First review of the year goes to the Asus Eee PC and in true tradition we’re going to strip it down and assess every aspect of it in as critical manner as possible.
I’ll add, just in case anyone wonders, no I don’t get paid for this or receive freebies for any review I do although if any company wants to send me bits of kit to play with I’m more than happy but I am overly critical and if I think it’s rubbish I will say it.
I’ll also note that I don’t like what previously were considered to be sub-notebooks, ie very titchy laptops so I do have somewhat of a prejudice against these bits of kit primarily on the basis that manufacturers generally charge over the odds for lower specification machines simply because they’re small.
That said, and rather spoiling the overall outcome of this review, I like the Eee PC, I like a lot, almost enough to buy one which is rare for me as I’m one of the most stubborn consumers around.
This all started the other day. I’m not sure why I suddenly got interested because I was well aware of the Eee PC’s existence last year but it might have been something to do with looking up the prices of various bit of hardware for a mate on Maplins website and there staring at me on the home page was one of these little bits of kit for the princely sum of 260GBP. Wondering if I could find one cheaper I began a little look around and although expecting there would be some online dealer somewhere with the best price, I was quite amazed that the cheapest I came up with was for PC World for 220/200GBP.
With this in mind I wanted to know more than simply what a list of specifications and reviews could tell me so I decided to pop up to Wolverhampton to hunt one down. Sadly Maplins only sell them online but up at PC World they had one with the strange handwritten description of Asus Internet Tablet which both misrepresents the fact that it’s not a tablet, nor simply an internet access device such as the Nokia N800. It is, a full blown computer, just very small.
On to the important stuff now. What’s the specification of this little bit of kit?
Well, as far as processor’s go it’s not exactly going to get any prizes, comprising of a 900MHz Intel mobile Celeron processor. Again, I have come to loathe Celeron processors over the years and if presented with a normal laptop with a comparable processor I wouldn’t touch it but this isn’t a normal laptop and much in the way I accept my mobile phone can be a bit slow to do things with complicated software, I accept that there’s a trade-off between processing power and energy consumption in small battery powered devices that short of a revolution in battery technology isn’t going to change any time soon.
However, this isn’t an issue because the need for processing power is determinate upon what you actually do with the machine and what operating system you’re running on it. Presumably Windows Vista would cripple the Eee PC if you could get hold of a flash card large enough to actually install it on in the first place. It’s capable of running Windows XP but I’d hazard a guess it would run OK but a bit slow. There is of course no need because it comes pre-installed and pre-configured with a customized version of Xandros Linux. Yes, shock horror, it runs Linux, but there’s nothing to be afraid of, none of that scary typing stuff into a command line, there’s pretty little icons and everything that your average PC user should easily be able to work out.
It’s worth noting that the operating system as a user interface has obviously been thought about very seriously from an end user perspective. I use Linux, it’s no secret but you can find even in the most user friendly distributions that it still assumes a reasonable level of knowledge on behalf of the end user. In the case of this system it has been made as simple as possible and if I may I’ll give you an example. Once again inviting the wrath of the disciples of Steve Jobs, someone did describe me as a Mac hater today, I have no idea why. The iPhone. When I was having a play with it to do a review last year, next to me were a couple of teenagers. They’d picked up on all the media hype and what they wanted to try out was its internet capability. They however had a problem, they couldn’t find it on the iPhone. I did point them in the right direction but the reason was simple. Apple put their Safari browser on the iPhone. Great if you’re a current Mac user or reasonably tech savvy enough to know that Safari is a web browser but for someone who’s never used anything other than a Windows PC which pretty much makes up the bulk of all users Safari means nothing.
In contrast the Eee PC actually uses the Firefox browser. Is it called Firefox? No, it’s simply a picture of a globe with the description ‘Internet’ and if people can’t work that one out then they shouldn’t be let near a computer of any sort. The principle is clear though, as with it using the Pidgin instant messaging programme, it’s simple described as ‘messenger’ same with the applications, it doesn’t tell you it’s OpenOffice.org, simple word processor and spreadsheet. Put simply it’s a ‘does what it says on the tin’ device that anyone could learn to use in the space of five minutes and of any feature it has, that is probably it’s core strength.
That said and much as Xandros seems very nice, I’m sure I’d have a bash at sticking Xubuntu Linux on one if I got the chance, or possibly even DSL (Damn Small Linux).
Back to the specification then. 512Mb of DDR2 SDram memory which is nothing special but will happily run pretty much anything you are ever likely to do on such a machine. I have the same amount of memory in my desktop and it quite happily performs any task I ask of it and the only programmes you’re likely to need more memory for are top level graphical rendering and games which no one in their right mind would consider doing on such a device. Another nice touch, despite its size, the RAM chips are as good as box standard laptop RAM and so I’ve been told is quite easy to take the bottom off and replace the RAM with whatever size you fancy. I think it’s a single strip but that will allow up to 2Gb of RAM and who could possibly want more than that?
An Intel GMA 900 powers along the graphics which isn’t going to set the world on fire for rendering but as one of the pre-installed games if Tux Racer (3D penguin racing down a ski slope game) and given previous attempts at getting this game to work on my machine failed because of poor graphics hardware then it’s quite impressive.
On the actual display itself there is something baffling about the Eee PC and so far my first criticism. It comes with a 7″ screen that renders graphics at a resolution of 800 by 480 pixels yet a good inch and half down both sides of the screen are taken up by the speakers. If you’re dealing with such a small machine then you would arguably want to maximise screen size rather than leaving acres of space unused. That said, 800 pixels in width is perfect for rendering most (well built) websites but those extra two inches would have made a much better desktop environment for the end user.
Two varieties here although a third is on its way. There’s a 2Gb and a 4Gb with the 8Gb soon. Doesn’t sound a lot and it’s not really but we’re not talking about a home PC with hundreds or thousands of photos and music files, it’s a mobile device for general purpose web surfing, document creation and amendment and e-mailing/chatting. That said, the 2Gb version is probably too small as taking a look at the one in PC World it left 270Mb free space after the operating system and programmes. However, with memory card slots and available cards up to 8Gb (there might be some bigger ones but haven’t spotted them) there’s plenty of room for expansion so combined with the 4Gb model that gives a total capacity of 12Gb which to put into perspective. The last time I backed up all the home data it came to 12Gb in total. That’s all the photos, videos, letters and anything else you can think of and that’s in an uncompressed format and barring a handful of truly massive ‘avi’ files it would have been more like 3Gb so while it seems small compared to what we’re used to in normal hard drives, you’re unlikely to fill it anyway.
I should add, it’s one of those Solid State Drives as in no moving discs that can get damaged relatively easily in normal laptops. These drives aren’t big and are costly but will come down in price but allow for a much more robust machine and they are the future.
Well, there’s 3 USB sockets, an ethernet port and it’s got wifi (both b&g), 3.5mm headphone and microphone sockets so what more could you ask for? One gripe though. As far as I can see there’s no integrated microphone, that would have been handy.
Apparently it lasts for 3 hours according to the manufacturer. As with all mobile devices it will depend on what you’re doing with them but the reduced power needs of having a SSD hard drive helps, as does a memory light operating system.
Build quality is very good. Not quite up to Mac standard or as stylised as a Nintendo DS but still very good quality and feels like it could take a fair few knocks before things start going wrong. Not so sure about the ‘rocker’ mouse button. That was the only part that didn’t feel quite as good as the rest. On style it’s nothing special to look at. Comes in black or white, personally I like the white but each to their own.
So far and happy to be pointed in the direction of a cheaper outlet but 200GBP for the 2Gb version and 220GBP for the 4Gb version at PC World. For what you’re getting which is in effect a full blown PC with integrated wifi and anything you’re ever likely to need this is nothing. Someone’s bound to make the comparison sooner or later but it’s the VW Beetle of the mobile computing world, affordable mobile computing for the masses.
Two areas of key concern here. The keyboard and the touchpad. At first I thought the touchpad was a bit too lively but calming it down through the settings it was perfectly accurate and usable. One would think that such small keys would be impossible to use but they give good tactile feedback, are intuitively placed for anyone used to a standard keyboard and I found myself happily tapping away after a couple of minutes practice.
Monitor size could have been bigger. Integrated microphone seems obvious but not there. Mouse button rocker feels less rugged than the rest of the machine.
Simplicity and versatility. The OS is so easy to navigate and understand that a child could use it. It would arguably make a perfect first introductory PC to a child. Equally it’s a fully capable machine for business and professional use, home browsing on the sofa or in bed, would be great for the kids and educational purposes or for traveling when you don’t feel like carrying a full size laptop, weights 0.92kg by the way. I have a sneaky feeling that for all the hype and media attention devoted to other IT products out there that this little laptop with have a dramatic effect on the market akin to introduction of the first affordable Amstrad home computers back in the 1980’s.
Odds and sods:
Oh, it’s got a 1.3Megapixel integrated webcam, which is nice.