For the last couple of weeks I've been testing the Asus Eee PC 901, complete with Atom processor and 20GB total solid-state disk. I was a big fan of the Eee 701 when it came out last year, and to a large extent the 901 is more of the same but better, aside from the hefty price increase.
The 800 x 480 7" screen on the earlier model was the most annoying feature, and on the 901 it is replaced by a 8.9", 1024 x 600 display that is far more convenient for tasks like web browsing and word processing. Another plus is the long-life battery, a substantial 6600 mAh on the review unit, giving what Asus claim is up to 8 hours of use.
The Eee was originally launched as a Linux portable, and although I'm no Windows-hater I consider Linux to be particularly well suited to this kind of machine. It boots quickly, it is configured to be lean and efficient, and the IceWM window manager presents a simple tabbed interface so that anyone can be up and running quickly. It is as much an appliance as a computer; the bundled applications are more than enough to do real work, and there should be no need to understand Linux in order to use the Eee.
The snag with Linux however is that when things do go wrong, fixing it can be an intricate and complex business. Unfortunately I have had more problems with the 901 than I ever had with the 701. Out of the box I had problems connecting to Wi-Fi, and problems getting system updates. There seems to be a problem with the Asus repositories.
There is not enough room on the system disk to do a full update, and there are annoying dependency issues that raise errors and warnings. In addition, the Wi-Fi connection would drop out for no reason, and would not work at all with WPA encryption enabled on my particular router. It seems that the drivers for the Ralink wireless card are not quite done. Ralink support sent me some updated source code, which I compiled and installed, giving some improvement but still not entirely solving the problem. Compiling a new driver on the Eee, I should add, is not for the faint-hearted; many of the Eee's target users would run a mile before doing such a thing.
I am not alone. Most Eee 901 Linux users on a popular forum report problems, the most common being update issues and failure to shut down cleanly.
The obvious conclusion is that Asus is more interested in promoting Windows XP on the Eee, even though it is less suitable. Admittedly XP has advantages in areas like device compatibility, and it is of course familiar to everyone. It still strikes me as a missed opportunity. Linux on the Eee is a delight, when it is working properly. As it is, the 901 is going to confirm suspicions that Linux is mainly for geeks.