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Tuesday, 04 December 2007

Been playing with the Asus Eee 701 PC I picked up from Toys r Us on Sunday for 219ukp for a couple of days now, so it's probably time to write down some of my thoughts.

It's about the same size as a Psion netBook, although thinner and fully stocked with a bevy of USB ports, Ethernet, VGA and removable media slot. However, as the keyboard's got all the standard laptop keys - and a trackpad (eugh) - it's much fiddlier to type on than a netBook. Having said that, it's certainly possible to type on it relatively quickly without too many typos; almost certainly quicker than on a Nokia N810 (which I've not got yet).

The Xandros distribution can be run in "simple" or "advanced" modes, the latter being a full KDE desktop. However, I prefer the simple mode - running in IceWM - and a few simple tweaks make it a perfectly usable little system.

Despite the development of the simple mode launcher, the level of UI polish and integration in Nokia's Maemo devices puts the Asus to shame: many of the dialogue boxes are unmodified and, by default, are taller than the 480px screen. The big, XP-like theme takes up lots of space, and all the applications have their menubars still visible. This can be improved by installing the Thinblack2 theme for IceWM:

  1. Press Ctrl-Alt-T to open a terminal.
  2. Download Thinblack2.
  3. Unpack the tarball in /usr/share/themes.
  4. Create ~/.icewm/.
  5. Create an empty file in there called toolbar2.
  6. Copy all the important lines from the default IceWM configuration using the command: grep = /etc/X11/icewm/preferences | egrep -v '^#' >~/.icewm/preferences.
  7. Edit the new preferences file using vim and set TaskBarShowStartMenu to 1.
  8. Reboot and select Settings > Themes > Thinblack2 from the IceWM start menu.

There are instructions for enabling the standard Xandros repositories in /etc/apt/sources.list. This enabled me to install matchbox (the full-screen window manager as used in Maemo and Ubuntu Mobile) and play with it by creating a ~/.xsession containing just "xterm". I'm not yet decided whether this efficient full screen interface is the best on the screen, or whether a thin theme in IceWM is sufficient.

Video playback seems fine of transcoded videos (for size reasons) using tablet-encode, although occasionally it seems to struggle to keep up with the video, pausing for a frame and then speeding the video back up temporarily to catch-up. This is where, again, the Nokia puts the Asus to shame, with a 400MHz ARM outperforming a 900MHz Celeron.

It's a nice little device, and a bargain for less than 220 quid, but the software lets it down. There's some promise in the simplified interface, but little things like confusing set-up of wireless LAN access (there are two icons in the status bar: one for configuration only, one for status of wifi & ethernet connections); the use of big, heavyweight sub-optimal applications like Amarok and the lack of optimisation for the screen estate.

The lack of Bluetooth is a real killer making it semi-useless as an email accessing device when, say, in the middle of Sherwood Forest. It's still useful as a writers' tool, of course. A USB Bluetooth dongle should also work, but again - the polish of Nokia's IT OS for setting up Bluetooth DUN connections isn't there, so it's command line and scripting all the way.

Ubuntu Mobile Edition may well be the best OS for the device, but I've not yet had a chance to play. Running a Hildon desktop on it would certainly be a good idea, alternatively some other slim window manager, which positioned all windows as 800x480+0-20 until the "menu" hotkey is pressed, when it is resized to 800x460+0+0 and the menubar appears. Pressing menu again would resize it back off the top of the screen. I'm not sure whether any existing window manager can be configured like this, perhaps something for me to have a play with.

The N810 and the Eee don't really compete at all except at price-point; you'd have to be a gadget-mad freak to have both, but they are complementary. Get the Nokia N810 if you want:

  • A mostly pocketable device.
  • Internet access on the move.
  • A portable media player.
  • An in-car GPS.
  • A fun, little, device which tries to be different.

Get the Asus Eee 701 PC if you want:

  • A small, lightweight, laptop.
  • Something to write documents or essays on.
  • Something from which to give presentations.

Neither are PDA replacements (unfortunately), although with the right software I could imagine the Eee being just about usable to take meeting minutes (still nowhere near as useful as a Psion Series 5mx or netBook with Jotter, though); although it remains to be seen how the N810's slide-out keyboard fares.

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