For several months before its release, the Asus Eee PC was one of a handful of small, inexpensive PCs that had tech types buzzing with anticipation. While the other systems, the Intel Classmate and the One Laptop Per Child XO, are aimed at the educational needs of children around the globe and not generally available to consumers, the Eee holds no such highbrow pedigree--it's for sale directly from Asus to the laptop-buying public.
The initial buzz on the Asus Eee had the 7-inch, Linux-based laptop coming in as low at $199. In the end, the price is a more realistic $399, which includes a low-end Intel Mobile CPU, 512MB of RAM, and a 4GB solid-state flash hard drive (versions with 2GB and 8GB hard drives will also be available). The obvious limitations of the tiny hard drive, low-power CPU, and lack of the Windows operating system may be enough to scare away many potential users, but despite the system's budget origins, we found it hard to dislike when viewed as a highly portable Web surfing and office productivity machine.
The Asus Eee is certainly worth a look as a second laptop for travelers, or perhaps a first laptop for kids--one you won't be afraid to leave in accident-prone hands. It's certainly a more attractive option than any of the UMPCs (which have screens of 5 inches or less) we've seen this year, which we generally found to be high in price and low on usability, and much less expensive than recent ultraportable laptops (which generally have 11- or 12-inch screens).
|Price as reviewed||$399|
|Processor||900MHz Intel Mobile CPU|
|Hard drive||4GB SSD|
|Operating System||Linux (customized by Asus)|
|Dimensions (WDH)||8.8 x 6.5 x 0.9 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||7.0 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter [pounds]||2.0/2.4 pounds|
The Asus Eee looks like a fairly conventional ultraportable laptop, shrunk down by about a third. With a small 7-inch screen, the laptop weighs 2 pounds and measures 8.8 inches wide by 6.5 inches deep by a little less than an inch thick. In all, the Eee PC is about the size of a trade paperback book; it can fit in a large jacket pocket without too much trouble. The pearlized white look is attractive, if generic, and the typically understated Asus design keeps the system from looking too cheap.
Cramming all the things one expects from a laptop into a package this small presents some difficult design questions, and the Asus Eee answers most of them about as well as can be expected. The biggest challenge is the keyboard. Tiny keyboards, as on ultraportable systems such as the Toshiba R500 or Sony VAIO TZ150, are hampered by both Chiclet-size keys and unfortunate compromises in key placement and double-mapped keys. The Eee takes it a step further, with some of the tiniest keys we've ever had to deal with. At least most of the space is saved for making sure the actual letter keys are a usable size, which makes typing at least possible, if not entirely easy. Other keys, including the backspace, tab, and control keys, are smaller--mere slivers of their usual selves, and especially hard to hit. The tiny touchpad measures 1.75 inches by 1.25 inches and works well on the whole, but there's only a single mouse button--click on the left side for the left mouse button, and the right for the right mouse button. We'd prefer two separate buttons. Overall, the keyboard is easier to use than any UMPC we've seen, but far more cramped than any other ultraportable PC.
The 7-inch screen looks even smaller than it is thanks to the large black screen bezel that frames it. At least the extra space around the screen serves a purpose: a Webcam sits above the screen and tiny speakers reside on the left and right sides of the display, emitting tinny but passable sound for things like YouTube videos. With a resolution of 800x480, there's not a lot of screen real estate to spare, but the combination of low resolution and a tiny screen make for letters that don't (usually) require squinting. One niggling annoyance: at 800 pixels wide, many Web pages are too wide for the screen and require horizontal scrolling. We'd happily trade the thick screen bezel for an extra inch or so of screen real estate and a 1024x768 resolution, even if it meant we'd lose the Webcam and would have to get along with even smaller speakers.
The biggest adjustment most users will encounter with the Asus Eee is trading Windows for the Linux operating system. While this machine is technically capable of supporting Windows, and Asus plans to sell a version with the Microsoft OS in the near future, right now, Linux is the only option. While the scant 4GB hard drive and unfamiliar (to many) operating system might make it hard to get the software you need, the Eee actually sports a very user-friendly custom Linux installation, and many of the apps you'll want are preloaded and easy to access through a series of tabbed desktop pages.