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ASUS Eee PC 4G review: ASUS Eee PC 4G

ASUS Eee PC 4G

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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6 min read

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.

7.5

ASUS Eee PC 4G

The Good

Small, light, and inexpensive; solid-state hard drive is fast and efficient; well-thought-out preinstalled software package.

The Bad

Cramped keyboard; very little hard drive space; low screen resolution.

The Bottom Line

For less than $400, the Asus Eee PC 4G offers an impressive package for portable Web surfing and basic productivity, as long as you keep expectations tempered. The incredibly approachable price outweighs any shortcomings; it's a near perfect choice for a highly portable second or backup laptop.

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).

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.

Firefox is there for Web surfing and OpenOffice 2.0 for working with word-processing documents and spreadsheets. Both should already be familiar to Windows users (and OpenOffice is an especially appealing solution, as it reads and writes the popular Microsoft Office formats, and is worth checking out even for dedicated Windows users). There's also a generic media player, an instant messaging client that works with AOL, Yahoo, and other popular IM systems, and a handful of preinstalled casual games. Under the settings tab, you can check system information, add and remove programs, and perform diagnostic tests. It's a reasonably useful selection of software, and for Web surfing and working with documents, perfectly acceptable. You may, however, miss some popular software that won't run on Linux, such as iTunes or Photoshop.

With three USB ports, a VGA out, and standard headphone and mic jacks, the Asus Eee offers decent connectivity. FireWire is the one missing standard element, aside from the obvious absence of an optical drive. The SD card slot offers a good opportunity to boost the hard drive space, allowing you to pop in your own flash memory, easily doubling the system's 4GB drive (only about 1.3GB of which is actually free), with your own 4GB SD card, which you can get for around $50.

Without the common frame of reference we get from our standard benchmark tests, including iTunes and Photoshop, it's difficult to judge the Eee's performance, especially as it comes with its own set of preinstalled software, doubtlessly tuned to the limitations of the hardware. We can't imagine 512MB of RAM or a 900MHz Intel Mobile processor would results in a pleasant Windows Vista experience (maybe the stripped down Vista Basic version in a pinch), but these meager specs suffice for lean Linux. We were able to surf the Web and work on some office documents with absolutely no stuttering or slowdown, which was a pleasant surprise. Gaming is a no-go, beyond the strictly casual variety (our favorite preinstalled game: Crack Attack). For its intended purpose of getting online while on the road, we found the Eee PC to be more than up to the challenge.

We were not able to run our normal DVD playback battery test, but in anecdotal testing, we were able to use the Eee for a little under 3 hours while running a mix of Web browsers, OpenOffice documents, and playing MP3 files. Asus says the 4-cell battery is rated for 3.5 hours, which is decent for an ultraportable laptop, especially one this inexpensive.

Asus covers its laptops with a standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty, and it offers online Web-based help and a toll-free phone number. The company's support Web site includes the expected driver downloads and a brief FAQ but lacks useful features such as user forums or the chance to chat in real time with a technician.

7.5

ASUS Eee PC 4G

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 7Battery 7Support 5