UPDATE: News on new black version of EeePC, and new retailers here
Selling a $499 ultraportable laptop might be harder than it sounds. Misled by the low price, consumers could well believe quality for that kind of money is an unobtainable nirvana. The Eee PC defies all expectations, particularly for a device that’s nominally aimed at children. We all know that the smaller the laptop, the more expensive it is. But the Eee costs less than any full-blown laptop we’ve ever seen, while weighing a mere 928g.
For tapping out emails and working on documents and spreadsheets, the Eee PC is all but perfect. It measures just 225mm wide and 170mm deep, and weighs only 1.12kg including its power adapter.
The operating system is a custom Asus effort, built on the back of a Xandros installation of Linux. It sports a tabbed main interface – you can select from Internet, Work, Play, Settings and Favorites tabs, each of which has its own selection of applications and links to online resources, all lined up along the top of the screen.
The window furniture of each app is as standard as can be. The Minimise, Maximise and Close buttons at the top right of each window look as if they were grabbed from Windows XP wholesale, but the effect is that making the transition between Windows and the Eee’s Linux desktop is very easy. Even better for children, delving into potentially destructive settings is all but impossible, to the point that none of the preinstalled applications even shows up in the Add/Remove Software dialog box.
OpenOffice 2 and Firefox 2 come preinstalled. In keeping with the Eee’s express aim of being as simple to use as possible, these are simply described as Documents and Web in the Eee’s interface. But both are the full-blown application; in use we found nothing the Windows version of Firefox could do that the Eee’s couldn’t, including handling rich websites such as YouTube. Mozilla’s Thunderbird is also preinstalled, incongruously under the “Work” tab, rather than “Internet”.
One potential problem is the lack of printer support. Asus attempts to solve this by building in a PostScript driver, but not all printers support PostScript. Check that yours does before you buy. An even bigger usability problem is presented by the low-resolution screen. It’s rather cramped at 800 x 480, and the 7in diagonal isn’t perfect either. It’s enough for just 18 lines of 12pt text in OpenOffice, so you should forget the Eee if you’re looking for something to work on large spreadsheets with. But it’s bright, clear and reproduces colours well. The cramped conditions affect the tiny keyboard: each key is about the same size as a fingernail, and getting up to full speed takes a good half-hour’s practice. The trackpad is restricted, too, but works perfectly well.
Everything is kept running smoothly by a 900MHz Intel Celeron M ULV (ultra-low voltage) processor and 512MB of RAM. We’d expect a low score if we ran our Windows benchmarks, but we never experienced a slowdown – even with multiple applications open and a web browser running a Flash-intensive website. And, considering the Eee is never going to be used for editing video or working with large images, its performance is more than adequate.
The only problem is the operating system’s disk footprint. The Eee has a 4GB flash disk instead of a conventional hard disk, and at 2.5GB the OS and bundled applications consume over half that capacity. That means you’ll never be able to install much recreational media – videos for the plane, for instance. But, it’s more than enough for hundreds of office documents, and we failed to find
a flash drive that wouldn’t work in one of the Eee’s three USB ports. Between that and its ability to connect to both wired and 802.11bg wireless networks, there’s little to stop you expanding its storage externally. As the icing on the cake there’s even a 640 x 480-resolution webcam set into the bezel.
Build quality is easily good enough for the Eee to withstand the knocks and bumps traditionally meted out by its target audience – children. It feels unflinchingly solid, the keyboard has a reassuringly firm base, and there’s virtually no give in the screen’s mounting. Even better, there are no moving parts. The solid-state disk has no fragile head to damage in a fall, and the Eee is at least as shockproof as its ultraportable competitors.
If you need an ultraportable for business, you should still get a Sony VAIO VGN-G11 (see A-List); it runs Windows, and your IT department won’t get the vapours when you bring it in for servicing. You could buy several Eees for the same cash, though, and if you’re simply browsing the Internet, knocking out the odd email and uploading pictures to Flickr, it delivers the goods. The Eee renders websites properly, comes with the office suite currently occupying the Alternative Choice slot on the A-List, and it’s so portable you’ll struggle to find a bag it doesn’t fit in. What’s more, the battery lasts for well over three hours. This tiny notebook deserves to break out of the education niche, and we’re happy to deliver a full-blooded recommendation for all.