Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eee overview

There are lots of sites out there giving the glossy brochure on the Asus Eee, not lest the Asus Eee site itself. There are also loads of reviews. Well here's another one.

Before I start though, it's perhaps worth pointing out where I'm coming from. Ultimately, I'm a technology user. I'm not a programmer, coder, Microsoft qualified/certified engineer, I don't work in IT and I certainly don't understand things like BIOS settings, command lines etc except at the most basic level. I am though prepared to get stuck into stuff, and despite everything I'm not, I've opened up PC's, upgraded them, downgraded them, broken them, even taken soldering irons to them.

These days though, I want my technology to work, and I'm less fussed about getting "dirty" in the inner workings, either at a hardware or software level.

I have two desktop PC's at home, one running XP Home and one Vista Home Premium. I have two smartphones - a Palm Centro and Windows Mobile HTC Vox. I've wanted a laptop for ages. One because it's portable and would give me a little more than the smartphones can, and 2 because it means I wouldn't be tied to the study/office desk.

My main computing needs are browsing the internet, email, office (Word & Excel stuff), blogging, and keeping 3 websites up to date. No really heavy stuff there then, and definitely no need for a £500+ laptop.

A couple of weeks ago I had an offer through this blog of a secondhand, virtually new Asus Eee, a machine people have been raving about. Why? It's small - very small, and therefore light. It's well featured, has a small solid state disk (no whirring bits) and just works out of the box. The version I have is a 701 4GB model. I won't go into the specs here - they're found easily enough elsewhere on the web - just Google. Would it fit the bill for me? Well I hope so because I bought it.

The operating system (OS) is Linux, an open source OS - which means it's available for anyone to tweak and develop further, and the particular flavour of Linux here is Xandros, which means absolutely nothing to me.

When you switch it on it boots and is ready to use in 28 seconds. It might have been quicker than this natively, but I've already added a few bits that might have slowed that down a bit. It's still very quick to boot though - to have a machine ready to use in less than 30 seconds is far quicker than either of my PC's by a distance.

The default interface on my 7" screen model is "Easy mode". The Eee is designed to be easy to use, and it is. The interface is a fixed, tabbed one, unlike the tweakable desktops we're all used to on our Windows and Mac machines, and the icons are big, colourful and almost childlike. Don't let that put you off though. They are clearly labelled and it's (pretty much) obvious what every icon does.

A 7" screen sounds small, and it is compared to my 19" flatscreen on my Vista setup, but this isn't meant to be a desktop replacement. It's meant to be an ultra portable, and if you accept that the screen's just fine for the job. It's certainly a massive improvement over my Palm's 320x320p screen!

Navigation is via a trackpad with a single button on a rocker switch, and it works very well. When I knew I was going to get the Eee I planned to get a laptop mouse, but I haven't bothered - the trackpad works fantastically well.

The first thing I did was use the wireless network app to configure the Eee to my home network. In fact the Eee found the home network (and another couple nearby) without prompting, and I just had to change the default WEP security setting to WPA, enter my key and off I went. The signal reception has been strong all around the house, showing at 100% most of the time.

The task bar shows wireless network connectivity, battery status, volume, time, the shutdown option, a link to EEE PC tips and an "SOS" icon which as far as I can work out opens the Xandros equivalent of a Windows Task Manager.

What I'll do now, or possible in a couple of installments is walk you through each of the tabs.

The first icon on the Internet tab is "Webmail", and clicking this takes you to shortcuts for Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL. As I don't use any of these, I don't need to go here.

Next up is the "Web" icon, and this opens the default Firefox browser. On my device it's running a 2.x version. Firefox is my preferred browser on my desktops, so I am right at home here. The only thing to be aware of is that due to the screen resolution (and I'm not sure this can easily be changed) on some sites you may have to scroll horizontally, but I have to say I've yet to find that particularly onerous.

Next up is "iGoogle", which unsurprisingly takes you via Firefox to the iGoogle homepage. You could of course bookmark this in Firefox and go via the "Web" icon, but I suppose this takes one action less.

Then comes "Messenger", and here's the first inkling that this isn't a Microsoft box. It's not Microsoft Messenger, but "Pidgin", a Linux messaging client. Cleverly though, it's set up to be able to access your chums through various other systems including AIM, Google Talk, Groupwise, ICQ, IRC, MSN, QQ, Simple, Sametime, XMPP and Yahoo - which is a pretty impressive list and most of which I've never heard of. I used the MSN option, entered my details and was messaging in no time, so that works OK. However, there is one caveat. The Eee ships with a webcam (or at least this model does), but Pidgin cannot be configured to use the webcam. How odd. I've got round this by installing another messaging client that does support webcams, but more of that later, and it does seem strange that a mobile unit shipped with a webcam and a messaging client can't get the two to work together, which would have been a pretty obvious requirement I'd have thought. Not that I use messaging much - my daughter does though!!

Next on the list is a "Skype" icon. Now I've never used Skype to make free telephone callsvia the Internet (hey why do it free when you can pay?), and haven't looked at this app yet. However, various forums suggest this works well.

The "Network" icon allows configuration of networks - as well as wireless, the Eee comes with LAN and modem ports, though I don't believe there's actually a modem in the box - I may be wrong though.

Next up is a link to "Google Docs", again via Firefox. I haven't used GD much, but it works. Simple as.

Then comes "World Clock". It , err, displays a night/day view of the world based on the current time. Useful. If you find that sort of thing useful.

Next is a link to "Wikipedia" - again through Firefox. Getting the theme here - basically apart from the network config, the Internet tab is a set of links...however, they are a useful set of links.

Following on from Wikipedia is an icon for "Internet Radio". Now I have to admit I haven't tried this yet, but I will, just not sure it's my type of thing.

And that' pretty much is that for the Intenet tab. As the Eee is supposed to be ..... easy.

Next time up, I'll move on the "Work" tab.

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