A few months ago, I decided that I needed a computer to take into the field. My primary laptop, a two-year old Dell Latitude DE1505 (which I love!) is steadily losing battery charge capacity. . .I'm lucky to get more than an hour out of it when unplugged. Because my primary field camp is relatively remote and without electricity, I needed something with a little more juice to it. Buying a new battery seemed a little expensive, especially for a laptop of that age (and I wouldn't gain that much in battery life anyhow). So, I started looking around for options.
I very quickly found the Asus Eee PC line as an interesting option. They're tiny, energy efficient, cheap, and run Linux easily. Who could ask for a better combination? So, I plunked down about $300 for the Asus Eee PC 901. . .I am writing the bulk of this blog post from my tent in a remote corner of Utah, if that is an indication of a worthwhile purchase! In this post, I'll discuss my experience using this little machine under paleontological conditions.
First, the physical characteristics of the Eee PC 901. It's really a netbook, which means small, small, small, measuring 8.8 inches in maximum width! This is great when you want something that's easily transportable, but the tiny keys on the keyboard take some getting used to. Additionally, many keys such as PageUp and PageDown are accessible only through a key combination (for instance, “Function” plus the “Up” arrow for PageUp) rather than as their own keys. After a little bit of practice, I got the hang of it. The track pad is small but adequate – for serious use, I'd probably plug in a regular mouse and keyboard, but it's more than enough for field use.
The screen is also small, but very legible. I find that when I'm typing in a word processor, particularly when reclining in my tent, it's helpful to zoom in a bit to get a good look at the text. Not unexpected for a netbook, again. The screen brightness is pretty good, although as with nearly any laptop it is tough to read in direct or bright indirect sun.
Now on to the nuts and bolts. Because I bought a Linux model, it came with a 20 gigabyte solid state drive (essentially, a USB stick for a hard drive). The solid state drive allows the computer to eke out every bit of battery life, because it doesn't have to keep a hard disk spun up all of the time. That said, 20 gigs isn't that much space these days, so I bought an 8 gig SD card for extra file capacity. The Eee PC has an SD card slot on the side, which is a major bonus!
The default operating system for the Eee PC is either Windows Vista (blech) or a custom build of Linux based on the Mandriva distribution. Open source paleontologist that I am, I went with the latter option. The factory Linux OS is adequate and intuitive, but I was frustrated by the difficulty in installing custom software or even updated packages of some key systems. I want OpenOffice.org 3.1, not 2.7! So, I installed a distribution called “Easy Peasy.” Despite (or perhaps because of) its cheesy name, “Easy Peasy” runs pretty much flawlessly on my machine. The desktop environment differs from Ubuntu in having nice large buttons on the desktop rather than a drop-down menu—a simplification, but a good one for something with a screen of this size. It's easy to install or upgrade applications (same method as with Ubuntu), and the default applications are comprehensive and up to date.
When within wi-fi range, the wireless card in my EeePC works flawlessly. In fact, I usually get better signal pick-up and connection reliability than the Windows or Mac users working alongside me (this is a hallmark of most Linux laptops I've worked with). Unfortunately, it does not seem to be particularly easy to turn off the wi-fi card with the default settings in Easy Peasy. So, I installed eee-control, a little utility that I highly, highly recommend for anyone using an EeePC. This fixed the problem quite elegantly! Unfortunately, I didn't find this piece of software until after I got back from the field.
I haven't completely run my battery down out in the field, but the battery life estimator indicates around 4.5 to 5 hours on a full charge. I suspect I could get longer life by turning off wi-fi (and I'll have to see how eee-control helps out in this regard), but this is still pretty darned good! I purchased a power inverter in order to charge the netbook as needed from our field truck's cigarette lighter. This setup has been working well.
In the field, I've been using my EeePC to keep track of the specimen field catalog as well as working on various writing projects (including this blog post) after hours in my tent. All told, the machine is more than adequate for these tasks. I'm not running my computer during the heat of the day, so I can't speak for its behavior at 100 degrees, and I am careful to store it away from any major sources of dust or grit. As mentioned above, it is tough to read anything on the screen under bright lighting conditions.
In the end, I would rate my Eee PC 901 a solid A-. The very portable size and long battery life for a good computing experience. The only things preventing me from issuing a completely glowing recommendation is the rather limited default Linux operating system (an easily rectified problem) and the initial problems with turning off the wi-fi card in Easy Peasy. I wouldn't recommend this as someone's primary computer (the tiny keyboard would probably give you hand cramps after awhile, and the processing speed and hard drive space are minimal for any real multimedia tasks or storage), but the affordable price makes the EeePC 901 a quite attractive option for a travel or field computer.