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I’ve had an Asus Eee PC netbook for a few years. I was initially impressed with its speed and the Xandros linux load that came pre-installed. After about a year, however, I concluded that a 7″ screen is just a bit too small for me, and I discovered that the unionfs file system that Xandros used ran out of file handles every few months requiring some major maintenance before it would even boot. So, I upgraded to a larger Eee PC 900A that I found on Craigslist for $100, and I installed Eeebuntu. This satisfied me for a while, but over the past year I’ve noticed the UI starting to become sluggish (particularly in Firefox), with mouse clicks sometimes taking 5-10 seconds to register. And about a month ago, the sound driver apparently became corrupted because the speakers stopped working. So it was time, once again, for some maintenance.
I’ve written before about my travails with Linux, but I’m happy to report that things have improved dramatically — at least within the niche market of Linux flavors suitable for netbooks. In particular, I’m impressed with Leeenux, which so far has performed flawlessly on my 900A. Installing the Ubuntu version of Opera directly from the web was a snap, and because Leeenux (v4.01) has Flash bundled, I was able to avoid the painful tweaking that was necessary in the past to get Flash video working properly in Opera. Everything just worked. And you know what? That’s the way computers are supposed to work.
Abiword has supplanted OpenOffice as the word processor of choice. I’ve never used Abiword before, but it is noticeably faster than OpenOffice in opening the few test documents I tried. The other application that I use often is Remote Desktop Viewer (to maintain a headless media server) which did not come pre-installed, but the Ubuntu Software Center made it painless to add.
- Download the .iso file
- Format a 2GB thumb drive using FAT 16
- Use Unetbootin to transfer the image and make the thumb drive bootable
- Boot the drive by pressing escape at the Eee PC’s flash screen and selecting the USB device
- Login with username ‘eee’ and no password
- Complete installation and enjoy!
[This is Part III of a series on building your own HTPC]
I started out thinking this would be a Linux-based PC, but two things changed my mind. First, I’ve written before about my travails with Linux. I want to like Linux, I really do. But I can’t. Mabye I’m just not geeky enough, or maybe I’m just lazy, but configuring the guts of an operating system is not enjoyable, and I will avoid it every chance I get. If that means I buy Windows, so be it. Second, and more importantly, at the time of this writing streaming Netflix movies to a Linux box was still not an option — this was a deal-breaker.
So I began with an old OEM copy of Windows XP for this build. Let me say that you can get this build to work with XP SP2 (I know because I had it working, but then got lazy about my configuration management and wound up in tweak hell that I couldn’t seem to back out of), but you might be better off avoiding the hassles, and investing in an upgrade to Windows 7. This is the path I chose, and for the purposes of this guide, I am assuming the Windows 7 OS. But if you choose to go the XP route, I’ll just point out that SATA support is not native in XP. So you will need to obtain SATA drivers from the motherboard manufacturer, and create either an install floppy with these drivers, or a slipstreamed XP install disk with the drivers integrated. I won’t go into details here on how to do this, but I used a free tool called NLite, and it was relatively painless. It even allows you to remove all of the unnecessary Windows components, and I was able to get my install time down to about 18 minutes.
An important thing to keep in mind when installing Windows is that you will enjoy better performance by creating at least two partitions and putting Windows on one and storing your media on the other. I partitioned the 500GB drive into a 20GB C: drive and a 480GB D: drive. After your install, the first thing you should do is format the 480GB partition with a 64K block size (4K is the default). The larger block size lends itself to fewer and less frequent drive accesses, which will prevent jerky or choppy video when you play back recorded HD content, and drive fragmentation becomes less of a problem as well.
There are two main software components that you will be installing and configuring: Boxee and GBPVR. My goal was to integrate these two as much as possible since they are both free, relatively mature, products with more or less mutually exclusive, but highly complimentary, features. GB-PVR is, as the name would suggest, a Personal Video Recorder that uses the TV tuner card to record over-the-air television to the hard drive, and Boxee provides everything else from my list of requirements. These two packages were not designed to work together, but I’ve found that they can be made to play nice with each other, and perform satisfactorily — at least until something better comes along.
One caveat right up front: if you install Windows 7 and think you might want to play around with Windows Media Center, do that first. When you’re done playing with it, reinstall Windows and never run it again because when you run it you will be prompted to install all manner of helper apps that Media Center needs to function, and one or more of them prevent Boxee from working correctly. I learned this the hard way. Let me add that I like Media Center. I like it a lot. The user interface is the slickest and most sophisticated I’ve seen, configuration was painless, and it does everything! With one exception: the Internet TV module is severely limited and was enough to convince me that Boxee was a better choice. Although Boxee is still in beta testing, all you have to do is install it and play with it for a few minutes to see that it has far greater potential for future expansion.
[Continued in Part IV, The Install…]
Look, I’m a software guy, okay? I’ve been banging around on computers since my first TRS-80 that my dad bought in 1982. I’m a software engineer for the world’s largest aerospace company. And I’m here to tell you that as far as computer operating systems go, we as a civilization peaked with DOS. Microsoft Windows sucks. We all somehow intuitively know this, but we’ve been in denial for twenty years because until recently there just weren’t that many alternatives.
I have a little bit of experience with Unix/Linux. I had a Silicon Graphics workstation on my desk for a few years. I played around with an early version of Red Hat. I even downloaded the original Ubuntu and loaded it on an old Toshiba laptop just for kicks. My opinion back then was that a lot of progress had been made, but that we still weren’t there yet. The Windows-like GUIs were pretty good, but the application software support still wasn’t there.
So recently, after seeing the slick Xandros load on my Eee, I decided to give Linux another shot and tried to install the latest versions of both Ubuntu and Kubuntu on a home server that I’m setting up. You know what? Linux sucks too, albeit for different reasons.
It’s an extremely difficult operating system to configure right out of the box. There, I said it. We all know it’s true, but everybody seems to be in denial about this too. But the complexity of Linux is a well known punchline, as you can see here. That video is several years old, but nothing has really changed. Despite the open source community’s best efforts, Linux is still cumbersome, buggy, and frankly, not ready for primetime. Or at least not ready to expand their market much past the legions of nerds who have nothing better to do than “check your version dependencies.”
Now I know that many of the Linux faithful will attack me for saying this, so I’m going to offer this little challenge. Point me to a Linux distro that 1) installs from a single disc (either CD or DVD), 2) includes both VNC and Samba right out of the box, and 3) won’t take me to “sudo pico” hell trying to “config it” and I’ll take back everything I just said. Any takers?