In early 2008 I realized that I was going to be traveling for work on a much more frequent basis and as a result having a portable computer to take with me would become very desirable. Predominantly I work from a desktop computer since I often find myself using design software from Adobe and video editing software as part of my publishing activity on the web. I needed a portable computer only as a secondary machine that would mostly be used on the road to check my e-mail, do some word processing, and update my sites via web interface. Beyond those features, I can wait until I get home to use my desktop, so there was no real need to get a laptop computer to completely duplicate the capability of my main computer.
Here is what I was looking for: a computer that is very portable, very affordable that can connect to the internet and has word processing software. To begin my search I went to Amazon and did a search for laptops and browsed to the bestseller list and stumbled upon the Asus EeePC Surf series with various models ranging from about $299.99 to about $550 (for 7 inch screens). As I was interested in the best price, I figured I could buy the least expensive model and save money. I ended up buying mine from someone other than Amazon, mainly because Amazon was out of stock at the time I wanted to order and I preferred not to wait for them to get it back into stock.
The software on these machines is basically all open source. I had never been exposed to open source very much and had not really used FireFox very much at all prior to owning this computer. The user interface of the operating system is very clean, very intuitive and completely easy to use. It has a Linux based operating system. If you want to install Windows XP that is possible assuming you have an extra copy lying around or want to shell out more dough for the Microsoft operating system. Since my whole thing with the computer was cost, I have left it as a Linux machine.
The keyboard does take a little getting used to. While it is a full QWERTY keyboard with all the keys you’ll find on any laptop, the size of the keys are noticeably smaller than standard keys. Initially I found myself typing one finger at a time, but after using my EeePC for a short while I have been able to become a home-row typist on the small keyboard.
The screen size is 800 by 480, which is about the size of the screen on a 7-inch portable DVD player. In fact, while taking this thing through airport security for the first time the TSA agent thought it was a DVD player. The size of the two is almost a perfect match. ASUS makes the EeePC in a variety of colors like black, white, pink, blue, silver, and pale green. The pale green color of the top combined with the size of the unit makes it really feel like a little toy more than a computer.
One tip about browsing the internet, if you get this thing I suggest you learn one important keyboard command for FireFox, that is F11. That will open your browser to full screen and eliminate the row of buttons for “File” and “Bookmarks” as well as the icon as well as the row for bookmark icons. In all you recover perhaps 10-20% of the screen space and it makes internet browsing a lot more enjoyable on the small screen. If you need to get those buttons back it is F11 again to restore them to view. I toggle back and forth as needed and find it to work very well.
Being a long-time PC owner I was used to the Microsoft paradigm of Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word. The switch to FireFox has not been bad at all. There are some nice features that FireFox offers that I like better than IE, for example FireFox has a built-in spell check feature, which is nice for webmail.
My one gripe is related to a text wrap feature (or lack of support for it). The web interface that I use to update many of my sites includes a “wrap lines” feature that does a nice job of wrapping the code so that I only have to scroll up and down not horizontally to see all the code. This would be especially nice on such a small screen as this laptop has, but alas, the FireFox browser does not support this functionality. I even checked on my desktop computer at home to verify that it was true for FireFox for Windows XP. There are many reasons to hate Internet Explorer, but this is one case where IE excels. Safari also does not support this feature. But enough about browser compatibility, which is mainly interesting primarily to web developers/designers.
This machine is nice for writing articles while you are on the go. Sometimes when I get sick of being stuck in the office I take this thing to the park or beach to write articles, etc. (Ironically I am not writing this article on my EeePC.) I have also used it to great success for writing things on airplanes. I read a review online about someone using this thing to write computer code while on the subway, which I can see as a plausible use, although the author of that review most likely installed another program that is not pre-loaded out of the box. Personally I really like to write code in Notepad on my PC. There is no equivalent on the EeePC, so sometimes I use Open Office (which is pre-loaded) to edit code, but annoyingly the program auto-corrects straight quotation marks into curved ones, which really can screw up your code if you don’t catch it. (SEE UPDATE BELOW FOR MORE INFO ABOUT SOLVING THIS ISSUE.)
Speaking of Open Office, I have found it to be a pretty nice program. The version I have is compatible with Microsoft Office XP. That is great, but the only thing is I am still using Microsoft Office 97, so there are some minor formatting things when I edit documents back and forth between the two programs. As far as writing original Word Processing documents, Open Office is completely awesome. The spreadsheet program in Open Office is also pretty awesome, especially the feature that allows you to export your spreadsheets directly into .PDF format. Too bad this feature is not available on the word processing part of the software suite. I have taken plain non-formatted text and pasted it into an Open Office Spreadsheet Document and been able to export it to PDF with reasonable success.
There are a couple games on this. A couple of the games and other programs have penguin themes, a nod to Linux. There is a game similar to Snood and there is a game where you control a penguin doing a downhill course. The former game has a better shelf life than the latter, but it too wears thin over time, as the levels are somewhat repetitive as you play it more and more.
My personal favorite game is the bundle of different versions of solitaire style card games. The Free-Cell version on this game is more enjoyable than the Windows version in a couple ways. First, it has hints and demo play that are helpful in getting yourself out of a jam. Also, it has the ability to undo multiple moves compared to the ability to undo only one move on Windows based Free-Cell as long as you undo before you touch any other cards. These features may upset some Free-Cell purists, and it definitely makes the game less challenging. But, at the same time it makes the game more enjoyable for playing during travel or in other situations where complete concentration is not possible.
The storage space on the built-in drive is rather limited, especially if you buy the 2 GB version like me. But, with the USB ports and the built-in SD card reader it is very easy to expand the storage capacity via Flash Memory, connect a DVD drive, or attach an external hard drive. In terms of maintaining the greatest portability, the first of those three choices is definitely preferable.
Overall I am very pleased with the experience of my EeePC. It boots really quickly, is super lightweight, very compact, and relatively durable. Don’t expect it to be like a full-blown, full-size laptop and you will be happy. For me personally it is a better choice than carrying around a smart phone or a standard laptop.
Here are the specs for what I bought the Asus EeePC 2G Surf:
- Ultra-compact notebook in Lush Green
- full QWERTY keyboard and 7-inch display
- Powered by 800 MHz Intel Mobile CPU
- Pre-installed Linux operating system (compatible with Windows XP)
- Over 40 built-in applications for learn, work and play
- 2.8-hour battery life
- 2 GB solid-state flash memory drive
- 512 MB RAM
- 10/100 FastEthernet; 54g Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) Connectivity
- Three USB 2.0; VGA output;
- Microphone and headphone
- Secure Digital card reader
I have very recently installed the advanced desktop mode, and I have to say that I strongly recommend this option, especially if you are used to a Windows type menu navigation. This update has unlocked a plain text editor similar to Notepad eliminating one complaint of my complaints. This text editor is actually better than Notepad in that it recognizes coding structure. For example, I opened a CSS style sheet to edit the format and it grouped the style definitions. The menus feel similar to “start” button menu in Windows XP. They call it the “Launch” menu, but it includes the most recent programs used and gives a list of the most recent documents. All this can be customized. The desktop background can now be customized and is a whole lot nicer than the standard easy menu system. Now this thing looks and feels a whole lot more like a small laptop computer than a kid’s toy. Just do a search for “advanced desktop enable EeePC.” There are several ways to download this feature and since it is open source, it is totally free! Now that is an awesome computer. Really the only down side of this update is that my computer now takes a little longer to boot up, but overall the unlocked functionality more than makes up for that.
If you are considering buying this computer I recommend reading some of the EeePC forums out there (there are a couple). They will give you a feel for the kinds of questions owners of these things have and you can get a feel for the answers and solutions out there. I used these forums as resource guides for installing advanced desktop, installing GIMP open source photo editing software, installing the fonts I wanted and for answering several other major and minor questions that I had. These sites will be helpful before and after you buy.
Lastly, I realized the importance of reading the manual, or at least doing some homework. I figured out that the File Manager already pre-installed on this machine can not only browse local directories, but can also do FTP. By going to the "View" menu then the "Toolbars" menu and enabling the address bar you can type in an FTP address and it will prompt you for the username and password.
After making these customizations to my EeePC 2G Surf I am even more in love with this portable, affordable little wonder. I have it configured to my exact needs and pretences and it is an effective too for me to be able to do most things I might need to do while I am traveling.
by Cameron Hatch
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