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That damned screen January 31, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Hardware, Ramblings.

Ok, here’s the whole other post.

The first thing people rag the Eeep about is the screen. (The keyboard is a far second,actually; that comes when they start typing on it.) There’s something fundamentally uncomfortable about not having an edge-to-edge LCD. It’s just not right.

But, like the keyboard, you learn to live with it.

It is truly, disconcertingly tiny though. I’m at the upper age limit of being able to tolerate a screen this size without resorting to visual aids; if I were a couple of years older, I’d actively hate this thing and would never buy it. But fate and Asus have conspired to make this thing here and now, when I can still use one without magnifying glasses, so here I am in front of it, gingerly typing and trying not to squint.

There is this faux computer under the VTech line, a toy for kids that purports to be more than what it is, which is a toy with an LCD screen that tries hard to look like a laptop. People in my neck of the woods would be familiar with it, but it goes under different labels and brands elsewhere. I’ve seen it on the shelves of Toys R Us in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. You’ve probably seen one.

The gray LCD screens of these VTech things are like postage stamps stuck dead-center on the front of a letter envelope; tiny in relation to the surface area of the lid. The EeePC looks a bit like it, which is why I (unfairly) dismissed it out of hand after seeing a prototype pic on the net. Ugh. Never work.

Until the raves started coming in, some from people I respect. True enough, after getting face time with one, I relented. I ate my words gladly. This was workable. It’s small, but I can live with it.

Now and then, when I’m caught off-guard and my familiarity isn’t instantly available, I’m struck by how much real estate is wasted in the wide plastic frame surrounding the Eeep screen. The speakers panels are a joke; the real speaker opening is a quarter-sized perforated area a third of the way down from the top on either side of the screen. Way too much speaker grille for its own good, and a flimsy way to cover up the smallness of the LCD.

(Granted, the speakers are louder than you’d expect. Watching DiVX files is great, sound-wise, but the grills have nothing to do with it.)

I’m not grousing as much as I should because in spite of myself, I am actually impressed by the EeePC screen’s usability and readability. It’s clear and bright, and it’s shown me that I can live beneath 1024 x 768. It’s amazing, really.

I’ve generally gotten used to the Eeep’s face, except in moments when I need to do the alt-click-drag routine on a window to get at a button. And there are those weird, awkward moments when even if a window is maxxed out, the lower dialogue buttons can’t be accessed no mattter what you do.

I also find the size and aspect ratio perfect for catching a movie fullscreen on VLC more than adequate. With the small size and lightness of the thing, I don’t drive the wife crazy using the thing in bed with it propped up on my chest, or at least not as much as if I was using the MacBook.

A friend-of-mine-who-must-not-be-named hit the mother lode of ebooks on some guy’s site, literally thousands of titles both old and new on nearly 5gb – enough to keep us busy reading until we’re old and gray. And setting the ebook reader to show a page rotated 90 degrees is perfect for just curling up with a black tea latte. I mean, I love the Books app on the iPhone, but something’s still to be said with a bigger screen like the Eeep’s.

I’m not as strident complaining about the screen as I am about the keyboard. If it could just eat up a couple of inches more of the bezel, I’d be a happy camper.


Eeecast January 25, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Apps, Asus.
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One of the niggles of the included apps of the Eeep is the Pearson Longman Mobile Dictionary‘s usability – in a word, limited.

Since Asus is a Taiwanese company, it’s no surprise that their dictionary app is Sino-centric: English-to-Chinese, Chinese-to-English and English-to-English (in Traditional and Simplified Chinese at that). Which is fine, but the menu options are in Chinese out of the box, so English users are SOL.

There’s a way around it though – and it’s simple enough if you read Chinese to begin with. If not, here’s the fix: click on the wrench icon in the lower right corner of the dictionary window. In the dialog that pops up, there will be two drop-down menus (in Chinese, of course). Drop down the upper one, then click on the first of the three choices. Voila! English menus.

Now this isn’t too intuitive, especially for non-Chinese readers, unless you come across it on a website or someone tells you the trick.

For me it was the former – I was specifically looking for an EeePC podcast (it’s a no-brainer that there’d be one or two out there already) and stumbled across the companion website of The Eeecast, which is run by geekgirl Jacqueline Moody.

This post isn’t about the Longman Dictionary – it’s about the podcast, but I just thought I’d mention it and give credit where it’s due. Jackie’s site had the tip you just read. Which is what podcasts are usually great for. (Although in this case it was her site that gave the tip.)

I’m a podcast slut. I listen to a lot, and regularly. Coming from a talk radio background, I love these things.

The Eeecast isn’t too regular (it’s got three out at the moment, the last one released Jan. 7), and it isn’t too techie and geek-deep, despite the fact that Jackie calls herself The GeekGirl. (A plus was actually getting to listen to Neil, the Brit moderator from eeeuser.com, who guested on Episode Two.)

It’s sort of roundabout and leisurely made – sorta like this blog, come to think about it. Jackie’s manner is also slow and deliberate, as if she was reading from a script (which is probably the case), and it’s pretty short too. The last one was barely 4 minutes. To someone used to nearly two-hour long programs like TWIT and MacBreak Weekly, EeeCast is just a burp on the net.

But I’m glad its around. It’s a sign of things to come – Art and I already recently recorded a podcast episode that was all about the Eeep. Here’s to catching more EeePC-centric shows soon.

If you want to listen to The GeekGirl’s show, head on to eeecast.com to get the podcasts.

Dispelling the reality distortion field January 21, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Macs, Ramblings.

Those of you folk who know the stuff I write online will know that I am a Mac fanboy first and foremost, before anything.

The fact that I am enamored with an EeePC so much that I’ve practically set aside my Macs for the time being and even started a blog about it is a testament to its value and worth as a computing platform. That it can distract a Mac user from his Mac is a big thing.

The other day I showed my EeePC to a friend of mine who works in the building next to mine. After fifteen minutes of tinkering with it, he bought one that very afternoon. To be fair, Vic asked if I could drop by his studio and demo it to him. He was already half-sold on the idea of an EeePC, having researched the net, and just needed to actually get his fingers on an Eeep keyboard before taking the plunge.

My friend is, if anything, an even bigger Machead than I am. He texts me the next day:

Dude, between the eBook reader, VLC and the wifi browsing, I’m wondering if I even need my MacBook Pro on a daily basis. Love love love.

I know what you mean, Vic. I leave my older laptop on my desk in the office now; only the Eeep gets to go home with me. It gets to go everywhere.

The EeePC is so good it even cancels out the Steve Jobs RDF, even a powerful one like the field generated around the MacBook Air; after a few hours, some Macheads snap out of it when they had a chance to think about the Eeep.

In fact, way bigger Mac fanboys than Vic and myself have seen the light. I came across a wonderfully sobering column by writer Vern Seward entitled MacBook Air: The Wrong Envelope on the popular website The Mac Observer last night. I quote some of the interesting parts:

I have a feeling that the MacBook Air is this year’s “Cube.” Nearly everyone I’ve talked to, both Mac and PC fans, want a small laptop. If you’ve read the blogs and forums leading up to Macworld you couldn’t help but come away with a sense that people were looking forward to a small, lightweight device. The MacBook Air is small, but compared to devices like the ASUS EEEPC, the MacBook Air suddenly becomes not so small.

I know I don’t want or need a full blown OS while I’m on the go, the iPhone proves that people can get along without the whole of OS X while out and about. What I want is the iPhone or iPod touch on steroids, a small package with some innovation built in.

In fact, if you compare the EEEPC with the MacBook Air you might find that while the EEEPC is not as thin and does not offer that nice multi-touch pad, it does offer enough horsepower to do 80 to 90 percent of what you might want to do. For me, that’s plenty.

I also believe that many were waiting to see what Steve Jobs announced at Macworld, holding off buying the ultra-portable they’ve had an eye on in case Apple offered something better. I wouldn’t be surprised if ASUS sees a big jump in EEEPC sales this month.

This, coming from a hardboiled Mac loyalist. Interesting read. Click on the link and check it out.

The mother of all EeePCs January 20, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Hacks.
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Someone lost his head and went upgrade crazy on his Eeep, He installed, added, hacked and kracked everything he could think of on it, and ended up with a monster of an EeePC that has:

  • USB hubs
  • GPS module
  • Bluetooth
  • SDHC card reader
  • Adata SDHC 8 GB
  • Corsair VoyagerGT 4 GB USB drive
  • Switch + Prototypingboards
  • Intel Wireless adapter
  • Airplay FM transmitter
  • Conexant Modem
  • Crucial 2 GB DDR2 module

The modifications cost the guy nearly US$500 apart from the cost of the base model. I think if I had the money and nothing better to do, I might have attempted something like it. But …nahhh. Too much trouble.

Just in case you might want to, more details, pictures and how he did it on his Wiki page.

Man. Some people.

Port-A-PC January 20, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Ramblings.
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Of course I got it because it was portable.

And I’d be damned if it isn’t. I can actually put it in a fanny pack with all the little pieces that go with it – the charger, the wifi mouse, a flash drive, an extra SD card. Then I run out the door with the thing on my waist. Goes with me everywhere. No sweat. Literally.

It’s nothing like a MacBook Air, of course. (I’d rather we not go there. It would be like comparing, uh, apples and …catalytic converters.) I’d love one of those, but it still isn’t an Eeep.

I used to lug around my Macs and Thinkpads in big rucksacks, folios, sachels and bags of all shapes, sizes, weights and materials. I have a considerable collection – I have a serious bag problem, I think. That’s another story though (and something I’ve told in another blog.)

But now with the Eeep, I hardly need one. Now I’ve just settled on the trusty old backpack that I’d occasionally bring if I don’t need to bring a laptop. That’s because it’s not meant to carry one; no special pads, pockets and compartments for the tech stuff. I just throw in an extra shirt, a book and some other analog things like a sandwich, or the occasional tech thing, like a Nintendo DS.

Now that I have a laptop in the plain old backpack, it doesn’t even feel at all like it has one inside. I keep the little pile of EeePC detritus in a little zip case, and after I throw it in there, the bag still feels empty. It’s so light it could just be an analog tuna sandwich in it. I just need to keep reminding myself there’s a laptop in there so I don’t hurl the bag into a corner when I get home.

I’ve even tried to just carry the thing in my hand. I recently went out with the power adaptor in my pants pocket, and just handcarrying the Eeep along with a thin hardbound I’m currently reading called Variable Star written by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson. Thin as it was, the book was still bigger and heavier, and was the thing I wish I had left home.

The fact that my Eeep’s a tough little bugger is an added plus. In the School of Hard Knocks this one is a Dean’s Lister. Hardy and durable, there isn’t that nagging thought I always had in the back of my mind that I should tiptoe my way around all the time back when I carried the bigger gear. Now I can comfortably be my klutzy, careless, normal self.

Right now I’m typing this in a Starbucks, with about five other people tapping away at Macs and Windows laptops. One of them is getting ready to go, and I watch him stowing his big rig away like he was packing for a long trip: putting away his corded mouse, his coolpad, winding up the power cable around the brick and jamming them all in the bag, then stuffing the chunky laptop right in there after it with great difficulty, as the junk had taken up a good deal of the space already. Poor guy. It was a ceremony I was very familiar with.

Now, when I have to go, I’d just shut the lid closed and throw the Eeep into the mesh pocket on the side of my rucksack. Then I’m outta there.

The Asus EeePC may not be thin enough that I should be afraid of getting paper cuts, but it’s cheap, tough, tiny and does the job.

Good enough for me.

It’s so small… #1 January 19, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in It's So Small....
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…even my Dummies book is bigger.

EeeX! January 16, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Ubuntu.

I’m considering trying out Xubuntu as an alternate operating system for Xandros, since there’s been an EeePC-specific version for the Asus subnote already, called EeeXubuntu, available.

I’ve used Ubuntu before on an ancient Mac and really liked it, but had to let it go when I changed jobs and had to leave the Mac at the old office where it belonged.

I downloaded the ISO image file from LinuxTracker and made a bootable CD of it on another machine, but as I don’t own a USB optical drive I couldn’t use it on the Eeep. So I ran Xubuntu live on my Thinkpad, then issued a short command (sudo /cdrom/mkusbinstaller.sh –autodetect) on Terminal to turn my 1 GB flash drive into a live, bootable stick.

Then I plugged the stick into my Eeep and turned it on, leaning on the Esc button so it’d give me boot options (three – the SSD, the SD and the USB Flash). I picked the stick, and voila, eeeXubuntu. I can install it from the stick, but for now I’ll just run it live. Everything works, apparently.

It looks better (more polished; feels more real than Xandros somehow), and runs snappier. Or then again it just might be just my imagination. But reading more about it, I understand now that I’ll need to jump through many hoops to get it to the comfortable config that Xandros is at now, and I haven’t time for it. So maybe I’ll save that for next time.

For now though, this is great. I actually did this whole entry on Xubuntu Live on my EeePC, including sourcing the graphic, tweaking it with Gimp, then uploading it. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this whole setup was being run locally, it runs so fast.

This is my idea of fun.

A little distraction… January 16, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Hardware, Macs.
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All of a sudden, my EeePC is looking a bit quaint and old fashioned.

(To be fair though, after this so does everything else.)

That damned keyboard January 13, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Hardware, Ramblings.

You guys have probably noticed that my big peeve about the Eeep is how tiny the keyboard is, even for people with normal digits. True, I hate it. Hate it. Then again, I realize I’m being unreasonable; it is after all a UMPC; what exactly did I expect? So I stopped griping and started trying to live with it. That’s why I’ve been mum since.

Some of you’ve been wondering about this, I guess, especially after my very first post. If you’ve been reading the few comments on this blog, someone’s already asked if I’ve learned to like it, since I’m dedicating the Eeep to writing my stuff on.


I still hate it hate it hate it.

But we’re slowly getting to know each other. In the fullness of time we might actually become reluctant friends. I don’t think I’d be happy lugging an external keyboard around, no matter how compact and foldable it was (not to mention being able to actually find such a creature – right, Art?). I think adding a keyboard to my load misses the whole point of a UMPC. Even the little wireless mouse is already an imposition; only my extreme dislike for trackpads makes me bring it.

A mouse is one thing. But bringing a keyboard is like bringing along a plank. (Oddly enough, the converse is just as bad; if it’s too compact, then might as well use the built-in keyboard, right?)

Since my Eeepboard and I can’t get divorced, we’re learning to get along. Slow going, but we’re getting somewhere.

Typing on an EeePC is really hell for a big guy like me. Imagine trying to put all the fingers of each hand as close together as you can, like you’re trying to fit the bunch in a little hole in the wall, then in that pinched claw configuration, using them to tap on little keys. No fun.

You keep missing the right keys, or you accidentally hit Caps Lock AND END UP SHOUTING YOUR SENTENCE LIKE THIS. (Which brings me to another niggle – no Caps Lock indicator light. You never know you’ve hit Caps Lock until your text shows up loud and clear.) Or you sometimes hit an arrow key instead of the shift key and bump up the cursor to a place where it shouldn’t be, and you don’t realize it until your fingers have gone ahead and messed something up.

Stuff like that.

I’m just glad it isn’t worse, like for most people who touch-type. For the first time in my life I’m glad I never really learned. My fast hunt-and-peck is loads easier since there are less fingers to get in the way of each other when typing, and the crude system is actually a bit easier to do since there is less distance for my hands and fingers to travel per keystroke.

But even so, the targets my index fingers need to hit are tinier, so I need to pay attention and keep at it until muscle memory can eventually take over. Like I said, determination is the operative word.

We really should get over it. A tiny keyboard is par for the course. Unless Asus can design something like the small Thinkpad that had that great, expanding aircraft-carrier-deck of a keyboard when you opened the lid, the Eeepboard is the one of major trade-offs, a non-negotiable. Tiny laptop, tiny keyboard. You learn to live with it.

Not like the screen size, which should have been remedied at the drawing board. Heck, look at that ginormously wide, unused frame around the LCD. Speakers or screen space? No contest.

But that’s a whole other post.

Inscrutable January 12, 2008

Posted by reverseengineer in Asus, Macs, Ramblings, Windows, Xandros.

One of the things I’ve been spoiled with using Macs is the simple, logical, almost street-language, gut-feel interface of Mac OS X which you can intuitively wing. That’s why Macs don’t come with much documentation. You try to intuit how to do something, and usually you end up being right.

Being spoon-fed for years with this sort of personal computing, you’re in for a major shock when you have to get your hands dirty with the command line interface in Linux.

Not that you have to really get your hands dirty when you buy an EeePC. You can always just live in the child-like universe of Easy Mode, or if ever you break into Advanced Mode go no further than its faux-Windows GUI interface, which is vaguely comforting in a guilty sort of way.

But to squeeze more out of an EeePC and Xandros, to go beyond what is safe and easy, you’ll have to crack open a console window at some point and deal with commands like “sudo” (which I’ve previously said sounds like a martial art where you use your intuition’s own weight against itself).

One of the more bracing things is the inscrutability of the commands and the syntax. It’s shockingly counter-intuitive especially if you’re coming from a cold start in Linux, like a dash of ice-water in your crotch. Even if you’d used DOS commands before, stuff like “home/user> sudo dpkg -i opera_9.25-20071214.6-shared-qt_en_i386.deb” looks downright terrifying. Not a single friendly phrase in the crowd. More so if your idea of installing an app is just clicking the mouse button on a pretty little icon.

There is no real peg in the example to even tenuously hang your geek gut instinct on. Which to some people is an interesting challenge, but for most, a clear signal to put their EeePC on EeeBay while it can still go for a reasonable amount. Either that or fall sway once more to the oily lure of Windows XP, which is at least a devil you know (as a couple of my friends have done).

As a Mac user I see where Apple has done a good job. The underpinnings of Mac OS X is this exact same unknown bedrock. To harness the efficiency, economy and reliability of Unix yet make things as simple as clicking the mouse button on a pretty little icon and marry it to their own hardware, Apple’s done things right. As opposed to the original Wintel hegemony, where everything was all over the place, and nobody got along.

The EeePC under Xandros is essentially what Apple is doing, minus Jonathan Ives, orchestrated keynotes and done on a shoestring budget. Which is why despite the inscrutability I’m still willing to try and learn the martial art of sudo. At least I’m buying into a world where people know what they’re doing.

I just hope this old dog can still learn some new tricks.