BOOT CAMP 532 (08/07/08)

Tweaking the Eee PC part 2


Straight out of the box the tiny Asus Eee PC is a really useable little computer, able to do most of the routine tasks its larger and more expensive cousins can do, but that’s not to say there is not some room for improvement. Over the next three weeks we’ll look at some simple tweaks, culminating in upgrading the basic user interface to a full-blown Windows-like desktop.


But first, this week a quick orientation course for new users, accustomed to Windows. In fact it is mostly very straightforward. If you want to browse the web select the Internet tab click the Web icon and up pops Firefox. To send or receive emails switch to the Work tab and click the Mail icon to open Thunderbird, which looks and works pretty much like Outlook Express. If you want to create or edit a document stay with the Work tab and click Documents. This launches Open Office, which is fully compatible with Microsoft Word (and several other popular word processors). But how do you get documents and files in and out of the Eee?


That’s easy too, it has 3 USB ports and a SD Card reader slot, however, things are a little different when it comes to opening and viewing the contents of drives and folders. This is Linux and it uses different conventions so there are no alphabetically ordered drives (A:, C:, D: and so on). Fortunately this version of Linux takes the sting out of it with an excellent utility called File Manager, which is Windows Explorer by any other name. You’ll find it on the Work tab and it opens with the familiar looking two-pane directory tree and folder view. At the top of the tree is My Eee PC and if you click around I suspect that much of what you see will look strange and unfamiliar but there’s no need to worry.


The Eee has a My Documents folder that’s almost exactly the same as the one in XP (and the User folder in Vista). Inside you’ll find sub folders called My Ebooks, Music, Office, Pictures and Videos where you can store all of your user files. In File Manager you’ll find it listed under My Home, or you can get to it from ‘All File Systems’ by double-clicking the unnamed folder icon and going to Home > User > My Documents.  


Eee PCs come with 2, 4 or 8Gb of hard drive space and with up to 500Mb used by the operating system and programs there doesn’t seem to be a lot to spare. In practice it’s not a problem since you are unlikely to want to keep bulky files on the machine. In any case you can easily expand the machine’s storage capacity by slotting in a SD card, and with 8Gb cards selling online for less than £25, it’s not going to break the bank. Memory cards and USB drives work in exactly the same way on the Eee as they do in Windows. They appear as named drive icons in File Manager and files can be copied and pasted, and dragged and dropped to and from the card or main drive using exactly the same methods and keyboard shortcuts as Windows (i.e. Ctrl + C to copy and Ctrl + V to Paste), so you should feel completely at home.


The one area where the Eee PC and Linux can prove a bit tricky is installing new programs. Unlike Windows, where all you have to worry about are the differences between XP and Vista, there are hundreds, if not thousands of different versions or distributions of Linux. The Eee uses a variant of Debian, called Xandros and many applications written for standard Debian won’t run on the Eee. But even if they did installing software under Linux can be horribly complicated.


Fortunately there is a solution and it’s a system specially developed for use with versions of Linux like this one, called Software Repositories. These are basically Internet libraries of programs dedicated to a particular Linux distribution, and since its launch several have sprung up specifically for the Eee PC, in addition to the ‘official’ ones, operated by the Asus.


Adding, updating or removing software has been transformed by this method, though it does have its limitations, but more on those in a moment. If you want to make changes to the programs on your Eee open the Settings tab and click on the Add/Remove Software and it immediately goes on line to check if there are any new additions or updates. When it has finished all you have to do is decide what you want to install, update or delete and click the appropriate button. The obvious drawbacks are that you need a fast Internet connection and there’s only a relatively small selection of Asus-approved programs on offer. It’s obviously meant to protect users from dodgy or flaky software but it also means you’ll be missing out on some very interesting and useful software, including the KDE Desktop, which will be the subject of the final instalment in this series. In the meantime if you want to try a quick, simple and very safe upgrade tweak to improve web browsing see this week’s Top Tip.


Next Week – Tweaking the Eee PC part 3





K-Desktop Environment, Windows-like graphical user interface for Linux computers



Secure Data memory module used to store and move data between digital cameras, MP3 players and PCs etc.



Open Source email program, very similar to Outlook Express, from Mozilla, the people who bought us the Firefox browser




The Eee PC’s small screen can make web browsing hard going so it’s worth installing a Firefox add-on, called miniFox, which reduces the size of toolbars and toolbar icons. Simply visit the site on your Eee, click on the Add to Firefox button, then Install Now and when it appears, click Restart Firefox. To switch it on Go to Tools > Add-Ons, click Use Theme, restart Firefox and enjoy the extra centimetre or so of screen space.



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