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Try out the EEE PC (No purchase required!)

April 8, 2008 4 comments

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_1.0.6.6.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.)

Vista SP1 – A reflection

March 23, 2008 2 comments

It is interesting how perusing or glancing at the popular tech topic currently doing the rounds on wordpress can give an insight into the impact such announcements (or software/game/hardware/press releases etc) are having on the general public. Its all well and good reading about something (in this case Vista Service Pack 1) from recognised tech insiders such as Paul Thurrott, it is far more telling to read about the experiences everyone else is having.

Here are a selection of headlines from the last few days,

Vista wreaks havok on some PCs, users complain (anti Vista blog), My Nightmare trying to upgrade to SP1 (Insightful look into incompatible drivers), Vista SP1 update not showing up is for your own good (Reasons why SP1 may not be available yet for some people), SP1 Now available, Delayed, Delayed, Delayed, SP1 Day two (interesting positive feedback from a user), Hell has frozen over (overexcited user).

And guess what? Its not (entirely) the usual doom and gloom and has become almost ubiquitous when it comes to reports about Vista. Vista Service Pack 1 has come a long way since internal betas handed out to the Microsoft beta testers. These poor guys must have been feeling particularly abused this time round if the early write ups are anything to go by. With several restarts required to complete the process (and a few hours) these so-called tech elite reported back their thoughts on the process and as you can imagine, even the most staunchly pro-Microsoft of them has a few ‘choice’ comments to make.

But anyway, fast forward to now and you will see in your Windows Updates Vista Service Pack 1 waiting patiently for you to let it into your digital home. Software and hardware compatibility is good and the lengthy installation process has been slimmed down dramatically to a single reboot after completion. Inevitably it won’t go that way for everyone with some users reporting issues with certain drivers. To Microsoft’s credit, a fairly comprehensive list of drivers that have issues has been published and I have reproduced the list below.

Realtek AC’97

For x86-based computers: Alcxwdm.sys – version 6.0.1.6242 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Alcwdm64.sys – version 6.0.1.6242 or earlier
SigmaTel

For x86-based computers: Sthda.sys – version 5.10.5762.0 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Sthda64.sys – version 5.10.5762.0 or earlier
SigmaTel

For x86-based computers: Stwrt.sys – version 6.10.5511.0 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Stwrt64.sys – version 6.10.5511.0 or earlier
Creative Audigy

For x86-based and x64-based computers: Ctaud2k.sys – version 6.0.1.1242 or earlier
For x86-based computers: P17.sys – all versions (This was originally a Windows XP-based driver.)
Conexant HD Audio

For x86-based computers: Chdart.sys – version 4.32.0.0 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Chdart64.sys – version 4.32.0.0 or earlier
Display drivers

Intel Display

For x86-based computers: Igdkmd32.sys – versions between and including driver 7.14.10.1322 and 7.14.10.1403
For x64-based computers: Igdkmd64.sys – versions between and including driver 7.14.10.1322 and 7.14.10.1403

Unfortunately, I am the (not-so) proud owner of a Ac’97 soundcard in my primary laptop so it looks like I may have to fish around for drivers (AGAIN!!) to get my laptop to work properly with Redmond’s latest offering. The issues here are not Microsoft’s fault. Infact, as several tech insiders have noted, Microsoft was beating the drum about drivers to ODM/OEMs for months prior to Vista’s (and SP1′s) release but when the moment came to deliver, most manufacturers did not come to the party.

The reason is simply, it is not really cost effective. Take a computer you bought in the last few years (or Motherboard) and goto the manufacturer’s website and check the date of the ‘latest’ drivers (or BIOS.) Whilst these companies are fairly diligent during the product’s lifecycle, when they move onto something else, they stop putting out bugfixes or updates because it no longer makes commercial sense for them to pay their software engineers to do so. When Vista came out, many people had equipment (like me) that was designed for XP but could, with a fair amount of tweaking, run Vista very comfortably. The problem I (and many others) faced was a complete lack of native driver support for this hardware. I understand the problem, but I still think it is ridiculous. Microsoft did try to smooth this over by building in a compatibility layer into Vista to allow the loading of some XP drivers and while this helped a lot, there were performance penalties.

For now, I am not particularly fussed about SP1 so I will be sticking to vanilla Vista until either these driver issues are resolved (unlikely) or I get the time to find replacement drivers for my laptop.

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