Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Debian on Asus EeePC 701 with Huawei USB modem from SFR or Vodafone

A few month ago, I bought a neat bundle from SFR, a french mobile operator, containing Asus EeePC 701 and a subscription to Internet through 2G/3G/3G+. The connection is achieved thanks to an "E220 HSDPA Modem" USB key from Huawei Technologies. All this stuff has been working very well out of the box with the pre-installed Xandros-based distribution (based on Debian).

All I wanted from this netbook was to be able to surf the web and open terminals without wasting time administer the beast. And well, standard EeePC distribution achieves this very well, and use OpenOffice as a bonus. Of course, I was lacking some stuff like gcc, mplayer, screen... That's why I harvested a few unofficial package repositories to cram my sources.list(5). There was obviously some conflicts between the repositories, but I really didn't care (although usually I'm very keen to make my package manager happy): I had a handful of configuration files backup'd on a USB key and in case of unrecoverable failure within the package system, I just had to restore the original state by pressing F9 at startup (EeePC is shipped with a cunning disk setup: two partitions, the first one containing the original system and the second empty one being mounted on top of the former using unionfs, so restoring the system basically means blanking the second partition).

But as time went on, one thing was more and more upsetting me: no package updates from Asus. As you may already know, this EeePC is also shipped out-of-the-box with remote root exploit (through Samba)... This was very annoying for me because I sometimes connect to other boxes using SSH, so one could hack my EeePC to steal my passwords or perform even more subtle things. So I turned off everything I could because the kernel provided by Xandros doesn't contain IPTables. But honestly, I was still worry about security.

I finally decided to spare some time to install an other, more up to date, distribution when I noticed that I couldn't use Firefox 3 because most of the required libraries were not available. A friend of mine had tried Ubuntu EEE or EEE Ubuntu, whatever. At first, I thought it was a good choice because it could fit both the low administration and up-to-date-ness requirements. But he quickly told me that Ubuntu was far more too memory hungry. Moreover, I don't like these kind of bloated distributions; they somewhat remind me Windows where everything is done behind the scene without giving me any choice unless I really dig deep to understand how things work together. So I forgot Ubuntu and kept on with Xandros

Then I read that Asus was working with Debian in order to maybe replace Xandros on EeePC some day. This caught all my attention as this implied that Debian EeePC support should be very good. What finally decided me to give Debian Eee a shot, despite my disappointing experience with Debian on my girlfriend's laptop last year, was this post from the Debian Eee PC Team, which looked quite encouraging. Additionally, Debian is one of the cleanest distribution; or rather I should say this is one of the less messy ;-) (hey, it's Linux!).

I fetched the Debian Eee's WPA Installer and spread it on a USB key. I could install Debian flawlessly through my WPA/TKIP router. I went for a 256 MB swap partition and all the remaining space as one big partition, and asked for a desktop installation, hoping to find again the regretted Xandros' usability.

And I am very happy. Given this is based on Debian testing, all packages are fairly up to date: Firefox 3 is here! This is a great improvement because it can achieve true full screen like Opera; it's damn important because EeePC 701's screen is really small for web surfing. All devices seems to be supported, although I haven't tested all of them; some shortcut keys are working (contrast keys for example), but volume keys don't. But honestly it's not a big deal compared to what I won and hopefully it will be resolved soon.

The "hardest" task was to make the Huawey modem USB key work. The current kernel (2.6.25...something) is supposed to support it, but anyway you have to somehow manage to enter the PIN code because there is a SIM card in it. Fortunately, the Vodafone Mobile Connect Card driver for Linux (wow, what a name!) handle it perfectly: just beware to download the i386 installer, which is not available as a package at time of writing. You just have run it and tell that your user must belong to the "vmc" group. Then don't forget to logout so as to be in the "vmc" group effectively and run the "vodaphone-mobile-connect-card-driver-for-linux" (I'm not kidding). Edit the profile, and change username, password and APN host to "slsfr" and the DNS servers to "" and "" as noted in this french forum post. And voila! You can connect to Internet over 3G+ and even read the SMS and directory stored on the SIM card!

Ok, it's not a package and it spreads some files but... it works! And if you ever want to remove it, you could still follow the installation script to know what as been copied (/etc/udev/rules/ and /usr/bin mainly if I recall correctly). The graphical interface is heavy and I would have preferred a neat command-line tool, but I won't complain more. In open-source, if you want it, just code it! :-)

In summary, if you're fed up with your Xandros, go for Debian/Eee! (It's hard to say when you are a BSD guy ;p.)