Asus Eee PC Linux Ubuntu

Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron) on the Eee PC

Geek Warning: If you don’t use Linux or Ubuntu, a lot of this will sound like gobbledygook.

As much as possible, I wanted to give the Asus Eee PC’s default operating system (a tweaked Xandros Linux) a chance. If I were another user (my mom, for example), it would be sufficient—good even. And that’s how Asus wanted it. The simple interface is meant to be like a kiosk or appliance.

So I gave the simple interface a God’s honest try for a little less than a week and already started tweaking it. I took away simple mode. I changed the IceWM theme, replaced Konqueror with Thunar, added in various keyboard shortcuts. I used Xandros for almost a month and then got fed up with it. The fact of the matter is that it works well for what it is, an internet appliance. I want more than that, though. I got frustrated with the fact that FAT32 was read-only in Konqueror but read/write in the terminal (I tried just about everything—believe me), and I didn’t like how you can’t get sudo to require a password (no, editing the /etc/sudoers file doesn’t help).

Despite reported problems with Ubuntu on the Eee, I decided to take the plunge yesterday. Bottom line: Ubuntu itself is smooth, but the documentation for it is rocky. First of all, for Ubuntu 8.04 specifically on the Eee (as opposed to Ubuntu 7.10), the documentation is scant. But even some of that is out of date. Here are the three main pages I was able to find on Ubuntu for the Eee:
The EeeUser Wiki
The Ubuntu WIki
The Ubuntu Eee Website.

If you’re planning to install Ubuntu 8.04 on your Eee, I would say take those pages with a whole shaker of salt. If you believe those pages, on a default installation, the screen resolution will be off, your computer won’t shut down, you have to do something special to get rid of the battery warning, you have to unplug the battery to get ethernet working, volume hotkeys work, madwifi is the best way to get wireless working, and certain config file tweaks will get boot time faster.

None of that is true. Here’s what really happened.

First of all, lacking an external CD-ROM drive and not really wanting to buy one, I sucked it up and followed these instructions for installing Ubuntu to a USB stick. My choices for “USB stick” were a bit limiting. First, I tried to do it with a partition on my external hard drive, and that didn’t work, for some reason. Next, I tried to do it on an actual USB stick, but then I realized it was only 512 MB (not enough to fit Ubuntu on). So finally, I tried my 2 GB Sansa Clip—which worked out perfectly. Under ordinary circumstances, the invincible/invisible Sandisk firmware would be annoying, but its invincibility in this case is great. Once I copied Ubuntu’s Desktop CD to my Sansa Clip, I was still able to listen to music and all my settings and favorite radio stations were preserved—so now I have Ubuntu live “CD” that also doubles as a portable music player. So I used my Sansa Clip to boot into a live Ubuntu session on the Eee and backed up my Xandros Eee to an external hard drive using the dd command (sudo dd if=/dev/sda of=/media/disk/eeexandros.img), and I installed Ubuntu.

First of all, I was amazed at how much stuff worked right away. I didn’t have to install the 915resolution package to get the screen resolution correct. The little up-and-down scroll on the trackpad worked. Desktop Effects were on and working without having to do anything (I promptly turned them off—I prefer metacity). Sound worked. The brightness hotkeys worked. I did notice that (considering I have 1 GB of RAM on my Eee) the live session took a really long time to load up… even though it was snappy once loaded up. That first part with the little dots after vmlinuz took at least two minutes.

So I erased all four Xandros partitions and made one 4-GB ext2 partition with no swap. Then I installed Ubuntu on it and rebooted. The reboot took a really long time. With Xandros, I was used to getting to a working desktop within 30 seconds of pressing the power button. Ubuntu took about a minute and a half. That was to be expected, though.

What wasn’t to be expected was how difficult wireless was to set up. First of all, pretty much all guides for Ubuntu on the Eee tell you to install build-essential and compile madwifi drivers to get wireless. They tell you all you need to do is reboot and wireless should be working. Not so on my Eee. The only thing I could do to get wireless working was to use ndiswrapper.

Also, there are various tweaks to get the boot time faster. I’ve tried all of them, and I swear the boot time is slower now. One of the tweaks can’t even be done—it refers to files that don’t exist (the one where you move some files in /etc/rc.2 somewhere).

I can’t get the sound hotkeys to work, and aumix has no effect on the volume, but with a quick test I did against my wife’s Macbook Pro, Skype Beta seems to work just fine (again, the Wikis are wrong—they say the microphone doesn’t work without some config file tweak).

I may reinstall just to get a fresh start and not bother with any of those boot-time tweaks. Is it worth all this trouble? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll go back to Xandros eventually, but as someone who’s used Ubuntu for the past three years, I have to at least give Ubuntu on the Eee an honest shot. My guess is that by Ubuntu 8.10, the Ubuntu developers will have made Ubuntu a bit more polished for the Eee.