SubNotebook Gladiators (Part 2)

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:

  • Size
  • Usability
  • Pre-installed OS
  • Flexibility
  • Boot Time

Size:
Both computers are extremely portable. The EeePC wins on size and weight, but the OLPC’s comparative bulk is dedicated to a hardened case with an integrated handle.
olpc-vs-eeepc-002.jpg olpc-vs-eeepc-003.jpg

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 …

Usability:
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).

Pre-installed OS:
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.

olpc-vs-eeepc-004.jpg

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.

olpc-vs-eeepc-011.jpg

Flexibility:
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.

Boot Time:
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
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7 comments

  1. [...] comparison of the Asus EeePC & OLPC is up at siliconchef.com. GEEK FIGHT! These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover [...]

  2. Rachel says:

    The software version shipped with the Give 1 Get 1 laptops does not include suspend/resume. There is a new software version called Update.1 that is scheduled to be released in February that will include that, as well as many bug fixes and improved memory usage. Release Candidate 1 is available as build 690, which I’ll probably be trying out this weekend.

  3. Mark Gray says:

    The display on the OLPC is cool enough I think it deserves its own section. It can flip around so the notebook is closed with the screen and a few buttons on the outside. I think of that as e-book mode. In sunlight (where normal laptop screens are hard to read) it can change into a crisp black and white display that uses less power.
    I haven’t gotten to play with the built-in camera yet, but it does seem cool that some kids who haven’t used a phone will have video chat.
    The OLPC association is not focused on delivering consumer satisfaction to rich North Americans. It will be interesting to see how their spin-off company Pixel Qi does at continuing to create innovative, inexpensive, efficient tech and getting it included in a wider variety of machines. I can imagine an OLPC-like machine with a more comfortable keyboard being a great book reading, note taking, online chat machine. I am glad that the OLPC has gotten people and companies interested in the smaller/cheaper/tougher direction.

  4. siliconchef says:

    Mark: Yeah, I think OLPC has launched a lot of nifty product ideas. It’s definitely part of a change in the PC market.

  5. Pat Meyer says:

    Thanks to Rachel(my daughter) and Mark (my son in law) I was able to play with the OLPC for a week. I am a third grade teacher who has been a geek since Rachel was well very young. The OLPC is a perfect computer for those schools that don’t have the funds right here in the good old USA to teach computer skills to the students. The interfacing gives the students the opportunity to experience communicating in the cyber world while staying under the watchful eye of the teacher. During that week I used nothing but the OLPC for all of my computer needs. I attached an external keyboard (The lime jello tied my fingers in knots) and used most of the software. This will be a great addition to my classroom if and when it becomes available for purchase.
    The Eee has really gotten my attention, because I need a small laptop to bring back and forth from school. I love the macbook, but it is heavy and big. So to fix this confusing problem I have decided to get one of each and do my own comparison. The problem is I can’t get my hands on an OLPC. There are a few on e-bay, but they are going for insane prices. So my first purchase will be the Eee, (Sky Blue) which will arrive Tuesday. I got it for 275.00 on Amazon with free shipping. As was stated, at this time I am seeing that the OLPC is great, but as it stands now it was created for a specific audience. I am going to have a lot of fun comparing them both, and of course my students will do their own comparisons and reports.

  6. Rick says:

    I have an eee pc and now you make me want to get an OLPC. It is a shame they discontinued their buy one give one program.

    The screen is a little small, but XP has utils to fake (subpixel) into 800×600 and even 1024×768. It is very useful for games. I install all of my games on an 8GB flash drive. It is very slick.

    I love my little black galaxy and was super impressed when I saw the neoprene sleeve. I run xp home on it after I found out about nlite. It made my (licensed and real) copy of xp into a tiny little install. I think the disc image was only 280MB after I nlite’d it.

    I have a feeling the UMPC will hold up and be a collector’s item for years to come.

    Thanks for the great review.

  7. [...] I am so glad to be an EeePC user right now. This just makes the little libertarian in me scream with joy, since the free market has apparently done something that OLPC can’t … make Linux a good option for the average computer user. [...]

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