A Shiny New Toy

For the last week, I’ve been playing with a couple of ASUS Eee PCs. It seems that the entire Linux world is abuzz about these, and there’s a lot of interest in the K-12 world, too, so our director bought 10 of them for us to beat up on. We’re supposed to be getting comfortable with them, seeing how useful and durable they are, and assessing whether they’ll be good laptops for the fourth grade or for loaners or for comp sci or for high school kids on financial aid. So far, I’m pretty impressed. They do have their problems: short battery life; puny keyboard—but they are big hits nonetheless. My kids (aged 3 and 6) love them as game computers. (Solitaire, with its emphasis on patterns and sequences, is a surprisingly educational game.)

For school use, we’re looking at modifying the installed OS with our own applications (esp. FirstClass for email) and making some other minor tweaks to the default installation so as to make them more appropriate for our environment. Nothing too radical, though. But, since I’m a tinkerer, I’ve also been exploring their potential as troubleshooting tools. So, for this end, I’ve installed Ubuntu—my preferred Linux distro—on one, and have been customizing it to meet my needs. I initially installed Xubuntu because of its smaller hardware requirements, but couldn’t get the computer’s ethernet card working, so I went for the bigger Ubuntu instead, and was pleased to have working ethernet right out of the box. (And, I should note, Ubuntu runs admirably well on this little machine, so Xubuntu might not provide much tangible benefit, speed-wise.)

As a troubleshooting machine, it’s been great so far. Today I went around to our IDFs and configured our PoE injectors for DHCP with it. This meant accessing the PoE units with the wired connection while simultaneously configuring our Windows DHCP servers via Citrix with the wireless connection. No sweat. Getting the Eee PC to this state, though, took some trial-and-error and a few false starts. To this end, I thought I’d provide some links and tips for similarly-minded techies wanting to set up such a machine.

  • Wireless doesn’t work out of the box. Set it up with ndiswrapper following the instructions here. Make sure that you grab the entire ndis5x directory from the Eee PC 701 install DVD, or else ndiswrapper will complain when you try to install the driver. (This point is unclear in the above instructions.)
  • Use the smallest font that you can stand, and shrink down your panels. Screen real estate is at a premium. You may also want to completely remove the panel at the bottom of the screen.
  • Either turn off all the screen effects or get the Compiz Manager and disable the “Constrain Y” setting so you can alt-click in windows to drag them up beyond the top of the screen when you need to reach buttons that have disappeared beyond the bottom of the screen.
  • Since the Eee PC doesn’t have a serial port, you’ll probably need a USB to serial adapter. If you have a Keyspan adapter, you’ll need to re-compile the kernel to use it with Ubuntu. If you have a USA-19HS, get a pre-built kernel here.

The base Ubuntu install, with these tweaks, a terminal emulator, Wireshark, FirstClass client, a stumbler, and other random junk leaves me about 1.5GB left from the computer’s built in 4GB. That doesn’t leave much room for serious work, but is more than adequate for the machine’s troubleshooting duties. I could probably free up room by deleting unnecessary applications and games, and could always store my files on an SD card or an external flash drive, but since it’s not necessary, I don’t think I’ll bother.

I’ll be sure to post more tweaks and comments as I start breaking the machine in.

2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Tom McNicholas #

    Looking forward to more about these. I’m considering picking one up to complement my iMac at home.

  2. 2

    I can’t imagine using one of these as your primary machines—but as a complement to your main computer, it could be…uh…quite complementary.

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