Whilst periodic checking of a manufacturer or supplier for updated programs and drivers is useful, it is annoying when so little information is provided by the tool itself. Lets face it, this could mean anything:
At least with Windows Update there are brief descriptions with links to knowledge-base articles for further information. If you trust MS is being comprehensive in their notes.
Yes, granted the title to this post makes no sense and basically relates to nothing, but I thought it set up this post rather well. You see, this is just a brief post to apologise for the less than usual frequency of my updates in the last couple of weeks. Its been a bit of a busy time so I have slightly taken my finger off of the pulse of the various industries I follow. Since the majority of my posts are reactionary commentaries or rants or how-tos it follows I have not been writing much.
Also, the much vaunted laptop (dv2799) I bought a couple of weeks ago has now had to be swapped a third time!! The first time it had a strange RAM corruption problem in the GFX RAM and the second laptop I received had a poorly constructed USB header which shorted the whole thing out. *sigh*. Still third time lucky I hope, its a lovely laptop, its just a shame it is let down by dubious quality control at Hewlett Packard’s end.
So, stay tuned, I have by no means lost interest in my blog! For now, I leave you with the comedy genius of Simon Amstell.
Well, it has been a fair few months since the first ultra cheap ultraportable sublaptop was released by ASUS, namely the EEE PC – few thought this single, largely under-hyped launch would change the face of mobile computing in the way it has. Personally I am delighted, I am a fan of both gadgets and small portable devices like this. I tried out an EEE PC at PC world a few weeks ago and was impressed at the build quality and size. More surprisingly, I was impressed with the screen which was the main source of my disdain being only 7″ and having a non standard resolution of 800×480. One thing I could not try out was surfing the internet- which a device like this is primarily designed to do.
Before the hate mail comes in let me explain, whilst the unit is very capable for a variety of uses, many of those will be in the ‘cloud’ and as a result, reliable and efficient internet browsing is essential. Since most webpages are designed for 1024×768, the 1st generation EEE PC and even the second (900 series) to an extent, will always be lacking in my opinion. Which is a shame. I really want to buy an EEE PC, but I know such a purchase would be based on a long festering impulse rather than any real need or desire. I carry around my 15.4″ laptop whenever I need to do any computing away from my home and it serves me rather well. Of much greater interest to me is where ASUS goes from here. Whilst other companies struggle to release their own clone (more about this later) of the EEE PC, the engineers at ASUS are clearly scratching their heads wondering where they can take this platform from here. In my opinion, there are two directions ASUS can go.
Direction one : More more more more! In a way, ASUS have already indicated this is their intention with the 2nd generation EEE PC laptop, the 900 series. It has a bigger screen as well as a number of other refinements which are great to see, however they still do not bring the machine upto par with an ultra-cheap full-sized notebook. Given the two units sell at comparable prices here in the UK, there really is no incentive to buy the 2nd Generation EEE PC. This coupled with some of the better specced models only being available with Microsoft Windows XP is also short sighted. If ASUS continue in this direction, then we will see a similar development to Psion’s 5(mx) -> 7 / Netbook with a larger, similarly underpowered system being produced. Off the top of my head, I would predict either a 9″ or 10″ screen, 20Gb flash HDD and no doubt other tweaks. There is no doubt, if the screen is of better quality (i.e. resolution and dpi) and the laptop is not substantially more expensive, it could make for a great addition to the EEE PC range; however, I am more interested in Direction two.
Direction two: No this is not some shadowy Orwellian organisation in the basement of a Cinema called “Freedom”* but rather, what my plan would be for the continuation of the EEE PC range. The expression “Stick to what you are good at” comes to mind, ASUS have found a niché which, in business parlance equals profit. More than that, by getting into bed with the open-source crowd, they have a lot of “value-add” through third party modders and hackers – one just needs to look at the number of Operating Systems that now have been run on the EEE PC to see this. In six months time, there should be a new EEE PC, lets call this fictional product the 71x series (so 711, 712, 713 and 714 to match current 1st gen model numbers) and put a higher resolution screen maybe in a 7″ or 8.4″ form factor into it. RAM options seem perfectly adequate at the moment, but allow the addition of traditional platter HDDs as well as the 1st Generation flash drives as options. The idea that, as higher capacities of flash discs drop slightly, they are immediately incorporated into the next generation of EEE PC device is frankly ridiculous, the cornerstone of the EEE PC philosophy was value – something ASUS seem to have forgotten with their 900 series laptops. Using the same flash hard drive capacities as the first generation (e.g. 2, 4 and 8Gb) or offering traditional platter harddrives (in 10, 20 or 30Gb sizes) would lower the price of the product whilst preserving the original fanbase as well as enticing new customers.
The only downside to direction two is the number of companies eager to get a slice of the pie. Recently, DELL, HP and ACER added their names to the list of companies developing laptops for this formerly niché market. Whilst companies like Acer (in my experience) have never been particularly concerned over quality, others like DELL, HP, VIA are. Its not just these companies who are after a slice of the market, Elonex, MSI, OLPC and others have either expressed an interest in or have released comparable products. The question remains – stand still and possibly get left behind or innovate and put the price up. There is no easy answer, but I believe the EEE PC brand has a lot of clout for being both first and for being good quality. These two factors will keep ASUS onto of this niché market, provided they keep on track and continue to impress us.
On a side note, Cnet have a great side by side comparison that’s worth glancing at.
*Believe it or not, there actually was a secret Soviet KGB/GRU interrogation facility in a Cinema called Wolność (Freedom) in Krakow during the Communist era – its the kind of thing you just can’t make up. Apparently they always had a habit of playing their films a bit loudly there…
It was great to see ASUS put out a free F/OSS SDK for individuals or companies to develop programs for their wonderful EEE PC platform, what surprised me was that not only did they release the tools (plus source and example code etc) but also the ISO images. Although of course, they are bound by the GPL license to release the source code, I didn’t think they would release the binary images as well.
What this means, is that anyone who is interesting in buying an EEE PC whether or not they have prior experience with F/OSS or GNU Linux can have the benefit of literally test driving the default Linux environment. Of course this is only one of the many x86 Operating Systems / distributions that will happily run on this platform but that is besides the point. Of course this guide is not exclusively written for prospective buyers of the EEE PC and I hope it is useful for anyone (e.g. software developer, geeks like me etc) who for some reason, wants or needs the EEE PC environment installed within a virtual machine.
In order to use the vmx and iso images supplied you will need a free bit of software – VMware Player. This is available for Windows and Linux. I should point out that there are better (completely) free virtualisation options available, VMware only provides VMware player for free which will happily ‘play’ premade images or snapshots of any type of virtual machine. QEMU (Windows/Linux) and Microsoft Virtual Machine are good examples.
Now, at this point I was in the process of writing a post detailing how to use the vmx and ISO files, however, because VMware Player is a rather crippled piece of software, there is no direct way (that I can quickly come up with) to get around this lovely error message :
The reason for this is simple, just like the real EEE PC, the Virtual Machine VMware is trying to boot off of its harddrive which is referenced in the vmx image provided by ASUS. Unfortunately what they did not provide was the vmsd file. As a result VMware Player will always fail and since it is only a featured stripped version, there is no way to progress.
UPDATE: You can use the purportedly free beta version of VMWare server to get around this, but by this stage I was fed up of WMware products.
So, what we need to do is start again with a different free piece of software, since I already had Microsoft Virtual PC installed on my computer, I decided to use it for the remainder of this how-to.
Fire up Virtual PC and Select ‘NEW’ from the console.
Go through the New Virtual Machine Wizard, selecting ‘Create a Virtual Machine’ and name it anything you like. I called my profile “EEE PC” and selected Operating System “Other.” This being a Microsoft product, there is no mention of Linux on here
You will notice that this only gives you 128Mb of emulated RAM, this of course is too little, but don’t worry for in the next stage we will be able to edit this by selecting “Adjusting the RAM.” Set this to 512Mb.
Next, we need to create a new ‘Virtual’ harddisk in order to emulate our EEE PC. By default, Virtual PC will want to create a 16GB harddisk. Since the 701 EEE PC only has 4GB (and the 700 has 2GB) for the purposes of this experiment, 2GB SHOULD be plenty. I however discovered that the installation fails unless you make the image at least 16,384MB.
Please note that this does not create a 16GB file on your harddrive (although it can.) Instead it will create a small .vhd file which will increase in size and the amount of space inside this virtual harddive is filled, so make sure you have at least a gigabyte of real HDD space remaining. You can save this virtual harddrive anywhere on your computer but it would make sense to put it in the same folder you put the ISO image. Finish this wizard.
Select EEE PC and click ‘Start’ from the console. This is where the fun starts. Now you will see a console or DOS like window appear and try to boot, however it has nothing to boot from yet so click on the CD menu and select ‘Capture ISO Image.’
Selet the ISO image you downloaded from Sourceforge and using the Action Menu, click ‘Reset.’ The virtual machine will now boot from the virtual CD image (the ISO) and allow you to install the EEE PC environment onto your virtual computer. You will be asked to enter ‘yes’ to continue. Follow the instructions. Rather than present you with a GUI or any options, all you will see is the message “Starting to write (it should take approx. 5mins).” Give this some time, do not forget you are emulating a separate computer within Windows so this may take longer than specified.
NOTE: If you see any error messages than it is likely your ISO was corrupted during download. If you continue, you will see ‘error 17′ when trying to start your virtual machine. To check if you have a good ISO image, use a utility that calculates the MD5 hash of a file.
If your installation completed successfully then skip this section.
If not, then we now need to check the downloaded CD image. We do this by comparing the MD5 hash of your downloaded CD image (ISO), using a free utility such as WinMD5Sum (or use the built in command in Linux) and compare it to that of a complete, 100% good copy.
My MD5 hash of the file L701_EN_126.96.36.199.iso is 22056e798c26b16b1521707f9dd73a2c. If yours differs, either it is a different version or it is corrupt therefore useless, you will need to re-download the file from sourceforge. This happened to me first time round when I was downloading the image, the remote server in the sourceforge farm truncated my ISO a few kb short which was a bit frustrating. If you keep having this problem, try using a download manager,
Now, if everything went according to plan, read on.
After the reboot, you should be set! Your virtual machine should boot straight into the ASUS modified Xandros Linux operating system. Enjoy! Please post comments / feedback. If you have any issues getting this working leave a comment and I will do my best to help you. Other people have done the same thing also using Microsoft Virtual PC, as well as QEMU under Linux. I also managed to get this working via QEMU (using QEMU Manager and QEMU Windows Build 0.9.1)
A final note of caution, the speed and responsiveness of Xandros / EEE PC Linux inside an emulator (or more correctly a virtualised environment) should not be seen as an indication of the speed or responsiveness of the same software on real hardware. It might be faster (since emulation / virtualisation can be processor intensive) it might be slower (you may have a fast computer.)
I have been holding off posting more information filtering through from the EEE camp until now. Most people are already aware that the 900 Series will be the second generation of the proven EEE brand from Asus. It uses the same form factor with some key differences in the hardware. Firstly, Asus have added a bigger (8.9″) at 1024×600 resolution TFT screen which is a welcome upgrade from the fairly anemic 700 series. On top of this, the screen will feature a touchscreen panel (previously added by a talented hardware hacker) despite Kevin Lin (VP Sales at ASUS) previously going on record dismissing the rumours that ASUS were looking into a touchscreen version. It is also likely the CPU will be upgraded although nothing concrete has been announced as well as rumours of GPS functionality in the future.
Not only that, but it appears multitouch, a technology highlighted by its wonderful implementation on the Apple iPhone, is also going to feature on the second generation laptop. This is likely to be limited to zooming in/out on photos as well as some page browsing tweaks. Apart from that, the 900 Series of EEE PC will also feature more flash memory (8 and 12Gb models being announced) as well as a hefty pricetag increase. According to ASUS, the RRP is likely to be around $500 when it starts to ship in a couple of months time.
Unfortunately, if what happened with the first generation EEE PCs repeats itself, we are likely to see the price tag of $50-80 more (especially in the UK and Europe.) The issue that concerns me here is that it slips out of the ultracheap ultraportable niche and starts to go head to head with cheap machines produced by the likes of Acer, Fujitsu Siemens and others. Whilst these machines are generally dreadfully underpowered, it is likely to dampen interest in the EEE 900 series which would be a shame.
UPDATE: An excellent video review from CeBIT2008 of the new EEE PC can be seen here.
Briefly I would also like to mention the EEE ‘desktop’ PC which has been rumoured for a while. Engadget are running a story with some leaked pictures purporting to be the EEE desktop, although ASUS have not confirmed such a product range is even in development let alone released any rough specifications. As an early prediction, I do not think these ‘slimline’ desktops will do particularly well. Laptops were a different story, they presented ‘light’ mobile computing without the encumbrances of price and weight. In a market filled with low power desktop PCs, the only thing that could make the EEE desktop systems competitive (and desirable) would be a crazily low price tag (~£100, maybe £160 tops) because otherwise they are simply trying to take a slice of another niche market which already has some hungry wolves circling.
In a somewhat strange move, Walmart announced that, despite selling out stock of their pilot gOS systems, they would not be reordering stock. This effectively means Walmart have shelved the idea, officially citing too little interest. This is a huge shame as what Linux desperately needs on the desktop is some degree of representation. Who better than a major national retailer?
Of course, there are other issues not often considered. Whilst a well configured linux distribution is generally far more hardy than a Windows system, tech support is a key issue. Retraining people to deal with a fringe group of users is likely to be a cost retailers would not happily swallow. This is compounded because these cheap linux desktops are literally that, cheap. This means (I assume) the product margins would be much thinner than traditional desktops. It would be a shame if this is goodbye for popular, mass adoption of Linux PCs and with any luck it is just a temporary stumble. PC World are still selling EEE PCs at incredible rates and with the new 900 Series EEE pc around the corner as well as other exciting F/OSS systems like the cloudbook PC.
If anything, working part time in retail for the last few years has shown me the incredible jump in the number of laptops (and sublaptops) being sold over traditional desktop PCs. This has been reflected in part by the astronomical interest in the EEE PC compared to the more casual interest that was paid to the gOS PC. If the desktop market is over-saturated or in decline then inevitably it will be bad news for any new products unless they completely revolutionise the market. Lets face it, the adoption of Linux on the desktop hardly comes close to being this, especially compared to the advances Apple keep making. Outside of tech blogs, casual geeks and developing nations, the interest is minimal at best with Joe Public preferring to stay safe with that he or she knows.
Saying this, the possibility of explosive growth for Linux on the portable (or ultraportable) is good. The EEE pc has not succeeded because it is a linux laptop. It has sold hundreds of thousands of units because it is cheap and ultra-small. The fact that it runs linux has almost been pushed to the background. I do however hope this emerging market for cheap, F/OSS powered systems market expands quickly in the coming months and years, to quote Betruger, “Wonderful things will happen here, just stay out of my way…”.
Following the lead from the great Asus EEE PC touchscreen mod I wrote about back in December, rumours have been surfacing that ASUS is interested in taking this design improvement, possibly adding a bigger screen (fingers crossed after the “yes they are, .. no we are not” that occured in December) and updating their product line.
According to manufacturers, the extra bill of materials (BOM) would only be around $15 given the scale ASUS is requesting. Good news, as I want an EEE PC but have held off over concerns about the screen size, I certainly will be keeping a keen eye on this
A couple of days ago, jkk posted a fascinating (if light on the details) post about his project to add a touchscreen to the EEE PC.
He tantalisingly promised to post a tutorial within a short duration. Thankfully he was as good as his word and his youtube walk-through can be found below.
Its a shame he is not a bit more concise, but the video really does show the simplicity of the mod. There are a few things that remain unclear, firstly whether or not the left speaker is replaced / disabled by this mod and whether this makes the whole thing a tighter fit when closed.