Users' needs and vendors' hardware configurations are different enough so that you rarely hear someone try to pick a single "best" desktop or notebook PC. But the netbook category is so clearly defined -- with so many compact, convenient mini-laptops with cookie-cutter specifications -- that there's a battle for bragging rights constantly rocking the red-hot market segment.
The champ as of this writing? It's the system seen here, the $399 Eee PC 1000HE from netbook pioneer Asus. By the time you read this, or a week or two later, it might be something else ... in which case, all Asus would have to do is cut its price a tad, and the 1000HE could be the winner once again. It's that good.
The 12.1-inch Dell Inspiron Mini 12 and Samsung NC20 and new 11.6-inch Acer Aspire One beckon shoppers with larger screens, but the netbook sweet spot for now is a 10- or 10.1-inch display size. Indeed, Asus is so sweet on this spot that our first word of caution about the 10-inch model 1000HE is to make sure you're not getting one of its glut of near-twin netbooks -- the Eee 1000, 1000H, 1000HA, 1000HD, 1002H, or 1002HA -- by mistake. (Asus has just announced an eighth entry in this class which we'll get to in a moment.)
When we say cookie-cutter, the 10-inch, 1,024 by 600-pixel screen is just the start of the recipe: Add an Intel Atom processor and integrated-graphics chipset, 1GB of RAM, 160GB hard disk, WiFi, and Windows XP Home Edition, and you've got one very familiar netbook spec sheet. (Like all netbooks, the Eee has no onboard optical drive.) So what, if anything, differentiates the 1000HE from its closest competitors?
I Feel the Need, the Need for Infinitesimally More Speed
Well, the CPU isn't the usual Atom N270 running at 1.6GHz; it's an Atom N280 running at -- wait for it -- 1.66GHz, for a performance increase unnoticeable by humans but measurable in benchmark tests.
The Eee's PCMark05 CPU score tops that of the N270-powered HP Mini 2140 we tested in March by 1,518 to 1,293 (although its overall PCMark05 score trails, 1,539 to 1,493). Using the single-core Atom's Hyper-Threading Technology to simulate a dual-core environment, it rendered Cinebench R10's sample screen in 17 minutes and 6 seconds -- 38 seconds quicker than the 8.9-inch Aspire One we reviewed last August.
If the N280's extra 67MHz aren't enough to get your motor racing, an Asus feature dubbed Super Hybrid Engine (S.H.E.) adjusts processor performance based on application demand -- or a manual toggle to Super Performance mode, which overclocks the CPU by 5 percent for another imperceptible edge. Note that none of Asus' tweaking helps the performance handicap familiar from other Atom netbooks -- the antiquated Intel 945GSE chipset and GMA 950 integrated graphics adapter's inability to play any game more intense than Solitaire or Minesweeper.
For real-world launching and usage of the undemanding applications that netbooks specialize in -- browsers, Web apps, e-mail, word processing, music, YouTube -- you'll be perfectly content to let S.H.E. do its (her?) thing and leave the Eee in its Auto High Performance and Auto Power Saving modes when on AC and battery power, respectively. Indeed, battery life, not speed, is the 1000HE's main claim to fame.
Asus boasts that the system can last for 9.5 hours on battery power with screen brightness slashed and peripherals like the 1.3-megapixel webcam and WiFi radio switched off. More realistically, our MobileMark 2007 simulated work session stretched to seven hours, and we regularly managed six to six and a half hours of hands-on work, even with stunts such as plugging in our USB-powered DVD±RW drive to watch a 90-minute movie. The Eee has the best battery life of any netbook we've tested to date.
A Few Ounces Overweight?
The Asus achieves such longevity with a battery that fits flush with the case, without protruding or propping up the system as do numerous netbook power packs. At 3.2 pounds, the Eee is on the heavy side of the category, but still handily portable, measuring 7.5 by 10.5 by 1.5 inches with a handsome barrel-hinge design and glossy blue lid and palm rest.
Two USB 2.0 ports, an MMC/SD memory-card slot, and a VGA port are on the system's right side, with a third USB port joining Ethernet, microphone, and headphone jacks on the left. The screen is sharp and colorful, usable with the backlight brightness turned one-fifth or even two-fifths of the way down instead of only at its top one or two brightness settings.
The chiclet-design keyboard -- built with minute spaces between the keys instead of an edge-to-edge array -- is what's known in netbookland as a 92-percenter, with the span from A through apostrophe taking 7.5 inches compared to the 8.0 of a desktop keyboard. It has a first-rate typing feel, with Ctrl and Delete keys in their proper place in the bottom left and top right corners, respectively, though Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn are the familiar Fn-key combo with the cursor arrows instead of dedicated keys.
There's a good-sized touchpad below the spacebar, with mouse buttons suitably placed below instead of awkwardly on either side as with some netbooks. It took us a day to get used to the touchpad's feel for ordinary tapping and dragging, but no time at all to get addicted to its handy gesture of swiping with two fingers to scroll in addition to swiping with one finger to move the cursor. Pinching and spreading your finger and thumb also serve to zoom in and out of applications.
Asus' software bundle is skimpy, lacking even a trial version of antivirus and firewall protection and oddly bundling Sun's StarOffice, an older, less capable version of the free Microsoft Office-compatible suite better known as OpenOffice.org, along with WinDVD and Skype. Ten gigabytes of online "Eee Storage" are free for 18 months (24 if you register with Asus).
Competition, From Asus and Others
For now, as we said, the 1000HE's features add up to the nicest of the netbook lot. Indeed, we can come up with only a couple of complaints. One is that we like our netbooks under rather than over three pounds. Asus has acknowledged that by unveiling (though not yet shipping) a 10.1-inch model that packs the 3.2-pound 1000HE's specifications into a 2.4-pound, 1.0-inch-thin slimline dubbed the Eee PC 1008HA "Seashell."
If you can overlook the same tired Intel chipset, the 1008HA just might be the Apple MacBook Air of netbooks -- complete with a similarly unswappable lithium-polymer rather than removable lithium-ion battery, which Asus touts as lasting for six hours and which independent tests will presumably prove somewhat short of that. It certainly looks stylish in photos.
Our other minor gripe is the 1000HE's price -- list $399, with a street price running about $380. That's not the most costly in the netbook universe, especially considering that the Eee includes Bluetooth as well as WiFi wireless (and more robust 802.11b/g/n rather than mere 802.11b/g WiFi, too).
But with Acer positioning the 11.6-inch Aspire One at $380 and other rivals offering 10-inch models at $349, $329, or even $299, we wouldn't be surprised to see Asus trim the 1000HE's sticker in the near future. (The company says it'll sell the Seashell for $430.)
Such a cut could help the 1000HE stay where it at least arguably belongs: with its picture in the dictionary under "netbook." Except for the universal flaw of poor graphics performance, it's the state of the art.
Asus Eee PC 1000HE
On a 5-star scale:
Article courtesy of Hardware Central.