A netbook for bicycle touring

My goal is to be able to charge the battery for my computer with my Shimano Dynamo hub via the e-werk from Busch & Müller. For that reason when searching for a computer to buy, I limited myself to netbooks that are able to charge on 12 volts. Of course other considerations when bicycle touring are size and weight. But 12 volt limitation automatically limits the choices to small, light netbooks that don’t use a lot of energy. The only choices I found actually were the Asus eee series. Perfect. I don’t like having too many choices.

I bought the Asus eee pc 900ha on ebay factory refurbished from a computer shop in Newark, California. US$180 included taxes and shipping. Did I also mention that these things aren’t too expensive? I paid less for the silly e-werk (€108), but not a lot less.

The netbook came shipped with Windows XP. Since I don’t want to pay for or pirate/steal software, I downloaded the Ubuntu 10.10 netbook remix. Using Universal-USB-Installer-1.8.3.4.exe on my old windows laptop, I made a bootable USB stick to install the OS. Even though the BIOS indicated that it ought to work, the netbook didn’t want to boot from the USB drive. Had I been able to do that I could have avoided booting into Windows at all. In the end though it probably makes sense to boot into Windows to look at the hard drives and get an idea of how to repartition the drives for Ubuntu. Plus since I couldn’t boot off the stick, I needed to install Plop Boot Manager.

Using Plop Boot Manager I booted from the USB stick.  Note that when using Plop to boot from the stick, data is written to the stick, and you won’t be able to boot off that stick again without recreating it.  I got burned with this because when I got to the drive partitioning part of the Ubuntu installation I wanted to boot back into Windows to make sure that I know which partitions were which.

There were four partitions: c:/ and d:/ on windows totaling about 134GB, the recovery partition with Windows XP, and a small leftover bit.  For Ubuntu I took the two big partitions and created three partitions:

  1. 8GB swap
  2. 8GB /
  3. the rest on /home

In retrospect I wonder if I shouldn’t have made / bigger.  I’ve already used half of it, but of course I have the OS, wordpress, shotwell, mysql.  What more am I going to need?  And I’m guess I’m not positive that all apps end up in /

By leaving the recovery partition untouched, I can always reinstall Windows exactly the way the machine was when it arrived at my house.

Ubuntu worked fine after the installation without futzing although I notice in this photo I should probably get a little penguin sticker to replace the Microsoft one:

DSCN2899 by bryandkeith on flickr

It came with OpenOffice, gnome desktop, Nautilus, shotwell, firefox, and certainly other things that I haven’t found yet.  The gnome desktop on the netbook remix is a bit different from the regular desktop or servers editions.  Two annoying things so far:

  1. I haven’t figured out how to make the launcher disappear.  It’s a column on the left side of the screen with large icons taking up valuable screen real estate.
  2. There’s no menu anywhere, e.g., system–>administration–>preferences or any normal way to get to all the applications and tools like I would with the desktop edition.  Not being able to find these tools in the way everyone else does is particularly annoying when finding answers on the internet.  The terminal works as expected so that’s something.

A somewhat amazing thing is that every single hardware bit seems to be working after the Ubuntu installation without having to futz with a single driver.  This includes the wireless internet access, the wired network access port, the built-in microphone, the microphone port, the camera, the headphone jack, the SD card reader, the 3 USB ports, and the VGA 15-pin serial monitor port or whatever it’s called.  Uh, yeah, I guess that’s all the ports.

And just a note on the battery:

I checked at BatteriesPlus, and they can order another battery for this computer for US$85. There’s nothing wrong with this battery, but I just checked the price as long as I was in the store. I am concerned that the unusual charging regime with the e-werk (start and stop trickle charge and not waiting for the battery to get too low before because of the limited times when charging is available) may wear out the battery more quickly than is normal.

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12 Responses to A netbook for bicycle touring

  1. stuart block says:

    hi there

    i hope your adventure is going well… I am also looking to buy a netbook and have the e-werk kit – have you found it easy to charge your laptop? thanks Stuart

    • Bryan Keith says:

      Stuart,

      I’m not sure that my dynamo hub can charge the netbook directly. I still don’t understand everything very well, but it seems that the Shimano dynamo hub that I have is limited to putting out 6 watts. This limitation may be set by the German gov’t., and since Germany is a large market for dynamo hubs (probably the largest market for Japanese-made dynamos outside of Japan), most of the hubs that we find here in the US (and presumably Europe) are limited to 6 watts. Maybe you can find something made in China or India capable of putting out more watts.

      Then you’ll need to worry about how much drag you’re willing to put on your bike. Touring you’re probably only putting out 100 watts on average throughout the day so even 10 watts is a significant hit.

      Then there’s the problem of these fancy lithium netbook and laptop batteries. It seems that the electronics in the netbook are such that unless you’re getting a minimum number of watts (or amps?) into the battery, the charger doesn’t even turn on. For my setup it seems that the minimum is lower than the hub will actually generate.

      And even if all those problems were overcome, my netbook gets 36 watts when it’s charged from a reliable electricity source. It seem to charge in 2-3 hours. At the 10 watts that you could potentially, reasonably pull from the hub, well, you can do the math — it would take a lot of cycling to fully charge the netbook battery.

      So what to do?

      Trickle charge an extra battery? Or even somehow trickle charge the netbook battery when it’s removed from the netbook? Solar panels? Big problems with all those options in my opinion. An ipad which charges via USB (2.5 watts) may be an expensive option. They seem to use very little energy.

      I’m leaning toward buying another battery for my netbook. They sell batteries for my netbook that have twice as many cells as the one that comes with the machine by default. Then I’ll try and charge that battery from whatever electricity is available. This is an obvious solution if you’re staying at hotels or even campgrounds a couple times a week. For mostly wild camping, well, we’ll see how it goes.

      I’m planning on using the e-werk to charge my cell phone and my ipod (my sister just bought me one these “ipod shuffle” things to take with me on the trip so another thing I’d like to figure out is how I can download podcasts and get them on to this tiny magic pink electronic thing). I also hope that the e-werk will be able to charge AAA batteries for my headlamp and AA batteries for my camera. I’ll report on this after some regular testing — which will start in July!

      Bryan

  2. piano says:

    I don’t know what happened to my message – one moment I was typing away, then next it appeared to have posted, incomplete, all on its own, and then a couple seconds later it’s disappeared altogether!

    If the partial message made it through to you for approval before being posted, well, I would just like to wish you happy travels and hope to learn how your netbook worked out with your e-werk charger. In case the message didn’t work, I am using a very similar setup to what you are using – Asus 10″ netbook, B&M e-werk, like you, but I am using a Schmidt dynohub rather than Shimano – I think they work much the same, though. I am going to have a read through your blog as your destinations look very interesting! My travels will be taking me from Djibouti, through Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and lastly Tanzania.

    Cheers

    • Bryan Keith says:

      Francis,

      I’m curious to hear how the e-werk works for you. Are you keeping a blog? For me it didn’t work. I finally gave up on it and am sending it back home with a friend when he leaves Turkey in a couple weeks. I’m hoping he’ll do further testing in Colorado. Maybe I’m doing something stupid, but I couldn’t even get a cell phone to charge.

      Sounds like some great travels. Hope you have lots of time for Ethiopia. The secondary roads are great for traveling but are in poor condition so the going is slow. I cycled there in 1998 and continued south to Kenya, Tanzania and beyond. Your route sounds interesting. Good luck.

  3. biopilz says:

    more power?
    got my energy-slave with me: two persons delivering 6 watts (even a bit more possible if you use the http://www.forumslader.de/Neue-weiterentwickelte-12V-Version-von-JensD.183.0.html along wth a 100-470yf capacitor in series that rises the output…)

    ok you need more devices: a charger for every bike plus at least one battery each…
    the one that charged longer already is the next to use…

  4. jb says:

    Hello,

    Do you (or any of the other comment posters) have a feedback on the setup E-werk + 12V battery notebook?

    I am planning to do the same and wonder “how many hours” of netbook usage you can get in a 6-hours cycling day and if it can make yourself truly independent from power plugs at hotels/campsites.

    From the E-Werk website, the output in V and A is customizable, so it seems “good”, but I fear some batteries might be too grumpy to charge under that kind of current.

    Thanks,

    jb

    • Bryan Keith says:

      jb,

      I don’t have any feedback. Hopefully you can get some useful information for someone else. I gave up on the e-werk. Never could get it to do much. A friend in Colorado has it now. Don’t know if he’s messing around with it or not. I count on shops and houses and hotels and such for power. Biggest problem for me is the telephone because I had to buy another one in Turkey (stupid Turkish telecomm laws), and the battery is awful.

      • jb says:

        Thanks.
        I ordered the e-werk and will test it next month.

        • JB says:

          Hi,

          Just to post an update. I tried the e-werk for a month of touring in July. It’s a nice tool, worked easily and just as expected. One could probably make a home made version to avoid the the 100 EUR though.

          About the netbook charging, I quit before trying. Netbooks that can charge under 12 V are way below the requirements for Lightroom usage, so I have to go for a 19V one. I’ve seen battery packs of 8000/10000 mAh that have a 19V output, might try that instead, or reserve netbook usage for electricity-abundant places and smartphone for self-powered places.

          jb

  5. biopilz says:

    more chunks here:
    * http://www.amazon.de/AKKULADEGER%C3%84Texternes-LADEGER%C3%84T-LADESTATION-EEE-PC-NETBOOK/dp/B0025LJNJ6/ a charger for the eeepc 900 -not 900a- but that should be possible the 900 got 9 pins the 900a only 7 pins… from the scrape i dumpsterdived enough old laptop-batteries 18650 with a suitable socket (-what i need is the knowledge about the circuiting of the 900a, the 900 is clear…) now first plugging suitable contacts in all the 900a batterie sockets molding some epoxy around that results in a plug after hardening and then doing some soldering with to connect our new 900a plug to the dumpsterdived 900 socket and then plug the 900a to the charger
    disadvantage of the charger: it drains 1.3a – the hub deliver about .3 – .5a only, so even with a buffer-battery (i used 3 dumpsterdived portable (about 900mah each) prismatic li-ion-cells in series) it starts and stops charging periodicly -what is ungood-
    the goal is to modify /lower the charger current to about .3-.5a

    or

    use another charger -see:

    * http://forum.eeeuser.com/index.php?/topic/21281-running-eee-w-a-power-supply-connected-to-the-battery-terminals/page__st__40__p__751015#entry751015 often used for rc-model
    these got a 2S JST-XH Connector socket (3pins) -so you had to buy suitable plugs first (see at the bay and from china…) crack the 900/900a battery and solder those pins at the batteries (two in series: one at each end and one in middle-connection and fiddle these cables neatly outside and plug them to this “balancer” -as you may notice these deliver about 1a what is too high either so best we first had to modify/lower the current here too to about .3-.5a …

    which one is best is still to test…

    and here another chunk:
    * brunton solaris / sunlinq power flex / … / cigs-solar cells: i got two: http://www.amazon.de/ME%C2%B2-Solar-Foldable-650-Solarladeger%C3%A4t/dp/B002HMT9U6/ nominally 6.5watts but infact about 3watts only – i will check it-
    intend to decide whether 3 or 4 lipos (here 4000mah) as buffer is better as maximumpowerpoint
    anyway -suppose about 30wh/day are achievable in summer which is not too bad-
    as an addendum to the power you get by cycling…

  6. biopilz says:

    id like to add first:
    the mentioned “balancers” (…more here http://forum.eeeuser.com/index.php?/topic/21281-running-eee-w-a-power-supply-connected-to-the-battery-terminals/page__st__40__p__751015#entry751015 often used for rc-models…)

    got AND CHARGE a 2S JST-XH Connector socket (3pins) (-for 2-cell-li-ion)…

    AND a 3S JST-XH Connector socket (4pins) (-for 3-cell-li-ion), too!

    so everyone with a 2 or 3-cell-li-ion battery can use it!!

    suppose this fits for ALL devices, more than 3 cells in series i havent yet seen

    (for three cells you analogue had to buy suitable plugs (here those with 4 pins) first (see at the bay and from china…) crack the laptop/netbook/what-else… battery and solder those pins at the batteries (two in series: one at each end and one to BOTH middle-connectionS…)

  7. biopilz says:

    suppose
    > * brunton solaris / sunlinq power flex / … / cigs-solar cells… are infact:
    http://www.globalsolar.com/products/retail/sunlinq-3

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