Getting started with an Asus EeePC 901 and Ubuntu

I’ve just acquired a new netbook, and I’ve been Twittering about my early experiences with it. Several of my regular blog readers asked me for more details, and so I thought I’d put together a detailed write-up. More below the fold…

Why a netbook? Don’t you have enough computers?
My main systems are a Macbook Air and a Mac Mini; I also have an old Acer laptop and an OLPC XO. The biggest problem with the Macbook Air is the battery life: I’d really like something that I could get 4-6 hours of use from. And if I’m going to get another machine, I’d also like it to be smaller: I have fond memories of my old Toshiba Libretto, which I could practically slip into my pocket.

So what did you pick, and why?
My criteria were:

  • 6 cell battery and Atom CPU (to maximize battery life).
  • At least 8.9 inch display. (Too many apps won’t display correctly below a certain size.)
  • Sold by Amazon (because I was going to use the proceeds of Amazon Associates click-throughs to help pay for it).
  • Cheap (because I’m still in between jobs, but also because devices like this become obsolescent in a matter of months).
  • Capable of supporting a decent operating system without sacrificing features.

I opted for an ASUS Eee PC 901 8.9-Inch Netbook (1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 Processor, 1 GB RAM, 12 GB Solid State Drive, XP Home, 6 Cell Battery). This was the cheapest unit that fit the bill. Someone asked me why I chose the XP version (because the Linux 901 has a 20GB SSD). I wanted to have XP as a fall-back option, and so it made sense to get a model that came with an XP license. List price was $274.98; my net cost after adding tax and applying my Associates money was $218.95. That was cheap enough.
Out of the box?
I wanted to check out the unit before I started hacking around with it; infant mortality on this kind of product is always a concern. Of course this meant running it under XP, which in turn required that I spend a couple of hours patching updating Windows XP, installing antivirus software, and downloading and configuring Firefox and Thunderbird. Everything checked out just fine. The screen and keyboard are small but perfectly usable; those who have seen me with a computer know that I don’t really touch-type, so the small keys don’t worry me.
What about a real operating system?
My starting point was this excellent spreadsheet of Linux distributions, and how each one worked on various EeePC systems. It’s worth subscribing to the RSS feed for this, because people are always updating it. I was also interested in the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, a version of the latest Ubuntu distribution (9.04, code named “Jaunty Jackalope”!) that was optimized for netbooks, and was usable in a “LiveCD” mode.
I decided to explore UNR, so I downloaded a copy of the “img” file (993MB) from one of the mirrors to my Mac Mini, and checked the MD5 checksum. It didn’t match. I downloaded a copy from another mirror, and got a different MD5 checksum. (As Jon Dreyer pointed out, that’s what happens when you verify checksums!) I decided to go ahead anyway. I plugged a 4GB Class 6 SDHC card into the card reader attached to my Mac Mini, and following the Ubuntu instructions I dd‘d the image onto the card. I slotted the card into the 901, rebooted it, hit ESC as it was starting, and chose the card as the boot device. (It’s listed as “USB: Single Flash Reader”.) A few seconds later I was running in “LiveCD” mode. WiFi to my Time Capsule came up without a hitch, and I was able to launch Firefox and Twitter about my success. (I thought about setting up email, but UNR comes with Evolution instead of Thunderbird…)
So, ready to commit?
“Commit” really is the key, because I don’t have an external (USB) DVD reader, so I couldn’t immediately restore the system if I bricked it. But never mind. There were two things I needed to do before replacing XP with Ubuntu. The first was to figure out how best to lay out the file systems. Even though the 901 claims to have 12GB of SSD, there are actually two (physical) devices: a 4GB, and an 8GB. My instinct was to install onto the 4GB as root, and reserve the 8GB for /home. There were lots of useful blog and wiki entries, such as this and this, and it became clear that I was almost right; I should format a 4GB root, 7GB home, and 1GB swap. (The swap space is mostly for hibernation.)
The other thing I wanted to do was sort out that bad MD5 checksum. It’s one thing running a demo from a questionable image; quite another to actually install from it. One of the Ubuntu loader options is to “Check disk for defects”. I tried this on several images, and each failed. So I decided to repeat the download process until I got a good image. I started a couple of parallel downloads from different mirrors on different computers. When they completed (hours later), I checked them: both had bad checksums.
Just do it.
Eventually I decided “screw it”, and went ahead with the installation. I did the manual partitioning as described here, adjusted for the smaller SSD: /dev/sda1 is 4034MB, /dev/sdb1 is 6926MB, and the swap partition /dev/sdb5 is 1143MB. (Why /dev/sdb5 rather than /dev/sdb2? That’s the way the partition tool set it.) Those numbers reflect the physical configuration; after formatting as Ext2, the root is 3.7GB (with 1.9GB used by UNR), and /home is 6.4GB.
That’s it for now. I have a ton of updates and plugins to install, and I need to fix the logs to use tmpfs. However it looks as if everything’s running OK. Except… shucks, there’s an audio problem. Even on headphones at maximum volume, the sound is almost inaudible. More anon…