Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
livredor

Gadget: Asus eee tiny computer

So as I mentioned I succumbed to irresistable gadget lust and bought me a teeny tiny eee.

I went for not quite the most basic model, but nearly, the 701 which is supposed to have better battery life than the original 700, in Linux flavour. My main reason for wanting this computer, apart from the general shiny, was that I wanted something physically small and cheap, so I didn't see any advantage in paying more for a higher powered model that would also be bigger.

I bought it from ebuyer in the UK, because they're one of the best online retailers I've come across. They tend to slightly undercut the typical market rate, but not by so much that you get suspicious of a hidden catch or a fencing site for stuff that fell off the back of the proverbial lorry. And I've always found them to be trustworthy and helpful. There may or may not be an equivalent in Sweden, but I don't know where to begin looking for it; this is one of the minor downsides of being an expat. If I want to buy electronics here, I'm reduced to high street stores, the equivalent of PCWorld, because with websites or small shops I can't tell the difference between proper geek outlets and dodgy scams. Anyway electronics tend to be slightly more expensive here than in Britain. cartesiandaemon was kind enough to accept delivery for me and bring me the computer when we were travelling together last week.

So far, I'm forming a good impression. Setting up the computer was dead easy, I simply switched it on and it asked me for my name and whether I prefered UK localized English or "international English", and then it was ready to use without any further hassle. The default GUI is even more Teletubby than Windows XP, with Big Colourful Buttons labelled with slightly stupid comments like "Work" and "Play". But it avoids the trap of being so cutesy that an experienced computer user can't find what they're expecting.

I tried the BCB labelled "configure wireless", and it straightaway found my home network, (as well as that of my geek neighbour which is called Get the hell off my network). Then it asked for my WEP key (yes, I know; I have WEP because that's what came with my broadband subscription, and I only care about wireless security to the extent of not violating their T&C anyway) in a straightforward, non-confusing manner. And then I was online. The hardest and most time-consuming part of that initial setup was taking the computer out of its box, and I'm not exaggerating. On future occasions, as advertised start-up is fast and shut-down is instant, but I'm suspicious of that cos new computers always feel fast. Get back to me in a few months when it's had a chance to accumulate junk and bitrot.

The screen resolution is fine for me. I found it a bit annoying initially that the screen is so letter-boxy, I would prefer it if were a little taller compared to its width. But I got used to it quickly, and realized that the apparently unnecessary large space round the screen makes room for speakers and probably makes it safer to carry around. Likewise with the keyboard; it took me a little while to get used to the small keyboard, but it's not at all awkward to use. I should note that I'm a good touch typist and I have small hands and slender fingers; YMMV. For me, the right shift is placed slightly awkwardly, but again, I'll soon become accustomed to it. The keyboard has a nice feel, and seems to be more robust than other laptops I've used; I tend to be quite hard on keys, but I feel reasonably confident this one will survive my treatment. A very light typist might dislike it, the keys want a fairly firm action.

The touchpad is surprisingly good. I generally hate the things, and had ordered a tiny laptop mouse to avoid hurting my hands by using it. But again, it's a nice firm action and much harder to nudge accidentally than on other laptops I've used. Initially, I found it a little awkward to use scrollbars, but discovered that you can click in the scrollbar and then use the arrow keys, or use the special scrolly bit at the side of the touch pad, and either of those is as good or better than a standard mouse. Very long dropdown menus can be a bit annoying, with the combination of the small screen and the physical interface, but it's definitely manageable.

I had to poke around on the internet a bit to find the text editor, but everything else I've tried to do so far has been either totally intuitive or indistinguishable from Windows. I think serious geeks might be offended by the way it's dumbed down, but I have very little interest in fiddling around with configuration and learning new systems, I want something that Just Works, and I'm rather comforted to know that it's possible to have that without selling your soul to Microsoft. From what I've read, it is apparently possible, though slightly awkward, to change a configuration setting so that it looks like a normal Linux desktop rather than Tinky-Winky's First Computer, and indeed to install the über-geek Linux flavour of your personal preference. I might at some point do the former, but the latter is way beyond my ability to care.

I haven't yet attempted to install custom programs, which is reported to be slightly tricky. One of the things I like about being a lazy Windows girl is the ability to surf the web for any little app or game I might want, and then download and install with a couple of clicks. However, the out-of-the-box setup has everything I want on a regular basis and then some, and I'm not really intending to install a bunch of stuff on a relatively low powered 4 GB computer.

The one cloud on the horizon is that I ran into a seriously irritating "bug", one I've heard other users complaining about. Namely, I was typing away quite happily in kwrite, when the font switched to a slightly weird typewriter font with enormous spaces between the letters and decimal points instead of full stops. The only way to switch it back was to close and reopen the document, but that didn't fix the section I'd already typed. Then when I pasted it into Gmail's compose mail window, the weirdness was still there, and I thought, oh, it doesn't matter, I've asked Gmail to send plain text only, but the weird font somehow became gibberish when it reached the recipient.

Once I had a chance to look up this problem, it turns out that it is at least theoretically a feature: the key combination shift-space switches the keyboard into a mode for inputing non-Latin characters. On a small keyboard, it's easy to hit shift-space by accident, and it would be better if it were more transparent that that's what's going on. It seems that my weird spaced out font was the Unicode for typing Latin characters when the main body of the text is Chinese, and because it's Unicode, it was still transmitted in a plain text email, albeit badly. This is really a pain, but OTOH I do like the fact that I could readily find a diagnosis and solution on the user forum.

I've named the computer Little list (cheers for the witty suggestion, emperor!) There doesn't seem to be a way to tell the computer its new name, but that's minor. So, yesterday and today, Little List got its first field trial, in the form of a couple of days at a small local conference I got roped in to attending.

This took place in Tammsvik conference centre, which way over on the other side of town, and near inaccessible by public transport. So I had to get up unpleasantly early Thursday morning, and take a 50 minute train ride to the end of the line, where I missed the only bus (it runs only twice a day), but luckily was able to share a taxi with some colleagues who were also aiming for that bus. Using Little List on a crowded train is slightly uncomfortable (I had to hold it on my lap with my palms, while typing with my fingers, not very ergonomic!) but certainly doable and much easier than using a full-sized laptop. I conclude it's not worth getting out the baby computer for my usual ten minute commute, but for any longer journey than that, it's very useful to have. And it felt really nice to be able to dash off short catch-up notes to a couple of friends, not a daunting task like settling down to write a long, properly composed email.

Tammsvik is very pretty, traditional buildings (some are genuinely at least quite old) looking out over Mälaren lake and beautiful forests. But it's otherwise very poorly set up. We were a group of a hundred, but the facilities would have been barely adequate for 20. There were three toilets for the whole group. The sound system was utterly dire. They somehow concluded that there were only four vegetarians, though to be fair they were generally helpful when we pointed out the error, apart from one frazzled waiter who yelled at the fifteenth person who asked for a vegetarian meal long after they'd run out. There were several groups using the facilities at the same time, meaning that we felt rushed and crowded a lot of the time. The meeting ran from 9 on Thursday to 4 today, but we were only allowed to check in after 3 pm and had to check out before 9 am. Outside those times, we had to leave our bags in a tiny little cloakroom which didn't really have space for a hundred coats, let alone a hundred overnight bags. Part of the problem was that the meeting itself was overscheduled; the toilet situation would have been less acute if we'd been allowed more than a 5 minute break in a four hour session, and the checking in situation if we'd been allowed more than half an hour for a hundred people to go through reception, take their bags to their rooms and come back to the meeting. Networking, ostensibly the point of the meeting, was pretty difficult with so little unscheduled time. But I did get to catch up with RS, who is now working at Stockholm and I hadn't done very well at keeping in touch with her since she left our department.

The centre has wireless, for which you buy 8 hour passes. That's 8 hours of time, not 8 hours of actual use. They had provided the group with some of these passes, but again, not nearly enough for 100 scientists. I decided not to bother trying to use Little List to take notes, as there were no extra power points in the room and the battery wouldn't last all day. But I did get my paws on one of the coveted wireless passes, so in the evening I was able to catch up on email and LJ from the not very comfortable comfort of my narrow, hard bed in a cold, draughty room.

Apart from the logistical crap, and the overscheduling, the meeting wasn't too bad. There were some good talks, and my own talk, first thing this morning, went pretty well even if it wasn't the greatest triumph of my career. I had thought of testing whether Little List would seamlessly talk to the projector equipment, but I decided I'd better not inflict that experiment on the audience at 9 am, and anyway, the SCSI cable needs a converter from its small socket to the standard sized one, I think. However, I was able to open my Powerpoint presentation in Open Office, in order to read it through and check that I knew what I was going to say.

I think even after the novelty wears off, having a tiny computer will make a positive difference to my life. I'll likely still need to carry a book wherever I go, because I get fidgety if I have to wait five minutes for a bus, but that's not long enough or comfortable enough to get a computer out. But it will be good to be able to use longer travelling or waiting around times to catch up on emails or LJ posts, to be saved for when I next get online. And it was so lovely to be able to get online while staying away from home, and I expect other conference centres / hotels will have better power and internet facilities than Tammsvik.

Of course, it may tempt me to spend money I don't have; I can't really subscribe to mobile internet, because there are so many different providers that it would be a waste of money. But if I start paying for one-off wireless access on the move, I will soon find that the costs mount up. But generally, yay tiny computer!

I hate living in a world where I have to specify this: but I'm not in any way affiliated with Asus, and I'm not getting any payment or consideration for writing a largely positive review of the eee.
Tags: product, work
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