Review: Ubuntu on the Eee PC

Eee PC 701 BlackIf what we're hearing in the trade sites is correct, the brand new ultra-mobile Eee PC 901 will be released in the next few days. However, the price point is supposed to be close to the $650 mark, which is a far cry from the sub-$400 sweet spot of the 701. Still, I'm eying that one carefully for my road kit, given how well my own 701 has performed. This is a little follow-up to my original mini-review.

Well, it didn't take me long to realise that I wasn't very fond of the Xandros Linux distribution that comes stock with the Eee PC 701. Don't get me wrong: it's great for newbies to Linux or for those users who want a static system that "just works" without feeling the foolish desire to tinker or to be on the bleeding edge. But, for better or worse, that's not me.

Most of my frustration was the result of a significant portion of the file system where the operating system and installed programs are stored -- to protect newbies from "messing up" the operating system, it's read-only. Yup, can't screw up what you can't change. But I didn't realise my inability to write to it at first, and was wondering why all my free space was rapidly disappearing whenever I upgraded the built-in applications. It seems that the old versions remained hidden and inactive, while the upgrades started taking up huge chunks of the valuable two gigabytes of storage space. For example, an upgrade of didn't take up a dozen more megabytes, as it would seem: instead, it took up a few hundred megabytes. Lesson learned: don't bother with any significant upgrades.

I don't like a Linux box I can't mod. So I backed up my personal files onto a 4GB SD card, downloaded and burned the eeeXubuntu distro and made a bootable USB stick. Very neat. Held down the escape key, booted, made the whole built-in drive an Ubuntu partition, and --about a half-hour later-- enjoyed a freshly-installed system where almost everything worked perfectly without further tweaking right out of the box. (I followed this Ubuntu Community page for the last touches, although a lot of users seem to prefer the Eee Ubuntu Support scripts at Google Code.)

I only had one problem and it concerned networking. At home with my LinkSys wireless router, the Eee PC wireless worked perfectly, but at work I decided to share my MacBook Pro's wired network connection via its Airport. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the Eee PC to accept WEP encrypted --it only worked when I set it wide open (which I was loathe to do). I didn't actually need to use the Eee PC at work, so this wasn't too big a deal.

Well, the much-anticipated Ubuntu 8.04 "Hardy Heron" came out a couple weeks ago, and I watched the numerous warnings against upgrading from the Eee PC users in the forums. I decided to take a calculated risk. Most of the posts seem to have come from newbies, and not from people who've used Linux for several years. So I called up the Update Manager, clicked "Check", and ran the upgrade. 14 hours later (did I mentioned I have a painfully slow and unstable connection up here in the far North?), the update was finally complete. I recompiled and modprobe'd the wireless drivers (specifically the MadWiFI module), restarted, and almost everything worked fine. Just in case, I ran this handy script from x2on to help along any potentially missing bits.

So, here I am, sitting in the new Ubuntu on this very inexpensive and very small laptop, tapping away within Emacs. No doubt I'll install a few more toys (there's several thousand to play with) before I'm completely satisfied, but far from being a big ordeal, it's been refreshing to unleash my inner geek for a change.

Derek Alexander North/South Top Zip Shoulder BagBonus bag-addict note: I was digging through my collection of bags that my wife refuses to admire, and extracted a small Derek Alexander North/South Top Zip Shoulder Bag. It not only fits the Eee PC and its power supply and mini-mouse perfectly, but contains plenty of room for the two Moleskines and index cards I usually tote around, along with a selection of fountain pens and mechanical pencils. Not bad for something less than a third of the size of most regular laptop bags.

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Very Tempting

I expect that if I ever get the chance to play with one, it will move to my "Gots To Have It" wish list.

"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

It's linux

Don't get me wrong, I eat Linux for breakfast since I've been working with it professionally for more than a decade.... but.....

Linux as a UI/desktop generally sucks. Linux as a PDA sucks worse. Sure it's some geeky goodness working with it, but at the end of the day the PDA functions still stink. Desktop is passable these days as long as you don't need to deal with word documents or deal with Pro Adobe products. The PDA functions will probably never really get worked out until Gears brings Google Calendar to the table.

I'm not saying it's impossible to get it into a workflow, but I have better things to do with my weekends.

I disagree, at least a little.

I use and love Ubuntu. But I have yet to find a good organizer for it. The best I've been able to do is lots of Tomboy Notes for stray information, and then regular dumps of my Palm contacts into Evolution. Bleah.

tried and failed

I tried installing Ubuntu on my desktop but could not get the graphics drivers to work after fiddlin for 2 days so I gave up.


My daughter uses an eeePC

And cannot find an organizer for it either. She's been using Evernote on her desktop (Windows) and likes it a lot, but it's more of a Commonplace-type app than an organizer. It's near perfect for what she needs at the moment - college student - but there isn't a whole lot out there for unix.

I'll keep looking.

Evolution is an Outlook-type app that does mail and contacts and to-do stuff and notes. Unfortunately the task lists and notes sections aren't robust enough for my tastes. Although, to be fair, I haven't tried the new version. I'll have to give it a look.

What I really want is for the Mozilla people to hurry up and finish upgrading the Lightning extension for Thunderbird. Thunderbird is the bestest mail client ever, and Lightning is a to-do and calendar add-on. It's just not very developed yet, but they're working on it. Hopefully they'll finish the new version soon.

Also, it would be nice if someone wrote a Palm conduit for Thunderbird once Lightning gets upgraded. Evolution syncs with the Palm, but the fields for the contacts are different from the Palm's and it drives me nuts. So I don't use it for my Palm. I keep a Windows partition, mostly to sync my Palm with the Palm Desktop.

Linux is wonderful for everything I do except for the organizer thing. If I was a good enough coder I'd try to make one, but I've never built a GUI. My programming experience is limited to command-line Unix (C and Perl, many years ago) and web scripting (mostly PHP, and it's been a while for that too). Sniff.

Newest Evolution release

I've got to say, the new version of Evolution is much improved. Your daughter might want to have a look.

Newest Lightning

I just checked and there's a new version of Lightning for Thunderbird. And it seems awesome so far. So your daughter might want to take a look at it, too. (In fact, I'm liking it better because of the page layout and the syncing with Google Calendar!)

Thanks for the tips!

I'm going to drop her an email right now.


I just downloaded Chandler Organizer onto my Mac (haven't tried it on my Linux box yet), and it looks like it's more notes-oriented, while not forgetting the calendar side, and that seems robuse enough, also. I would give it a look:



What DE/WM?


What desktop environ or window manager are you using on your eeePC? If Gnome or KDE, does it seem fast/snappy enough? How about KDE4?

If you've used others (icewm, lxde, fluxbox et al) I would be interested in your impressions on how well the run.


Eee PC Desktop

I was using KDE when I had Xandros still installed, but now that I have Ubuntu on it, I'm using the latest Gnome with most of the bells and whistles. I actually find it fast enough for my purposes: mostly web and writing, plus the occasional movie in VLC, graphical touch-up in GIMP, or playing tunes from my iPod via Rhythmbox.

I've tweaked the interface for the smaller screen size, upgraded the memory to 1 GB, and nixed daemons that I don't need to have running all the time (e.g., Apache).

I've used icewm, fluxbox, wm, etc., on other computers but not this one, so I can't tell you how those perform here. However, even with Compiz --normally quite the hog-- the Eee PC is snappy enough not to bother me. Note that I haven't spent much time in Eclipse (all those tabs in the perspectives don't work well with a small screen size), so if that's your thing I have no advice.

Hrm. Guess I should test this rig hooked up to a larger monitor....

Hope this helps!

all my best,


Wow... I hadn't thought about that! I can't use it either on my Mac, or my ancient Dell box, so I kind of forgot about that! But if you can run that on the eee.... hm.... I might have to have my son buy me the 901 while he's in the States this summer. ;-) (I fear the 10" is too big--and I _know_ the 701 is too small--my wife has one)



Eee pc

Nice pc from Eee i liked the look and easy to handle it