There's a new player in the extreme budget market, and this one isn't intended for developing nations. Meet the Asus Eee PC 701 -- an ultraportable laptop that costs as little as £169. The three 'e's represent Asus' vision of it being "easy to learn, easy to work, easy to play".
The Eee PC is also available from other vendors including RM, where it's known as the RM Asus miniBook. We have reviewed Asus' £219 version here, which will be available to buy on 14 November.
The Eee PC is one of the smallest laptops on the market. At 225 by 35 by 165mm, it's about the size of a hardback book, and weighs 920g. Its petite dimensions give it a toy-like appearance, but this is countervailed by the pearl-white finish, which gives it a touch of sophistication. Ultimately, the Eee PC looks equally at home on the catwalk or in a child's playpen -- it is what you make of it.
Because it's so small, some sacrifices have been made. The keyboard is exceptionally tiny and the keys are very closely grouped. Whereas keys on a standard desktop keyboard have an approximate 5mm gap, the gap between those on the Eee PC is less than 1mm so it's easy to make mistakes. Fat-fingered users will have a hard time typing long documents, or making notes at speed, but don't let that put you off -- it's fine for drafting short to medium-length text.
There are plenty of ports scattered around the machine. There are two USB ports on the right, a third on the left, plus a D-Sub video output port for those who want to use an external display. You also get a memory card reader on the right side that supports SDHC memory cards (currently as large as 32GB). The modem jack on our review sample was blanked out, as there's no internal modem, but there's an adjacent Ethernet port so you can connect to a wired network.
Narcissists or video conferencing addicts will be pleased to note the webcam sitting above the screen. It's great for taking still self-portraits or making short movies of yourself for Facebook, YouTube, etc. Speakers sit either side of the display, but the microphone is strangely mounted on the underside of the laptop, which affects audio quality slightly. You can, however, connect an external mic or external speakers to the audio jacks at the left side of the laptop.
One final note about the design -- the Eee PC's power adaptor is proportionally as tiny as the laptop. It looks more like a mobile phone charger than a laptop charger, which is great since you don't have to lug an enormous power brick around.
You won't get much in the way of hardware for just over £200, but the Eee PC shouldn't be written off. It uses an Intel Mobile Celeron-M ULV 900MHz CPU, which is designed for long battery life rather than hardcore number crunching. The Asus version ships with 512MB of RAM as standard, though other resellers such as RM offer versions with 256MB of RAM. If you intend to tinker heavily with the machine or install Windows, we'd recommend getting the 512MB model.
One of the machine's biggest selling points is the fact it uses a solid state hard drive (SSD). The largest model Asus supplies is 4GB, 33 per cent of which is already in use when you buy the machine.* Again, some manufacturers offer a 2GB SSD and it is possible to connect a large memory card to the SD card slot for extra storage.
The Eee PC comes with an integrated Wi-Fi adaptor that supports 802.11b/g wireless networks. It's great for jumping online at a wireless hotspot, or for casually browsing the Web at home, checking film reviews before you buy from Sky Box Office or just for staying in contact via a messenger program. Asus says some versions of the Eee PC ship with an integrated 3G datacard -- an extra £40 -- so you can go online over cellular networks. We did not see this implemented on our review sample.
The Eee PC doesn't use a Microsoft operating system, which is part of the reason it's so inexpensive. Instead, Asus supplies its own Linux-based graphical user interface. The laptop also ships with some 40 applications, which is arguably more than you'd get with a standard Windows laptop. It includes Firefox for browsing the Web, Skype, OpenOffice and SMPlayer for video playback.
Obviously, it being a Linux machine, users can download any amount of open source software -- so long as it'll fit on the hard drive. The Eee PC is theoretically fast enough to run Windows XP, which is great news for those of us without beards.**
The Eee PC isn't as quick as most laptops but its 900MHz CPU and 512MB of RAM are just fast enough. Applications generally open a couple of seconds after clicking and it's powerful enough to edit photos without becoming a cause of frustration. It generally boots up in about 30 seconds, which is quicker than most Windows-based laptops. The Eee PC is in no way designed as a gaming machine, but it ships with a couple of Flash-type games, and runs these well. Just don't expect to play F.E.A.R. on it.