Ubuntu on the Eee PC

After a couple of days playing with my new Asus EeePC 901 I was left more than a little disappointed: The innovative multitouch mouse pad was limited by the provided drivers – two-finger scroll would work but not pinch-to-zoom. The browser would crash if I tried using any flash recording in websites like youtube or ustream with the in-built webcam. The performance seemed a little sluggish when swapping between applications or even between browser tabs, and I’d describe the interface as something I’d expect to see on a kids “my first laptop” – poor quality icons and use of colour. I also found the default Xandros Linux operating system to be cumbersome – the update manager failed to install updates that it told me were available and it was incredibly difficult to install applications not listed in the update manager. Then when I told the thing to shutdown, sometimes it would but sometimes it would refuse to turn off the power and just sit there with black screen. I spent two whole hours installing seven different packages just to install Firefox 3, and then a further hour changing the Firefox shortcut in the application launcher to load version 3 instead of 2. I thought Linux was supposed to be user friendly these days!? I was left wondering whether perhaps these were just compromises I would have to accept for the portability and battery life that the EeePC could provide?

MAME running on te Eee901
MAME running on the Eee901

I mentioned these issues on Twitter and @robb1e replied to suggest I try Ubuntu instead of Xandros. I’d read good things about Ubuntu but also read that it needed some manual tweaks to get some features of the 901 (wifi, bluetooth, webcam) to work. Then I found the Ubuntu Eee project – a version of Ubuntu customised with software and drivers specifically for the EeePC. It can be installed on a USB flash drive using a windows installer so that you can give it a try completely risk free as it wont touch your existing OS. I gave it a try and after just 15 minutes testing was convinced enough that I installed it permanently (from the same flash drive) and said goodbye to Xandros forever.

Before: Xandros Linux
Before: Xandros Linux
After: Netbook Remix on Ubuntu Eee
After: Netbook Remix in Ubuntu Eee

Here’s why I believe that Ubuntu Eee is streets ahead of Xandros:

  • Much slicker, crisper user interface (the NetbookRemix interface is a simplified application launcher similar to that provided by Xandros, but it’s still possible to go back to the standard Ubuntu desktop although I think NetbookRemix is perfect for this form-factor).
  • Great set of bundled applications (OpenOffice, Firefox 3 (including full flash support), Skype)
  • Full support for the multitouch touchpad
  • Fully functioning update manager
  • Far more responsive when switching between applications
  • Almost all of the hardware works without any extra configuration (see below for the exceptions)
  • Shutdown really does shutdown and power off!

There are still a couple of things I think could be improved with Ubuntu Eee but I have more confidence in the community being able to resolve these quickly than Asus being able to fix the Xandros issues. In fact, there’s a new version based around Ubuntu 8.10 due at the end of which should have even better support for the 901. Here’s a quick roundup of the issues I had:

  • Lack of bluetooth software – bluetooth drivers are installed but the only way to send or receive files (as far as I could tell) is via the command line until you install addiitional software to enable right-click > Send-to…
  • SD card reader support – my card wasn’t mounted properly because of a conflict caused by Ubuntu expecting the presence of a CD-ROM drive. Easily fixed by a one-line change in a config file, but should work by default as none of the EeePCs have a CD-ROM
  • Shortcut keys weren’t configured (home key and the row of 4 buttons above the function keys)
  • MAME – one of the first things I installed. Surely Space Invaders and Pacman should come as standard, no? :-)

I’m so impressed that I’m even considering scrapping WinXP from my main laptop and installing Ubuntu. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Asus are underselling their EeePC by shipping it with Xandros – it should come with Ubuntu Eee by default.

3 Comments to “Ubuntu on the Eee PC”

  1. bubbles 15 October 2008 at 3:33 am #

    Multitouch eh?

    I can only do two-finger scrolling as far as I know…
    Any secret trick or something?

  2. tdroza 16 October 2008 at 3:55 pm #

    I think it just depends on which apps you’re using. For example I can zoom in/out of images using the pinch motion (which incidently, I think is backwards – pinching “out” actually zooms in). The same action does nothing in firefox though.

    I can also use 3-finger tap to emulate the right-button click – think that’s right, I don’t have my machine to hand at the moment. I haven’t done anything intentionally to enable any of this (at least not intentionally!).

  3. james 4 March 2009 at 6:45 pm #

    I like this thing. I buy it for my nephew and he’s very happy. I see this thing is worth your money.

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