Friday, 31 October 2014

Reviving the ookygoo

A long time ago, 2009 to be exact, I bought an EEE pc 701SD linux netbook to use as a travel computer - and because of its kiddified UI we nicknamed it the Ookygoo.

UI restrictions apart it was truly excellent machine, and I used it for both work and recreational travel till 2012, by which time Asus had more or less lost interest in the netbook concept and upgrades to the OS and the installed software more or less ceased, meaning that though the machine still worked, things like the web browser were old, insecure, versions and quite rightly a lot of sites told me to upgrade or bugger off.

So it ended up in a drawer. I bought another windows netbook for travel, and a cheap Chinese tablet and keyboard combo for note taking. Well, the windows netbook has all the Microsoft problems of being slow to boot and pummelled by the upgrade cycle, and the note taking tablet has proved to be a little more erratic than I hoped even though I used it successfully for project scrum notes and client engagement meetings for a whole project.

So I always resolved that before the Eee went to the recycler I’d put a decent operating system on it. So last night I did just that.

Choice of operating system was a little tricky - the Eee has only 512MB (that’s half a gig) RAM, a slow early generation atom cpu, and an 8GB SSD.

There’s problem with some of the early SSD’s whereby they are quite prone to ‘fading’ after a lot of repeated write and delete operations, which means that using them for something very churny like a swapfile can bring on this ‘fading’ effect quite quickly.

When the Eee first came out, a lot of people put together dedicated distros but these are all long gone or hopelessly out of date.

After some googling I settled on Crunchbang, a distro I’d used extensively on a Virtualbox VM. I chose it because it was debian based, and debian has good in built support for the Eee 701, and has a very low memory footprint, meaning that you are unlikely to start swapping just running the window manager - and as it was a 2009 model I suspected that the SSD was probably a bit more robust that the SSD in the original 2007 version.

However, to keep things lightweight I decided to go distinctly old school - nano as a text editor and alpine as a mail client. My reasoning was that as a note taker, and given that I write most notes in Markdown, nano would be just fine. Markdown is so simple that you could write it using vi, but these days I find vi a little too hard core for day to day work - can never remember the bloody buffer commands. With a local install of pandoc I could generate odt and pdf versions of documents if necessary, and that alpine was good enough to email documents to myself - reckoning that it reality most notes get cleaned up before being circulated or archived.

Using Dropbox is an option but that adds to the memory usage. Using just nano and pine the machine is probably going to hardly ever swap, and of course it’s distraction free, leaving you to concentrate on what’s being said.

Installation was straightforward - it basically just worked.

I downloaded the iso of 32 bit version for older machines, used dd to write it to a USB drive and booted the Eee from the USB to test if everything (including wireless) worked.

Then I restarted it and ran the installer - there’s a bug in the installer which means that all you get is a flickering line when you start it - it’s a known Debian bug and the fix is nicely documented on Crunchbang’s website . Installation took around 45 minutes plus another 45 or so to apply updates, install pine and so on.

I havn’t used it in anger yet, but the machine seems stable, so the next step would be to give it an outing, and see just how useful it is in practice …

Written with StackEdit.

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