There's plenty of blank space (only partly filled by a pair of speakers) surrounding the notebook's 7-inch display, so don't be surprised if you see a larger-screened Eee sometime in 2008. But early adopters won't be punished unduly -- the screen is crisp and colorful, bright even when you dial the backlight down to 75 percent or so.
We might sing a different tune after a seven- or eight-hour stint, but working for two or three hours with the 4G was never a strain even to our middle-aged, bifocal'd eyes. One complaint, however, is that we did more horizontal scrolling than we're used to: More and more Web pages nowadays, designed for XGA or higher resolution, are too big for the Asus' 800 by 480-pixel panel.
Adjusting text size with the browser's Ctrl-Plus and -Minus keystrokes helps, but can't eliminate occasional frustration when a site's frames overlap instead of appearing side by side -- or, using the abovementioned Xandros desktop mode, when part of a KDE dialog box is out of bounds. We wound up blindly pressing the Enter key hoping it'd be the same as clicking an unseen OK button.
Asus estimates the Eee's battery life at about three and a half hours. We never managed that, but averaged around 3 hours and 10 minutes mostly working in OpenOffice.org with WiFi switched off. A more strenuous session with frequent disk access and wireless use came to 2 hours and 45 minutes. Suspend or sleep mode drains the battery almost as quickly as regular use, but as mentioned, the 4G boots quickly enough that you won't mind turning it fully off and on.
The taskbar battery gauge is not much help; instead of estimating time left, it counts down from 100 percent to 90, 80, and so on until a pop-up message shrieks that "the system will shut down in THREE minutes if it is not plugged in." (Live dangerously; it's four or five.)
That's disappointing, but bearable when judging a bigger battery against the system's near-ideal size and weight. There's a minor annoyance when the Asus is working hard, however: The case gets warm (though not as painfully hot as we've read in one review -- Ed.) and a cooling fan makes a faint mosquito whine. If you lift the system's left-side vent to your ear, you can hear the fan and feel a warm breeze.
The 4G Surf ($350) resembles our 4GB flash/512MB memory model but drops the webcam and comes with a smaller battery. The 2G Surf cuts further, with only a 2GB solid-state drive and 256MB of RAM for $300. A flagship Eee 8G with an 8GB drive, 1GB of system memory, and the webcam and larger battery will cost $500. It's not yet clear which configuration will be offered with Windows.
The Eee is inevitably getting compared to the XO notebook created for schoolkids in developing countries by the One Laptop Per Child campaign. Both are ultralight laptops with a beginner-friendly software shell over Linux, and component cost increases have pushed both to double their initially announced prices. (Asus and Intel touted a $199 Eee at Computex in June, while OLPC and MIT Media Lab exec Nicholas Negroponte made the XO famous as "the $100 laptop.")
Realistically, the Eee doesn't compete with the educational software and outdoor-rugged design of the XO. Nor, of course, is it a high-speed, high-definition, game-busting desktop replacement. It's a mainstream, everyday-tasks laptop that happens to be incredibly compact yet remarkably usable, with a combination of hardware, software, and value that hits a sweet spot the industry hadn't noticed.
This article was first published on Hardware Central.