In November 2007, we bought two of the first Eee PC netbooks available in North America: the model 4G in pearl white, one for me, and one for my wife. My plan was to start the Debian Eee PC project and get Debian working on them both which, thanks to the work of everyone on the team, has been a great success. Fast forward to February 2010, and they are still serving us well. Here is a list of hardware enhancements and issues over the past two years of continuous use:
Asus claims 3.5hrs for the model 4G, though I don’t think we ever experienced anything better than 2.5 hrs with wifi in operation. Today, I’m down to something short of 2 hrs. If you consider the Lithium ion battery article on Wikipedia to be accurate, it is typical to permanently lose 20% capacity per year, so this sounds about right for the age of the battery.
The touchpad itself is fine. The buttons are not. They are hard to push and prone to become less responsive after a while, or to fail entirely. I now really have to bear down hard on my left button to make it work. Because the buttons are soldered to the motherboard, they would be hard to replace. Configuring the synaptics driver for tap-to-click is an acceptable workaround. Also, one of the first purchases we made was the Logitech VX Nano, one for each Eee, so most of the time now, we use our mice, falling back to the touchpad only when using a mouse is inconvenient due to space constraints (e.g. on the bus).
After two years of continuous use, both of our keyboards needed replacing. Some of the keys had been pounded flat and needed surgery (rubber springs sliced out of a scavenged Acer netbook keyboard and grafted on) to make them usable again. And aesthetically, the keyboards have really suffered, with a good percentage of the markings on the keycaps partially or completely eroded off.
Fortunately, for $3 plus $10 shipping each, new keyboards can be ordered from a Chinese e-Bay seller. But with the new keyboards, there is still the problem with excessive flex in the keyboard making some keys less responsive than others. I’m considering trying this hack to solve the problem.
I have no complaints about the matte finish displays of either Eee. Both have stood up well. People tell me they don’t care for a 7″ display, but I find it bright, crisp and easy to get along with, so long as you maximize windows and increase font size as needed (e.g. for reading PDF books and magazines). When I really need the extra real estate, I just hook up an external monitor.
Some people complain about the noise of the fan, from the otherwise silent 4G (due to the lack of a hard drive) and seek ways to limit the amount of time the fan runs. We’ve never had that problem. However, if any plastic bits break off inside the Eee, they will eventually find their way to your fan and get wedged. This has happened twice: once in my wife’s Eee, and once in mine. Disassembly of the Eee to clear the blockage and get the fan running again was relatively painless both times.
About those plastic bits: In my wife’s case, I think the bit was some extruded plastic from the molding that had broken off. In my case, it was a deteriorating plastic post which was holding the hinge in place. More about this later.
Unfortunately, the integrated sound seems to be particularly sensitive to heat. During both fan failures, sound cut out. On my wife’s system, it never fully recovered, and now only works on alternate Tuesdays, whereas on mine, after I unwedged the fan and brought the heat down, sound has functioned properly ever since. (Update: see my comments below on power adapters for an alternate theory about what killed sound.) We are waiting now for the delivery of a cheap ($1.42 including shipping, again from China) 3D Sound USB device which is reported to work on Linux. While some users complain about hum with this device, we’re cautiously optimistic that on the Eee it won’t be an issue. If it is, oh well, a buck and a half is a small gamble.
Update: It works! My wife is very happy. Money well spent.
The plastic posts that hold the anchors for the machine screws for the hinge are fragile. Three out of four of these posts in my Eee have shattered, leaving the left hinge to float freely. For the past two days I was distressed about how I could fix this. Based on some helpful suggestions from #eeepc @ irc.freenode.net, I had worked out a plan to rebuild one of the posts with two-part epoxy, sand it and the fractured stub of the post, and use cyanoacrylate glue to affix it to the case. It sounded like fiddly work for which I didn’t hold much hope of success. But this morning, I realized that the plastic in the bottom of the case was still sound, and that I could drop a screw into that hole, and with pliers, line up the anchor on the other side. This appears to work! I’ll handle that hinge with care, but it should do me until I eventually repurpose the machine to some daily use that is less stressful on the hinge than daily travel on the bus.
Update: Sadly, this broke on the weekend. The thin bit of plastic at the bottom of the hole just couldn’t take the stress. I’m planning a second attempt to fix it soon, using sturdier materials.
SSD and SDHC
Some people were initially worried that the limited write life an SSD meant that you needed to take special measures to avoid its premature death, which I have always regarded as a myth. Our 4G SSDs each have no swap space, and ext3 filesystems. At the two year point, there are no problems. I expect our SSDs to outlast the other components.
We did, however, eventually find the 4G to be a bit on the small side. We now each have Kingston 4G micro-SDHC cards for a bit of extra capacity for large media files and for some extra space for the apt cache. I recently priced the Lexan version of this card at $19 for a two-pack at Wal-mart, and these seem to work in the model 4G just as well (which seems to be an issue with this model — not all SDHC cards work).
We found the 512M that came with the 4G somewhat constraining. Without any swap space (so we could maximize the space available on the small SSD) we decided our systems really needed a memory upgrade. At the time, 2G didn’t seem overly expensive (though I no longer remember the exact price) so we splurged on 2G for each system, even though that was probably more than we needed.
When I first wrote this article, I forgot to mention the power adapter. The model 4G uses an unusual 9.5V power adapter for which it is hard to find a generic replacement. This unit is prone to fail in two places: in rare cases, (one out of 6 units that I have in some way assisted with: 3 of them mine, 3 belonging to others,) it will break at the wall plug end. The plug swivels into the unit for easy storage, but this adds a point of failure. More commonly, (in 3 out of six of the units,) the wires at the netbook plug end will fray due to stress on the non-angled cord, leading either to no connect, or to a short. In fact, since in the case of my wife’s adapter, the netbook end of the cable shorted, making the cable heat up and the system spontaneously shut down after a little while, we can’t say for sure whether the overheating of the Eee took out integrated sound, or whether this short did. On the one hand, I know for certain my own system, which never suffered a short, has responded to overheating by making the sound flaky, but it has never taken out sound completely. On the other hand, shorting the power cable can’t be very good for the Eee, so who knows, maybe that’s what ultimately killed my wife’s Eee’s sound.
This is where it helps to have soldering skills, or a friend who can do the repair for you. In my case, it was the latter. While I was waiting for a replacement adapter I had ordered, we also found on eeeuser.com part#s for replacement plugs and sleeves from Digikey, total cost $20 including shipping, 10 pieces each. Cutting off the bad plugs on three units and attaching the new was a quick, straightforward operation, and succeeded in two out of three cases. Having carefully checked the failed repair, we deduced that the failure in that unit was at the wall end, and we judged there was nothing further we could do to try to save it. Even the unit that had previously shorted was returned to perfect health and has been in operation trouble-free ever since.
After over two years of continuous use, the model 4G has held up well for a $400 system. We definitely feel we have received our money’s worth of value over that time. All of the problems we’ve experienced so far have been fixable at very little expense, and we expect them to last at least another year before we seriously consider replacing them. In the next several months, I plan to order a high capacity 8-cell 10400mAh battery for my own system so that I can enjoy a 5-6 hr run time. The purchase will be roughly $55 including shipping, the most expensive purchase for my system to date, but still well worth it to extend the 4G’s lifespan for another year or more.
Lenny well supported
We’re pleased that Lenny released with good support for the Eee PC and are now turning our efforts to make Squeeze even better, while continuing to provide support for our Lenny user base. The standard Lenny installer can install Debian on all models of Eee and our custom installer provides the ability to install over wireless for almost every model (more about this later) from a very small image. The latter continues to be our recommended install method, since in addition to being wireless-ready, the custom installer also handles a few other small eee-specific configuration chores to make as much as possible “just work” right after the install.
Solid mainstream support
We’ve made good on our promise to make Debian work on the Eee PC, not a derivative, many of which use a custom kernel instead of the stock kernel as we do and use a special desktop instead of our users’ favourites. While we agree that some intriguing things can be done in these areas, it is no substitute for mainstream support. Our users are better served by a solid foundation than specialised modifications that limit their choices. We want them to be able to enjoy the freedom to mold Debian, the universal OS, into whatever suits them best.
Squeeze support started
Work is well underway on supporting all Eee models in Squeeze. For months, several team members have been experimenting with new kernels, producing support for them in eeepc-acpi-scripts. The current release of this key package (version 1.1.0) supports Linux 2.6.29 and contains enhancements for wifi, sound hotkeys, bluetooth, external displays and OSD.
Squeeze will support wired & wifi on all current models
With the appearance of 2.6.29 in Sid, all ethernet and wifi cards used in all models of Eee today are supportable without the need for out-of-kernel or non-free drivers. Madwifi is replaced by the free ath5k driver, the non-free rt2860 package is replaced by mainstream kernel support, (though it still requires non-free firmware provided separately by firmware-linux — for now in 2.6.29, the firmware is included in the kernel, but that is a bug fixed in 2.6.30,) rtl8187se is included, making it possible now for us to support the model 701SD, and ath9k is included, making full support for newer models such as the 1000HE possible.
Lenny backports and live demo
All of these changes can be enjoyed today by Lenny users. Just add Daniel Baumann’s Lenny kernel backport repository and then install the 2.6.29 kernel and an updated acpid. See our upgrade howto for details. You can try a small (less than 256M) demo of this configuration by downloading beta 2 of our Live USB image.
Late last year, we discussed how to make it easier for the blind to install Debian unassisted on their Eee PCs. As it was a simple change, we now include brltty in the custom installer, but we understand that some users also need software synthesized text-to-speech, something for which there is no support yet in the standard Debian-installer. We understand this isn’t an easy thing to fix, but hope someone will rise to the challenge.
Growing team of developers
We welcome Darren Salt and Raphael Geissert to the team this year. Both have been actively making contributions to the eeepc-acpi-scripts package over the past months, fixing some outstanding bugs and readying it to handle changes in more recent kernel releases.
Moved eeepc.debian.net to new hosting
Nico Golde, who hosted eeepc.debian.net for the first year development, has turned his focus to other areas of Debian. Glenn Saberton has stepped in to provide a new home for it. We thank them both for their efforts and for a smooth, uneventful transition from one host to the other.
Size of user community
Speaking of the move, earlier this year, Glenn shared with us some interesting archive traffic statistics that give us a rough idea how many users we have. For the months of December and January, after factoring out bot hits, we were seeing about 300,000 hits from 15,000 unique users per month. The site handles roughly 60G of traffic per month, most of that from thousands of downloads of our custom installer image. It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the size of our user base from these stats, as many users may be on dynamic IP numbers, inflating the numbers, but we can conservatively say we have at least 5000 users. Other interesting statistics are that we have anywhere up to 80 users at any given time on our irc channel and over 250 users on the mailing list.
The Asus Eee PC line continues to expand, with 24 models listed so far. It is a challenge to keep up support for all of them. We’re encouraged to see Asus choose a new b/g/n wifi chipset for their 1002HA that is supported by a DFSG free driver — ath9k in this case. It appears that the new Atom N280-based 1000HE uses the same chipset as well (though be careful: I know of at least one user who bought a 1000HE in Argentina expecting it to have this chipset and was disappointed to find it had the Ralink chipset instead, we guess because of availability). If this trend continues, we’ll be that much closer to our goal of full support for Squeeze main. As it stands, we’re already as close as we can get given the state of rt2860 and no prospect on the horizon for replacing the non-free firmware.
If you would like to help us out in any way, whether by testing, debugging, patching, or improving our documentation, get in touch with our team. We rely on your feedback to keep Lenny in good shape and work towards making Squeeze even better for all users of Debian on the Eee PC.
Giving up on a position within a free software project when you know you’re no longer managing to do an effective job is a wonderfully liberating experience. Now that I have started to talk with Miriam Ruiz about handing over the Debian Jr. project, I can stop worrying about the leadership task and just have fun with it.
I can always count on Miriam for recommendations for games in Debian my kids may enjoy, as she has a passion for finding good games to package for Debian, and in particular, games for children. Over the past few weeks we’ve had some fun with her picks. At the same time, I always have Debian Jr. in mind. How can we ensure kids can have the most fun with this? How do we equip their guides to help them?
What we’ve done with each new piece of software is to find a quiet time when one or more of the children can start playing with it on their own while we watch, offering such guidance as they need, but for the most part just letting them loose with it. Each wrinkle of the brow, each impetuous thump of the mouse, every illuminated grin and exclamation of delight is noted. We try to see what frustrates or pleases our kids and discuss it both with them and the Debian maintainers and upstream developers. This is an excercise we’ve managed to pull off without being overly intrusive and the results have been well worth the effort.
Using a few of Miriam’s picks we tried this week, we were able to draw their play into the free software development process. Here’s a brief summary of those sessions:
Platinum Arts Sandbox puts into children’s hands the ability to role play in a 3D world and edit that world using simplified controls. The expressions on the faces of our kids as they played were priceless: both the ups and the downs. I wanted to capture this on video and share it. After having established a rapport with upstream, we took a 20 minute clip of one of our play sessions and gave a copy to them to use to help further their work. Here is the edited result. They were very pleased to have that kind of feedback and found the video valuable for determining where the software still needed improvement and to notice which aspects particularly pleased the children.
I happen to know that Hex-a-hop is one of Miriam’s personal favourites. We have a household full of puzzle-lovers so this puzzle game was an instant hit. While on irc on #debian-jr with Miriam we relayed in real-time some of the reactions as they played this and a handful of her other picks. This gave her some confirmation of areas she knew needed work as well as inspiration for upcoming releases of these packages.
During this play session, which also included StegaVorto, kartofel, Anagramarama, Funny Boat and Vodovod, my youngest girl, age 7, plunked down on the couch next to me as her 10-year-old sister played. Then she started to notice I was typing what people in the livingroom were saying and doing on irc. She took a mild affront to me copying her own words and actions, so I decided it would be better to let her participate so she would feel included. At this point, I started playing secretary for her, typing what she dictated to me while she read the responses from the display. Later, I just handed her the keyboard so she could type and read the responses on her own. She was still at it long past bedtime and it was with some reluctance that she finally gave up the keyboard. We all had a lot of fun and look forward to doing this again.
We are particularly careful with privacy, taking care to share pictures, videos, and other personal details only so far as we believe it does not put our children at risk. Also, we need to ensure we observe in a way that is welcome and doesn’t interfere with their enjoyment. But with a little bit of prudence and a practiced eye and ear for what increases or diminishes enjoyment of the software, we can involve our children directly in the free software development process. I commend to anyone who has the privilege to share free software with children to use this method to communicate with maintainers and developers, increasing your own enjoyment of the software in the process and that of children and their guides everywhere.
Update: A quote from this article has made it to Slashdot. Although many of the comments seem to miss my point entirely, it’s nice to get a wider audience.
Some brief highlights of the last three months of Debian Eee PC development.
Thermal and ACPI breakage resolved in 2.6.26-7
We’re pleased to see that in the upload to Sid of linux-image-2.6.26-1-686 version 2.6.26-7, the pair of 2.6.26 bugs we’ve been tracking that have made it difficult for Eee users to upgrade their systems have been resolved. Since then 2.6.26-8 has been uploaded and is expected to enter Lenny this week due to a freeze exception. Once the new kernel has migrated we will move quickly to build and release a new installer that includes it.
Ath5k wifi works on Eee PC in Linux 2.6.27
Jean-Christophe reports that ath5k works in Linux 2.6.27 on the Eee PC 701, and just needs a small patch to work with our eeepc-acpi-scripts package. This is good news for those of us with models 701, 900, 900A and 1000HD who have been wanting to get off of the non-free Madwifi drivers and onto DFSG free drivers.
New Eee PC model 701SD wifi support in the works
Users of the new Eee PC Model 701SD have just started showing up looking for support in mainstream Linux distros. Martin Filtenborg confirmed using our Eee PC Live image with the GPL’d rtl8187se driver from Realtek that we can at least use it to connect to an unencrypted AP, get an IP address and ping other hosts.
Of course, it is one thing to have a working vendor-supplied driver and quite another to have mainstream support. We’ll make do with what we have now, but will be seeking a mainstream solution as soon as possible.
We’re seeking more testers and developers to work on this. To date, an ITP has not been filed, as it is not yet clear who is going to carry this work forward.
Chasing the 5 second boot
An interesting discussion on Arjan van de Ven and
Auke Kok’s work to get an Eee 901 to boot in 5 seconds took place this month. While the Debian Eee PC team is not making work on this a priority, we’ll keep an eye on it to see if Debian can incorporate some or all of the techniques they used so that our users can benefit without making radical changes to their systems.
Working towards mainstream support for rt2860
Our filing of an ITP for rt2860 (the wifi driver for models 901, 1000 and 1000H) was followed by discussion about how to separate out the GPL’d driver from the embedded non-free firmware so that it can at least go into contrib. Glenn Saberton has been working on rewriting the build system around kbuild and separating out the firmware.
Numerous improvements to ACPI scripts
Since my last progress report, there have been numerous improvements to the eeepc-acpi-scripts package to deal with all of the various models we now support and make the scripts more robust and flexible. Check out the changelog for details.
As always, we’re doing lots of interesting and significant things and have more good ideas than we have people to do the work. If you have an Eee PC or are planning to get one, or are otherwise interested in our work, some of which has uses beyond just the Eee, here are some highlights:
Earliest Eee models supported in Lenny
Lenny will release with the atl2 ethernet driver and the non-free madwifi-source now works with the earliest Eee models as well, so our patched version is no longer needed. This means Lenny will work with all of the earliest models of the Eee PC: 701 (2G and 4G surf, 4G, 8G) and 900! All we need now for full support in Lenny is to replace the non-free wireless driver with the free ath5k driver when it is ready.
Nick Kossifidis has submitted patches on linux-wireless supporting the Eee models currently supported only by the non-free madwifi in ath5k. This means we’ll soon realize our goal of a completely DFSG free system for the earliest models of the Eee. By 2.6.27, or at the latest 2.6.28, these models will be supported. Then we will see about making a patch to support whichever kernel makes it into Lenny.
Model 901, 1000 and 1000H users are now able to install using the atl1e ethernet driver from eeepc.debian.net. Support for wireless and other aspects of the new hardware will follow soon. The debian-kernel team was prompt to add atl1e to 2.6.26 which has just been uploaded to sid. We hope 2.6.26 makes it into Lenny.
Glenn Saberton has been doing an upstanding job adding wireless support to our custom Debian-installer. We have supported WEP authentication for several releases, now, and a beta version supports WPA. Glenn is also making progress with these patches upstream so that non-Eee Debian users will benefit from our work.
LXDE is in Lenny
LXDE has entered Lenny, thanks to Andrew Lee. It is a quite lightweight desktop environment that is made with the Eee PC in mind.
Two flavours of Debian-live USB images are available: a demo of the LXDE desktop and a minimal console-only image for rescue/backup. The images are still in alpha stage of development. If you’d like to help, give us a shout.
More interesting things are planned for the future that benefit Debian as a whole. With a small amount of work patching live-helper, anyone will be able to make a live image that includes a customized Debian-installer.
Mobile device initiative
This month on debian-devel, there was some interesting discussion about Debian support for the Intel Atom processor and a possible mobile net device initiative. That’s something we could get behind, if anything comes of it.
Robert Epprecht has been keeping the German wiki translation in good shape, but we could always use some more help with any of the translations.
New members welcome
If you’d like to join us, check out our site at http://wiki.debian.org/DebianEeePC and drop us a note on our list or join our irc channel and talk to us about what you’d like to do.
I was pleased to learn through Christer Edwards
of the existence of a sister project in Ubuntu to our Debian Eee PC project. I followed up on his invitation to drop in on their irc channel and introduce myself. I’ve been looking over the bugs listed on their TODO to see if any are applicable to Debian. Already I have filed #479217 based on the corresponding bug in Ubuntu, and have encouraged them to check out ours as well. I look forward to sharing more with them in the future so we can benefit from each other’s work.
Installing Debian on your Eee PC is even easier now, as the option to install over wireless is now present in our custom debian-installer image. Also, the new installer automates installation of many more things than prior releases, so wireless, acpi hotkeys and suspend all ‘just work’ out of the box.
Two barriers remain to including wireless support for the Eee in Debian main. The first is the lack of wireless support in the official d-i installer. The second is the dependency on the non-free madwifi driver. I have no illusions about this being ready for Lenny, but I hope in Lenny + 1 this will be realized.
The good news is that Nick Kossifidis is working on getting support for the Eee into ath5k. For patches, see: http://kernel.org/pub/linux/kernel/people/mickflemm.
I have created a stub page FreeYourEee in our wiki about making a completely DFSG free install of Debian on the Eee. I encourage anyone going this route to contribute.
From the start of the DebianEeePC project, we have used a combination of the irc channel and our wiki site to our great advantage. The DebianEeePC/HowTo/Install document has been actively maintained as we go, serving not only as a good reference for new users, but also for existing users and developers to see where improvements are being made and what is left to work out.
Recently, we’ve started using the wiki for task management as well. Patterned after DebianInstaller/Bugs, we now have DebianEeePC/Bugs where we link to reports on the BTS for packages we maintain and our own usertags on packages we don’t maintain. As well, we are keeping a DebianEeePC/Todo to manage our tasks.
I see from a search through the wiki that lots of other Debian subprojects keep Todo lists, but most of them have little more structure than point-form lists. A few, though, have structured these pages a bit more carefully. For instance, some of these use tables listing who each task is assigned to, when it was assigned, and when it is completed. Our point-form list is a bit more free-form regarding task assignments. Participants can register their interest in a given task and what they are doing as a subpoint of the task. As for state changes over time, we rely on the revision history on “info” page for people to be able to see state changes for particular Todo items. When something is done, it just gets dropped from the list.
I haven’t exhaustively reviewed everyone’s Todo page, but from my brief survey I haven’t seen a couple of things I’ve added to try to help people choose what to do next. The first is to tag items with six difficulty/importance pairs, rating each actionable item from Easy/Urgent to Hard/Wishlist. The second is to state dependencies between items using anchors. It would be nice to see any of you are doing something similar and hear about whether it has worked out well for you.
I’m happy with how the irc/wiki combination has helped with project management. In the past with a different project I’ve made an abortive attempt to use the task management system at Alioth, but it just seemed too cumbersome and nobody ended up using it. With the wiki, it appears barriers to participation in task management are sufficiently lowered that everyone is willing to help keep it up. And with irc, we can keep on top of defining and assigning (or more usually volunteering to do) various tasks, and making sure the wiki is kept completely up to date. It takes a bit of discipline to do, but after the habits are established, it gets easier, and the rewards are well worth it.
In the past few months in the Debian-EeePC team, a number of interesting things have been happening.
Progress has been made to ensure the Eee’s drivers get merged upstream. Chris Snook from Red Hat has taken over atl2 upstream and has started merging it with the atl1 driver to make a unified atlx driver that will be suitable for inclusion in the kernel. As well, there is continued progress on the madwifi driver, with a patch now included to support version 2.6.24 of the Linux kernel.
ACPI, another important piece of infrastructure for the Eee, is now supported in lenny and sid through Eric Cooper’s eeepc-acpi kernel module. This is a fork of the asus-acpi module renamed so that it won’t conflict with the in-tree version. It turns out that asus-acpi is deprecated, having been replaced by asus-laptop. Eric has been in touch with the asus-laptop maintainer to ensure the Eee-specific bits are merged so that we can eventually retire our forked version.
There still remains at the top of our Todo list the issue of ACPI scripts to go with the kernel module. Having at first considered patching acpi-support, we have decided instead to start with Eric’s own scripts which will be packaged shortly for Debian. This gives us more freedom to tinker before considering submitting patches to more general laptop support packages like acpi-support.
Finally, after Brendan M. had to send his Eee back to Asus for repairs, work stopped for a while on the custom debian-eeepc installer. Fortunately, he just got his system back from the shop as good as new and has returned with renewed vigor to that task. He has produced a new version of the installer which we are now testing.
Thanks to the efforts of numerous users and developers who are being added to our ranks daily, we expect by the time Lenny releases we will be well on our way to providing a pure Debian solution for the Eee. Whether or not everything needed for the Eee is in Lenny at that time remains to be seen. We need to allow for how long it takes to get new drivers into the kernel. But if we miss the release, we will certainly provide backports and look forward to full support in the following release.