Excuse us for a sec, OK? We’ll start the review momentarily but just need to switch into our Professional PC Critic Veteran Reviewer Voice Omigod! That is like the cutest thing EVER lemme see lemme see! Oh I so have to get one of these RIGHT NOW only two pounds could you DIE? Four C’s you WISH, come on no way WAY, $400? Omigod I am like losing it right here. Hello? Paper bag? Breathe into?
Ahem. The Taiwanese tech heavyweight Asus, best known here for motherboards and other desktop components, has introduced a $400 laptop with most of the capability of a $2,000 Sony or Fujitsu subnotebook; the convenience and usability missing from members of Intel’s Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) club; and the goofiest name of the year.
The Eee PC — named for “easy to work, easy to learn, easy to play”; you may also enjoy the Asus motto “Rock Solid, Heart Touching” — is a two-pound traveling companion for anyone who’d like basic office productivity and WiFi Web and e-mail access in a system slightly bigger than a stack of three DVD cases (about 6.5 by 9 by 1.4 inches).
Does it really compare to a status-symbol slimline notebook? Feature for feature, of course not. Instead of an 11- or 12-inch LCD, the Asus has a bright but bitsy 7-inch display. If you want a CD or DVD drive, you’ll have to plug in an external USB model.
And instead of a roomy hard disk, it has no hard disk at all — the 4G is named for its 4GB solid-state (flash memory) drive, only 1.4GB of which is available after Asus installs the operating system and 40-odd applications. For extra storage, you must plug an MMC/SD card into a slot or a flash drive into a USB port.
But can your Vaio or XPS shrug off the bumps and jolts of travel with the no-moving-parts panache of a PC without a delicate hard drive? Can it boot from a cold start to be ready for work in 25 seconds? Or shut down in 10? Is its AC adapter a seven-ounce, palm-sized plug?
The reasons why the Eee is sensational are simple: Other notebooks as easy to carry cost a lot more than $400. And other notebooks that cost $400 weigh a lot more than two pounds.
Living Without Windows
Asus provides drivers for users who want to install Win XP and will offer a higher-priced Eee with Windows — surely not the hardware-hungry Vista, given the 4G’s humble Celeron processor and 512MB of RAM — next month. But many users will neither notice nor care that the Eee uses a customized version of Xandros Linux. Its friendly graphical interface is that good.
The OS appears as a series of tabs — Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings, and Favorites — offering large, one-click icons to launch programs such as the Mozilla Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail client; Skype for Internet voice calls; the Pidgin instant messenger; Adobe Reader 7.08 for viewing PDF files; a multimedia player; Xandros Anti-Virus; links to Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and AOL webmail; an e-book reader; and a handful of educational programs and games such as Solitaire, Sudoku, and the snappy Penguin Racer.
The Eee can play YouTube videos and MP3, WMA, WMV, WAV, and MPEG files out of the box. A photo manager and video manager help organize snapshots and home movies, while a music manager makes quick work of creating playlists. There’s a generic webcam above the screen for video phone calls.
Word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tasks are handled by the open-source OpenOffice.org 2.0 suite, which offers seamless compatibility with some 90 percent of Microsoft Office documents (the exceptions are files with ultra-complex formatting or macros or the non-backward-compatible Office 2007 format). There’s a link to Google Docs if you prefer productivity applications inside your browser.
Everything is simple enough for kids and newbies, with the command-line complexity of the operating system well hidden. By default, the 4G’s File Manager shows only My Documents and Trash, with subfolders in the former such as My Pictures, My Music, and My Office. (A “Show all file systems” option reveals the legion of folders that is Linux.)
Plug in a flash card or USB flash drive, and a dialog pops up asking whether you’d like to open it in File Manager, Music Manager, or Photo Manager. Plug in a USB printer, mouse, or keyboard, and it works fine, or at least the two or three of each that we tried did.
To be sure, what Asus calls Easy Mode has its shortcomings for power users. First-time-boot screens prompt you to enter a user name and password, avoiding the damage possible when a novice signs in as a root user or administrator, but functions such as Add/Remove Programs are sorely limited: The latter works only when online and offers only a scanty list of software updates from Asus’ servers (lacking, for instance, the considerably improved OpenOffice.org version 2.3).
Happily, fan sites such as EeeUser have already posted relatively simple instructionsfor switching between Easy Mode and Xandros’ normal, Windows-style KDE desktop, along with tips for using apt-get and Synaptic to add new software, installing Ubuntu Linux, and more.
Small But Not Too Small
The MMC/SD card slot is on the Eee’s right side, next to two USB 2.0 ports and a VGA port — connect an analog monitor, and you can see a presentation on either or both screens, with external resolution up to an impressive 1,600 by 1,200. A third USB port is on the left, as are microphone, headphone, and Ethernet jacks (and a dial-up modem port left empty in the 4G configuration).
It’s a snap to join a wireless network using the system’s Atheros 802.11b/g adapter, but two other wireless pathways are absent — it would be great if the Eee had Bluetooth, and even greater if it had 3G wireless broadband for surfing when there’s no hotspot in sight. Asus says it’ll address the issue with add-on cards, scheduled to ship along with accessories such as spare battery packs early next year.
The Eee’s Intel Celeron M 353 processor — a 900MHz single-core CPU with a 400MHz bus and 512K of Level 2 cache — was obviously chosen for its frugal 5-watt thermal design power instead of its screaming speed. But the solid-state disk helps the Asus feel peppy enough when loading and switching among programs; the bulky OpenOffice.org loads in 15 seconds. Nobody’s going to edit high-resolution video on the Eee, but everyday applications feel perfectly fine and responsive.
Also adequately responsive is the Asus’ keyboard. It’s small, but it’s bigger than it looks — the Q through T keys span 3.1 inches, closer than many subnotebooks and all UMPCs to the 3.5 inches of a desktop keyboard. We admit that it’s crowded around the edges; the Tab key is teeny weeny, and during our first few hours we found ourselves occasionally overshooting targets (hitting 4 instead of R, say) and consciously taking care to type more precisely than usual.
But the keyboard layout has no unpleasant surprises, and its typing feel is close to first-class — maybe the tiniest bit rattly but, like the rest of the Eee, firm and not flimsy. Within a day, we were percolating along at fairly close to our desktop speed.
We were less content with the Eee’s tiny touchpad, which sometimes balked at registering taps and double-taps; we got better results using the chrome bar below the touchpad, which works like a rocker switch for left and right mouse clicks. The pad’s right edge offers rapid but handy vertical scrolling.
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.
Most Wanted Gift: Wii or Eee?
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 Childcampaign. 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.