Operating system madness
The Eee PC 1201T's hardware may not be particularly remarkable, but we can't say as much about its lack of a full bundled operating system. When first booting up, the 1201T greets users with ExpressGate, an "instant-on" OS we've already seen in other Asus products. Meant to boot quickly and provide quick access to basic PC functionality, ExpressGate is hardly a replacement for Windows or a full Linux distribution. However, it does let you connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi, browse the web, manage photos, use Skype, and chat on other instant-messaging networks. Asus even includes a shortcut with links to casual web-based games.
ExpressGate is capable of downloading files to a USB drive, so in theory, you could use it to grab a Linux ISO disc image off the web. Except as far as we can tell, there's no software included to make that image bootable. Also, unlike some ExpressGate implementations we've seen on Asus motherboards, this version actually resides on the 1201T's hard drive, so installing a real OS will wipe it. The only way to get the software back is, believe it or not, to install Windows and run the .exe ExpressGate installer available from Asus' website.
ExpressGate or not, you'll want to install a real OS on the Eee PC 1201T. Two obvious choices present themselves here: Linux, which is free, and Windows, which isn't. Depending on your ability to get cheap Windows licenses (student discounts can be especially juicy) or your willingness to break the law, Windows might be the most attractive option. For the rest of us, installing Linux removes the need to shell out $99.99 for a Windows 7 Home Premium OEM licensethe cheapest non-discounted edition available, as far as we can see.
The open-source community has fashioned dozens, perhaps hundreds of Linux distributions, but right now, none seem to be quite as popular as Ubuntu Linux. We downloaded the freshly released 10.04 version and took it for a spin on the 1201T. (Canonical does offer a special "Netbook Edition" of Ubuntu 10.04, but that variant is tweaked for low-resolution netbook displays. The 1201T's panel has the same 1366x768 resolution as many full-sized laptops, so the regular, grown-up version of Ubuntu seemed like a better fit.)
Normally, installing Linuxor any operating system, for that matterinvolves a CD or DVD. The Eee PC 1201T doesn't have an optical drive, so we instead reached for the closest USB thumb drive and loaded the Ubuntu 10.04 ISO onto it, thanks to Pendrivelinux.com's Universal USB Installer. Setting the system to boot from USB involved a little trip through the BIOS, but Ubuntu installed pretty much without a hitch, recognizing and supporting almost all of the 1201T's hardware with one unfortunate exception: the Realtek Wi-Fi controller.
Using the built-in drivers, Ubuntu would detect only a handful of networks and drop Wi-Fi connections within a few minutes. We hunted on the Asus website and the included DVD for some Linux Wi-Fi drivers, but Asus only offers Windows software. After much Googling, we finally came across a custom driver by developer Matt Price. Happily, installing it didn't involve any command-line hijinks. All we had to do was open up Ubuntu's Software Centre application, add Price's Launchpad repository in the options, and then head to the new section under "Get Software" to activate the driver from there. After a reboot, everything was working peachy, down to the laptop's sleep mode. Ubuntu also prompted us to install AMD's Linux Catalyst drivers, which gave us a Catalyst Control Center control panel with power-saving options just like in Windows.
Provided you don't need to do anything particularly elaborate (like set up new hardware or attempt to run Windows apps) Ubuntu 10.04 works surprisingly well. The Software Centre provides a uniquely straightforward way to add or remove software, and the bundled open-source applications should serve most users' needs. There's the Firefox browser, OpenOffice productivity suite, Empathy IM client, Totem video player, Rhythmbox music player (with access to the Ubuntu One music store), Pitivi video editor, F-Spot photo manager, and a few other miscellaneous utilities, like a BitTorrent client. Ubuntu even connects to Windows network shares out of the box, so working in a Windows environment shouldn't be too difficult.
Canonical has polished its user interface quite a bit for the Ubuntu 10.04 release, too, serving up a fairly tasteful default theme with subtle soft shadows and transparency effects. My only complaint is the location of the close, minimize, and maximize buttons: right above the "File" and "Edit" menus in the menu bar, leaving far too much room for accidental clicks. Canonical almost seems to be awkwardly aping Mac OS X. While Apple's OS does have window buttons on the left, it also locates the menu bar at the top of the screen, well out of harm's way.
Finally, there's Windows. Paradoxically, we had a harder time installing Windows 7 Home Premium onto the Eee PC 1201T than Ubuntu. Microsoft provides a special tool to copy the Windows installer on a bootable USB drive, but that tool requires a Windows 7 ISO (hopefully purchased from the Microsoft store online). We had an old-fashioned installation DVD, which required a different solution, as we found out on the Microsoft TechNet website. In a nutshell, you have to open a command prompt and use the diskpart utility to format and partition the USB drive in the correct manner. Then, just copy all the files from the Win7 installation disc to the USB drive, and you're set.
With Windows 7 installed, getting the 1201T to work as intended is actually much easier. Just copy the contents of the Asus software DVD, then run the installer and tell it to load up all the drivers and utilities. You'll get perks like multi-touch scrolling, function key shortcuts, and special battery profiles, none of which are available in Ubuntu.