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What do you install on an Asus eeepc 701 in 2012?

Posted 12-23-2012 at 10:13 PM by trevorparsons

My school keeper friend Tony has discovered a stash of half a dozen Asus Eee PC 701 netbooks, apparently an unused donation to the school where he works. These are the original netbook, which we were all very excited about when it came out five years ago. I still have mine, currently running Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, and although my Android phone has replaced many of its functions, I still use it now and then when I need a rugged, portable machine with a keyboard.

These 701s are as they came from the factory, with the original Xandros operating system. It's still really quick, but I hit on a problem with them straight away. They consistently fail to connect to wireless networks secured with a WPA pre-shared key.

There are apparently hacks to fix this, but the wpasupplicant package link was dead, and I thought it better to go for an up-to-date operating system.

The big problem with putting a new OS on the Eee PC 701 is that its hard disk (actually an SSD) gives you only about 3.5GB of space for everything, if you allow for a small swap partition. That's too little space for Ubuntu these days, even though I found today that the hardware will run Unity quite nicely from a live USB.

So I tried Lubuntu, using the alternate installer. The installation went OK, but after a few seconds of boot, and a quick flash of the Lubuntu splash screen, I got a blank screen and unfortunately no access to consoles from the old Control-Alt-F1 recourse. At least Control-Alt-Delete worked to reboot the machine, so I could try editing the linux line in GRUB, removing
quiet splash
and replacing it with
but that made no difference.

Next I tried Crunchbang, which installed nicely and ran brilliantly, using a tiny amount of RAM and storage. So well that I think I will switch my own 701 to this distro. However, I fear that the target users for whom I'm configuring these machines will want a slightly more familiar interface. I tried installing LXDE on the Crunchbang install. The result was promising, but I got into a bit of a mess between Openbox and LXDE, with multiple panels, so I moved on... Gnome 3 (yep) running on Debian Wheezy. I installed this using the beta netinstall ISO for Wheezy, rendered onto a USB flash drive using Unetbootin as with the others. This was a mercifully shorter process than the larger distros, as was the base installation, because I went for the very minimum of options in tasksel.

Having rebooted and logged in as root, I installed the following packages:
  • gnome-session
  • x-window-system-core
  • gdm3
  • network-manager
  • alsa-base
  • iceweasel
  • gedit
  • vlc
  • eog
  • vim

To get the display manager and network manager going:
service gdm3 start
service network-manager start
To allow ordinary users to log onto wireless networks:
vim /usr/share/polkit-1/actions/org.freedesktop.NetworkManager.policy
and change
To allow autologin:
vim /etc/gdm3/daemon.conf
and uncomment / amend the two relevant lines as follows
AutomaticLoginEnable = true
AutomaticLogin = USERNAME
By way of tweaks to Gnome, I installed the following extensions:
  • remove accessibility
  • alternative status menu
  • status icon fixer
  • removeable drive menu
  • quit button

In System Settings, Mouse and Touchpad, I enabled horizontal scrolling and enabled mouse clicks with touchpad, while in Brightness and Lock I turned off lock.

Oh, and to get Flash working (which slightly struggles to play, given that these babies only come with 512MB of RAM and an 800MHz Celeron CPU), I added the following to /etc/apt/sources.list
deb wheezy main non-free
and did
apt-get update
apt-get install flashplayer-mozilla
agreeing lazily to allow installation of a package from an unverified source.

The result is pretty good. Everything works (wireless, audio in and out, webcam etc), and I am amazed how well Gnome 3 performs on machines with such modest resources. It would, however, be a good idea to whip out the 512MB installed RAM chip and substitute with 1 or 2GB. That might even make it feasible to do without a swap partition. Also, getting an SD card and symlinking /home to it would be favourite, seeing as there's only about 650MB left on the SSD!

Let's see how this configuration fares in daily use, which I think (hope) will be almost entirely web browsing.
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