Saturday, November 17, 2007

Review - ASUS EEE PC

If you keep up with the tech news websites then you will have probably heard about the EEE PC which was initially called the $199 laptop although rising prices for LCD screens has put paid to that dream it is now out and if you've read my earlier post about trying to buy one on Tottenham Court Road you will know that they are flying off the shelves by all account.
When you review something it is usually taken as a given that you know what it is.
In this case however the answer is not quite so cut and dried. It looks like a laptop, but it's much smaller than even a subnotebook. It almost fits into the category of Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) which is a type of device that Microsoft and Sony have been investing heavily in but a Sony UMPC runs Windows Vista and costs around £2,000 compared to the £170-£260 that a EEE PC will set you back. Perhaps then it's better thought of as a PDA. It boots into a simple tabbed menu system that allows you to select between web browsing, e-mails, etc, but under the hood it is a real Linux PC and it is quite capable of running XP should you choose to install it.

The fact that it doesn't fit into a niche held by any other device could be a real boon for ASUS. It's what Nintendo called blue water thinking when they came up with the Wii. You leave the sharks to fight in the bloody red water and sneak off to position your product where there aren't any competitors.
I guess I should start by explaining what you get for your money;
A 900Mhz Intel Celeron M processor with 512MB of RAM. 3xUSB, VGA Monitor out, LAN Port, Line In, Headphone Out, 7” LCD screen, full QWERTY keyboard. WiFi, Webcam, 4GB Flash Drive, SD Slot.
What you don't get is a hard drive. The operating system and your data are stored on the internal 4GB flash drive. This keeps the power and size down, but you arent going to be keeping your photo albums or Mp3 collection on here unless you invest in an SD card (it supports cards up to 32GB) or a usb hard drive.
The software is a customized version of Linux made by ASUS and Xandros, but don't let that scare you away. Asus have talked of the EEE PC being an appliance rather than a PC and as such it has been designed with a rather nifty user friendly tabbed interface.
At the top of the screen are a number of tabs labeled internet, work, learn, play, settings and favorites and clicking on these opens a menu with big chunky buttons for each of the functions in that tab.

In the internet tab you have a web browser (Firefox), instant messenger, e-mail, skype
The work tab has the Open office suite of Word, Excel and Power Point alikes (what I am currently writing this article on in fact) along with PDF reader and Mozilla Thunderbird the e-mail app from the Firefox people.
Learn has a few educational apps to help kids with maths and the like.
Play has games (including Linux favs Frozen Bubble and Penguin Racer) and photo, video and music managers.
Favorites and Setting are pretty self explanatory.

Build Quality and Construction
The EEE PC really reminds me of a bigger version of my old Psion 3 from the big oversized hinges with the removable battery slung between them to the style of the icons.
The whole thing has a nice robust feel about it and compares favorably with the frankly rather flimsy Toshiba Portege sub notebook I tried a while back.
The keyboard is very small but it has a positive feel and a decent layout.
The matt finish on the case doesn't pick up finger prints or scratches.
Its about the same size and weight as a large paperback book and though it isn't going to fit in the pocket of your jeans it will go in a large coat pocket or a handbag with ease.
One nice touch is the neoprene slip case that came as a pack in and protects from knocks and dust.

Performance
From switch on to up and running takes a lightning quick 15 seconds. For word processing and web browsing everything opens pretty quickly and there is no appreciable slow down when you are running a few apps at the same time.
Nothing I threw at it seemed to phase it at all and even the 3D penguin racer ran ok although the frame rare was nothing to write home about.

Screen and Graphics
The screen is a 7” back lit LCD with a slightly bizarre resolution of 800 x 480.
The screen is crisp and has a very good viewing angle and the colour representation is very good. There is however no getting away from the fact that the screen really could be rather bigger. The 7” screen leaves quite an expanse of unused space on the top surface and though this is used for a web cam and speakers I would gladly sacrifice them for a bigger screen. ASUS have stated the intent to produce one with a 10” screen and I expect they will be able to package this within the same form factor.
The picture from the built in VGA connector performed admirably and supports a variety of output resolutions though I have to date only tried it with my TV which only supports 1024x768.
One minor gripe is that there are no threads provided for the locking screws of the VGA connector this was only really a problem when I was using the EEE on my lap with the monitor output going to the telly. In a desktop situation with monitor mouse and keys I doubt it would be a problem.

Random Things I Love
There are keyboard function keys for switching back to the tabs and for opening the task manager.
The caps and num lock are shown on nifty little on screen buttons.
The touch pad has a scroll slider on the right hand side which allows you to scroll a web page or doc with a slide of your finger.
The fact that they have thought to put 2 USB ports on one side for keyboard and mouse and one on the other for a USB stick.
The chunky feeling of robustness that the unit has.
The very impresive battery life (ive done Birmingham and back on the train today and it's still on half power on the batteries.)
You can turn it into a full KDE Debian install with a couple of Bash commands.

Gripes
All in all I have been very impressed with the EEE PC in the short time that I have had it, but there are a couple of issues I will bring to the attention of the pedants.
Volume and WiFi are on soft keys which is a concession to space. The keyboard is in the main very well laid out if cramped due to its small size, but the location of the insert key just above the delete key is a total pain and you can easily put your self into the dreaded insert mode.
The machine can go into standby which takes only a couple of seconds, but lacks a hibernate mode, though when you consider that the machine has half a GB of RAM and only 4 GB of disk it is obvious why it doesn't.
The touch pad is small which makes it a bit jittery and a mouse is a must if you are doing a lot of pointer work. I am however an ardent supporter of what I like to call the pointer nipple (becaue I don't know what its propper name is) so you are unlikely to find me singing the praises of any touch pad.
Though it saves the details of your home network you have to explicitly tell it to connect when you boot it up.
Open Office is quite a slow loading app and it would be handy to have a simple text editor like gedit for when you just want to write some notes.
The PC has the all singing all dancing Konqueror file manager but doesn't use it by default.

Techy Stuff
The Linux environment is based on Debian distro with KDE and has all the tools and apps you would expect. The installer for the OS is stored on a hidden partition so you can reinstall if you break it (though I resent the additional disk space that this uses up)
On the more expensive models like the 701 the RAM is socketed and upgradeable however it is soldered in on the cheaper surf models. The guts are accessible though a flap on the bottom of the unit, but rather uncharitably there is a warranty voiding seal which you must break to open it. I am also lead to believe that there is a slot in which an additional 4GB flash card can be inserted to enhance the internal disk and the disk manager application backs this up by displaying a disk 2 not present message (I assume the 8GB model uses this extra slot as standard.)
The machine supports XP and ASUS provide a drivers disk and an app which makes a USB stick into a bootable Windows installer for the device. Pressure from MS has lead to the promise that they will release a version with Windows pre installed for an additional £40 some time next year, though I hope they don't use muscle to make this a replacement for the Linux version.
The machine its self is a pretty standard Intel system on a board set up with integrated graphics acceleration and the ubiquitous Realtek integrated sound also found on my desktop and work laptop PCs. As a result you should have no problem installing another flavor of Linux if you so desire with Xubuntu, Puppy or Damn Small all being good options.
You can also set it to boot up in a normal KDE environment by installing kicker and ksmserver from the command line and from then on you can switch between them freely.

Options
For those of you pondering if you should buy now or hold out you should keep in mind that there will shortly be a number of options added to the list including a 1GB RAM 8 GB disk version, There has been talk of a 2GB, 256MB version but I would steer clear of this as it also has a lower spec battery and the RAM is soldered rather than socketed and therefore non upgradeable.
In the future there is an suggestion from ASUS that they plan to produce versions with a 10”LCD , a 3G wireless data card and perhaps most interestingly upgrade the processor to an Intel Merom based unit which will reduce power consumption by a significant factor.
On a purely aesthetic front the box shows a variety of colours with the green one looking especially fetching..
There is also talk of a desktop model being made available at some point.

This is quite a specialized device and it certainly isn't for everyone although what I will say is that if you want a very portable cheap machine or something that just works out of the box then you really can't go wrong. I also think it could be an option for a very simple desktop machine if you coupled it with a screen and a keyboard and mouse.
While writing this review I have used the machine on the tube and on a London to Birmingham train and compared to the bulky slow booting laptops everyone else was using it has been a breath of fresh air and has had quite a few admiring glances.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have been looking around and i cannot seem to find anything about the battery life decay. You know, everything is fine and dandy when you expect a good 3 hours of battery life, but how is that going to last. 6 months? A year? In my experience every laptop I have ever bought more than 1 year and a half ago now doesn't last 5 minutes. Any idea?

Nick said...

Unfortunately I think it is one of those things that will only become clear with time. Manufacturers claims of the battery life after multiple charges are often woefully inaccurate iPods being a prime example.
The battery is very easy to remove and replace with its slung between the hinges design but rather annoyingly Asus have said they don't intend to sell after market replacement batteries.
Be aware if you buy the "Surf" variants they have a lower capacity battery.

leobh said...

Asus do in fact sell a number of accessories for the Eee PC, including batteries (at the bottom of that page).

Also check out these modding guides at jkkmobile.com