Tuesday, January 13

Review of ”Asus Eee PC for Dummies”

In short, this is a quite good book for teaching you the basics of how to get more out of your Linux based Eee. If you bought – or are planning to buy – a Eee with WinXP preinstalled, there are probably better guides to buy than this one.

In not-so-short, this book is a good buy for having an off line reference for using the software that ships with the Linux Eee, how to set your Eee up to suit your needs and how to perform a number of useful tweaks to improve the user experience… It is not, however, a definite guide to everything. On the contrary, the author willingly admits that there are much more information available – especially online – and helpfully provides a number of links to useful sites. More on that later, first some general remarks.

Eee PC for Dummies is written in an easy, accessible and informal style that I at least found easy to follow. It’s laid out in a logical progression, starting with a short discussion on the various models of the Eee available when the book went into print, showing the reader how to start using the Eee and the installed software before moving onto more advanced topics.

The book is divided into six parts: Getting Started, Day to Day, Adding Software, Hardware and Accessories, Advanced Topics and Part of Tens.

In the Getting Started section, Eee PC for Dummies starts of by telling you what exactly an Eee is (ie: a normal laptop, only smaller and with less bells and whistles), what an Eee isn’t (just as important) and which models are available. This is where the major downside of this book first rears it’s ugly head: Asus changes the lineup of the Eee range so frequently that many models now in sale are not discussed, and a couple of the models discussed are no longer in sale. This sounds worse than it is though – apart from the listing of models in the first section this only pops up again in the more advanced topics towards the end of the book.

Further in the first section, the book shows you how to power on your Eee, how to use the admittedly non-standard interface it presents when first started, and vitally how to get connected with either a wireless or wired connection and sharing files over your home network. Perhaps critaly so early in the book, it fails to mention some of the known pitfalls of wireless connections with the Eee – this is touched upon in the last part of the book however.

In the second section – Day to Day – pretty much every application installed on the Eee gets a fairly detailed description. Several tips and hints for how to use the software on a smaller than normal screen is given, which is quite useful. In this section the author has done a good job of balancing the needs of the readers; it’s neither too high flying for someone just starting out with computers, nor to shallow for those who have several years of computer experience under their belts. This treatment is given not only to the serious applications – such as the web browser and the office suite – but also to the less serious programs like the various games and graphics editors that are installed. Some space in this section is given over to how to configure and customise the Eee with the preinstalled tools – useful, since it’s not the same process as on a WinXP computer – and where to find help online when you have problems.

The office suite that comes with early model Eees – OpenOffice – are given two whole chapters – a logical choice since these are large and powerful programs. However, At least some of the newer model Eees have a different office suite – StarOffice – installed. It’s worth noting that both office suits share a lot of common features and are based on the same code, so this shouldn’t turn potential buyers away from the book.

This section is also the one part of the book where WinXP on the Eee is discussed – briefly. Just ten pages are devoted to the topic, which covers the bare minimum of information. Again, if you bought or are planning to buy an Eee with WinXP installed, this may not be the best book for you.

The third section covers adding extra software to the Eee. It starts off sensible by explaining how software installation works under Linux, discusses briefly the Add/Remove utility that Asus installs on the Eee and the various package managers available. This can be considered the start of the more advanced part of the book – if you’re happy with using the forty odd applications that comes with the Eee you can close the book when you reach this point and it’ll still be money well spent.

While I miss a warning at this point, the author does a good job of explaining the various concepts and lays out easy to follow commands to find and install all sorts of software. A chapter on popular Linux programs gives the reader a quick teaser of what’s out there for free. For balance the next chapter deals with free software for WinXP – this reads more as an afterthought and mostly list applications that are already installed from the factory on the Linux models.

The fourth part – Hardware and Accessories – are reasonable brief, but it covers the subject well. It shows how to add more memory – RAM – and storage easily, as well as giving a quick overview of other “much needed” accessories such as bags, spare batteries, chargers and so forth. The section is short and to the point, and contains lots of useful pointers to websites that carries accessories for the Eee.

The second to last section covers so called Advanced Topics. The first part of the section shows how to do backups and restore from them, usefully pointing out one of the reviewers favourite tools for doing this. It also shows how to restore your Eee to it’s original state if – or perhaps when – you get too experimental with the software and end up breaking the system. Further on in the section the book explains how to enable the so called ‘Advanced Mode’; a more traditional desktop that is much the same as you’ll find on any non-apple computer. The book also helpfully points out a few of the drawbacks with switching to this mode, but fails to suggest that a new user should back up his system before enabling it.

The section also contains an introduction to command line Linux, along with a list of common commands. Again this is presented in a clear and concise way, accessible for anybody, and does a good job of demystifying the command line. Another useful chapter in this section deals with how to customise the user interface, both from the command line and by using several tools created by users. The book shows how to add and remove icons and tabs from the basic interface, as well as other helpful tweaks that in the opinion of the reviewer does much to improve the usability of the Eee.

The last part – Part of Tens – covers two things: troubleshooting and essential places on the internet.

Overall, it’s a book well worth considering even if you feel that you know how to use a computer and have bought – or are planning to buy – an Eee with Linux. It does, as mentioned, have a couple of shortfalls; mainly because Asus keeps changing the lineup and the applications installed. For the most part this is of little consequence, but in the section on advanced topics there are several pitfalls directly relating to this issue – for instance are the configuration files for the desktop kept in a different folder on newer Eees than the book states when it comes to customising the desktop. However, the author throughout the book points the reader to where more information is found, and an enterprising reader will quickly go to the source to find out more.