Peter G (sinetimore) wrote,
Peter G

Just For Fun -- Necroing An Eee PC With Linux

Yeah, I have a strange idea of what constitutes "fun...."

Over the past few years, my fleet of laptop computers has dwindled to the vanishing point.  They went splat due to various reasons, including my Acer C710.  "Kagome," as I called her, was tough as nails, surviving all sorts of damage and indignity without even blinking.  But eventually, even she couldn't take it anymore.

I have spent the past few months reacquiring machines for my use.  I have a nice laptop with a 15.6" screen for getting stuff done with, but that one is simply too big to just haul anywhere for casual use.  Kagome had an advantage with an 11.5" screen, small enough to shove in my pack and haul anywhere, and cheap enough that, should anything happen to her, it wouldn't hurt so much (this is why I never take my Mac anywhere unless I know it's a safe environment).  I have found a replacement, and am currently setting it up.  However, when I got it, I also gained an unexpected bonus -- an old Asus Eee PC, specifically a 701 model.

For those that don't know, Asus kicked off the whole "ultra notebook" revolution back in 2007.  The Eee PC was made to be cheap and disposable.  The screen is 7" and actually repurposed from portable DVD players.  CPU is just a hair under 900Mhz and it has 512Mb of memory.  You had two choices for your hard drive, 2G (the 700 "Surf" model) for $200 and 4G (the 701) for $250.  Because this wasn't enough to run Windows, Asus partnered with Xandross Linux to make an OS for it (I had a LOT of problems with Xandross, but that's for another column).

I'll never forget asking the guy at OfficeMax about the machine after it was announced.  He never heard it, and when he heard the specs, he started laughing at me.  Who would want such a machine?  Well, lots of people.  The Eee PC was successful enough to spawn an imitator (Walmart's Everex Cloudbook) and MicroSoft eventually hatched a deal to make an upgraded version of the Eee PC that could actually run WinXP.  This led to ultrabooks, which eventually crowded the Eee PC out of the very market it had created.  But it started a revolution, and you can't argue with that.

The legacy sort of lives on.  I remember, shortly after the launch of the Eee PC, an ad for Kmart showing a $50 notebook.  These are known among the techies as "Chinabooks."  They are the same size, but running a system on a chip, originally Windows Custom Edition (usually 5, sometimes 6, and I don't recall seeing any that used Mobile 7) or Android.  2G hard drive, and these things were and still are a rip off.  The problem is the system on a chip -- because it's just sort of thrown on there, whatever OS is on there is not optimized.  Operational conflicts frequently happen, tar pitting the machine, and the OS eventually winds up eating itself.  If you are sharp, you can reinstall the OS, but you have to know where to find an original version of WinCE or Android, that you can figure out how to get the unit to boot from an external device, and that the system on a chip will actually let you change it.  Some were successful, and I saw some people who successfully ran Arch Linux on them.  But I don't know the details of it (was it a hard drive install or running off removable media), so I can't tell you exactly how it was done.  But you can still find these things all over eBay.  If you just want something like a toy, hey, it's your money.  But for serious computing?  Don't even think about it.

Asus learned quickly that people were taking the Eee PC's and modding them.  I'm not sure what difference it made, since people mod computers all the time, and besides, people were paying full price, so what did they care?  But care they did.  Eventually, the hard drives and memory sticks were hard soldered into the machines, making user modifications almost impossible.  However, they couldn't stop people who had beef with Xandross from changing the operating system.  God bless Open Source.  From there, Puppy Linux made itself available, and a team forked Ubuntu into Easy Peasy Linux, specifically designed to run on the Eee PC.  Arch Linux also pulled it off.  So, for a while, there were aaaaaaaaaaaall kinds of distros you could choose from.

This was what made me keen on the whole thing.  It's just an Intel computer, just with a small form factor.  I should be able to make this thing work no problem.  I gleefully took the computer, and one day, I got to work.  It was still running the stock Xandross OS.  In fact, none of the files I looked at had been modified since 2005.  Remember, the Eee PC launched in 2007, so whoever had this thing originally probably didn't do more than turn it on once or twice.  I used to know the trick to disable the OS icons and get to the regular Linux desktop under Xandross, but I couldn't remember it.  Besides, not only was it horribly out of date (it was still running the 2.4 kernel), I don't like dark Linuxes, so Xandross had to go.

And the nightmare began.

I didn't think it would be a problem.  Like I said, there were all sorts of distros, I was part of some of their communities.  But I forgot something -- something made for specific hardware will eventually fall away, flexibility is the key to surviving in the Linux ecosystem (look how builds for PowerPC's were gone until the folks at Lubuntu took it up).  Easy Peasy Linux gave up four years ago.  Xandross went under years ago.  Arch Linux ended support for 32 bit architecture earlier this year and all builds that I could use were gone.  The issue was the hard drive size -- any full blown Linux I could find, even Lubuntu, needed at least 5G of hard drive space, and the Eee PC only had 4.  Several builds claimed they could install, but they would build the file system and install programs and crash when it came time to either create the home directories or the boot loader.  Lubuntu claimed it could do a 3G install if you went command line, but I prefer a desktop.

It was looking like my only option was to use Puppy.  Now, don't get me wrong, I love Puppy.  It has brought so many old computers back from the dead for me, it is unbelievable, including a Compaq Presario 1247 with a 233Mhz CPU and 64M of memory.  But Puppy is intended to run off removable media -- installing to a hard drive is a real pain in the balls, and I prefer to have my laptops as self-contained as possible.  But it was starting to look like it was the only way.

Then, I stumbled across my new best friend, Leeenux Linux.  Based off Lubuntu, it is specifically designed to run on the Eee PC's, with builds for both the 4G model and the 2G model.  It is a commercial distribution, but the guy is only charging $10, and you get access to all the present builds, not just one.  I don't have a problem with commercial Linuxes as long as they either 1) will definitely work (I would buy the new versions of SuSE from Best Buy every year until Novell decided to get cute with OpenOffice) or 2) are cheap enough that, if the distro doesn't work with my hardware or has its own way of doing things that I have to relearn, it doesn't hurt (the reason I gave up on TurboLinux and MEPIS).  But Leeenux was only $10, and I decided to give it a try.

It works.

Well, mostly.  Because the hardware is so old and slow, sites that rely heavily on Java and Flash will take ages to load or even seize up entirely, but that's hardly the OS' fault.  Also, the wireless is much more limited in it bandwidth because it is over ten years old before the current standards were introduced.

But it does work.

I don't have much space left on my hard drive.  The only other issue I found was can't get my Atari games to run on it.  But I still prefer typing on the tiny keyboard to using the touchscreen on a tablet (you can almost, but not quite, touchtype with it).  So a machine that literally has no use in the modern environment has been revived and will come in quite handy in a pinch.

She's a runner.

I shall call her "Sharon," after the French representative from Numan Athletics.

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