In yesterday’s post, I gave readers the history of the OLPC & Asus EeePC products … including why I’m go eager to geek out over cheap notebook computers. Today I put them together for a proper comparison.
Before I get into the actual review, I do want to point out that I am not the only person who thinks my little Asus EeePC is cool. Even computer professionals stop me in the hallway or at lunch to ask about the tiny laptop I’m always using in meetings. It’s a head turning computer. Heck, it might be the kind of conversation starter that gets the single geek noticed in a coffee shop or in the train … although I wouldn’t try it in a bar, since drunk people may spill cheap American beer on it.
Now for the comparison … this is not a super technical review (save those for serious nerd websites), but I compared the following aspects of the OLPC & EeePC:
- Pre-installed OS
- Boot Time
Both computers fall into a class of computer normally referred to as “sub-notebook” or “ultra mobile PC” … although both of those imply a higher price, usually sold to business people as a classy way to stay in touch when living the jet-set lifestyle. The price range of these computers ($200-400 depending on model) fits better with the folks who fly cheap Priceline fares that wouldn’t even cover the cost of William Shatner’s monthly hair system maintenance fees.
Both computers have small power adapters compared to a normal notebook computer. They’re physically the same size and have similar output power. The OLPC is more forgiving on input voltage, designed to be recharged by everything from solar panels to windmills. The EeePC is designed for markets where electrical outlets are standard equipment, and I don’t think Asus keeps a windmill in their test lab … but it’s still less power than your Dell Inspiron needs.
The keyboards are both the same relative size, but the rest of my keyboard comments fall under the next section …
The first usability point comes when you turn the system on: it’s quiet. Seriously, without the status lights you have no idea the damn things are powered on. Solid state storage (“flash”) means the only moving parts are cooling fans … and only the EeePC appears to have a cooling fan. The 433MHz AMD Geode CPU powering the OLPC is designed to run using “passive cooling only” (i.e. no fan) and that’s a good choice for a laptop that might get dunked in an African mud puddle.
The screens are similar sizes, but the EeePC wins in display brightness. I found the EeePC screen to be easily readable with the brightness turned down to the 30-40% level (adjusted using hotkeys like most notebooks). The EeePC also has a standard VGA port, which is a feature in a world that is covered in monitors and LCD projectors.
I have some problems with the EeePC keyboard, such as an unresponsive spacebar, but it much more usable than the OLPC’s sealed keyboard. The OLPC keyboard will survive contact with the elements, but it feels like tying in Jello (given the green color, I suspect it’s lime Jello).
Power management works well on both platforms. According to the specs, the OLPC wins on total battery life (5 hour runtime versus 4 hours on the EeePC). The slower CPU on the OLPC helps, but this also means you’ll spend more time waiting on things to happen. I didn’t extensively test the suspend feature on the OLPC, but I have left the EeePC in suspend overnight and had it resume without error.
Both laptops have great networking capabilities. The EeePC has a standard network jack for cabled connections and 802.11b/g wireless. The OLPC doesn’t have an option for connecting a network cable, but that’s not a problem for 3rd world countries with no cable infrastructure. The wireless networking works great, including a slick interface for finding hotspots, and there is a system for “mesh networking” (peer-to-peer networking over a wide area, great for meeting new people).
This is where things get a little weird …
Neither computer comes with Microsoft Windows pre-installed. This isn’t a problem in my mind, but might be a problem for your average PC user. Both the OLPC and EeePC use variations of Linux, with tweaks to the user interface.
Asus uses a variation of Debian called Xandros, with a IceWM theme that presents a “Fisher Price My First Computer” interface. It looks a bit childish at first, but works great on a small screen and can be navigated with just the keyboard. Linux users can easily open a terminal, install a “full desktop” package for switching to a traditional desktop interface and start adding programs from Debian repositories using apt-get. The default file system is unionfs, a weird concept that makes recovery easy at the expense of storage space (translation: some files that get “deleted” aren’t really “deleted”). The system comes with usual pre-installed applications: Firefox web browser, IM client, OpenOffice.org office suite … completely usable out of the box.
The OLPC comes with its own suite of applications on a Linux OS, but with a different approach to the user interface. Remember this system is targeted for a completely different audience, and the OS is designed for that audience. Even the filesystem doesn’t work like any Windows or Linux system you’ve run into before. It would be hard to describe here, so the OLPC’s extensive wiki is a good place to go if you want to learn more.
One thing I have always loved about the “IBM PC compatible” marketplace is the flexibility … expansion slots, lots of operating system options, interchangeable parts. A lot of that flexibility is thanks to a mysterious little bit of software known as the “Basic Input/Output System” (BIOS). BIOS abstracts the differences in hardware and operating system, making it easier to add hardware or change the OS. The design seems dated compared to a lot of today’s software, but it can be thanked for improving the adoption rate of Linux across the PC market.
The OLPC doesn’t use a PC-style BIOS, so switching operating systems is a lot harder (more on this later). The Asus EeePC uses a standard PC BIOS, so deciding to move from the pre-installed Xandros to Ubuntu, gOS, Microsoft Windows or one of many EeePC specific Linux variations. Booting from USB is well supported, so switching OS is as easy as booting from a USB key or the SDHC slot. The OLPC can boot from external storage, assuming the OS supports OpenFirmware … which isn’t as well known in the consumer market.
Yes, I am biased towards BIOS … I work at the company that supplies BIOS to Asus. But twelve years in the industry did teach me why our particular software product is important.
Don’t get me wrong, the OLPC is a great machine in the specific market it’s designed for. It’s what we refer to as an embedded system, a computer designed for a specialized market. The term “embedded system” is a catch-all that covers industrial computing, weird handheld medical devices, game consoles, rugged data acquisition terminals and most everything run by a computer that doesn’t act like the computer you use to surf for porn or play World of Warcraft. An embedded system might have some of the same parts your laptop computer uses, just not put together in a way that’s as easy for you to reconfigure.
In my experience, the OLPC is a perfect example of an embedded system. It’s good at its core job, but trades that for the flexibility people have come to expect from their personal computers.
To compare boot time, I took a short video of the two computers side-by-side. I even give the OLPC a bit of a head start …
Even with the help of Rachel’s cat Honey, the OLPC takes a long time to boot … a really long time … so long I thought the computer might have locked up. The OLPC Wiki claims using OpenFirmware gave them some speed advantages, but the traditional BIOS on the EeePC starts the system quickly and resumes from suspend in a short amount of time. I think the real motivation was to use an open source firmware solution on the OLPC, but the lack of market support for OpenFirmware limits the operating system that can run on the computer.
In the style of the OLPC, the boot screen is very minimal. This means not a lot happens in the time the user waits for the OS interface to appear. This can be mistaken for a frozen or dead computer, which isn’t what you want when “technical support” involves walking to another village.
In general …
- Asus EeePC – a very flexible and affordable sub-notebook solution.
- The Linux OS included on the system works well, making it possible to use the computer right out of the box. Debian-based Linux means it’s easy to upgrade and add applications (assuming you have enough space on the disk)
- The battery life is good and power management (suspend/resume) works well.
- The hardware is speedy enough to run Windows XP if the Linux pengiun ain’t your thing.
- SDHC slot and USB ports make it easy to add storage and operate with common peripherals
- More portable than the OLPC, but not as tough. But it can fit in your pants
- Asus recovery DVD makes it easy to reload the system (if you have a USB DVD drive to boot from)
- OLPC – the OLPC isn’t as good of a general-purpose computer as the Asus EeePC. It’s built for a specific application, and it seems to handle that application well.
- More rugged than the EeePC, designed to work in pretty hostile environments.
- Tuning it specifically for a low-cost 3rd world computing solution means it doesn’t work as well for folks who want a general purpose computer.
- Processor power is weak compared to the EeePC.
- Wireless reception is excellent. Mesh networking features are great, but I’m not sure how well they scale due to the load they can put on the CPU.
- Unique OS interface is good for uneducated computer users but might frustrate experienced computer folk.
- Less disk/flash space than the EeePC, but SD & USB slots allow additional storage (and USB keyboards, if you can’t type in the Jello)
- Heavier and larger than the EeePC, but also doesn’t need a carrying case due to rugged design and integrated handle
- Still a great way to expose the emerging world to computers, since they can’t possibly play World of Warcraft on it and might end up using the damn things for something productive