With the Eee range of notebooks burgeoning across a seemingly-endless range of price points and specifications, Asus is now bringing its minimalist brand to the desktop. The Eee philosophy is evident in the Eee Box 202: it’s small, silent and extremely cheap.
The hardware is striking. With its minimalist, chrome-style base and glossy chassis, the Eee looks like the kind of concept PC manufacturers promised we’d have years ago. It’s just 16mm wide and all-but silent whether it’s working hard or sitting idle - it really is the most unobtrusive, subtle PC design we’ve ever seen.
It’s surprisingly well-featured, too. A chief complaint of other small PCs such as the Mac mini was that it was next to impossible to add peripherals: install a mouse and keyboard and you’d already run out of USB ports. The Eee Box has two USB ports on the back and, usefully, two more on the front for USB flash drives and the such. There’s also an SD card reader (which is also compatible with MMC and Memory Stick cards) for added external storage.
Inside, permanent storage is provided by the 80GB Seagate hard disk, which is enough for a smattering of applications and a decent media collection. You also get a gigabit ethernet controller, and for more modern networks, 802.11b/g/n networking - there’s a screw-in aerial in the box.
The only major omission is an integrated optical drive. Admittedly, it’s hard to see how Asus could possibly have squeezed one in, given that the Eee Box’s volume is equal to about one litre, but it throws a significant spanner in the works for watching films or installing applications.
The headline specification of the Eee Box is its processor. It’s the third Intel Atom CPU we’ve seen this month (other are the Acer Aspire one and the Eee PC 901), and like the other two systems, the Eee Box has an Atom N270 at its heart. It runs at 1.6GHz, but the real headline is its power draw: that TDP of just 2.5W is stunning, and means that the Eee Box runs cool and quiet.
The drawback, of course, is the lack of conventional computing power. The Eee Box has Windows XP Home installed, and its performance was on par with the Eee PC 901. Our benchmarks ran to an overall result of only 0.39.
The chief problem is computational muscle from the CPU: our unit had 512MB of 667MHz RAM. (Retail units have 1GB of 553MHz RAM, so expect a slight improvement in performance.)
Practically-speaking, this means even simple tasks such as opening an Explorer window or launching Firefox were sluggish, and more ambitious jobs - starting Photoshop, for instance - took far too long.
A far better way to use the Eee Box is Asus’ SplashTop software. Before Windows begins loading, you’re given the option of loading a lightweight Linux operating system.
Asus claims the system loads in five seconds, although in practice we found the time taken to go from BIOS to usable SplashTop system was more like half a minute.
It’s much quicker than Windows, however, and the system itself is far more responsive. You get an internet browser that owes its lineage to Firefox, as well as the Pidgin instant messaging client, plus a Skype client.
SplashTop proved compatible with several different external hard disks and USB keys and, if you’re prepared to ditch Windows entirely in favour of online applications such as Google Docs, it’s possible to use the Eee desktop as a kind of thin client.
There are a few drawbacks: there’s no access to the main hard disk from SplashTop, which means that not only is it impossible to install other applications without getting involved in some fairly hardcore Linux-modding, you also don’t get access to the documents you’ve created in Windows, which means it’s hard to use SplashTop as a best-of-both-worlds mix of Windows and online computing.
Give the Eee desktop’s lack of computing power it would have been good to see Asus commit fully to online computing, instead of installing an enormous hard disk and a full copy of Windows XP, which is simply too slow to be of much use to all but the most unambitious, gentle users.
It’s difficult to argue with the Eee Box as a concept: it costs less than $500, it’s tiny and if it weren’t for the garish blue LED it would be impossible to tell when it was turned on.
SplashTop works well and, if a cut-down Linux operating system were the only way to work on the Eee Box we’d unhesitatingly recommend it. As it is, the presence of Windows XP is a power-draining, hard disk-hogging nuisance which will only be useful to those who use their desktop PC in the gentlest way.
It’s possible, though, that the Eee Box is at the vanguard of cloud computing hardware: if you’re happy to do all of your emailing and work online, using applications such as Google Docs and Adobe’s Photoshop Express, the Eee’s lack of power won’t be a problem.
Eee Box 202
By Dave Stephenson
Sep 22, 2008 2:38PM
Sep 22, 2008 2:38PM