Forget, too, about deluxe supertanker laptops like the HP Pavilion HDX, which fetches $1,999. You can play Warcraft on this machine until your family members forget about you, but it doesn’t reflect the hottest growth area in portables.
No, to see where the portable computer industry is headed, take a look at the humble Asus Eee PC. This ultra-compact notebook – a featherweight two pounds – is the Elvis of personal computing. Since bursting on the U.S. market in November 2007 it has rocketed upward in popularity. Zoomed upward. Techies across the country are feeling heart palpitations as they dream of this dwarf-like unit.
Laptop magazine almost blew its dongle over the Asus, breathlessly proclaiming it, “Pound for pound, the best value-priced notebook on the planet.” (What, not the entire solar system?) CNET took a more tempered approach, yet still deemed it a “near perfect choice for a highly portable second or backup laptop.”
The Asustek company boldly projects it will ship a robust five million ulta-portable units by the end of 2008, earning it a healthy 10 percent of the global laptop market. That figure looks realistic: in its short time on the market, the Eee PC has moved 350,000 units – without a big bucks ad campaign. (Or a CEO in a cool black turtleneck.)
The Asus portable goes anywhere
I spoke with Debby Lee, an Asustek rep, and she clued me into a surprise the company had about the Eee PC: “Originally, it was targeted to housewives, kids, senior citizens – people who have very basic computing needs. But then, a lot of the more savvy computer users started picking it up.” Hence the sales trajectory.
All this enthusiasm raises the natural question: Why? Why is the tiny Asus – with its funky 7-inch screen and its downscale 800×480 resolution – prompting so many sweaty palms?
While there may be no fully rational explanation for something that’s close to a craze, these factors help the Asus Eee PC 4G:
Price: Yup, It’s Cheap
At $399 (or less, based on configuration), the Asus is almost an impulse purchase. Your big bucks can be spent on a serious desktop, crammed full of options, but a quick $400 can be burnt on this throw-it-in-your-backpack unit. In the same way that One Laptop Per Child hoped for a sub-$100 unit, the Asus offers an OLPG deal (One Laptop per Geek).
On the other hand, the ultra-cheap PC market is getting ever more crowded. The Asus isn’t alone. In the desktop sector (granted, a different sector than the Eee PC), the $200 PC is popping up all over. The Shuttle, the Mirus PC, the Everex gPC. Every month a new one debuts. These boxes (all Linux machines – it’s hard to get that cheap with a Windows license) are shockingly low-priced.
And even among laptops, you can find full-fledged unit in the Asus’s price range. TigerDirect regularly sells refurbished notebooks for $499. And Lenovo sells a hot 15-inch widescreen notebook for $581.
Cloudbook, another super cheap Linux portable, is expected to hit the glamorous shelves of Wal-Mart by the end of January. And reports say it will have a larger hard drive and a faster chip than the Eee PC.
Bottom line: Its low price helps the Asus, but it is not low price alone that is fueling this portable’s hit status.
At first glance you might think the Eee PC is a toy. (And perhaps that’s part of its appeal.) But its small plastic shell packs a respectable amount of function. Take a regular laptop and shrink it by about 30 percent and you get an Asus. Its specs:
• Processor: 900MHz Intel Mobile CPU (but the Eee’s BIOS allows it to only run at 600Mhz, so this processor is a tortoise).
• Memory: 512MB RAM. In other words, just enough.
• Hard Drive: 4GB solid state hard drive, but less than 1.5GB is actually available. (You can spend about $50 and put in a 4GB SD card to double the minimal storage space.) The cool thing about the solid state drive: it can withstand impacts and bumps better than a disc-based drive.
• Size: 8.8 x 6.5 x 0.9 inches. Small enough to fit in the most crowded backpack.
• Screen: 7 inches. Forget wide Web pages – you’ll be scrolling right and left. But great for email and basic surfing.
• Keyboard: Undersized, Chiclet-size keys. Kind of a pain to do a lot of typing.
• Connectivity: Standard Wi-fi connectivity. But – big news – future versions will be equipped with WiMax, which (if you can find a WiMax hotspot) has longer range than Wi-Fi.
The Asus comes pre-loaded with Linux, though you can run Windows XP if you want to install it yourself; Vista isn’t advisable due to the specs. (Asus’s Debby Lee tells me that a Windows pre-loaded version will be released, but she’s not sure when.) Also preloaded are a smorgasbord of Linux apps, including OpenOffice, Firefox, a media player and an IM client.
It has acceptable little speakers and – who says this box is bare bones? – a Webcam. Like the new MacBook Air, the Eee PC has no optical drive, so there’s no way to install software from a disc or burn a CD. On the plus side, it has three USB ports. The company says the battery runs over three hours, but early reports suggest it doesn’t jog quite that long.
Bottom line: Between the small keyboard and the merely adequate processor, this is no hotrod. Definitely not. Clearly, the technical specs aren’t what’s driving the Asus craze.
So Why Is the Eee PC So Popular?
Certainly the low price gives the Eee PC a springboard to cult status, but it’s the notebook’s canny “dual market” strategy that really gives it hit status.
In a brilliant strategic move, the Asus competes in two markets at once. It pulls buyers from both the laptop market, which is growing, and the ultra-mobile PC market, which is growing by leaps and bounds.
In the laptop market, the Eee PC’s cheap price is profoundly eye catching. In the ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) market, its larger screen is a major plus (many ultra-mobiles have tiny screens). The typical UMPC buyer wants to have their cake and eat it, too: they want a small unit, but they don’t really want to compromise on capability. The Asus is a great compromise.
Additionally, the Linux crowd hails this small unit. In fact, the Linux geeks are popping their Torvalds at this little box. The Linux revolution has arrived – finally. After years of waiting, a successful mass market Linux device (other than a PDA) is attracting mass buyers.
Plus – and this may be the biggest reason of all – the Eee PC simply has “buzz.” Despite what actual value it offers, the Asus has captured the imagination of techies across the universe. Its buzz factor is (kind of) like the iPhone’s. In reality, the iPhone is simply an overpriced cell phone – but people couldn’t wait to blow $600 on it. Look around the Internet and you’ll see a similar voodoo vibe about the Asus.
Unlike Apple, though, Asus will never have to fork over a rebate to customers who bought as soon as the doors opened, then suffered buyer’s remorse when the price inevitably fell. Instead, the Eee PC fans will keep scooping up these small units as fast as the company can make them. Until, of course, competitors flood the market, and a $75 unit finally hits the streets. That will be next year’s must-have ultra-portable.