Archive for March, 2009
I have recently acquired one of the newly popular netbook machines, an Asus Eee 1000HA. This is one of a startling variety of Asus Eee models which seem to be being turned out as quickly as Asus can come up with new arrangements of netbook components. This particular version has a 10″ screen, 1G of RAM and a 160G hard drive. It comes with Windows XP.
Windows XP is all very well, but I wanted to try running Linux on the Eee as well. 160G of hard drive is more than enough to run two different operating systems, so why not? There are several Linux distributions specifically designed for the Eee, so this should be easy, you might think. As it turns out, its not completely straightforward. Hence this post.
The first hurdle you encounter is that the Eee doesn’t have an optical drive, so there is no way to burn a CD and boot from it, which is the usual way to install Linux. The 1000HA does however have USB ports and an SD card slot. It turns out it is capable of booting from either a USB flash drive or an SD card; I happened to have an 4Gbyte SDHC card which I acquired for backup already in the SD slot. I decided to install the aptly-named Eeebuntu 2.0 Standard distribution via this card.
So, under Windows, it was simply a matter of downloading the eebuntu-2.0-standard.iso file (880Mbyte). The .iso file is an archive file containing a bootable disk image, so you can’t just copy it onto the SD card and expect it to boot. An application called UNetbootin is needed to unpack it onto the SD card correctly; I downloaded unetbootin-windows-312.exe and ran it. UNetbootin presents a single window where you can select Diskimage format, and browse to select the eebuntu .iso file. The SD card appears as a USB drive at letter I:\ (UNetbootin is clever enough to preselect this for you). Clicking on OK sets UNetbootin running copying the .iso across to the SD card, which takes several minutes and may appear to hang at the extra-large filesystem.squashfs file.
Once this process completes, click on the ‘Reboot Now’ option that UNetbootin conveniently presents and as soon as Windows has shut down, hold down the ESC key. As the Eee starts up it should bring up the boot device menu. The SD card is described rather misleadingly as “USB:Single Flash Reader”. Select this and the UNetbootin menu will follow. Select ‘Default’, or wait for it select itself for you, and the Eeebuntu splash screen should follow. After a moment or so the Eeebuntu desktop comes up with the ‘Install’ icon at the top left. Opening this starts the installer. This asks some straightforward questions up to the point where it asks how to partition the disk.
Here we need to be a bit careful, because the disk layout is not quite what the installer expects. Asus for some reason divides the disk into three usable partitions; the first 80Gbyte partition contains Windows XP and all its associated files. The second is also formatted for Windows, but is empty and appears under XP as the D: drive. The third is a recovery partition for booting from when Windows borks itself as it sometimes does. The installer will default to resizing the first Windows partition to 17.5Gbyte and installing Eeebuntu in the remaining space. This is workable, but not very even-handed. I prefer to install Eeebuntu over the unused second Windows partition. To do this — assuming that your D: drive under XP is empty — select the Manual option and click Forward.
In the next dialog, select the second partition (/dev/sda2, about 65711Mbyte) and click on ‘Delete partition’. This is necessary because the partition is formatted for NTFS, which Ubuntu can’t install to. You will also need a swap partition, and we must make space for that. Select the resulting free space and click ‘New partition’. Make a logical swap area partition that is larger than your RAM size (1024Mbyte in my case) I used a rather arbitrary 3000 Mbyte. Then make a logical ext3 partition with a mount point of ‘/’ covering the remaining 62709 Mbytes. These should be /dev/sda5 and /dev/sda6. Select the format checkbox for the ext3 partition. Click Forward only after checking the above carefully as a mistake here could ruin your Windows install.
After answering a few more questions the install should run smoothly. On restarting (you can ignore the instruction to remove the nonexistent disc and close the nonexistent tray and just hit Enter) the Eee should display the Grub boot menu that allows you to select Ubuntu (or just wait and it will default to Ubuntu itself)
All is not completely plain sailing with Eeebuntu from the start, however.
Your first stop should be to plug into a wired LAN with Internet access and run the Update Manager. This will offer to do a bunch of updates (151 when I tried). For some reason it will complain that these can’t be authenticated when you click on Apply; you have to ignore this and apply anyway. Restart.
Under Applications/System Tools you will find an application called Eeebuntu Config. You should run it. It doesn’t have a setting for the Eee 1000HA (or it didn’t when I tried, you might get an updated version) I selected the 1000H, clicked on ALL and Execute. This runs a bunch of scripts that should customise Ubuntu better for the Eee.
If you start Firefox you may be startled by a license agreement for an add-on called DownThemAll, which you have to accept as it comes up again and again if you try to decline it. This was mistakenly added to Eeebuntu when it was built. You can remove it by accepting the license agreement, then clicking Disable and Restart Firefox in the Add-ons window that comes up when you do so.
The grub boot menu can be made friendlier (and you can pick what it defaults to and when) by editing /boot/grub/menu.lst. This needs to be done with supervisor privileges; I started a terminal session and entered ‘sudo gedit /boot/grub/menu.lst’ which gives you a nice visual editor. The file is reasonable self-explanatory.
The mouse pointer when busy is for some reason a rather ugly monochrome wristwatch instead of the normal Ubuntu rotating pattern. I haven’t been able to figure out why so far.
Wireless performance is, irritatingly enough, not very good. Signal strengths are lower and performance is spottier than Windows XP, by a considerable margin. You might wonder how such a thing is possible. It turns out to be because the open-source ath5k drivers for the onboard 802.11 wireless card don’t work very well – Atheros, who make the wireless chip, don’t distribute detailed information about it, or driver source code. So the open-source driver has been written in the dark, as it were, and its a wonder that it works at all. There is actually an end-user solution to this which involves using a tool called ndiswrapper to run the XP drivers inside Linux. But getting that working is another story…