Eee PC care at 2 years

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:

Battery life

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.

Touchpad

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).

Keyboard

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.

Display

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.

Fan

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.

Plastic bits

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.

Sound

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.

Display hinge

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).

Memory

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.

Power adapter

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Debian-eeepc now has atl2 ethernet

With Kel Modderman’s help, we now have a working atl2 driver for the Eee PC. This brings the Debian-eeepc project one step closer to providing a pure Debian replacement for the Xandros OS that ships with the unit. Now that Asus has released the GPLed source that was missing before, we now just have to ensure both the atl2 and asus_acpi modules get merged upstream.

The driver for the wifi in the Eee isn’t under the GPL, however, and therefore only works on the Xandros kernel provided with the default OS. Since I really can’t live without wifi and it is not my first choice to buy replacement hardware, in the interim, I’m living with using the Xandros kernel and modules on Debian. I can learn from studying the Xandros components in action, but it’s not a solution I’m happy with in the long term. The Debian-eeepc project’s goal is to produce a pure Debian solution, at least as far as that is possible given the hardware present in an unmodified system. On that front, I think the best bet is for ath5k to support the particular Atheros chip in the Eee. (Yes, I know about ndiswrapper, but for both technical and philosophical reasons I won’t use it.)

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Debian-eeepc: the ideal mobile text editing device realized

The search for the ideal mobile text editing device is over. While the price was well over my original budget, we’ve since gone ahead and splurged on two new Eee PCs: one for me, one for my wife. In the end, I think it will be worth it because these systems are capable of far more than just editing text.

Now comes the challenging part. Xandros is the default OS and we want Debian on it instead. I have started supplementing the system with packages from Etch and Etch-backports using apt pinning, but already I have noticed some cracks beginning to develop: with pure Xandros, an SD card was automounted when it was inserted. Now it fails. Also, the Network utility no longer launches. I can work around these glitches for now, but it is plain that in the long term this Xandros/Etch hybrid is going to be more grief than it is worth.

To that end, enter Debian-eeepc. Building on the work started by timbobsteve and drawing from the collective experience of the Eeeuser.com community we will make a debian-live cd + debian-installer to install Debian (as pure as possible—obviously the kernel is going to be our most contentious issue) on the device. So stay tuned for more articles on that work-in-progress.

And how does my new toy shape up for mobile text editing so far? I’m delighted! For starters, this article was drafted on the bus home from work. The keyboard, while small, is still quite usable for touch-typing, the display is crisp and bright, and the size is just perfect for the cramped quarters of a public transit bus seat.

But beyond just editing text, I have loaded up the system with all of the tools that go around it: subversion, git, ruby, gcc, meld, etc. I’ll be able to manage a fair amount of development on the bus, with the exception being really large builds that will continue to be done on remote build systems.

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Adequate mobile text editing device

Ideal mobile text editing device redux

As I read the responses1 to my search for the ideal mobile text editing device, reality began to set in. The heating season is now upon us, and even used technology meeting my criteria would likely exceed my stated budget. Furthermore, I’d risk replacing my current issues with a whole new set of issues and end up with a less-than-ideal mobile text editing device.

So I have rethought the problem and have decided it would be best to work on with what I have now while I wait for this ideal device to arrive on the market.

Keyboard

While I can’t change the keyboard of the ZR-5000, with a practiced lighter touch on the keys I can, in fact, touch-type passably well. It has served me well enough to draft several blog articles so far.

Software

Although not up to the high standard set by Vim, for quick note-taking, I don’t really need a fancy editor. My thoughts flow directly through my fingers into the device with only light editing. Cut-and-paste, motion keys and delete are the bare essentials. Anything more is a frill.

Synchronization

I do have an ACTiSYS IR-200L infrared dongle for my PC. The trouble is, although this is supported in Linux using IrDA, the ZR-5000 insists on speaking ASK-IR which is not supported.

There is a Windows-only program, ZRLink, which might work. I’ll try it either on an XP system at work, (… mixed reviews out there as to whether it will work on recent Windows,) or under Wine. I can get the dialogs to display properly on Wine, but I have my doubts about whether serial emulation works. My initial tests at home under Wine indicate it doesn’t. (Could #277618 have something to do with this?)

There is a 15-pin serial connector on the device, but I have no cable for it. And there’s a PCMCIA slot, but compatible devices are likely limited to older, harder-to-find components: either a 2M CF card or a modem card. While I have the latter, it exceeds the power available from batteries and I have no DC adaptor for the unit.

Perhaps I overrate synchronization anyway. My best articles are rewritten from scratch more than once.

Summary

Living in an embarrassingly technology-rich country, it is too easy for a geek like me to convince himself that his gadget cravings are needs whereas, in fact, there is still plenty of life left in the devices he already has. After all, my venerable ZR-5000 was given to me by a fellow who figured if any one of his friends would still be able to use it for something, it would be me. Well, I won’t let him down. I’ll stick with it and make it work.

There is one virtue of this device I doubt if any modern device of the same form factor can match. After a week of daily use, I still haven’t had to change the 2 ordinary AA NiMH batteries. Top that.

1 Thanks, everyone, for your responses. Although there were the inevitable few that mentioned modern devices way over my budget, and I’ve decided now to stick with the ZR-5000, your suggestions did help me bring the real issues into focus.

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Ideal mobile text-editing device

Dear Lazyweb,

I’m looking for a small, (easily fits on my lap on the cramped seat of a bus,) inexpensive, (around $100 CAD,) mobile text-editing device with a 90%-sized keyboard and decent battery life that runs an open source OS and Vim, and that I can sync to my desktop system.

My first mobile device was a NEC PC-8201A, circa 1984. It ran on 4 AA NiCad batteries which I hardly needed to change more than once a week. At the time, it was my ideal mobile notetaking device. Its near-full-sized keyboard, Wordstar-compatible text editor, terminal program and serial interface allowed me to take notes which I would sync to my father’s Mac at home or to the VAX at the university.

Today, my mobile computing needs have hardly changed: text editing is almost all I do. I don’t ask for much of a display, but as an 80 to 90 wpm touch-typist, I won’t settle for anything less than a near-full-sized keyboard. I’d prefer a system that runs Debian, and Vim is a must. Some means of easily synchronizing the device with my home system is necessary: PCMCIA wireless-B would be ideal, but is not a must-have.

At the moment, I’m using an old Zaurus (not Linux-compatible) ZR-5000 which has good battery life but a very cramped keyboard, poor software, and no functional means of synchronizing the device to my PC. OK for jotting down quick notes, but frankly, I’d rather have my PC-8201A back again. I could at least type on it and sync it across the serial cable.

I took a brief look at various Psion models, but they appear to be near-impossible to find. The HP Jornada 720 looks intriguing. And the NEC Mobilepro 780
appears to be another possibility. Have I overlooked anything?

So, suggestions please.

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