Mast Kalandar

bandar's colander of random jamun aur aam

Fri, 09 May 2008

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Comparison of the HCL MiLeap X with the eeePC


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I bought an HCL MiLeap X for Shruti (who is in the tenth standard) and the IMSc purchased an eeePC for "general use". Now that I have both machines in front of me, it seems like a good time to review them.

Similarities

Let's be clear that we are not comparing "jamun" to "aam" (or apples to oranges, if you prefer); these machines have quite a few similarities. Both are aimed at young students who are starting to use the computer for "real work" for the first time. Both the machines run GNU/Linux, and have similar dimensions and features --- even the prices are close. However, we are here to "raise the differences and not bury them"!

Physical appearance

The eeePC is marginally lighter and more compact. The MiLeap appears to be more rugged though I didn't dare drop either machine to check!

The eeePC has a rectangular touchpad which appears to have only one button but in fact this button has a left and right! The MiLeap has two regular buttons and a circular(!) touchpad.

The MiLeap is bulkier but has a nice handle to lift it by. The eeePC can be carried like a book and has a matt finish.

Both were proclaimed "cute" by Shruti and Sudeshna; I depend on their opinions in such matters!

Hardware features

The eeePC scores over the MiLeap X in terms of hardware features. The former has a web camera, a VGA out and one additional USB port. At the same time, the remaining features of both devices are likely to be adequate for most users --- 900 MHz low power processor, graphics adapter, wireless, ethernet, smart card reader. The eeePC has 4GB storage to the 2GB on the MiLeap, but the larger base software install on the eeePC means that the user has about the same amount of working area on both machines.

The extra hardware features on the eeePC do give value for the 10% extra that one pays for the eeePC; the latter costs Rs. 17K to the MiLeap's Rs. 15.5K.

Software

This is where the difference between the two is most striking. The MiLeap comes with a pre-installed "classmate" version of EduBuntu. The net result is that this looks and feels like a regular GNU/Linux system configured with software appropriate for educational use.

The eeePC on the other hand has a completely icon-driven interface where even getting a terminal is not easy (Ctrl+Alt+T). However, this is just the icing on top of a regular icewm cake. The applications that actually run are just the regular ones --- not customised to fit in with the point-and-click interface.

The eeePC terminal has really small fonts and is a regular xterm so that fonts are not as easy to fix as they are for the Gnome terminal used by EduBuntu on the MiLeap. Overall, EduBuntu applications which are based on Gnome are more consistent with the interface than the mix and match between KDE, Gnome and icewm that has been attempted by Xandros; the latter has a lot of promise but needs more work!

It was easier to install software on the MiLeap since the EduBuntu repository is significantly larger than Xandros' repository as used by eeePC. In particular, on the MiLeap we installed nethack-qt since that is Shruti's favourite game and openvpn which is needed for us to connect to IMSc from outside the LAN.

The installation of the MiLeap is that of Intel's ClassmatePC on which it is based. The entire installation is on a squashfs filesystem image. The base system is used via unionfs at run time on both machines. This makes for easy "reset to default".

Suspend-to-ram does not work on the MiLeap; it should be fixed by installing the Linux 2.6.25 kernel.

Philosophy

I have long believed that un-prejudiced minds (like children) will take more readily to GNU/Linux than the hordes of "experienced" (mostly adult) computer users who have well-formed opinions about "user-friendly" software and how particular applications should behave.

The "standard" GNU/Linux interface actually encourages exploration and the "tune-it", "tinker" and "fix-it" approach to learning about computing. It is not a sealed box with a "do-not-tamper" sticker. (This tinkering attitude is further enhanced by the approach taken by the designers of the Sugar interface for the XO Laptop.)

Since both the systems are based on GNU/Linux (and Debian derivatives no less!), I am nothing short of thrilled at how far things have come. However, will the interface of the eeePC actually encourage exploration? Perhaps the EduBuntu interface of the MiLeap will prove too daunting for a novice. (Shruti does not classify as one since she used GNU/Linux "forever".) Only time will tell ...

As Larry Wall has famously said: "There's more than one way to do it!" These devices certainly prove the truth of that assertion within the GNU/Linux world.

Devices like these could push GNU/Linux into mainstream usage much more effectively than the "battle for the desktop". Hence, it is perhaps not surprising the both MicroSoft and Apple are trying hard to get into the game. However, it is only GNU/Linux that can comfortably provide a plethora of applications in less than 2GB! Until small solid state disks become significantly cheaper, those guys will have to wait.


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