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Living With the Asus Eee PC

By Conrad J. Jacoby, Published on April 4, 2008

The Asus Eee PC has gathered critical praise from both technology reviewers and ordinary users alike. It's not so much that the device includes cutting edge technology—plenty of competing products offer higher performance processors, greater internal storage, and a larger screen. However, precious few of them offer this functionality in a device that weighs less than two pounds, and those that do sell for far more than the Eee's $300-400 price point.

So what's it like to be an Eee owner? Can this little computer—and it is a light handful—replace the 6 or more pound laptop computers that we all carry around, or is the Eee just another gadget that adds further weight to an overloaded computer bag? For better and for worse, this review was written on an Eee about the Eee.

Hardware Specifications

The Eee’s specifications have fluctuated, even in the relatively brief time that the computer has been on the market. Early Eees contained an additional internal slot that made it easy to add significant additional functionality like bluetooth connectivity, a 56k modem, and additional storage media. The slot appears to have been removed from the Eee's system board after the initial production run, though someone handy with a soldering iron can add it back (and void their warranty in the process). Even the Eee's case has evolved. Early Eees have a hatch to permit easy upgrade of system RAM; reports suggest that this may be phased out for lower-end Eees that do not have upgradeable components.

All that said, the current Eee is available in several configurations. All models are powered by the same 900 Mhz Intel Celeron processor, have a 7” 800x480 WVGA display, and use a solid-state disk (“SSD”) instead of a conventional hard drive. Differences between the models are chiefly in terms of SSD size, which is available in 2, 4, and 8 gigabyte sizes; system memory, which is either 512 or 1024 megabytes; battery size and capacity; and the inclusion of a webcam in the top 4G and 8G models.

All Eees are equipped with 3 USB 2.0 ports, A SDHC slot, a VGA port to drive external monitors, headphone and microphone jacks, 802.11 b/g wireless Ethernet connectivity and a traditional RJ45 10/100 Ethernet jack. While Asus specifications also describe an internal 56k modem, at least for the U.S. market, the modem port is blocked with a rubber plug and multiple hardware blogs report that the modem slot on the Eee motherboard is empty.

In addition to the small screen, the Eee's diminutive size also forces compromises in another crucial area. The keyboard has features full-travel keys with excellent response, but its size has been shrunk to approximately 65% of a standard keyboard. As a result, modest irritations like an undersized shift key are magnified by a typist's muscle memory that is trained to use much larger keyboard. However, thanks to the Eee's USB ports, it's easy enough to plug in a full-size external keyboard and mouse, reserving the miniature keyboard experience for airplanes and other places where a small footprint may be helpful or essential.

In North America, the Eee is presently only available with the Xandros Linux distribution installed as the default operating system. However, because of the standard PC architecture inside the device, it’s possible to install other Linux distributions or operating systems on the Eee, and Asus’ own documentation provides clear instructions on how to install a slimmed-down version of Windows XP on the device. In Japan, a special model of the Eee, the EEE 4G-X, is sold with Windows XP pre-installed on the SSD.

For people dissatisfied with the Eee's 7" screen, Asus has recently announced a slightly larger (2.25 pound) and thicker Eee “900 series,” which will feature a 9” screen with greater resolution and larger SSD options. Pricing has been tentatively announced as “starting at $499,” which is the current price for an Eee 701 with an 8 gigabit SSD. In addition, Asus has stated that the 900 series will be available in the U.S. with either Linux or Microsoft Windows XP factory-installed as an operating system. The 900-series Eee, which does not replace the existing 700-series machines, is scheduled to begin appearing on the shelves in April, although it is unclear when Windows-based Eees will appear and at what price point.

Software That's Actually Useful

One of the great strengths of the Eee is that it comes bundled with genuinely useful software—and that Asus has left out the typical annoying-ware that comes pre-installed on so many computers. Asus saved substantial licensing fees by including only open source software, but rather than be a problem for users, it's a valuable education in the sophistication of the work product of the free software movement. OpenOffice, the open source alternative to Microsoft Office, includes robust word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs that read and write to Microsoft Office format, though not the newest Office 2007 XML-based .DOCX format. In addition to basic productivity, the Eee also comes bundled with a near-current release of the Firefox web browser and an Acrobat-compatible PDF reader. For fun, the Eee comes with the FBReader e-book reader, a variety of arcade-style games—and solitaire, of course. The bottom line is that most users may never feel a need to install more software than is already bundled. That, in itself, is further cost savings for the budget minded.

Even the best software only adds value if it works well with the hardware on which it is installed. The Eee's Celeron processor is somewhat dated by current standards, but it's more than adequate for the reasonable needs of the installed software suite, and the extremely fast [solid state] SSD drive reduces program loading time so much that the Eee feels much speedier than it actually is. I would not want to run recursive data analysis on this platform unless I were billing by the hour, but the Eee is well matched to its standard software. A slower processor also consumes less electricity, contributing to the Eee's reasonably good 3-3.5 hour battery life. An oversized battery is available from Asus to increase the Eee's run time to six or more hours.

For die-hard Linux users, the Eee offers easy access to a fully-functional terminal window, from which standard Xandros-distribution (and many generic Linux) packages can be installed. Given the inflexibility of the graphical interface, this may also be the only way to run certain applications for which a desktop shortcut cannot be created.

Living With The Eee

Many reviewers have written about all the neat things they intend to do with their Eee PCs, but it's also apparent that many of them had only limited experience with the computer before they wrote their reviews. This is simply not enough time to judge the extent to which the Eee actually changes personal computing habits. After three months with the Eee, though, I can say that I've seen some real patterns in the way I use the computer. For example, I have yet to use the Eee's Skype client to make phone calls, though I'm told that it works quite well. The 4G's webcam works well and takes decent enough 640x480 snapshots, but I don't see myself using that much, either. I also have yet to use any of the educational applications included in the “learn” tab, though they look interesting. On the other hand, I use Firefox and OpenOffice just about every time that I power up the computer, and I haven't come close to mastering the games that are included.

A. The Irritations

I am not thrilled with the Eee's cramped keyboard, even though I have relatively small hands and I'm able to touch-type on the Eee at close to my regular speed. I still make many more typos on the Eee than on my Lenovo laptop with its 90% of standard-size keyboard, and I have lost my train of thought more than once because I kept circling back to correct spelling mistakes. I could, of course, use my external full-size USB keyboard, but as well as it works, I usually leave it at home because of the extra weight space it takes up—I might as well bring my bigger and heavier Lenovo. On the other hand, I am relatively comfortable using the built-in touchpad, even though I much prefer to plug in a USB mouse.

Much of the time, I don't notice it, but I also get frustrated at times with the Eee's non-standard screen resolution. Many web sites are optimized for 1024x768 resolution, and the Eee's 800x480 screen size means that I have to scroll over to see the right edge of many popular web sites. This also misplaces some of the background colors and graphics on some dynamic web sites, sometimes obscuring content. The upcoming Eee 900 series is said to remedy this irritation with its increased screen resolution, though it, too, will not have a traditional 1024x768 (XGA) or 1366x768 (WXGA) display.

I'm thrilled at the diverse and powerful functionality in the Asus-supplied suite of applications, but I'm also annoyed with how cumbersome it is to update this software or install new applications. The pleasant tab-based graphical interface does not support creating new shortcuts for applications it doesn’t already recognize, and, for example, I couldn't easily create a shortcut for FBReader, the e-book application that's installed on the Eee's factory image, but which Asus has set up to open only through a file management window. For users who aren't comfortable installing or updating software through a command prompt-based terminal session, the Eee's software is frozen in time. I'm told that this is a security feature, not a shortcoming, but it still irritates me.

Finally, because the Eee is so silent (the SSD means there's no hard drive noise), the Eee's cooling fan seems loud and distracting when it finally does kick in. Technical blogs are reporting that future generations of the Eee will take a cue from the OLPC XO computer and will feature more effective heat management that will eliminate the need for a fan. I would consider that a significant improvement.

B. The Delights

Though the Eee's ergonomics are occasionally frustrating, they also drive me to use the Eee. Because it's so small and light, I've taken the Eee to lots of places and meetings where I might not have wanted to lug my bigger and heavier laptop. The 30-second boot time makes it easy for me to pull out the Eee if it suddenly occurs to me that it would be useful to take notes or check something on the Internet. The 15-20 second shutdown time (less if I simply put the Eee into standby mode) also makes it equally easy for me to quickly put it away at the end of a meeting or if it's taking up too much table space.

The software in the factory SSD image is stable and fully-featured. Consumers will be pleased with the multi-media applications included; as more of a business user, I appreciate the fact that I haven't had to install additional productivity software in order to make the Eee useful in my work. In addition, moving files between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office has been completely uneventful—just as it is intended to be.

The Eee's networking and wifi connectivity has worked well for me, so far. I am aware that the Eee is somewhat fussy about connecting using WEP encryption, but I have had no problems connecting to open wifi networks, T-Mobile, or other mainstream service providers who supply hotel and other pay-per-use hot spots. I have carefully clipped the user forum discussions that outline the network settings that apparently need to be tweaked to successfully connect to WEP-encrypted networks, and I'm hoping that these suggestions will do the trick if and when I run into problems.

I also really appreciate the many little touches in the Eee's design. The Eee's USB ports, for example, remain energized even when the computer is powered off, so you can use the Eee as a charging station for all your USB-powered devices, saving you the weight of lugging around multiple chargers. The touchpad's single button serves as both left and right click, depending on the side of the button you push down harder. It sounds awkward, but it took me only a few tries to master. The Eee's built-in speakers are clear and more powerful than the speakers in many larger laptop computers; it's a relative pleasure to listen to music, especially since there's no distracting hard drive whine in the background.

Most of all, I appreciate the lack of learning curve I've had in using the Eee. I think that the Eee's tabbed user interface is in many ways more successful than Microsoft Window's “start” menu system. Applications are only one or two clicks away, and it's easy to group favorite applications in a custom window. It's refreshing to use a system so simple and efficient. Visible Linux idiosyncrasies have also been kept to a minimum; other than moving the shutdown icon to the systray on the bottom right hand side of the screen, you could easily forget that the Eee 4G isn't running some flavor of Microsoft Windows.

Conclusion

How do I actually use my Eee? First and foremost, I use my Eee as a remote connectivity device, checking webmail, chatting with friends and colleagues, and surfing the web. I much prefer it to the tiny screen and thumb keyboard of my aging Treo. When traveling, I've also found the Eee makes a very nice e-book reader, especially in cramped airplane seats where a fully reclined seat in front of me would make it impossible to open, much less use, a larger computer. OpenOffice has been completely adequate for my work-related needs thus far; I've used my Eee to take notes and write this review, track expenses and play with other numerical data, and modify and present Microsoft PowerPoint presentations I created on my primary computer. My USB-based presenter remote that advances slides and blanks the screen has worked without a single hiccup. And I always get envious stares from other road warriors when I pull out my Eee—it's a gorgeous little device.

And yet, for all my highly positive experiences, I'm not yet comfortable enough with the Eee to completely leave my laptop computer behind. I rationalize this decision because the Eee's small SSD limits the amount of music files and historical work product that resides on my laptop, even though it has ample room for my most critical files that I use on a regular basis. I mumble vague concerns about my possible inability to connect to a remote network, even though I haven't had any problems to date in connecting to over 20 different wired and wireless networks. And I complain about the Eee's diminutive keyboard, even though I'm still able to type 80+ words per minute with only modest typographical errors.

I think that what's holding me back is the simple fact that for all of the Eee's positive qualities—and it has many—I still prefer the larger screen and keyboard of a larger laptop for long-term use. That's not a criticism of the Eee, especially as its larger 900-series sibling is getting ready to hit the market, and I don't think that Asus ever envisioned this little laptop to be a full replacement for a primary computer. One of these days, I strongly suspect that I'm going to leave on a business trip armed with only my Eee. After all, it's been extremely good at just about everything it was designed to do—and then some. It's also just as likely that the Eee's emerging competitors, some of which offer similar or potentially better functionality at an even lower price, will challenge Asus to continue to improve the Eee in order to remain competitive. At least some of those improvements, especially to the Eee Linux image, will still be relevant to my 700-series Eee.

My Eee 4G, I think it's a keeper.

cover of Asus Eee 4G 7Asus Eee 4G 7" PC Mobile Internet Device (512 MB RAM, 4 GB Hard Drive, Webcam, Linux Preloaded) Pear
Binding: Personal Computers
List price: $399.99 USD