Once upon a time, cheap, tiny laptops ruled the land, acting as travel, backup, and kids' computers to millions, and completely upending what consumers expected to pay for a PC. Those laptops were called Netbooks, and starting in 2007 they exploded out of the gate, first from Asus, then Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and others. Every laptop maker (save Apple) had to launch one of these $300 machines, and they were a real democratizing force in making basic computing and online access available to nearly everyone.
But, like many hot trends, the Netbook was oversold. The big PC makers struggled to differentiate their mostly identical systems from each other--which is hard to do when no one expects to pay more than $299. Even worse, the stock combination of an Intel Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive was fine for very simple tasks, as long as one understood the limitations of the hardware. But too many Netbooks were pitched as replacements for full-price laptops, and consumers ended up disappointed by sluggish performance and tiny keyboards.
The final nail in the Netbook coffin was Apple's iPad, which for $499 did many of the things people wanted their Netbooks for--e-mail, Web surfing, playing videos, gaming--better than a Atom-powered laptop. Since then, we've seen a precipitous decline in the number of Netbooks released, with most companies cutting way down on available models or dropping them altogether.
The last gasp for Netbooks may be the Asus Eee PC 1025C Flare. Asus practically invented the Netbook market, so it's fitting that the company provide the only new Netbook we've seen in more than six months. The most notable change from Netbooks of the past is the use of the new 1.6GHz Intel Atom N2600 dual-core processor, but otherwise it has familiar specs: 1GB of RAM and a slightly bigger 320GB hard drive, for the standard Netbook starting price of $299.
With slightly more expensive (but much more practical) 11-inch ultraportables using Intel's Core i3 or AMD E-450 CPU, and the continued success of the Apple iPad, it's hard to see where a Netbook fits in these days. Yes, the EE PC 1025C's performance may be marginally better than that of some past Netbooks, and the battery life is excellent (because this is such a low-power system). But the era of the $299 Netbook has passed, and even this decent example of the form is unlikely to bring it back, especially as it looks as if zero thought has gone into the physical design of these systems over the past couple of years.
|Price as reviewed||$299|
|Processor||1.6GHz Intel Atom N2600|
|Memory||1GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||320GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 3600|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Starter|
|Dimensions (WD)||10.3x7 inches|
|Height||0.8 inch to 1.4 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||10.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||2.5 pounds / 2.9 pounds|
If the Asus Eee PC 1025C Flare looks familiar, it's because it has the same general shape and styling as most of the Eee PC systems we've reviewed over the last few years. The almost entirely plastic body tapers towards the front, and is propped up in the back by a big six-cell battery.
In previous years, this would have been a very slim laptop. But today, hitting nearly 1.5 inches means you're big and bloated. To be fair, low-cost Netbooks have never been lookers, but we've seen other budget laptops update their styling over the years. At least this is still a lightweight laptop--it's about half a pound less than Dell's XPS 13 ultrabook, for example.
The keyboard and touch pad will be familiar to anyone who has picked up a Netbook before. The Eee PC 1025C's flat-topped, island-style keys look like the keys you'd find on nearly any current laptop, just slightly shrunk down. The difference between the keyboard on a 10.1-inch laptop and on an 11.6-inch laptop is pretty significant, and typing on the Eee PC is closer to typing on an iPad--doable, but not an optimal experience. Fortunately, the Enter, Backspace, left Shift, and Tab keys are big enough to hit easily, but the right Shift key and arrow keys are smaller than usual.
The touch pad is a decent size, given the overall small size of the system, and the sensitivity was cranked up enough by default to get from one end of the screen to the other in a single swipe. Multitouch gestures are, not surprisingly, weak, with a simple two-finger scroll being frustratingly laggy. The touch pad doesn't have a special drag-free surface; instead it's made of the same plastic as the rest of the chassis, and demarcated by a slight indentation in the wrist rest. A single, thin rocker bar below the pad is used for both a right and left button click.
The standard resolution for even the least expensive laptops today is generally 1,366x768 pixels. In that sense, the Eee PC 1025C Flare is a bit of throwback, using the same 1,024x600-pixel screen seen on dozens of Netbooks up through early 2011. It's fine for casual Web browsing and e-mail, but many sites are designed to be read on at least a 13x7-inch display, so excessive scrolling may be required. That said, the matte finish on the screen was welcome. Horizontal off-axis viewing was surprisingly good, while vertical off-axis viewing was terrible.
|Asus Eee PC 1025C Flare||Average for category [Netbook]|
|Video||VGA plus HDMI||VGA|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Netbooks offer few surprises in terms of ports and connections, and the only difference between this model and most older Netbooks is the additional of an HDMI port for outputting video to a bigger screen. Bluetooth would have been a nice extra, but there's only so much one can expect for $299.
It's been so long since we tested a Windows 7/Intel Atom laptop that direct comparisons were nearly impossible. But even compared with a Dell business Netbook with an Atom N550 or a Netbook-like Acer system with the very low-end AMD C-50 CPU, the Eee PC 1025C Flare was a slow performer. Web surfing in one or two tabs was fine, but performing any kind of system task, even calling up Windows menus, was painfully slow.
This is pretty much the Netbook performance we remember, but now that people are used to iPads and $399 ultraportable 11-inch laptops, it doesn't seem as acceptable as before. A 720p streaming video played smoothly for the most part, with a few dropped frames, so online video viewing should at least be possible.
Asus also offers a pre-Windows quick-start OS called Express Gate, but we've never found one of these modes to be all that useful, especially as they require learning the ins and outs of a non-Windows OS. Plus, instead of being more responsive, Express Gate was, if anything, more sluggish than the Windows experience.