BOOT CAMP 531 (01/07/08)

Tweaking the Eee PC


Aside from the hype whipped by Apple Mac launches, most PCs and laptops tend to come and go largely unnoticed. One notable exception is the Asus Eee PC It’s a pocket-sized PC that first appeared late last year and it breaks all the rules, yet more than an million of them have been sold so far this year.


Mini or sub-notebook PCs with screens smaller than 10-inches are now coming out of the woodwork (see also this week’s Top Tip) but it’s certainly not a new idea. There have been several notable models over the years but they have suffered from being prohibitively expensive or difficult to use. So what makes the Eee PC different, and so popular judging by all the emails and letters we’ve been receiving lately from new owners, and those thinking about buying one?


It’s obviously not the specification, which flies in the face of the computer industry’s faster and smarter credo. The current basic Eee 700 series model sports a modest 900MHz Intel Celeron processor, 512Mb of RAM and a paltry 2Gb of solid-state storage space (it has no hard disc drive). The 7-inch screen has a resolution of only 800 x 400, which is okay for word processing and emailing but some web pages tend to fall off the edge. The keyboard isn’t going to win any prizes for usability and battery life, at around 2.5 to 3 hours is nothing to write home about either.


Eee PCs are pre-installed with a custom version of the Linux Debian operating system, called Xandros, which seems like a controversial choice in a market dominated by Microsoft, though being an Intel based machine, Windows XP can be persuaded to run on it, surprisingly well in fact and its now on option on more recent models. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Linux this distribution is tailored to the Eee and the default ‘Easy Mode’ desktop does look a bit, well, childish, with fun-size menus and giant icons, though as we shall see in the next couple of weeks that’s easy to fix.


The most obvious attraction, though, is the price and the entry-level 2Gb model, when you can find one, sells for as little as £175. That’s a bargain when you consider that it is has a built-in wi-fi adaptor, all of the software you could possibly want or need on a mobile PC, including Firefox for web browsing, Thunderbird for emails, Open Office Suite for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations etc. (all fully compatible with MS Office documents and files), plus some very capable image processing and media player software. It has 3 USB ports, VGA and LAN sockets, an SD memory card reader and the higher up the range models have more on-board memory and storage space plus a built-in web cam, and you still get change from £250.


The advantages of Linux are apparent when you switch it on, there’s no delay waiting for the hard drive to spin up and it is usually ready to use in around 30 – 40 seconds. Linux stability is legendary; it is very secure and virtually immune to viruses and malware (though it comes with a virus scanner, just in case…). Easy Mode, whilst not particularly appealing for grown-ups, is very easy to use and the Wi-Fi system is an absolute delight, almost always managing a fast, fuss-free connection whenever you are in range of a hotspot or access point. 


Suffice it to say the Eee PC is a most agreeable travelling companion and it makes you think twice about lugging a laptop around with you. Writing long documents on the small keyboard can be hard going but in just about every other respect, from emailing, to organising your digital photographs or browsing the web, it’s a little gem, but it can be so much better and next week we’ll have some simple software tweaks to turn the Eee PC in something really special.


We’ll finish off this week with a quick and simple way to boost performance, by upgrading the memory on models with 512Mb of installed RAM. It’s a simple and safe procedure and all you need is a small Philips screwdriver and replacement 1 or 2Gb memory module. The Eee PC uses a common laptop type, specifically DDR2 SODIMM modules and 1Gb cards cost around £20 - £25 online.


If you are ready to begin, and with your replacement module to hand (keep it in its anti-static packing until needed), touch a metal radiator, to dispel any static charge on your body or clothes. Remove the charger cable and battery pack, flip the machine over and carefully remove the two screws securing the hatch and prise it open. You can ignore warning labels about voiding the warranty; Asus now say DIY memory upgrades are permitted. The memory module is held in place by two metal clips, one each side; gently move them outwards, the module flips up and it can be removed. Take the new module out of its packing, being careful to avoid touching any contacts or components. Make sure it the right way around by lining up the notch, pop it into the slot and press down until the side catches lock. Replace the cover and screws, refit the battery, switch on and you should see an immediate improvement with a reduction in the time it takes to boot and programs opening faster.


Next Week – Tweaking the Eee PC part 2





Double Data Rate 2 – technology used to speed up data throughput on memory modules – twice as fast as older DDR type modules



Local Area Network -- a computer network



Small Outline Dual in Line Memory Module – common type of memory modules used in laptops



The first of the new generation of small and ultra cheap laptops was the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) X0-1, designed to cost no more than $100 and specifically intended for children in poor countries. Such was the demand for a consumer version that US buyers were offered ’Give 1 Get 1’ deal, with one machine going to customers and the other to a child in a deprived country.  


Intel, and others, sensing a new marketing opportunity have quickly responded with rival products. The Eee PC being the first to make it onto the market and already second generation model, with larger 8.9 and 10-inch screens are due in the shops anytime now. Rival products (both in terms of size and price) are either now available, or will be soon from Elonex, MSI, Fukato, Hewlett Packard, Jisus and MiniNote.  



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