Archive for July, 2009

Eee PC 900 still available from Geeks.com

July 30, 2009

In this mornings email, I received another notice from Geeks.com advertising a two day deal on the Eee PC 900 for $139.95 with free shipping.  This is essentially the same deal I received:  the EeePC 900 for $129.95 plus $10.00 for shipping and handling.  I suspect these will sell out quickly.

I know that this is a close out deal but I can’t help but think about the once outrageous goals of the One Laptop per Child organization.  The $100 laptop is indeed in sight.

The Denki-Guy

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A teenager reviews my Eee PC 900

July 29, 2009

The Denki-Guy is a family man and fortunately,the entire family is very receptive to new technology.  Over the past weekend, I allowed my 16 year old daughter to take over my new Eee PC 900.  The understanding was that the change of ownership would be temporary and she would share with us, her thoughts about the computer.

The media fervor over the Morgan Stanley research report authored by 15 year old Matthew Robson inspired me to report on my daughter’s thoughts on the Eee PC.  Parents are often accused of not listening to their teenagers.  I think the same thing can be said of technologists.

It has been my experience that engineers devote the most energy to features they want to use themselves.  As a concession to the non-technical crowd, we may consider how our mothers or grandparents my interact with a device.  Any consideration of teenage usage patterns are an afterthought.  As a technologist myself, I think we have our priorities reversed.  A few short years from now, today’s teenagers will be the next generation of young professionals.  Teenage preferences today will define the must-have features of tomorrow.

The first thing my daughter said she liked about the Eee PC 900 is it’s sleek industrial design.  This is not surprising from someone coming from the iPod generation.  To someone from the Denki-Guy’s generation, sleek design is a costly feature that requires a reduced functionality.  To my daughter, a sleek, fashionable industrial design is a basic requirement, not a luxury.  Functionality trade-offs are only accepted when the rational is understood.    For example, the trade-off of keyboard size vs. overall size is an easily understood trade-off.

The second on the list of likes is the small compact size.  The smaller size would allow her to take the Eee PC to more places like the library, school or a coffee shop.  She comments that the keyboard feels a bit small but is is large enough for typing.  Any smaller and she would need to resort to two fingers.  I asked if she would prefer a larger keyboard and she said no, she prefers the smaller size.  She doesn’t have any particular comments regarding the screen.  It does the job.

Another factor in the plus column is the price.  When I told my daughter how much I paid for my Eee PC 900 ($130 + shipping), she immediately asked if that was a close-out price (which it was).  She felt that a good price point for a teenage Netbook user would be about the same as that for a higher end cellphone or iPod, around $250.  Her logic is that if parents are willing to buy their teenagers a cool cellphone or iPod, they are unlikely to balk at buying a netbook for about the same price.  If the PC is priced any higher that that, it becomes too precious to to be portable.  She would be afraid to take it with her because of the possibility of loss, theft or accidental damage.  BTW, newer version 9 inch Eee PCs are available online in the $200 to $250 price range.

As for the negatives, the first comment was about the appearance of the desktop.  The words my daughter used to describe it were “Old School”.  She has come to expect slicker user interfaces like the iPhone, SideKick or Windows Vista.  She also felt there were too many mystery icons in the tool tray.  The Smiley face in particular annoyed her.  Another negative was the heat.  The Eee PC 900 gets quite warm during operation. My daughter comments that you definitely would not want to hold this computer on your lap, during the summer.  On the other hand, the warmth may be nice during the winter.  When I pointed out that the energy producing the heat came from the battery, she added that the battery life was too short and energy should not be wasted on heat.

The above negatives were relatively minor and would not affect my daughters desire to use the Eee PC 900.  There were two issues that were more significant:

  1. The battery life is too short to allow for extended usage.  Based on my daughter’s usage pattern, the battery was good for about 2 hours of constant usage.  Since portability is important, my daughter does not want to carry a power adapter around.  This implies that the battery needs to last all day.  Practically speaking, the computer will not be used heavily for eight hours straight.  I believe that four hours should be the design goal.
  2. The other significant issue for my daughter was the lack of iTunes support.  To the younger generation, an iPod is a must-have device much like the record player was to out parents.  The lack of iTunes support means that the owner of an Eee PC with Linux must have access to another computer running the Mac OS X or Windows.  The problem in this case is that Apple has never released a Linux version of the iTunes application.  Of course one could always spend the extra money and buy a Windows version of the Eee PC

Overall, my teenage daughter liked the Eee PC 900 and was reluctant to return it when I asked for it back.  I really think that ASUS has a real hit with the Eee PC series.

The Denki-guy

Adding Japanese support to the Eee PC

July 24, 2009

With a name like “Denki-Guy”, you can well imagine that I am a big fan of Japan and things Japanese.  One of the first things I do when I get a new PC is enable Japanese language support.  Now that I have had my Eee PC for a week, it was time to make my Netbook Japanese friendly.

My new Eee PC 900 came pre-loaded with Linux rather than Windows.  The lack of a Windows license fee certainly helped the maker ASUS keep their costs down but there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.  The cost is the added complexity of configuring and managing the software.  In the case of Windows, Japanese language support is already built in but,  the Japanese language support I want for the Eee PC 900 requires software not bundled with the resident Linux.

The Linux release that ships with the Eee PC 900 includes an input method platform called gcin which is focused primarily on traditional Chinese.  The writeup implies that gcin can support Japanese input also but I want to use SCIM-anthy for my Japanese input method.  I found a  good writeup in English on getting started with SCIM-anthy.  This document describes the required software modules and more importantly, how to use the input method.

When I turned to the web for some help, the Denki-Guy learned that he is not the only person who wants to use Japanese on his US version Eee PC.  Try searching on “Eee PC Japanese Language Support” to see for yourself.  Once again, the fourms on EeeUser.com are very helpful.  The Roseta Stone for me was a post from AngryJohn.  Even with this information I wasn’t ready to blindly type in commands and cross my fingers.  I need to understand what is going on first.  After a few additional hours of research, I was confident that AngryJohn had the right approach.  If you want to quickly add Japanese support to your Linux version Eee PC, follow the steps from AngryJohn.  If you want a more detailed explanation of the process, read on.

From the home page, press Ctrl Alt t to open a terminal window.  Next type the command suand enter the root password in response to the prompt.  The su command will grant the terminal window SuperUserstatus.   All of the commands below must be executed from the SuperUser terminal.

  1. The first step is to tell the package manager, APT, where it can find scim-anthy and the other related packages.  This is done via the sources.list file.  To use xedit to update the file, type the command:  xedit /etc/apt/sources.list.  Add the following entry to the bottom of the list:
    deb http://http.us.debian.org/debian etch main contrib non-free
    Save the changes and close the window.  This entry gives APT a URL where it can look for packages and specifies the “etch” distribution, sections “main”, “contrib” and “non-free”.  More details can be found in the APT HOWTO.
  2. Next we need to tell APT to read the package list from the debian server.  To do this, type the command: apt-get update from the command line.  Don’t worry if you get some warning messages during this process.
  3. Now that APT knows where to find the packages we want, it is time to install components.  The component I installed first was the Japanese font.  This was done by typing: apt-get install ttf-kochi-gothic from the command line.
  4. The next step was to install the Japanese input method components.  The command for this is:
    apt-get install anthy scim-anthy im-switch kasumi
    APT will also install scim since it is required by scim-anthy.
  5. Since we will be using the scim-anthy, we can remove the old input method.  The command to remove gcin is:
    apt-get remove --purge gcin
  6. We can now reconfigure the Locales to tell Linux we will be using this computer in English and Japanese.  Type the command: dpkg-reconfigure locales to launch a GUI which allows you to specify the supported languages.  Select: en_US.UTF-8 UTF-8, ja_JP.EUC-JP EUC-JP and ja-UTF-8 UTF-8.  Deselect any other locales that may be checked.  On the next page of the package configuration GUI, I kept US English (en_US.UTF-8) as the default locale.
  7. The final step is to configure im-switch to use.  Type the command: im-switch -cto run a program which allows you to choose an alternative input method.  Choose the option for scim.  Close the terminal window and reboot.

To test your Japanese input method, open a browser window and press Ctrl Space.  The scim-anthy control bar will appear.  At this point, you should be able to convert Romaji to Hiragana to Kanji. 

Please let me know if these instructions were helpful by filing a comment.

The Denki-Guy

Fixing Wifi on the Eee PC 900

July 19, 2009

In my previous post, I described the problems I had getting my new Eee PC 900 to connect to my wireless network.  The problem I ran into involved configuring the Wifi connection to support WPA2-PSK security.  WPA2-PSK is currently one of the better secure encryption schemes commonly supported on wireless home networking gear.  It seems that the Network Connections GUI on the Eee PC 900 allows the user to setup a WPA connection but not a WPA2-PSK connection.  This is really a shame since the underlying software, the wpa_supplicant, does support WPA2-PSK.

The heart of my home network is a D-Link DIR-655 Xtreme N Gigabit Router.  This router has been running flawlessly for over a year and has been supporting four different wireless clients.  It came as a bit of a shock when I could not configure the wireless interface on the Eee PC 900 to connect to the D-Link router.  It seemed unbelieveable that a hot, new wireless Netbook would not support WPA2 out of the box.

Turning to the web for some help, it didn’t take me long to find the enthuiast site EeeUser.com. Searching through the fourms, I quickly learned that I was not the only one to have problems configuring the Wifi interface for WPA2.  This problem was so widespread that one user created a Wiki entry on Advanced WPA Configuration (thank you bryan).  Using the Wiki page as a guide, I was finally able to get my Eee PC 900 to connect to my D-Link wireless router.  In my case, I didn’t need to install the wpa_supplicant and drivers, they were already present.

The first step was creating a new network connection.  The Wiki does a good job of explaining this so I will not repeat the precess here.  The reason for creating (a non-working)  network connection first is to have the GUI create a first pass of the configuration files.  I prefer to edit a file rather than create it from scratch.

After creating the network connection, the next step is to edit the resulting file found at the path /etc/network/interfaces.  The changes involve inserting two lines to invoke an alternative wireless configuration file.  This process is clearly described in the Wiki.

The next step is to create the alternate wireless conf file.  I found the easiest way to do this is to cd to the /etc directory and type:

cp /etc/wpa_supplicant.conf.ath0/etc/wpa_supplicant.conf_MINE

The file wpa_supplicant.conf_MINE is the version that is customized for your wireless network.  This is the file that works for me:

ctrl_interface=/var/tmp/wpa_supplicant
network={
  ssid=”denkigai”
  proto=WPA2
  key_mgmt=WPA-PSK
  pairwise=CCMP TKIP
  group=CCMP TKIP WEP104 WEP40
psk=bd8a577135194ff49b51b0602355b252ffd89827c07f477a659c498d0c1c93eb
  priority=2
}

To make the above configuration file work with another network, a minimum of two changes will be needed:

ssid=: Enter the name of your access point enclosed in quotes.  The name may already be here if you entered it using the network connection GUI.

psk=: Enter the 64 hex-digit pre-shared key.  To find the pre-shared key, you may need to log into your wireless router for this information.  On the D-Link DIR-655, this information is found under the SETUP tab, WIRELESS SETTINGS, Add Wireless Device with WPS, Manual Configuration Method.  The pre-shared key will appear on the next page.

Now, if your wireless setup is not exactly the same as mine, you may need to make additional changes to the wpa_supplicant.conf_MINE file.  To learn more about what all these entries mean, I suggest you look at the sample wpa_supplicant.conf doc.

I hope this explanation will save you some time if you run into this problem.  Leave a comment if you have any questions.

The Denki-guy

Why couldn’t it just work?

July 18, 2009

Fedex dropped off a new toy a couple days ago, a new Netbook computer.  The purchase was a bit impulsive but the Netbook was offered for a price I couldn’t refuse, $130 from Geeks.com.  The Netbook I bought was an ASUS Eee PC 900.  This is last year’s model and the processor is a bit weak but for 130 bucks, who cares?

My first impression of the Eee PC 900 was good.  The unit is lightweight and compact enclosed in an attractive clam-shell case.  Even though the screen is mere nine inches across; it is bright, sharp and easy to read.  The keyboard is a bit small, especially for my big fingers but, it is understood that this tradeoff was necessary to preserve the compact form factor.

After charging the battery, I powered up the Eee PC for the first time.  The first run setup was quite simple and soon I was presented with the desktop.  The last step was to setup the wireless connection.  A balloon message appeared informing me that wireless access points have been detected.  Clicking on the balloon, I was able to choose my access point and enter the passkey.  I clicked OK and waited for the Eee PC to connect.  I double checked the settings and tried again and again.  Rats, it didn’t work.  It was a Linux moment.

Up to now, all of the PCs connected to my wireless network were running a flavor of Windows.  The Eee PC that would not connect was running a flavor of Linux.  After many hours of study, I found the documentation that explained the configuration file for WPA security.  After a few more hours of experimentation, I finally got the Eee PC to connect to my access point.  Here lies the primary difference between Linux and Windows:  Linux can be made to work if you know what you are doing;  Windows just works.

Now in all fairness, I am running WPA2-PSK security on my wireless network.  WPA2 is one of the newer, more secure protocols and I have run into some older wireless interfaces that do not support it.  That said, the Linux distribution on my Eee PC includes the wpa_supplicant which properly supports WPA2-PSK but, the GUI that populates the conf file does not.  With holes like this, I do not expect to see Linux make many inroads into the consumer PC market.

For those who are interested, I will document my wpa_supplicant.conf file in my following blog post.

The Denki-Guy

Hello world!

July 15, 2009

Welcome to the random thoughts of Eric Ness.

You may be wondering about the title of this blog, especially the word denkigai.  Denkigai is a Japanese word that literally means electric street.  To most people familiar with Japan, the word Denkigai refers to Akihabara district in Tokyo where anything and everything electronic can be found.  Every time I visit Japan, I must carve out time to visit this electronic wonderland.

There is one more reason my blog is named Denkigai.  Denkigai in Japanese is pronounced “den key guy.”  Denki means electric or electricity.  Gai means a street or row, typically a line of shops.  So if we take the Japanese word Denki and the English pronounciation for street which is “guy” we get Electric Guy which of course is me!