Saturday, 7 August 2010

Asus Eee 1001p Review. (Plus a bit of a hack)

So I've finally splashed out on a new computer.  To be honest it's not hugely different to my current machine, a 1.66MHz processor, 1Gb RAM, 140Gb HD, pretty standard gubbins all round in fact.  The big difference is I can lift this one without turning a funny shade of scarlet - it's a netbook, a tiny little Asus Eee 1001p.

Pic from Asus website
It's really pretty cool.  The version I got (from User2, my favourite indy computer shop) came with XP pre-installed, which saw the light of day for about half an hour while I downloaded and installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix.  I'm not normally a fan of "Fisher-Price" style GUIs, normally full of big friendly buttons and presumptions about the user, but UNR is cracking - a pretty much standard version of Ubuntu but nicely optimised for netbooks, especially the wide-but-short screen.  Every single aspect was intuitive and worked straight out of the box except for the wireless (you need to install the ndiswrapper and the original XP driver, there's a guide that shows you how to do it in about five minutes), and the multi-touch trackpad functions, although the side scrolling is fine out of the box, so I'm not especially bothered - Ubuntu hasn't yet caught up with the funkier aspects of touch interfaces yet, but it's only a matter of time.

So it's safe to say I like the OS, even if it's not the one that came with the machine.  Asus don't seem to be making quite such a song and dance about Linux as they did when the original Eee came out, but their website still clearly labels machines as supporting GNU/Linux and given the ease of installation I'm guessing they're still quietly keen on my favourite OS.  To top it all, whilst trying to get into the BIOS I made a little discovery that doesn't seem to be advertised...there's another OS which appears to live on the motherboard - a tiny little linux distro.  That's right, you can pick up all the Windows viruses you want, corrupt whatever you want, hell, you can even wipe the HD....and the machine will still boot to a useable OS with internet support and a frankly rather swish GUI.  In seconds too.  I'm surprised Asus don't make a little more noise about this, it's a wonderful feature.

Hardware wise, it's pretty much faultless considering it's a netbook.  It's respectably quick, you've got all the usual ports, 3x USB, external monitor, MMC-SD slot, ethernet and separate audio in/out sockets.  The HD is big enough for all but the most ardent movie fans and who really cares about optical drives anyway?  Battery life is good - I'm getting a "real" six hours, so Asus' claim of eleven isn't utterly outrageous if you're really careful, and there's a bigger, meaner battery pack available should you feel the need.  Hibernation, previously a problem for many linux distros, works flawlessly.  I've not managed to find out battery life whilst hibernating, but it's "ages" at least.  The matt carbon-fibre style finish is rather funky and prevents the usual smeary finger-prints if that bothers you.

So it's all pretty funky.  Downsides?  Well, the border between the trackpad and the casing isn't particularly tactile, it's easy for your finger to run off the edge leaving you trying to scroll with the case.  A tiny little raised plastic ridge around the trackpad would be a very nice addition to use-ability.  That's about it's difficult to be much more critical without going down the "it's a netbook but I really wanted a laptop!" route.  It does what it says on the tin, and very smoothly indeed.

Which brings us to the bit where I start showing off.  Netbooks are, obviously, quite steal-able objects.  This one could even be hidden in a pocket if you have slightly bigger than average ones, so what to do?  Well, it's not a perfect solution but I rather like it:

Firstly, set up a guest account.  Don't give it a password, make it easy to get in to, it's a honey trap.  Turn off all the admin features etc, but make sure you can still connect to the internet via wireless.

Next, install (sudo apt-get install...) two little programs, fswebcam and googlecl.  The first is a very lightweight command line webcam program, the second is Google's rather natty command line interface.

You'll need a config file for fswebcam, I used this (securesnap.conf):

log /home/guest/.webcamlog.txt
#log /dev/null
device /dev/video0
skip 10
jpeg 80
resolution 1600x1200
set "Sharpness"=200
#set "White Balance Temperature, Auto"=False
set "White Balance Temperature, Auto"=True
set "Backlight Compensation"=0
set "Brightness"=130
set "Contrast"=32
#32 is default
set "Saturation"=28
#28 is default
frames 1
#frames 255
#loop 1

You'll also need the following script:

while [ true ]
do fswebcam -c /home/guest/.security/securesnap.conf
google picasa post --title "Security Shots" /home/guest/.security/output.jpg
rm -f /home/guest/.security/*.jpg
sleep 30

Set the second script to run as a startup program when guest logs in, and voila, it takes a photo with the webcam every 30 seconds and uploads them to a picasa account (you need to give it your picasa user name the first time you run it, via terminal).  I can't get it to stop when guest logs out, but that's hardly a big issue.  I'll write an installer to automate it all when I've got time.

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