Fun With Computers: EeeTop Part I

Posted 2009.05.19 17.08 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

I recently bought myself an Asus EeeTop computer – a not-so-new addition to Asus’ “eee” family. The Eee family began with the original EeePc (a 7″ sub-laptop) and has expanded to include a couple dozen variations of the sub-laptop, an “EeeBox” desktop, and now this EeeTop computer. I’ve heard that Asus is even planning to spin out an Eee division, so as to capitalize on the (virtually unheard-of) Eee brand name, without confusing people with the (almost unheard-of outside computer techy circles) Asus brand name.

But I digress.

I didn’t technically need another computer. I’ve got an excellent iMac as my home desktop, my ‘flagship system’ as it were. And an EeePc laptop with the 10″ screen and all the bells and whistles one could want in a sub-laptop. Then there’s my home server, an antiquated Mac Mini, one of the originals with the G4 processor and not much else. Nonetheless, the EeeTop caught my eye. For one thing, it had a zillion blue LEDs, and I am attracted to shiny blinky things. For another thing, it was cute – sort of an iMac knockoff, with the flat form factor. Finally, it had a built in touch-screen which is kind of novel (for me at least.)

eeetop1So I looked at it, hummed and hawed, mulled it over. It was preloaded with windoze and the stated target market was students or first-time pc owners (much like the rest of the Eee line). Of course, when I look at it, I don’t see a simple computer for simple users. I see a project waiting to happen. And a sexy new box to replace my antique Mac Mini, as my new home server.

The initial plan was to ditch windoze and replace the built-in (laptop sized) hard drive with a solid state drive. This would provide for very-fast boot time, while an external (full-size) hard drive provided the actual server storage space. However, I found the SATA2 hard drive booted fast enough, and anyways as a server it’s not supposed to be turned off and on all the time. Keeping everything built-in would also cut down on overall power consumption, messy wiring, and USB / drive complications.

I’ve been running a highly-customized version of Debian Lenny on my 10″ EeePc notebook (aka Eeepster) for the past 5 months, so it was easy enough to just completely duplicate the SSD from my Eeepster onto the hard drive of the EeeTop (now known as EeeServer). Easy enough to do, but that’s when I started running into problems…

This is one of those things where (in my opinion) the open-source nature of GNU Linux is a bit of a two-edged sword. Let me explain: Hardware manufacturers are always tinkering and changing things. Going from one ‘Eee’ computer to another, things are definately going to be different. Even within the same ‘part number’ however, things can change. And when you get to the component level, there’s lots of different ways to wire things up. For example, the EeeTop is basically a laptop, but with no battery / no built-in keyboard / no built-in trackpad. Or maybe it’s basically a desktop, with lightweight specs? Either way, it’s ‘different’ and ‘new’.

When you’re running an OS like Windows, the manufacturer pretty much has to include the drivers – they have to write them, test them, make sure they work. After all, it’s not like you can hop into the windows source-code and hack in some changes to make things work. So hardware manufacturers basically have no choice – they have to do that, for windows. It’s an expense and I’m sure they don’t like it – so odds are they don’t want to have to do it all over again for other OS’s. Now on the one hand they can just release the source and the opensource community will figure it out for themselves – or they can do nothing, and eventually someone will reverse-engineer a driver.

Back to the EeeTop – it has the same chipset as my EeePc 10″ but a different size LCD panel, and is wired up in a new-enough way that the standard graphics drivers in Debian couldn’t handle it. It worked fine in text-only (“console”) mode, but not in graphics. Where’s the fun in that? So, on to google, to the forums, and to poke around in the drivers to try and find a solution…

(to be continued)

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