Big mods for the small Eee PC

It looks like a toy, but this Linux mini-notebook has inspired a growing community of hardware mod devotees.

During the 2007 holiday season, there was another small, white and cheap tech device that became a hard-to-find bestseller: the ultra-portable Eee PC notebook by ASUS. (It also comes in black and three other colors, but the white model appears to be the most popular.) Despite looking like a toy, the Eee PC is a fully capable computer primarily meant for wireless Internet use. It runs Linux and includes Firefox and OpenOffice.

The Eee PC has appealed to a large segment of mobile computerists due to its combination of size, features and affordability. The lowest price model retails for US$299. And, to those who are keen for disassembling gadgets, its potential for being easily hacked and modified has been the biggest selling point.

Soon after its release, an online scene quickly emerged around the Eee PC. The enthusiasm of this community is in large part centered on the hackability of the gadget. "It's huge. I have never seen anything as big," describes an individual who prefers to be referred to by the initials "JKK," and who has worked professionally in hardware design for mobile computing devices. He became renowned for developing a touch panel and an internal 3G mod for the Eee PC.

When someone in the community successfully creates a new mod, they share information and how-to's about their work with other Eee PC users. "I'd describe the present status of the scene as explosive," says John Addison, who has modded his Eee PC and is an active participant in the mod scene for the tiny notebook. "There is hardly a week that goes by without a great new mod, hack or idea."

On the forum, non-technical Eee fans mingle with extremely technically knowledgeable users like JKK. There are step-by-step written tutorials and videos showing amateurs how to add features, like more internal storage space or Bluetooth to their Eee PCs.

"The beauty of the Eee PC is that you don't need a technical background to enjoy it," says Anthony Lusby, creator of the site. "Ultimately, each mod breeds opportunity for further future mods down the road, along with creating a more solid community feel."

Typically, the first "mod" most Eee PC owners perform is changing out its operating system. The Eee PC OS is built upon the Xandros distribution, and features a very simplified interface. It was specially designed to be used by people who are totally unfamiliar with Linux and to maximize the system's limited capabilities. Although most in the Eee mod scene agree the included operating system is a good match for the intended audience of the Eee PC, they have figured out ways to install other Linux distros. (ASUS also provides Windows drivers for installing Windows XP on the device.)

"I think ASUS made a solid decision in using Linux," says Lusby. "That said, I think they could have done a better job in making it easier to install and properly use other various Linux distributions with the Eee PC without having to seek help, for instance, in finding out how to get the wireless card properly working."

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