More On The Eee PC
I’ve had the Eee PC for a few weeks now, using it as my main computer for most of that time, and have been jotting down notes on using it all along. Instead of a thorough review (see Ars Technica’s coverage for that), I thought I’d gussy those notes up a bit, to make a loose, bullet-pointy, rather vague reviewlet of the machine as I use it, for writing and research, mostly.
Using The Eee PC
Writing on the Eee PC is do-able, but impractical when it comes to longer pieces. When writing anything over a few hundred words, I tend to have two text files open and visible on screen, one full of notes, half-formed paragraphs jotted down as they pop into my head and a rough outline, the other for the actual business of writing the piece. This is impossible on the Eee PC’s little screen, and I found it very hard to adapt to flitting between two fullscreen documents, rather than having both available for reading and writing simultaneously. When it comes to the final pass, which for me tends to involve a fair bit of cutting, pasting and rewriting of the first draft, the Eee PC’s small display is even more bothersome: I had no idea how important it is for me to be able to read large chunks of text in their entirety on screen, but it turns out that all the to and fro of scrolling required, even when using AbiWord in fullscreen mode with a display font set at the limits of legibility, really gets in the way of finishing a piece of work.
That said, it’s amazing how quickly one can adapt to writing on the Eee PC: I now type almost as quickly on the dinky keyboard as I do on my MacBook Pro, though with many more errors, and have absorbed a huge number of keyboard commands. This is a problem as much as a positive, though - every time I switch between the Mac and the Eee PC I spend five minutes or so adrift, stumbling over the Command and Control keys, and some things are so ingrained (triggering Textexpander macros or launching Quicksilver for example) that I suspect my brain will never override my muscle memory.
Web browsing is just fine. The overwhelming majority of sites I visit render perfectly on the dinky display, and the scrolling side of the trackpad makes navigating pages a cinch. I have noticed one big difference in my browsing habits, though. On the Eee PC, if I come across a page of interest, I’ll print it to a PDF file for later reading, rather than leave the tab open. On the Mac, I would routinely have 20 or more tabs open, something the underpowered Eee just can’t handle, but I’ve now ported the habit over: it’s better to have an easily searchable folder of PDF print-outs than grub around for that tab I opened last Tuesday. Flash-heavy sites, and too many open tabs bearing YouTube videos will cause Firefox to choke on the Eee PC, but since I avoid the former, and could do with watching less of the latter, this hasn’t proved to be a problem.
Managing images is tricky. I had thought that the Eee PC would be ideal as a photographer’s companion, so to speak, but the small screen makes even light editing - croppping, resizing, etc. - a chore, and the tendency of Firefox to have a fit when uploading more than a couple of full-size images to Flickr is frustrating. Still, for dumping images off your camera’s SD card for later processing or quick uploading, the Eee PC is a lot easier to lug around than your average laptop (it fits in the front pocket of my camera bag, with room to spare).
Everything else is on the web. As I mentioned before, using the Eee PC often feels like using a client to Google’s various services (or other web services and hosted applications, like Backpack and its sister apps). This feels like the realisation of a long-predicted trend: the iPhone, the Eee PC,
the Newtonand the better UMPC type things really are a new class of networked portable device, I think, capable of changing the way we use computers and the web. If only the network was ubiquitous, and if only I were willing to trust all my data to third parties.
Wireless networking is solid, but not perfect. When out and about, the Eee PC picks up more available networks than my MacBook Pro, but sometimes has trouble connecting and maintaining connections, especially to those with a weak signal. (After an annoying afternoon in windswept Leeds trying to get online, getting the Eee PC to dial up via my Nokia N95, or even investing in one of those pay-as-you-go USB 3G modem thingys has become a priority.)
Storage is a big problem. There’s just no room on the Eee PC for many media files, unless you want to muck about removing applications and files the Eee would rather you left alone. The answer? Get a for a 16GB SD card for Christmas!
Battery life is nothing to be sniffed at, especially if you turn off WiFi and dim the backlight as much as you can stand. I got the train from Liverpool to Glasgow on Monday, and watched two and a half hours of downloaded telly, listened to a bunch of Radio 4 stuff gleaned from Speechification, and read a week’s worth of RSS feeds in Google Reader’s offline mode. The Eee PC had enough juice left for me to check my mail and footle about on the web for half an hour when I got home.
The operating system
Linux is ugly, and hard to use. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with the inconsistencies of the user interface. On a Mac, I know where certain menu items will be found, and can count on standard command key combos doing what I expect, regardless of the application I’m using. Under Xandros, there are no such certainties, and you have to learn a distinct set of commands, and a new menu layout for pretty much every application you run. Even something as basic as quitting an app is completely inconsistent across applications - Control + Q will work a lot of the time, admittedly, but you can’t count on it. Talking of which, who thought it was a good idea to have applications up and quit when you close a window? That’s just incredibly stupid behaviour (if you’ve been using Macs exclusively for more than a decade). I’ve even found myself abandoning the GUI of some applications in favour of the command line, which is fine by me, but pretty bloody ridiculous.
Linux also has its strengths, of course! Package management is just the absolute business, a brilliant model for installing, updating and uninstalling applications. Updating all my applications on the Mac to the latest version would take a good deal of Googling, downloading, deleting and installing. Typing
apt-get upgradeis a cinch in comparison.
The twin OS that ships with the Eee PC is a good thing. Kate, James and I got my Dad an Eee PC for Christmas: he’s sticking with the default Easy Mode interface and, so far, the default applications. Admittedly, he’s a geeky pensioner, sorry Silver Surfer — Flickr account, nascent weblog and all — but I’d guess that someone with next to no computing experience would be comfortable with it. In other words, Asus have made a desktop Linux distro that anyone can use out of the box, without even having to look at a terminal window. This does not match my experience with other Linux distros, and that’s putting it mildly. (Of course, they have the ‘Apple advantage’ here, matching their hardware with a bespoke OS.)
So, is it any good?
Yup! In the end, the Eee PC has far exceeded my expectations. Sure, it has its flaws - small screen and keyboard, the lack of polish and limitations of Xandros when compared to a ‘proper’ OS - but it’s a more than capable laptop, ultra-portable and eminently usable. It has completely replaced my MacBook Pro as a laptop, which is now installed in the office as a desktop replacement. At a push, I could even see someone with relatively modest computing needs making the Eee PC their main machine: add an external DVD drive, full-size keyboard and monitor, and it would more than meet the needs of anyone who uses a PC primarily to write, surf the web and manage mail.
See also: Eee PC Setup.