Initial Thoughts on the ASUS EEE PC for Public Use

As a big advocate of laptops in public libraries as a way to engage community, it was a no-brainer that I would experiment with some of the latest sub-notebook class of computers, such as the Everex Cloudbook or ASUS EEE PC.   The obvious advantages would include:

  • Reduced costs:   you can pretty much buy anywhere from 3-5 subnotebooks for the price of a regular laptop.
  • Open-source alternative OS:  the “lean and mean” sub-notebook hardware begs for a linux-based operating system, creating a good opportunity to introduce your customers to non-windows alternatives at the public terminals.
  • portability:   unlike regular-sized laptops, taking a lab of 5-10 subnotebooks on the road could be done with a simple backpack (and a back to go with it).   There is a great opportunity for community technology outreach with these machines.

Step one was to convince the powers that be that I need one of these things to play with.   At a mere $399 for the ASUS EEE PC (the one I’m going to speak about today), this was an easy ask.    When it came in, there was enthusiasm all around about this machine from all levels of staff.   It looks good; it can fit in a purse; it’s sexy; it surprises the heck out of people when you say it’s dirt cheap.

The Xandros install that comes with the EEE is intuitive to most I’ve shown it to.    My initial thoughts are that Xandros is fine for most public use.

That said, having asked a few staff about its potential, there are a good number of cons that need to be considered as well:

  • the keyboard, monitor and mouse pad are way too small for anyone with hands larger than a 12 year-olds.   Libraries would almost definitely require a separate mouse and keyboard for these machines.   People with vision issues would need a separate display as well.
  • Xandros is pretty limited for all but the most basic productive uses.   One of the reasons I would want to introduce linux to the public is to have interesting and/or unique software (like noteedit, Emacs, the kde line of software, sqlite etc.) available for use, not to mention Ubuntu’s for-free Assistive Technology options.
  • Installing and configuring another system (like Ubuntu) does require someone with some linux experience (although Justin Gill has done a great job with instructions for configuring wireless in Ubuntu 8 (Hardy Heron).    I’ve also had to reconfigure the wireless after a standard update using the synaptics package manager as well.    This could be quite a pain in the long run, unless you have techie front-line staff.
  • Although not confirmed, the size of the EEE PC does make it a likely victim of a theft.
  • It gets really hot.   It’s not a laptop really, because it’s intended for a table or desk, not your lap.   And using this on a couch, bed, carpet or anything that would block a square centimeter of the ventilation areas would really kill the lifetime of this laptop.
  • No really cool games are available despite the linux distribution you use.    Even if you install XP, it is not likely you will be able to get any large-scale software on it afterwards.    No Second Life.   No World of Warcraft.

So far, we’ve experimented with the EEE PC as a support for ESL classes.   The bottom line is that the computer is too small to be used for most learners in this group.   However, I do think there are some realistic uses for it:

  • It could be a lost-cost alternative for presentations in branches.
  • The keyboard is the right size for smaller children — so a program with educational games seems appropriate.
  • A number of them could be useful as a lab for state/provincial libraries to offer professional development to rural libraries.
  • A combination of a laptop, keyboard, mouse and screen projector could be really good for a one-to-one IT clinic for older adults (and it would still be cheaper than buying a laptop).
  • It could be useful as a lender program, provided that customers will understand that this is a linux-based, teeny-tiny laptop.
  • There is an opportunity here as a support piece for programs as well.   For instance, people who attend our ESL programs often bring their children.    It could be good to hand children a EEE PC while they are waiting for their mom or dad to finish their ESL sessions.
  • Add a wifi package to a EEE and you could provide bibliographic instruction to people who use homebound or books by mail services.
  • The EEE could be good to expand roving reference services, balancing the portability of a hand-held with the usability of a desk/laptop.

In the end, I do not think the subnotebook is going to solve all our problem regarding providing flexible and effective access to information and technology inside and outside the library.   The future is promising, but I need to see a little bit more before I am going to go bandwagon on this model of service.

11 thoughts on “Initial Thoughts on the ASUS EEE PC for Public Use

  1. Good, thoughtful post (and I’ve thought of an Eee as the only computer I’d be likely to take when traveling)…but:

    “you can pretty much buy anywhere from 3-5 subnotebooks for the price of a regular laptop.”

    Really? The notebook that’s now my “desktop”–my only computer, with Core 2 Duo CPU, 3GB RAM, 15″ screen, 250GB disk, dual-layer DVD burner, Vista Pro–cost $700. Checking just now at Officedepot.com, I’m seeing well-equipped namebrand notebooks (Toshiba, Acer) for $600 (with 1GB RAM) and $660 (with 3GB RAM). I’m sure I could do better elsewhere…

    It’s probably true that you can buy three Ees for the price of a sub-three-pound notebook (mine, and the ones I’m looking at, weigh 6 pounds)–but that’s a different issue.

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  2. I guess I mean the “hardy, meant to handle public use” laptops that we buy for public use. We upscale a bit to make sure we aren’t coping with harddrive issues too early on.

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  3. I’ve been ogling the EEE Pc as well. I have yet to see one in real life, so I’d like to get a feel for the keyboard size before making any decisions. Some folks online report no problems with the keyboard, but I suppose it’s all personal preference, and would certainly confound older library customers.

    I’m not sure how practical it is for libraries, but I love the incorporation of open source into the library technology offerings. I wish I could find a store that actually has one in stock, because I really want to hold one in my hands before making rash judgments about it for myself or my branch. I feel so extravagant wanting one for myself, as thought my Macbook or iPhone wasn’t portable enough, but I lust for one nonetheless.

    Thanks for writing this, as I’ve had a lot of similar thoughts on the sub-notebooks.

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  4. I’ll tell you what. . . I’ll post a picture of one of my hands on the keyboard later on tonight to give you an idea of what’s there.

    As a five-finger typist, I definitely feel constrained by the keyboard and my hands are not particularly large.

    The size and location of the shift, tab, backspace, del & ins keys are also a problem. However, I suppose these locations could be learned after a while.

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  5. That would be awesome – thanks! Seeing it to scale might help. I still haven’t found a store that sells them, though. I suspect you can only get it online for the most part.

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  6. We have two of these particular sub-notebooks at Regina Public. They are for roving reference and the staff greatly prefer them to the full-size tablet PC that they originally had (running Windows Tablet PC). They like the lighter weight and ease of use in particular. They have reported no problems with the small screen, small keyboard or different OS.

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  7. Hope you are reviewing the Eee PC 900. The screen on this model is so much better than the 2G / 4G. The touchpad is twice as large and extremely responsive and precise.

    The key to a good system though is setting it up. My route was to keep the default Xandros easy mode desktop. Then to install emeditor / Launcher Tools which allows the addition and deletion of application icons and category tabs.
    Adding Wine is essential to allow the running of Windows apps. You can also install Crossover Office which makes running of Photoshop possible. Applications I’ve installed are GnomeSword (Bible study), Bluefish & Kompozer (Web design), Treepad (Organised writing using a tree node system), BRE (available from http://www.theChristadelphians.org) and Inkscape (vector and drawing app). Zorp (a firewall) and WordPress (blogging) look to be very good as well.

    Additional software can be installed via the Synaptic Package Manager simply by searching for what you want to do, eg. FTP, html, web, graphics, document, database, etc.
    What I find convincing is the how well the machine works as a netbook.

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  8. I have received a grant to purchase 4 of these for my school library. As it is a middle school, the kids do have small hands — well, most of them. The biggest problem I have had with mine is getting through the firewall to get onto the Internet from work. Asus installs some funky version of Firefox that doesn’t allow you to install settings for the firewall. I am hoping that the newer computers I buy have solved that problem. Or that my IT will have some time to work on a solution. Have you had any problems with a firewall?

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  9. Lynn: Yeah — I think Roving Reference is my next test step for us.

    Mark: The 900 series isn’t available in Canada yet, but I definitely want to take a look at it. I’m glad the touchpad is better, because right now I feel that for any but the most basic uses, an external mouse is required. (I prefer an external mouse anyway though).

    Nancy: It’s hard for me to comment on Firewall issues because it all depends on what kind of Firewall is sitting on your server, how it is configured and so on. Have you ever tried linux on your network before these?

    You can install XP, of course — and maybe another Operating System like Ubuntu would work. . .

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  10. Did you install treepad windows or linux. If the latter, are there any instructions available that you know of to do this?

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