Installing Ubuntu on an EeePC 900HA

Now that I've got a new toy of course I have to fiddle around with it a bit, and the best way is to see how various OSes run. On my list I have Ubuntu, Windows 7, and perhaps OSX. First up will be Ubuntu, because 1) it should be easy enough and 2) I can download the ISOs without chewing through my quota.

One of the fiddly things about OS installs on netbooks is of course that they don't have optical drives, so you can either buy one, or install from a USB drive. Most of the guides, for all 3 OSes, have a fairly fiddly method for creating a bootable USB drive that contains the installation media. The Ubuntu live CD comes with a utility to do this, but it requires booting from the live CD. Which, of course, requires either having an optical drive, or another PC with one.

However the Ubuntu help (of all places!) has a link to UNetbootin which makes the process a whole lot easier. It creates a bootable USB key from either a distro that you select, an ISO file you provide, or a custom set of install scripts. Best of all, it only adds files to your USB drive - it doesn't format or delete the contents.

The install process itself is failry simple - no different from any other Ubuntu install. Except that the driver for the wifi device is not included in the latest kernel and as a result you can't surf the net from the live CD. This is the first thing you'll want to fix after the install has completed. Again, the help is invaluable, although I did have some weird behaviour.

Initially I was able to get wifi working by following the 'modprobe ath5k' instructions, however after an apt-get upgrade (resulting in a new kernel) it no longer worked. Being a bit frustrated, I messed about, tried booting with the old kernel, reinstalled the backports package etc. Eventually I went back to the help to look at other options, and noticed the line about blacklisting ath_pci. Sure enough as soon as I did that wifi worked, and has been flawless ever since.

That help page also lists a whole lot of other things you might want to fix - like the Fn keys for controlling volume, wifi etc. The guides linked mostly deal with 8.04, and none mention the 900HA specifically. Most of the scripts involve installing a custom kernel, which seems a bit of overkill to me. Needless to say, for now I'm living without them, and other than being able to enable/disable wifi I haven't missed them.

Next on the list is configuring Compiz Fusion. As I mentioned when I first installed 8.10beta on the Inspiron 1525 you really need to install CCSM - the Compiz Config Settings Manager. CCSM was actually a bit fiddly to use on the 1024x600 screen - the window kept doing weird things. But with a little patience I ended up with a rather nice setup. By far my two favourite plugins are Scale and Expo, with Ring Switcher and Desktop Cube adding some nice prettiness. Reconfiguring all of the shortcut keys to use the 'super' (ie Windows) key makes things much easier. I have Super-Up arrow for Scale, Super-Down for Expo, and Super left/right to rotate the cube. Scale on a low-res monitor really is superb.

The next thing to get working was my Virgin Broadband 3G USB modem. There's plenty of guides around if you google, but most are pre-Intrepid. Luckily, the network manager in Intrepid is pretty slick, and picked up the modem as soon as it was plugged in, and even had some pre-canned settings for Virgin. It wasn't all smooth sailing though.

Firstly, the pre-canned APN was wrong - it needs to be VirginBroadband. Secondly, it failed to authenticate, which I correctly guessed was as a result of CHAP authentication being enabled. Unfortunately disabling the CHAP settings didn't stick. Ugh. Much googling later and I discovered that if you tick the 'connect automatically' option after you've un-ticked all of the CHAP options then the settings are saved correctly. You can then if you want, re-edit the config to disable automatic connection.

Although the process has in some ways been more fiddly than the 1525 install it has still gone relatively smoothly. The main thing to be careful of is that most of the information available for the eeepc and Ubuntu is centred around the 701 and pre-Intrepid versions, which often aren't relevant. Now that I'm set up the only big thing I'm missing is the ability to configure the touchpad. It works - but only in the default settings. That is, two-finger scroll, two-finger middle-click, three-finger right click. I don't use middle-click much so would prefer to re-map that gesture, but it's far from a deal breaker.

Compiz, particularly Scale, make working on the smaller screen much easier than under XP. I don't think I'll be booting back into Windows too often, until of course I start fiddling with Windows 7 :)

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