Abhi 2.0 on Technology

Abhimanyu Radhakrishnan’s Tech Archive: Columns, reports and video

Posts Tagged ‘linux

Tech Tonic #2: Smile Please! Say Eee

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Tech Tonic 2

Until someone from Taiwanese computer giant Asus told me that the three Es in Eee PC stood for the incredibly unimaginative “Easy to learn, Easy to work, Easy to play”, I was hooked onto the name. Although it’s pronounced just E-P-C one can’t help but get excited at the sight of so many ‘E’s and conjure up a dragon stance aka Bruce Lee all the while shrieking “Eeeeeee PeeeCeeee!”. Its a laptop straight out of Pokemon world and the name is so much better than DV3244SX or some similar variant of the alpha-numeric combination disease that the laptop business seems to suffer from. The Eee PC is a “subnotebook” that’s light, sleek and surprisingly good looking with a nice metallic glossy finish. The specs are bare bones – a low end Intel chip, 512 MB of RAM, a 7-inch screen, basic ports for LAN, mic, headphone, VGA output and three USB jacks. Memory cards can be inserted into an external slot and there’s even a VGA webcam in the model that I tested out. There’s no hard drive on the Eee PC but a flash memory based ‘solid state’ disc ranging from 2GB to 8GB – my model had a 4 gigs. This ensures lightning quick startup and shutdown, lesser risk of data loss and much lower power consumption. The battery manages to consistently give just over 3 hours with Wi-Fi on throughout.

However the make or break in a low budget PC was always going to be the operating system and this one comes bundled with a Linux distribution called Xandros. I’ve mentioned before in this column that I’m a Linux-skeptic as far as consumer PCs are concerned. However the one very smart thing that they’ve done is to load a very simple tab-based version of Xandros as the default rather than the full fledged interface. In fact it looks very similar to good old Windows 3.1 with folder groups and nice large icons. You can see lots of familiar stuff such as Firefox, Skype, Google Docs, a PDF reader etc. on the opening screen. One of the most unnerving things for a first time user about firing up Linux is to see these tons of programs with ultra geeky sounding names like Konqueror, Amarok, Phonon etc. It could make you feel like you’ve been abducted and placed on an alien planet. The Eee PC is the first machine running Linux that I would recommend even to people with nothing but the most basic knowledge of Windows. It opened all websites flawlessly, detected external hard drives, played most common audio and video files and opened all documents that I threw at it.

It’s not without its flaws though. There’s too much wastage of space around the screen. Shifting the stereo speakers from either side of the LCD seems as if it would easily allow for 25% more display. The button below the touch pad which serves as both left and right mouse-key is hard and often unresponsive. External volume controls should have been provided. There are tons of  kinks in the software too. For instance the Wi-Fi setup is a tad complex (an average user should not be left wondering whether he uses WEP or WPA as his security protocol) and refuses to remember your password forcing you to enter it every time. Also, good luck on installing something like an iPod or a digital camera – its a pain getting Linux drivers for most hardware. None of the cellular providers who make USB modems have bothered to throw in Linux drivers, which is a pity since Wi-Fi is not very ubiquitous in India and having this logged on through GPRS would have solved the connectivity problem once and for all.

However in the final analysis, the Eee PC is a winner. I’d still not recommend it to power users for whom their notebook is the critical, primary machine. You don’t want to be stuck ploughing through Linux forums on the net when push comes to shove. However for those of you who have a primary desktop at home or work and just want a portable add-on sort of notebook for infrequent travel or even mobile usage within the home, I vouch for this baby.  If the Linux bit is making you a bit queasy relax – it supports Windows and in the US at least, Microsoft has agreed to sell Windows at a super-subsidized rate of $40 with the Eee PC. The Eee PC is currently available in white and black though light shades of metallic pink, blue and green will be on the shelves soon. At Rs. 18,000 it’s definitely a bargain and more importantly, for some, looks way more expensive than it is.

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Written by Abhi 2.0

February 24, 2008 at 6:17 am

Tech Tonic #1: Micro Going Soft?

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I’d barely finished putting the final touches on my first column for this magazine when the news started flashing on the wires, that Microsoft had made a 44 billion dollar bid for Yahoo. There had been rumours floating for a while but they’d been the usual, ignorable ”everybody buying everyone else” theories that keep circulating on the wonderful interweb. In any case this column was supposed to be about everyday tech not corporate takeovers and silicon valley politics. However this particular bit of news was slightly different. Unlike January’s other mega-deals like Sun buying MySQL or Oracle buying BEA, which matter only to IT departments of companies, this story is a reflection of how humble users like you and (often not very humble) me are driving the world’s most powerful software company to make such a big gamble.

The text of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s letter to Yahoo’s board clearly says that Google is the common enemy and that this merger is a play for the online advertising market which is expected to touch 100 billion dollars in the next two years. However, what is not obvious in the letter is the growing threat of Microsoft being rendered redundant in the life of the common user. Now lets get this straight. I’m no Microsoft-bashing open-source evangelist trying to change the world by defeating evil capitalists. Heck, i’ve been a Windows user forever. I tried installing Linux a couple of times and was not convinced, I hated the alternatives to MS Office such as Star Office and Lotus Notes and the very fact that I need to write a column to make a living is proof enough that I can’t afford to be a Macintosh user ;-). I just want to be able to use the best and simplest software out there to help me get on with my life – period. Of late though, Microsoft isn’t the best at providing that.

Lets start with the Operating System of my home desktop. I’ve steadfastly refused to upgrade to the new Windows Vista. It gives my poor PC an inferiority complex with it’s hardware requirements and yet does not have any real fantastic reason for convincing me to upgrade. More importantly my operating system doesn’t matter all that much anymore. The only thing I’m doing of late is starting up my PC, firing up my web browser and going bersek online. That’s the other thing. I’m among the 10% (and growing) of web users, who use a web browser called Firefox instead of the default option that comes with Windows called Internet Explorer. It’s just plain better!

Now let’s get to Microsoft’s other big cash cow. I have a secret to reveal. I haven’t installed Microsoft Office on my PC. I’m banging out this column on something called “Google Docs” which is frankly, the best thing I’ve used in a long, long time. If you’re a Gmail user, you’ll see a small link on the upper left side of your screen, saying “Documents”. When you click on it you’re transported into a world of stripped down, ‘essentials-only’ versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. All your documents are stored on the web and you can collaborate with other users by giving them permission to view or make changes to your stuff. Make no mistake, if you make a living on spreadsheets and presentations then Google Docs is not an alternative for MS Office. But the point is I have been able to manage very nicely. Of course every now and then, a merchant ship in the Mediterranean will plonk an anchor onto an undersea cable thereby cutting off internet access to most of India and leaving pompous journalists with no way of retrieving their half-written columns.

What about the gadgets in my everyday life? Let me do a quick survey of the gizmos around me right now. Umm lets see, theres a Nintendo Wii (currently outselling the Microsoft Xbox 360), an Apple iPod Touch (currently outselling the Microsoft Zune) and a Blackberry (currently outselling Windows Mobile). Yes yes, I agree this survey is completely unscientific using a random selection etc. but if I were to invest using Wall Street legend Peter Lynch’s philosophy of ‘look around you’, I would certainly be short on Microsoft.

Let me admit, I still don’t have the guts to put my money where my mouth is as far as my desktop computer is concerned. I need the safety net and familiarity of my good old Windows XP. The laptop though is a different story and I’m willing to experiment. Asus, HCL and ACI  have all just launched super cheap, tiny laptops that run on allegedly very user-friendly versions of Linux. I’ll be done playing with them within a fortnight so watch this space for the verdict!

Written by Abhi 2.0

February 10, 2008 at 9:51 am