These little machines are perfect for running Linux and most offer a choice of either a customised Linux distro or Windows XP in the shops. Microsoft were all set to put XP out of it’s misery in an attempt to force unwilling customers onto Vista but they had to hold fire when the eeePC came along. There’s no point in trying to run Vista on an eeePC, XP was all MS had to offer. So now we have creaky old XP trying to compete with a host of agile young Linux distributions in this emerging market. Why would you choose a 7 year old out of date operating system over a brand new one? I dunno but then I could hardly be called impartial.
Enough rambling, back to the subject at hand. My brother recently got an Elonex Webbook free as part of a phone deal with Carphone Warehouse, a UK phone retailer. If you take out a mobile broadband contract with with either Orange, T-Mobile or 3 you get the Webbook free. I thought this was an interesting gimmick but things really got interesting when he brought it round to show me and I switched it on. I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by an Ubuntu boot screen. It seems these devices come with Ubuntu 8.04 pre-installed and by all accounts they’re proving very popular with the public, selling out all over. They are also available to buy for £250 without a phone contract but only at Carphone Warehouse apparently. I don’t know about international availability sorry. So far I’ve been a passive observer in the netbook revolution and haven’t really used one but I took the opportunity to relieve my brother of the Webbook for a week. Strictly so I had time to set it up properly and check it out for him though you understand hehe 🙂 Here’s how I got on with it.
Processor – VIA C7-M 1.6ghz
Memory – 512mb DDR RAM
Display – 10.2″ LCD screen (1024×600)
Storage – 75GB Hard Disk
Optical – No Optical Drive
Wireless – Intel® Pro Wireless 2200bg card
Ports – Ethernet, 3x USB2.0, VGA out, SD card reader, headphone output, mic input
Power – 3 Cell Lithium Ion Battery (gives about 2hrs 30 in practice)
Operating System – Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron
Being something of a netbook virgin I was really curious about one thing, could this cheap machine really function as a useful everyday computer or was it a toy? It has quite a generous spec for a netbook as you can see above. Most of these machines come with very little internal storage, normally 4 or 8gb of solid state memory. They instead rely on SD cards for expanded storage and it works well for most people but I’ve had my doubts personally. I can understand that you don’t need to carry a 200GB hard drive around with you everywhere but these machines seem a little limited to me. The Elonex however packs a well proportioned 75GB hard disk, plenty of space. It does offer slower access speeds than solid state memory of course but performance seems very respectable. More on that later. One of the first things I did was time how long it took to boot the machine up and login. I wanted to see if the Elonex would be markedly slower than I’m used to with my powerful laptop. It took 1min 10secs from pressing the power button to reach the login prompt. That’s not lightning fast but it’s hardly like the old days when you could go off and make a cup of tea, fix the roof and maybe write your autobiography while waiting for a computer to boot. The machine came setup with one large root partition of 73gb and a swap partition of 1.5gb.
The small displays on these machines have always been another worry for me, you can’t fit a lot onto your desktop. This has a 10.3″ widescreen display and runs at a resolution of 1024×600. That’s not bad and compared to other netbooks fairly spacious but I did still find using Firefox it was best to run in full screen mode to avoid a lot of scrolling. It should be noted that this is just a bog standard Ubuntu install as far as I can see, it’s not the netbook remix with it’s tabbed interface certainly. I wonder if a more tailored distribution would make better use of the small display area. Here you just have a full Gnome desktop and no kiosk mode like other machines. You find with applications like GIMP that the windows don’t fit vertically and you can’t get to some of the buttons.
I tried to set up Evolution for email and found a major problem with the setup wizard, it just doesn’t fit on the screen. You can try to use keyboard shortcuts but you have no idea what buttons you’re actually pressing. It seems many apps could use a GUI overhaul to fit properly on these small displays. The machine does come installed with a few things you don’t normally find in Hardy by default; applications such as Bluefish, WINE, VirtualBox OSE and lots of games and educational stuff. There’s everything you could need and of course you always have the full Ubuntu repositories at your disposal, should you need them. I’m interested by the inclusion of VirtualBox on this little machine, I’m not sure you could really comfortably run a virtual machine on top of the normal OS. It’s not that powerful and RAM might be a worry.
EDIT – I was told by Andy from the Liverpool LUG that you can move the window around the screen by pressing ALT and clicking then dragging it. This way you can push the window up so you can see the buttons at the bottom. It’s still not ideal though I don’t think and a lot of users wouldn’t know this, I obviously didn’t. There’s a lot of unused space on that Evolution window, it could easily be resized.
The machine has no optical drive so you can’t put DVDs or CDs in to install a new OS, I have heard making a bootable USB stick is easy with most Linux distros though. Unfortunately as this is not my machine I can’t really go wiping it and installing new stuff but I would like to try the Ubuntu Netbook Remix or maybe eeeBuntu to see if they were better than standard Hardy. The wireless card worked perfectly and that’s not surprising as it’s Intel, they provide very good open source Linux drivers, switching to any distribution you fancy shouldn’t be a problem.
I decided to do a few little very unscientific experiments to see how fast the machine was. I’ve already mentioned the boot test I did, I also opened a few different applications and timed how long it took them to load. Here’s the results:
Firefox: 8 seconds
OpenOffice.org Writer: 20 seconds
GIMP: 17 seconds
The machine feels fast enough in general use and I was able to run quite a few programs at once but I did find sound playback could get a bit erratic under heavy load. It depends what you’re trying to do of course but if you have Firefox, Rhythmbox and Pidgin open while trying to open GIMP things definitely slow down. In reality you couldn’t expect this little machine to do that many things quickly that’s unfair and it copes well with basic tasks, it’s certainly not a chore to use. I ran the machine from a full charge to flat a couple of times while doing normal tasks such as web browsing and listening to music, the battery lasted around 2 and half hours which is respectable but hardly mind blowing. I’ve heard the eeePC can run for 5 hours on one charge but I have yet to confirm it for myself. This has a 3 cell battery and would probably run twice as long on a 6 cell. One nice thing I found is that there’s no internal fan so the machine is silent apart from the occasional hard disk noise but doesn’t get too hot.
A Few Minor Gripes:
So far this has been a positive review and I’ve even been gushing over this machine quite a bit (not like that, honestly) but there are a few things that bug me. Firstly the keyboard is tiny and awkward to type on properly. Maybe in time I’d get used to it or maybe my hands are just too big but it is frustrating (see the picture). The backspace key is also half the width of a normal one, being someone who has to correct what they’ve written a lot I use the backspace like it was going out of fashion, reading this you already know what I mean. I kept missing the key and hitting the wrong thing after too many years of typing on a full size keyboard. Another keyboard related problem is the fact that the function key is in the bottom left of the layout and not the control key. This sounds trivial but in practice you find yourself wrongly hitting this key a lot or at least I do when trying to switch workspaces with CTRL+ALT+LEFT/RIGHT. Perhaps in time I would get used to the keyboard, I know it’s had to fit everything into such a small area but I’d like to try some other netbooks to see if they have better keyboards.
EDIT: Thanks to Alan Lord from the Open Learning Centre for the additional information about the project in his comment below. Please check out the blog that’s been created at webbookblog.com where these gripes I mention have been addressed. You can’t say fairer than that can you.
My second problem is with the sound setup. The built in speakers aren’t bad and certainly as good as you find on most notebooks but for some reason plugging headphones into the machine does not switch the speakers off. I suspect this is just a setting somewhere in the software but I couldn’t seem to find it and it means you can’t listen to something privately on the train for example. If I had more time I would probably find a way to fix this but it seems a pretty obvious function you’d expect it to just work. My final minor gripe is to do with the VGA out. I plugged in an external monitor but couldn’t seem to see a way to switch it on. I opened the screen resolution tool from the preferences menu but clicking “detect displays” didn’t do anything. I expected it would show the new display and then I could switch to it like I do with my main laptop but it was to no avail. I also had some problems playing back video, I just got a blank screen and I could hear the sound. I have all the codecs under the sun installed but I’ve seen this problem before on other machines, it’s usually caused by the video driver. I’m sure there is a way to fix this and switch on the VGA out, it’s probably user error but I didn’t fancy hacking the xorg.conf file and I didn’t have enough time to look further.
Overall I really like this little machine and in a way it’s opened my eyes as to why the world seems to be going potty for netbooks. I was worried that it wouldn’t be fast enough or wouldn’t be big enough but it works well. So you’re not going to be rendering any large Blender projects on it or running lots of virtual machines but for web surfing, email, multimedia and word processing this can do the job. That’s all most people want to do on a computer anyway. We buy these big super computers with enough processing power to make Shrek 4 and then we open Firefox and maybe a media player, type a letter or something, it’s a sledgehammer to crack a walnut often. I had dismissed some of these UMPCs (Ultra Mobile PCs) in the past as toys or gimmicks but I was wrong, they have a function and a role to play. Personally I have a nice light and powerful laptop that can do pretty much anything and for my style of computing that works but others have different needs. This machine is aimed at people who want mobile broadband really, 3G connections with a little USB dongle and there is even some brand new open software which has been born out of the project. When they needed some software to make 3G hardwar work with Ubuntu 8.04, Elonex and Canonical turned to Spanish company Warp Networks. They wrote the software in Python and it’s licensed under the GNU General Public License which is amazing. Elonex funded this effort and they deserve huge credit for that. For £250 you get some decent hardware and software in a nice little package and I’d be interested to see how it performs with other Linux distros. I haven’t tried many other netbooks yet but if you’re in the market for one the Webbook seems well worth a look to me. If you’re thinking of signing up for 3G broadband then why not get one free? It’s a cool little machine and I don’t want to give it back… I hope my brother isn’t reading this… if you are, I really was busy and couldn’t give it back the other day honest 🙂
If you’d like to buy one of these machines check out the Carphone Warehouse website. Apologies to all the International readers as I don’t know if you can get them outside the UK at the moment. Sorry
Edit: It seems since I wrote this article a while ago Carphone Warehouse has stopped selling these machines with Ubuntu in the UK, they now all come with XP. I’ve been told this by a few people and it’s very disappointing. Microsoft is succeeding in shoehorning Windows XP into a market it was never meant to fit. The machines are faster and more efficient with Linux. Have a look in the shop and see if you can get the Ubuntu model but it doesn’t look good. I’d advise getting something like an eeePC or another make instead. Let’s show them we want Linux!