Ultra-portable notebooks are often very expensive, but not the Linux-based Asus Eee PC. This little sub-notebook costs a mere $400 USD – a price anyone can appreciate. To get there Asus had to trim all the fat, including Windows, out of the equation, but the result is a notebook that is highly portable, easy to use and even – dare we say – kind of cool? It’s only drawbacks are that it’s very small, and both the screen and they keyboard are tiny, so it’s certainly not a notebook for business users.
Features and Design
The Eee PC comes in a variety of colors and several different configurations. All of the models use a solid-state hard drive, and the main difference between the various configurations is the size of the drive, the allotment of RAM, size of the battery and the presence of a webcam. The base model features 512MB of RAM and a 2GB hard drive. The mid-range model that we received includes 512MB of RAM and a 4GB hard drive, and the high-end unit boasts 1GB of RAM and an 8GB drive. There are also Surf versions of the Eee, which are stripped down and feature less powerful batteries and lack webcams.
Under the hood is an Intel platform, featuring a low-voltage Celeron processor that’s actually down-clocked from 900MHz to 630MHz. It features an Intel mobile chipset with support for 80211 B and G and DDR2 memory.
Expansion and Storage Options
Despite its size it still offers several expansion and storage options, though like most sub-notebooks it lacks an optical drive. It features three USB ports, which is two more than Apple’s MacBook Air. It also features VGA-out, an SD card slot and headphone and mic jacks.
The Eee features a little 7” LED backlit display that is flanked on both sides by speakers. Asus has announced that it’s working on a 9” version of the Eee PC that will move the speakers elsewhere and use that space for the extra screen real estate.
The Eee PC features a 7” display, and Asus just announced plans for a 9” version.
The Penguin Cometh
A big reason why the Eee PC is so affordable is because it comes with Linux rather than Windows (though you’re free to install Windows on the Eee PC if you own a copy). The Eee comes with a Xandro distribution of Linux along with a software suite – if you will – of open source software such as Open Office 2.0, Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, Pidgin for instant messaging, Adobe Reader, Skype and others.
Asus includes a small neoprene pouch for the Eee PC to keep its glossy exterior pristine while in transit.
Asus includes a neoprene carrying case with the Eee, which is a nice touch.
It also includes a very well-written manual that has entire sections on how to run Windows XP on the Eee. It even includes a recovery DVD that has XP drivers for the Eee and also allows you to re-install linux if you install XP and want to return the unit to factory condition.
Use and Testing
We lifted the Eee PC out of the box and were pleasantly surprised by how small and light it was. It’s a lot like the Panasonic R7 in that it feels like a toy. We liked the fact that Asus includes a little neoprene pouch too. To show you how small it is we placed it on top of our own XPS M140, which is a portable 14.1” notebook.
We pressed the power button and were pleased to see it booted to the Linux environment in just 27 seconds. This is almost twice as fast as the boot times we see with Windows-based PCs. Of course, the Eee PC also has a solid-state hard drive helping it here too.
The Eee is small. Here it is resting on a standard 14.1” notebook.
We’ll admit it – even though we’re alpha geeks we’ve never crossed the line into Linux userdom. We’ve heard a lot of good things about it recently though, and were interested to see how easy it would be to jump into. As it turns out, it’s very Mac-like, if that makes any sense, with a few differences. First of all, there’s no “desktop” where you can put files and links to programs. Instead, the desktop is a series of tabs based on activities that includes Internet, Work, Learn and Play.
The interface includes several tabs that link to programs associated with a specific tab.
We found it relatively intuitive and easy to figure out. Once out of the box, we were online in just a few minutes and surfing the web. We opened the Open Office 2.0 programs and practiced typing for awhile. The keyboard is very small and it’s difficult to use if you’re a touch typist. After a few days typing got a bit easier, but we were never able to type error-free like we do on a full-size keyboard. Unlike PCs, which include all kinds of bloatware, the Eee PC was free of unnecessary programs and even includes a virus scanner.
Overall the Xandros distribution of Linux is very easy to use, even for newbies like ourselves. We found it a bit tedious to always have to use a file manager program (similar to Windows Explorer) to move files around but with such limited screen real estate we can understand the reasoning behind the design.
Running Windows XP
No, we didn’t install Windows XP on this notebook, but you can do it if you have an extra copy of XP lying around. In fact, Asus almost encourages you to do it by providing plenty of helpful information in the well-written manual on how to install XP, install drivers, and so forth. Asus even includes a driver DVD with XP drivers for all the Eee PC’s components, which is fantastic. Even better, if you install XP and realize you made a mistake (it would probably fill the little 4GB hard drive up), Asus includes an image of the factory OS installation on the recovery DVD that you can restore using a USB optical drive. Don’t have a USB optical drive? Asus even lets you copy the image to a USB drive (bigger than 1GB) and make it bootable, and use that to restore the image. Asus has really covered all its bases with regards to XP experimentation, and we think that’s worthy of praise.
Asus makes no claims regarding how far you can drop the Eee PC and so forth, but does claim that it’s shock-proof, largely because it doesn’t have a mechanical hard drive. We can attest it certainly feels rugged and robust. Though we didn’t do any drop-testing on it, we did find a video of a guy repeatedly dropping his Eee off several chairs and desks and it was no worse for wear.
Battery life is a big selling point for ultra-portable notebooks, and Asus claims the Eee PC is capable of approximately 3.5 hours, which is about average for an ultra-portable. We tested battery life by looping an MP3 sound file and browsing the web. We disabled the battery-saving feature that turns off the display when the notebook is inactive for five minutes. In our testing, we received a warning at 2:17 telling us the battery was low. Thirteen minutes later, at 2:30, we received another warning that the notebook would be shutting down in three minutes. Ten minutes later it shut off for good, netting us a total of two hours and forty minutes, which is decent but not spectacular.
Though we’re impressed with what Asus has delivered for $400 USD, it’s important to note that it’s not for everyone. The screen is very small and it took us awhile to adjust to its size. The same goes with the keyboard, which is also teeny. As touch typists we had issues adjusting to it, and found we could only type well if we kept our fingers hovered above the keyboard rather than keeping our wrists on the palm rests. Finally, with just 4GB of storage space we didn’t have much free space leftover for data. Right out of the box we only had 1.2GB of free space. You can augment the storage situation with an SD card, however.
The Eee PC is certainly an interesting product, and is a very good product for just $400 USD. That said, its usability is somewhat limited by its small screen, small storage and Linux environment. Thankfully, Asus has already announced the next version will run Windows XP, have a larger display and a 12GB hard drive. Rumor is it’ll go for around $600 USD, but that is still a great price for what could easily be one of the best ultra-portable notebooks ever (for the money). As it stands now the Eee is good, but we can’t wait to see it get better with future updates.
• Decent battery life
• Highly portable
• Lots of useful software
• Tiny keyboard is hard to type on
• Screen is very small