its specs on wikipedia for more info (note: the wikipedia entry has been partially edited by me, so you’re welcome for solving the elephant underpopulation problem in Africa).

software

xandros

The linux distribution that comes with it {xandros} is less crippled than I expected (from having to use maemo/hildon on my nokia 770). Connecting to a network was easy, mounting drives, all the other normal stuff worked well out-of-the-box. I was able to customize xandros so that it had all the programs I needed. It comes with a lot of good stuff {firefox, pidgin, thunderbird, imagemagick, mplayer}, but it’s missing a few of the programs I regularly use {liferea, gqview, gentoo, gimp, evince, audacious, vim-gtk/gvim, gpsbabel} and a few of the choices are a little strange {adobe pdf reader instead of evince, staroffice instead of openoffice}. To get most of these additions, you have to manually add a line to /etc/apt/sources.list that points to non-asus approved software (and then it complains about it being non-asus approved every time you try to install something, annoyingly reminiscent of the situation on the nokia 770).

The problem with asus’ xandros is that there’s an automatic updater for bios and the system/os/interface and for things like touchpad/multitouch. The multitouch and bios updates install fine and work, but the system updates are very broken (updates will appear and disappear seemingly at random) and have been broken for months (which is apparent from the forums at eeeuser.com). This is asus’ fault, and I hope they fix it asap so that new customers don’t get frustrated.

Another problem arose from when asus decided to finally let you install a wide variety of software on the thing. They came up with a whole website that lists thousands of programs that you can download (which is awesome). The only problem with this is that the system update that presumably would enable this easy install of software isn’t yet available (see above). From their website, you can only download a tiny file with your browser that gives the installer info on how to automatically download and install the program, but firefox hasn’t been told what to do with this file and there’s no installer installed, so nothing happens.

Another, more minor problem is that it uses unionfs, which is a way of getting two partitions to seem like one (in this case, a read-only one that has most of the operating system and a read-write one for installable stuff). This is I think primarily so that you don’t accidentally break anything on the read-only part, while still allowing you to install stuff and change settings. The secondary reason, I think is that it makes it easy to do a restore to factory settings (selected by pressing f9 at boot) – it just formats the read-write partition and it’ll be just like it was when you got it, no restore cd required. Unionfs isn’t perfect. As a shortcut (for performance reasons), it creates temporary files that may end up using up all your inodes, which makes it act as if the drive is full, but not everyone runs into this problem. The unionfs choice probably stems from the fact that the first generation of eeePCs only had a single solid-state drive and needed to save user data and settings there, whereas the 901 comes with both a 4GB SSD for the operating system as well as a 16GB SSD for user data and settings.

The final frustrating thing was that the panel icons kept disappearing so that it was impossible to use some features of the computer (bluetooth, the cpu performance selector and occasionally some of the other ones). I never did try the f9 restore to try to fix any of this – I wanted ubuntu anyway, so…

ubuntu-eee

I checked out xandros for a few days until I gave up and installed ubuntu-eee 8.04.1. Note that the previous version (ubuntu-eee 8.04) doesn’t have crucial things like a working wifi configuration, so don’t bother installing that if you have an eeePC 901. This new version was only released about a week ago, so I came to this whole eeePC 901 thing just at the right time. Ubuntu-eee works well and version 8.04.1 comes with the netbook remix (which is supposedly more well-suited to the low-res screen on an ultraportable). The netbook remix is more of an icons-on-the-desktop than a pick-something-from-a-menu interface.

So far, everything works pretty well on ubuntu-eee 8.04.1. There have been a few times where it hasn’t wanted to go into suspend mode (which was fixed with a reboot). And there’s a couple other minor problems like:

  • there’s a cdrom drive entry in /etc/fstab that you have to remove or comment-out to get any usb drives to mount
  • the suid bit on the /bin/mount executable is not set, so if you put a custom entry in /etc/fstab, you have to be root to mount it even if it that line includes “users”
  • there’s no cpu clock scaling indicator on the panel, so you don’t have any control over or information about the current state of the processor
  • (this might just be a complaint with the netbook remix, but) it is unclear how to add anything to the panel (in normal ubuntu, right-clicking on an empty part of the panel gets you to the “add to panel” option, but there’s no empty part of the panel in the netbook remix), so if you remove anything from your panel, good luck getting it back

Other than that, ubuntu-eee 8.04.1 works very well for a linux distribution that was built by some guy, and much better than the distribution that was built by all the resources that asus threw at it (which is apparently not enough).

The only downside to using ubuntu is that it takes 50 or 60 seconds to boot, whereas xandros only took about 25.

update 2008-10-06: I found that if you put the mouse cursor in the topmost rightmost part of the panel and right-click, it’ll let you “add to panel”. One of the things you can add to panel is a cpu frequency scale indicator, so the last two items in the above “minor problems” list are not really problems at all.

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One Response to “asus eeePC 901 first impressions”

  1. alburn Says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I recently bought the 901 and after a day of xandros installed eee ubuntu 8.04.1. Everything was great except for the occasional audio glitch, sometimes getting a loud beep when waking up from sleep and not being able to watch hulu off ac power. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get the CPU frequency scaling working for the past week, but I finally stumbled upon this and now can finally watch web tv type stuff in bed.

    THANKS!!!

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