This past weekend a circular advertised a Vista-powered laptop equipped with a Celeron processor, 14.1-inch display, an 80GB hard drive, and a DVD drive for only $399. For the same price, the Asus Eee PC offers the same amount of RAM and Celeron processor but a smaller seven-inch display, a measly 4GB of storage space, and no DVD drive. And yet there's no way we would give up this two-pound wonder for a "regular" notebook.
The Eee PC may be designed to appeal to children and older customers, but it should also tempt anyone looking for a lightweight budget PC that weighs next to nothing and connects to the Internet easily. It's ten times simpler to use than any Windows machine, starts up twice as fast (no crapware!), and is only about a fifth of the cost of other systems in its weight class. It's a little rough around the edges, but the Eee PC is a remarkably versatile machine for the price. (For a look at the latest Eee PC model, see our review of the Eee PC 4G Surf).
The reason why the Eee PC should appeal to kids and grandparents alike is the streamlined, tab-based interface that offers only six easy-to-understand options: Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings, and Favorites. In some cases the Asus-designed menu (which runs on top of Linux) merely offers links to sites that Web-savvy users have already bookmarked, like Yahoo e-mail or Google Docs, but these choices are welcome for a target audience that may not be able to find these resources easily. We also appreciated the option of using these quick shortcuts, as opposed to opening the browser first. Users will love having a clutter-free desktop for day-to-day use and will likely find navigating the various options refreshingly simple compared with XP or Vista, as well as with Mac OS X.
Users who don't like the simplified Asus menu, can use this tip to switch to a regular KDE desktop, which looks just like Windows XP.
Small, But Not Too Small
We found the small seven-inch, 800 x 480-pixel display pretty easy on the eyes, especially when compared with Ultra-Mobile PCs like the OQO model 02 (5 inches) and FlipStart 1.0 (5.6 inches), but most users don't have that point of reference. A three-year-old accustomed to a 14-inch LCD didn't mind the screen while she was having fun with Mickey and friends on Playhousedisney.com. On the other hand, we don't see many people above the age of 50 using this device as their primary computer unless they hook it up to a bigger external LCD, which start at about $170.
Overall, the Eee PC's design is fairly solid and incredibly travel-friendly for the price. Our white model (black and other colors will come later) features an SD Card slot, two USB ports, and a VGA port on the right. An extra USB port, Ethernet and modem connections, and headphone and mic jacks line the left side. The keyboard is cramped but is just big enough to touch-type on; the biggest annoyance is the proximity of the Up arrow key and right Shift key; we accidentally moved up a line on several occasions while trying to capitalize a letter. And although we didn't mind the unified, slightly chintzy-feeling touchpad button that you can left- or right-click on, our kid tester found it confusing at first.
Chock-full of Useful Apps
So what can you do with this mini notebook? Practically anything you would do with a Windows-powered one. Teens and adults will likely spend the most time in the Internet area, where you can launch the Firefox browser, Wikipedia, Skype (for making cheap calls), and the instant messaging program (which includes clients for AOL, Google Talk, MSN, and Yahoo).
In fact, the Eee PC is the perfect device for households that fight over the primary PC (and its Internet connection). Why waste money on a two-trick pony like the ZipIt 2 Communicator (which offers only IMing and MP3 playback) when you can get a featherlight PC that does those things and surfs the whole Web, too? And that's not all the Eee PC can do. Under Learn, for example, you can launch word games like Hangman and math games like Tux of Math Command (starring the Linux penguin), which gives flash-card-style math questions the space-shooter treatment.
Under the Work menu you'll find quick links to OpenOffice.org 2.0's various Microsoft Office-compatible apps, including Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentations. These programs took more than ten seconds to load the first time but only eight seconds after that, and we had no problem composing a Word document on the Eee PC, saving our work to a memory key and then continuing to work on that file on a Windows laptop. Asus also includes a file-manager utility, a PDF reader, the Thunderbird e-mail client, and a Notes app.
No, the Eee PC doesn't do iTunes, but the preloaded Media Player and decent-sounding speakers get the job done. The device played MP3s and WMAs stored on a memory card while we surfed the Web, and the built-in mic performed admirably when making Skype calls. The Eee PC also did a nice job handling MPEG-4 videos captured by a 720p Sanyo Xacti camcorder and stored on an SD Card; the video looked surprisingly smooth on the seven-inch display. The Photo Manager took its sweet time loading large image files, however. Overall, the Media Player app looks positively crude compared to Windows Media Center and Apple's Front Row, so a makeover is certainly in order.
Good Performance and Peripheral Support
Getting online with the Eee PC 701 via Wi-Fi was pretty painless; once you set up a profile and enter the encryption key, the notebook will automatically connect to that network the next time you boot up. Although surfing wasn't quite as zippy as it is on our ThinkPad, it was still plenty fast. The device had no problems handling Web 2.0 sites powered by Ajax technology (like Netvibes) or Flash (YouTube). We encountered a screen-resolution issue with the new Yahoo Mail, but we still got it to work.
Overall performance was pretty snappy, even though this machine uses a Celeron processor. Most apps loaded quickly, and the 512MB of RAM is more than sufficient for an operating system with such little overhead. A mere 4GB of storage space tells you that the Eee PC isn't going to be your primary digital media vault out of the box, but you can easily augment that capacity with an external drive. Plus, that 4GB solid state drive can withstand being dropped by Junior.
Speaking of external devices, the Eee PC did an excellent job recognizing all sorts of peripherals, from a Kingston USB drive to a USB dongle for a Logitech wireless mouse. When we plugged in a Casio Exilim camera, the Eee PC asked us if we wanted to open the images in the File Manager or Photo Manager. Not surprisingly, the device wouldn't load music from our iPhone, but the Eee PC did charge it.
Eee PC owners will be pleasantly surprised with how well this tiny machine can double as a desktop replacement. We connected the device to a 20-inch ViewSonic monitor and used the built-in utility to scale the resolution up to 1024 x 768 pixels, and the resulting picture was nice and sharp. The Eee PC also instantly recognized a full-sized Dell USB keyboard and a wired Logitech USB mouse.
LAPTOP writer Jeffrey Wilson used the 4G Surf edition as his primary computer for five days and wrote about it in his Eee PC product diary. "As I deleve deeper into the Eee PC and learn of of its flexibility, I realize it’s going to be hard to give this beaut back," he said.
This notebook lasted the rated 3.5 hours of battery life on our tests. That's not nearly as good as the five-plus hours of endurance offered by the best ultraportable notebooks. Those machines tend to cost $2,000, however. Bonus: The Eee PC's power adapter is even smaller than what most notebooks in this weight class ship with; it's not much bigger than a cell phone charger.
Room for Improvement
Although there's a lot to like about the Eee PC, there are some telltale signs here that the device may have been rushed to market. Take the webcam, which is launched under the Play menu. We were able to record footage from within the webcam app, but couldn't get it to work with either the preloaded Skype program or Pidgin instant messaging program, and with good reason: Asus is still working on drivers for the webcam, which it says will be released early next year.
Finding and adding applications could also be more intuitive. When we attempted to update Skype after being asked if we wanted to do just that from within the app, the Skype icon ceased to work from the main menu. Turns out you're supposed to update software from within the dedicated Add/Remove Software utility, located under Settings. Also, we didn't see any new applications we could add, although Asus promises to certify applications as they become available and make them available to users via software updates. The intrepid can install applications themselves, but you'll have to dig into the File Manager and launch them manually each time.
We have one other major complaint. Menu screens dipped below the taskbar occasionally, making it difficult to click Next or OK. This happened when we were attempting to set up an e-mail account from within the PIM application. We couldn't move the window in question up high enough or shrink it down enough to move to the next screen, which was quite frustrating. You're supposed to click the Alt button while moving the window with the mouse.
We'd also like to see Asus make the Eee PC mobile-broadband friendly--so you can surf beyond hotspot range--either by adding Bluetooth support (using a 3G cell phone as a modem) or by adding support for USB-powered modems.
Is the Eee PC for You?
Asus is forging a new class of device with the Eee PC. Yes, you can get a laptop with a bigger screen and better specs for the same amount of money, but this machine wasn't designed to go toe-to-toe with bargain-basement Windows laptops. It's an excellent secondary computer for households with children, and it's a very good primary computer for novice PC users who never had the time or patience to master an operating system.
In many ways, too, the Eee PC is a new-and-improved version of the Internet appliance concept, as its easy-to-tote, easy-to-use design makes it simple for anyone to get online.
When it comes to road warriors, the Eee PC runs circles around UMPCs powered by Vista and XP in terms of performance, price, and ease of use, but not application support. Despite a few issues, such as a webcam not yet optimized for online video chats, the Eee PC is also a worthy alternative to devices like the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet. The Nokia is more pocket-friendly, is Bluetooth-enabled for using a cell phone as a modem, and has a built-in GPS receiver, but the Asus sports a better keyboard, can be connected to a big-screen monitor, and is $80 cheaper.
As for that other famous low-cost notebook: The $188 OLPC XO laptop is a far more ambitious product in that its purpose is to educate children in developing nations. But that doesn't mean the Eee PC isn't a breakthrough in its own right. It brings affordable computing to everyone else, and without a learning curve.
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