The Eee Box offers solid Web surfing, e-mail, and document processing in sleek, space-efficient package. But is it worth $349? It depends on your priorities.
At the time of this writing, Dell was selling an Inspiron 530s with a 2.0-GHz Intel Celeron processor, a 250GB 7,200 rpm hard drive, and a 16X DVD+/-RW drive for just $279. Adding 802.11g Wi-Fi (which is perfectly acceptable for web surfing) brings the Inspiron's price up to $309. The Eee Box costs $40 more and offers less processing power, much less storage, and no optical drive. On the other hand, the Dell has a much larger footprint. The Eee Box is a tempting choice for students and home users who like the idea of saving space, but other desktops offer better bang for the buck.
When ASUS released the originalEee PCback in October 2007, the lilliputian laptop surprised the tech industry by spawning its own product category, the mini-notebook. Now, nearly a dozen Eee PC notebooks later comes the Eee Box, a diminuitive desktop version with a sleek design that's sure to turn a few heads and a unique instant-on environment that lets you surf the Web, make Skype calls, and more without having to boot into Windows.
ASUS touts the Eee Box as "a home entertainment hub." However, our testing revealed a physically attractive system that's adequate for Web surfing, but doesn't offer much in the way of performance compared to similarly priced full-sized desktops.
The shiny plastic chassis, available in black or white, gives the system a clean design, while a blue power light and an attractive door which covers the front ports add to the minimalist look. Throw in a matching keyboard and an optical mouse with an orange light that shines through its buttons and the Eee Box is ready to show off to house guests or visitors to your dorm room.
At a size of 8.5 x 7.0 x 1.0 inches, the Eee Box might be the smallest desktop computer ever mass-produced. Attaching the system's stand increases its width to 3 inches (the instruction manual warns not to place the chassis flat on the desk), but, to save more space, you can use an included bracket to mount it on the back of your monitor. If you need to move the Eee Box, its 2.2-pound weight--2.8 with the stand attached--certainly won't break your back.
Odd-Angled Keyboard, Tiny Mouse
The sparse keyboard saves space in its own way by avoiding any empty spaces between keys and eschewing quick launch buttons. It offers excellent tactile feedback, but its flip stands don't angle the body enough. Because of this low elevation, we were unable to use our wrist rest, which was actually higher than the space bar. Even though the tiny mouse looks like it was built for a child's hand, we found it highly responsive and comfortable, even after extended use.
Just Enough Ports
The Eee Box offers a basic array of connections. The front panel features two USB ports, a card reader that takes SD/SDHC, MMC/MMC Plus, and MS/MS Pro Cards, and headphone and microphone jacks. On the back are two more USB ports, an additional audio out jack, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and a DVI interface for your monitor. An antenna provides 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity. Conspicuously absent is an optical drive, which means that users will have to buy an external device to install software or watch DVD movies.
The most unique feature of the Eee Box is the ExpressGate "instant on" operating system that comes preinstalled, along with Windows XP Home. Users are offered the choice of booting into Windows XP or opening one of five ExpressGate applications: Splashtop Browser, Pidgin IM client, Skype, Photo Manager, and Splashtop Games.
For those who haven't heard of it, Splashtop is the OEM name of the fast, but feature-limited Linux operating system that computer manufacturers can customize for their respective products. ASUS customizes and rebrands their version of Splashtop as ExpressGate. For more information, see ourSplashtop FAQ.
The promise of ExpressGate is that it allows users to do a few basic tasks: surf the Web, view photos, or call a friend, without having to wait for Windows to start. Because the miniature operating system is made to stand alone, you can't install applications, nor can you update or customize the few that come preloaded (though some users have developed a hack). Only one of the ExpressGate programs, Photo Manager, can access files and folders on the hard drive.
The most useful ExpressGate application, Splashtop Browser, is a stripped-down version of Firefox 2 that comes with Adobe Flash Player 9 installed. While it is capable of storing bookmarks, passwords, and cookies, you can't add plug-ins or save downloaded files to the hard drive (you can save them to a flash drive, though).
While the Photo Manager, Skype, and Pidgin IM client are all competent programs that deliver as promised, the Splashtop Games application offers nothing more than a directory of the same free online Flash games you can find on hundreds of sites around the Web. Our favorites are the ludicrousSaberman, a stick-figured Star Wars rip-off, andBathroom Fight, a two-player game where the object is to beat up your friend for the chance to use the facilities first.
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We also found that, unlike Windows XP on the Eee Box, ExpressGate was unable to deliver the native resolutions of monitors 20 inches and larger. The maximum setting offered by the control panel is 1440 x 1050, while 20- and 22-inch widescreen monitors typically come with 1680 x 1050 resolutions. The result is a desktop that seems slightly distorted, as if it has been blown up.
In a world where some Vista systems take as long as two minutes to boot, Splashtop makes a lot of sense. However, on the Eee Box, it took us 23 seconds to launch the Splashtop Browser, while booting into Windows XP took only around 35 seconds. Most users will want to wait the few extra seconds to get a fully functional operating system.
Eee Box Performance
While the Eee Box system boots into Windows very quickly, performance overall was a mixed bag. Using the Eee Box to surf the Web or download large files was a pleasant experience. While typical applications like IE and the bundled copy of StarOffice opened quickly, the Eee Box's internal hard drive, an 80GB, 5,400-rpm Seagate Momentus, performed poorly on our tests. In our real-world file transfer test, the Eee Box took 10:43 to copy 5GB of mixed media files from one folder to another on the C drive, a rate of 7.7 MBps.
By way of comparison, theGigabyte M912Vnetbook completed our file transfer test in 4:04 (21 MBps) while theMSI Windtook 8:32 (9.7 MBps). To be fair, theASUS Eee PC 1000H, a mini-notebook from ASUS that also has an Atom processor and Seagate Momentus hard drive, completed the test in a nearly identical 10:41. This poor file system performance begs the question: is it acceptable for a desktop, even a small one, to perform like a netbook? The system's 802.11n card (slower 802.11g is typical in this price range) produced impressive transfer rates of 17.3 Mbps and 12.8 Mbps from 15 and 50 feet, respectively.
Graphics and Multimedia
At the low resolution of 1024 x 768, less than the native resolution of even a 15-inch monitor, the Eee Box returned a pedestrian 3DMark03 score of 406, one of the lowest we've ever seen and even less than the Eee PC 1000H netbook, which got 739. At 1900x1200, the Eee Box faired even worse, returning a mere 268.
When we pointed our Web browser to YouTube or Hulu.com, video playback was less than smooth in windowed play and downright jerky at full screen when in 1024 x 768 resolution and even worse at 1900 x 1200. To ensure that the playback problems were not bandwidth-related, we installed iTunes and downloaded an episode of the television series Primeval. Again, action sequences appeared a little unsteady, but were watchable in windowed mode. Full screen iTunes video showed significant banding at 1024 x 768 resolution, and become unwatchable at 1900 x 1200 full screen. Clips shown in any application at any resolution became extremely jerky when we tried to do anything outside the video window, even click on the desktop, during playback.
Surprisingly, the Eee Box can be used for low-powered gaming. We were able to play World of Warcraft at an acceptable 29 frames per second when we lowered our screen resolution to 800 x 600.
Largely because of its Atom processor, the Eee Box drew a mere 20 watts of power from our outlet. Even when you factor in a monitor (our 17-inch monitor drew 36 watts), you're still using less electricity than a standard business desktop. The Dell OptiPlex 755, which features a much more powerful dual core processor, drew 71 watts. Even compared to another small system, the Eee Box is a power miser; the Dell Studio Hybrid drew an average of 47 watts. An Eee PC 1000H, which combines an Atom processor with a 10-inch screen, drew only 41 watts.
How much money would you actually save on your monthly electricity bill if you swapped a power-hungry tower like the Dell OptiPlex 755 for the Eee Box? Assuming 8 hours of daily use in a 30-day month at a rate of 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour (the national average in March 2008), you would save only $1.29 per month, hardly enough to make a dent in your bank account. On the other hand, if you ran an Internet caf with 30 computers running for 16 hours a day, you would see a significant savings.