Thursday, 6 November 2014

Asus Eee 701: They Travelled by Train

An Asus Eee 701, with an orange for scale

You're supposed to use a banana, but I don't have any bananas at the moment so I've decided to use an orange instead. There were other things I could have used, but oranges are a global constant and I've always liked the colour. Orange (the colour) is dynamic, futuristic, and at the same time retro, because it was very popular in the 1970s. Oranges (the fruits) were also very popular in the 1970s, according to this article at the University of Florida, or at least orange juice was popular; by the 1970s over 90% of Florida's orange crop was being used to make orange juice concentrate, breathe in. The oranges themselves were vessels for their juice, just as our bodies are vessels for our souls.

Vessels, and prisons. Orange juice concentrate was developed in the 1940s as a wartime measure, and obviously it must have done the trick because we won. It became extremely popular in the 1950s; Americans drank ever-increasing amounts of it, up until the 2000s, at which point it started to fall out of favour. How come? A mixture of rising prices, competition from smoothies, the decline of the American breakfast, a general shift from acidic, sugary drinks towards bottled water, the list is quite literally finite.

Do you remember smoothies? When people write history books of the 2000s, the rise and fall of smoothies will fill up one chapter. It will be the story of how Innocent sold millions of gallons of liquefied banana and orange at a premium price, because the company had a halo - even though smoothies were no good for you or for the environment or anything - and then the brand was sold to McDonalds or Coke or one of those big companies, because it was just a cynical money-grabbing exercise all along. Who would have thought that a fruit juice company would be driven entirely by money?

Now, this is my blog, and I can write what I want, so subsequent paragraphs will be interspersed with poems that use ORANGE as if it was an acronym, and later on I will use other fruits. It pleases me to write the word "fruits". I enjoy writing that word, and saying it out loud, perhaps because I have to make a kissing-shape with my lips when I say it. Fruits.

Ocelot, retreat!
And no
gummy eatmurder

For people of my generation orange juice is inextricably linked with the 1983 comedy Trading Places, in which orange juice futures played a pivotal role. Almost as pivotal as Jamie Lee Curtis' breasts, which left a very strong impression on boys who grew up in the 1980s. I've written about netbooks before, but not specifically about the original Asus Eee 701, the machine that started the netbook craze. Having dug mine out of storage I decided to tinker with it. At this point the camera pans along and we see John Cleese at a desk, and he says "and now for something completely different", and the "it's" guy appears and then the music.

There isn't a Kindle App for Linux, but Amazon's cloud reader service works with Firefox running on Puppy Linux. The machine's tiny screen isn't really cut out for long reading sessions, though.

And now we're in an office. John Cleese sits behind a desk. Michael Palin walks in. My Eee originally came with Windows XP. Over time I replaced this with the short-lived Netbook Edition of Ubuntu, and then a stripped-down installation of lightweight Linux distribution Lubuntu. But this almost filled up the on-board SSD, and after seven years I worry about the SSD's durability. So I decided to install Puppy Linux, viz the images above and below. Specifically Slacko Puppy 5.7. It leaves almost three-quarters of the 701's 4gb SSD empty, even with Firefox and a smattering of applications.

Oiled, raw asses
naked garmonbozia*


* pain and sorrow

I've always felt sorry for Puppy Linux. On the whole Linux is not a sexy operating system for sex people, and Puppy Linux is the least sexy. It consistently works on even the most unpromising hardware, and in the present case it recognises the Eee's function controls - brightness, volume etc - plus it seamlessly uses a second monitor, it even controls the Eee's fan. And yet Puppy is always overlooked and spurned as the poor person's Linux, the council house Linux, the public transport Linux. NHS spectacles Linux.

An Eee sitting on top of an Asus TF101 tablet, which has a similar footprint but a much larger, higher-resolution screen (1280x800 vs 800x480). The TF101 was sold as the Eee Pad Tablet, and is technically the Eee 701's distant successor, although they are conceptually very different machines.

The 701 was launched here in the UK in late 2007, with reviews appearing in October and November of that year. It was trailed with a price of £150 or so but actually launched at £220-ish, depending on spec. In 2007 the typical laptop cost anything from £550-1,200 and up, depending on spec and accessories, with anything higher than that generally not worth the extra money. Laptops from that period were carry-able, desktop-able, train-table-able, Starbucks-able, but not generally restaurant-able or walk-able or stand-up-able. For truly portable computing your choices were Blackberries and Symbian Nokias, which didn't necessarily have wi-fi, or Apple's new iPhone, which did have wi-fi but was very expensive, and of course none of these options had a proper keyboard and x86 compatibility. They weren't proper computers.

We know now that the iPhone was the future, and that it and its ilk would eliminate Netbooks, but it wasn't such a clear-cut thing at the time. For a short while the press tried to spin the iPhone as a flop, mocking Steve Jobs' goal of selling ten million of the things in its first year. Since then Apple has sold almost half a billion iPhones, and historians of the future will write of the mobile phone revolution in terms of the pre- and post-iPhone eras. Every mobile phone platform released before 2007 will be dismissed just as we dismiss silent films or pre-hip hop popular music today. There was pop music before Jay-Z's The Blueprint, but history will not recall it. Nobody kissed and nobody touched.

It's amusing to look back at coverage of the iPhone. I've done this before - it was a blog craze a while back - but it never ceases to put a smile on my face. The expert analysts are no more knowledgeable than you or I. They deflect attention from their shortcomings and spin their fluke triumphs, but in general they are just space-fillers. According to one of Engadget's "noted analysts" it wasn't actually a smartphone and would flop because it didn't have 3g and you couldn't change the battery. According to this clown it was going to fail because it was too functional, too hard to use, and "users will detest the touch screen interface due to its lack of tactile feedback". It was "nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks" according to Matthew Lynn, a man who has a girl's name. According to Todd Sullivan, who is called Todd - his profile bigs him up as a big swinging dick, a ten-bagger, a mover and shaker - "the introduction of the iPhone will be the first miscue for the company and send its shares, priced for perfection, tumbling".

In a way he was semi-right; Apple's share price rose in the early iPhone era, but fell again over the next year. Nonetheless if you had bought $1,000 of Apple shares on the day of the iPhone's launch and sold them at the five-year mark you would have made a profit of about (mashes buttons on calculator) about $3,800, is that right? Does that look right? And you would forever regret not buying more shares in Apple. You would look at your $3,800 - that would have been about £2,300 - and you would think "is this it? five years and... the one time in my life I hit a goldmine on the stock market, the one time I will ever hit a goldmine, and all I have is $3,800?". Is that what it feels to be a Master of the Universe? For the rest of your life you'll sit there and think about all the people in the world who would commit murder for $3,800, trying to make your rotten empty triumph seem impressive. For a brief moment you were Warren Buffett. A pathetic, low-rent Warren Buffett. A fairground Caesar. There is nothing more melancholic than a brief glimpse of heaven.

The average price of a laptop had been steadily heading downwards for several years by the time the Eee came about, and the state of tech in the Core II Duo era was such that even a cheap laptop was competent enough to be your only computer, provided you didn't want to play the latest games. 2007 wasn't so far away. Wi-fi was well established although public wi-fi was by no means ubiquitous. It's hard to remember now, but we were supposed to have widespread free public wi-fi fourteen years ago, but for various reasons it didn't happen, and the dream of having an uninterrupted internet connection wherever you go has still not happened.

Oliver Reed -
angry noises;
grotesque energy

That BBC report I have just linked mentions The Cloud, which "wants to go large and install wi-fi terminals in thousands of pubs", comma, "but analysts disagree whether such ambitious roll-out plans will deliver the broad wi-fi coverage needed to attract customers in larger numbers", and that was in 2003. Circa 2014 The Cloud still exists - not to be confused with the cloud, which is something else - but it is still only one wi-fi solution of many, and it isn't much use in the outdoors or on a train. It depresses me that wi-fi coverage is still so poor on trains. Trains have ample power and are restricted to a small number of captive routes. And it's 2014, fourteen years into the future.

Automatic pea-pod;
lesbian ecstasy

The average British man and woman in 2003 had not heard of wi-fi and had no use for it. As with so many technologies I surmise that the average British man and woman of today still doesn't know that there is such a thing as wi-fi. These people, these happy people just turn on their tablet and it works. It takes an enormous level of transparency before a technological gadget can penetrate the mainstream.

An Eee 701 (top), on top of a TF101 and an Asus Eee 1005HA (bottom). Some versions of the 701 had a 56.6k modem, mine is blanked off. The 701 was also available in black.

By 2007 mobile computing and mobile internet had reached a general level of competence that has only improved incrementally. Which led to a problem whereby the computing market began to stagnate; people no longer needed to buy a new computer every couple of years. In this respect the Eee benefited from fortuitous timing. People were looking for something to fill in the gap between their laptop and their smartphone. Furthermore the Eee was released just as people were becoming sick of the profligacy of the age. It rode on the publicity surrounding the One Laptop Per Child's $100 Laptop, and although it was devised as a miniature productivity machine it worked brilliantly as a smartphone complement. Especially if you wanted to read and reply to emails whilst on the move using wifi or a 3G dongle, and you weren't fussed about nasty old unhygenic voice communication. It was cheap but surprisingly well-made, and it was cute rather than naff, almost classless. I can't recall ever seeing an advert for one. News of it spread by word of mouth and reviews, because there was pent-up desire for it.

Its success, and that of the Netbook as a whole, was a rare burst of sunshine in the computing market, and over the next couple of years there was a Netbook glut, as everybody tried to get their Netbook into the shops. Amazon and eBay added Netbook sections to their listings, which they presumably un-added a few years later. Last year there was a generic Android tablet glut, no doubt in a few years there will be a glut of something else. It's hard to see what will come next; the idea of a computer that is just a flat screen has been around since science fiction of the 1940s. Sci-fi anticipated that we would eventually have computers built into our heads, but that is decades away.

Bastard, asshole, nonce,
asshole, nonce

Although, if you think about it, we already have computers in our heads. Our brains. They are computers. They use solid state storage and have limited read/write capacity before they wear out. They probably do not support wi-fi, although some people claim otherwise. Brains run much cooler than electronic computers and do not need fans. They have a number of I/O ports. Brains.

Historically the basic concept of the Eee was devised by Asus CEO Jonney Shih, essentially as a brand-building exercise. Until the Eee, Asus was mostly famous for its motherboards and components; now it is the third or fourth-largest tablet manufacturer depending on whose statistics you believe, behind Apple, Samsung and Lenovo. The Eee's packaging was executed by Jerry Shen - for which he seems to have been promoted to CEO - with a case drafted by chief designer Jimmy Chu, who based it heavily on his earlier Asus U1F subnotebook, scaled down by 75%. It was originally to have used the new Intel Atom, but the Atom was delayed, and so in the end the Eee used a 900mhz Celeron underclocked to 650mhz. The wi-fi module and sound chip were stock, the screen an 800x480 panel borrowed from an in-car satnav unit.

The original Eee 701 had more or less the same connection options as a full-sized laptop, and compared to a modern tablet it's surprisingly well-equipped, with three USB ports, an SD card reader, Ethernet, and VGA out. The 701 drives external monitors to at least 1440x900, and with three USB sockets you can in theory use it as a headless PC with USB keyboard and mouse, with one USB socket free.

Puppy Linux on a 701, running at 1440x900 on an external monitor. It is often opined that we are due for another massive economic crash, and I wonder which giants will fall first; Tesco seems to be doing poorly, Virgin will surely lose money from the space tourism business. Will Britain have any businesses at all, five years from now?

In 2007 the Eee seemed very fresh and new. It came as standard with either 2gb or 4gb of SSD storage, at a time when SSDs were just starting to become feasible as desktop drive replacements. 4gb was tiny even then, and perhaps the Eee's most forward-thinking element was the decision to generally ignore onboard storage. In that respect it was a close ancestor of the Chromebook concept. The Eee post-dated YouTube by two years, predated Dropbox by a year, and as a cloud-orientated machine it was on the cutting edge, which hurt it a little bit because the cloudy infrastructure we take for granted today was in its infancy back then.

The £220-ish price point was just cheap enough to make it an impulse purchase. There had been small laptops before, and cheap internet appliances, but there had been no small, cheap laptops - or cheap, small internet appliances that were x86 compatible. The Celeron's x86-ness meant that the Eee was a proper laptop rather than a big smartphone, but the use of a Celeron rather than an Atom is also the Eee's Achilles heel. The machine runs hot, and despite having no moving parts except for a small fan, the stock battery only lasts a couple of hours. This was irritating even at the time. Extended replacement batteries are still available on eBay, but they're bulky. Nowadays Asus would have used an ARM chip running a version of Android, but Android didn't exist in 2007. It was a very different world back then. The Eee would have been fundamentally different if it had been designed today.

God respects
and praises
elephants, foxes, rabbits -
universe is true

Originally the Eee came with a version of Mandriva Linux, a Linux flavour of which I know little. Within eighteen months Linux was banished from netbooks and replaced by XP, but that's another story. In 2007 XP was supposedly on the way out. Microsoft wanted to abandon it in favour of Vista. But the netbook became one of the few growth segments of the PC market, and Vista turned out not to be the marketing triumph Microsoft expected. Its high system requirements would have been a poor fit for netbooks, and so Microsoft was driven by pragmatism to keep XP in production. In fact official support for XP didn't end until early 2014, and so in a way the 701 and its Netbook brethren essentially brought XP back from the dead and doubled its lifespan.

The keyboard is faster than an on-screen keyboard, but still awkward - the return, backspace, and right shift keys are very small. One legacy of the Eee's Linux heritage is the lack of a Windows key. The tiny trackpad has scroll regions. It is surprisingly difficult to photograph a computer such that the case and screen are evenly lit - you have to turn the screen brightness down or use fill-flash.

For a year or so after launch they were very hard to come by in the UK. Asus had been surprised by the demand, and stocks sold out as soon as they arrived, especially the more desirable 4gb model. There was also a 2gb model which nobody wanted. I was initially skeptical of the 701, but in the end I was won over by it, although looking back the slightly later, Atom-powered 901 was the apotheosis of the concept. The 901 filled the Eee's lid with a 9", 1024x600 screen, which could display contemporary webpages at full width.

Later Netbooks fell into the trap of being too bulky for comfort but not powerful enough for general use, and furthermore 12" laptops had fallen in price to match them. Nowadays my "netbook" is actually a used ThinkPad X61, which is just about the perfect form factor and much more powerful than any Netbook.

Men, and narwhals
go - oh!

My Eee tends to go through long periods of disuse with occasional resurrections. As of 2014 it has survived surprisingly well. Nothing about the machine is fundamentally obsolete. It doesn't have USB 3.0, and the wi-fi doesn't support 802.11n, but the Eee probably wouldn't benefit from it anyway. Seven years later the hinge is still strong, nay stiff. Take that, Titanium G4 PowerBook. The case has no large gouges, the keys are still present. It's made of thick white plastic and feels a bit like a durable toddler's toy. The internals are very simple and the 701 didn't have any notorious design faults. As a news reader / email terminal it's functional. The screen and limited battery life are still the major limitations, just as they were in 2007, and whereas I can leave my tablet in standby for days and activate it with a swipe, I have to turn the 701 on and off, which takes precious seconds. The SSD has essentially the same performance as a Compact Flash card, e.g. it's not much faster than a 5400rpm hard drive. The SSD apparently consisted of four 1gb cells, and I have no idea if the Eee was smart enough to spread data evenly over the cells; and my hunch is that if one cell fails, the machine becomes a brick. The SSD is soldered to the motherboard. The later 701SD had an 8gb SSD, and later models used conventional hard drives.

Netbooks are no longer manufactured; the Chromebook concept essentially continues the idea of a small computer with non-local storage, tablets do the job of checking email and the internet, and I suppose Windows Surface covers the x86-in-a-small-package base. x86 compatibility isn't the draw it was in 2007, because for every human need there is now an app. In my earlier piece on the Netbook I argued that the concept was badly hit by the lack of a Netbook infrastructure, and that x86 compatibility turned out to be a dead end. It did nothing to encourage developers to produce software specifically for the Netbook concept, and so Netbooks ended up running applications developed for larger, more capable computers, which made Netbooks look bad. Now that Office is a cloud service the need for x86 compatibility is slowly fading, and perhaps one day the infamous Windows-Intel duopoly will simply evaporate, and people will forget why they hated it.

Is there a direct modern equivalent of the 701? Chromebooks tend to be laptop-sized; they tick all the 701's boxes except for the tiny form factor. The 701 is so small that it can easily be held one-handed and carried rather like a paperback book. Modern tablets are roughly the same size, but I would be wary of carrying a tablet with its keyboard dock connected. The 701 is two inches narrower and an inch shallower than the smallest MacBook Air, and slightly lighter, although much less capable. Bearing in mind my hypothesis above, I conclude that there isn't a modern equivalent of the 701, because there doesn't need to be one. In 2007 the Eee made sense; in 2014 the concept belongs to a bygone age. The Eee opened up the floodgates and was, in the end, swept away.

Captive! Held inside
prison ships