Aspiring polymath since 1982

Eee, It’s My Eee Review

Sorry, I just could not resist that. Getting to the point, I have in my hands an Asus Eee PC that I have been using for the past two days. My office has just bought two of them for evaluation purposes so thought I’d do a quick evaluation to see if it really is worth buying as a laptop replacement or not.

The model I have is a black Asus Eee PC 4G laptop. Specs are standard and are as given below:

7 “800×480 TFT LCD screen

900Mhz Celeron Processor clocked down to 700

Intel GMA 900 graphics processor (shared memory)

4GB SSD Storage

512 MB RAM

It’s a really appealing laptop to hold. Light (weighing in at 920 grams), it’s easy to carry around with you from room to room, with absolutely no strain. The black finish also feels good with a very matte Thinkpad-like finish to the plastic enclosure. No worries about this laptop slipping through your fingers and disintegrating on the floor.

The Eee had come re-loaded with Linux, the Xandros distro going by the reviews on the net. Unfortunately, I’m not able to comment on the performance of Linux on this machine as my Sysadmin promptly replaced it with Windows XP.

With Windows XP and Microsoft Office Professional installed, there is just over 790MB usable space left. If you through Eee specific sites, then you will find that a lot of people have stripped down XP and Office to reduce the space taken on the laptop. Your mileage might vary.

I haven’t timed the boot up and shutdown times to gauge responsiveness. Let me just say that with 790MB of free space left, it’s still very snappy. Definitely far more than most Windows-based desktops/laptops that I have used. Microsoft Office opens pretty quickly, even Outlook, but I haven’t had the opportunity of using my GB-plus inbox to test though.

There are two standard resolutions for the desktop on the Eee, 800×480 (the standard) and 800×600 (conventional). With 800×600, the screen will scroll to accommodate the increased desktop and that can be slightly problematic especially when using the cramped keyboard and touchpad.

800×480 is a good compromise with Microsoft Office applications fitting neatly in the available screen space. Touchpad-based scrolling will be necessary for webpages though, especially news sites like the New York Times. Also, readability is slightly better at this resolution with crisper text and images.

Moving on to the keyboard. As is obvious in a laptop of this size, it is a big compromise in terms of writing efficiency and comfort. You can forget about touch-typing on this machine. The keys are cramped up together and it takes a good amount of time to get used to the layout. It’s possible to get used to the key size in some time, but what is really an irritant is the placement of keys.

Case in point is the right shift key, which is totally useless due to it being sized like a regular key and placed right above the cursor keys. Try pressing shift and you land up typing on some other end of your document. Another irritant is the space bar that is placed in such a manner that it cannot be accessed without pressing an Alt key accidentally, which again leads you, elsewhere from you document.

Otherwise though, the keys are good once when you get used to the layout, with good feedback and feel. Horribly dull looking though. For a laptop that is aimed at pure mobility, it would have been good if they could have provided a backlit keyboard that would have increased the usability in an appreciable manner.

Next few things that I would like to focus on are the gripes I have with the laptop.

One thing that really sticks out is the amount of space wasted around the display due to the speakers being placed there. I think this is one area that has been addressed in the Eee 900, the next version of the Asus Eee 4G that I am reviewing. Asus has increased the screen size to 8.9” by removing the speakers. I’m sure that the difference between usability on a 7” screen and a 8.9” screen will be significant.

Second gripe is the touchpad. It’s way too small and would have been better if it was a little wider. For a laptop where a significant amount of scrolling is required, it is surprising that Asus has not stolen a sheet out of Apple’s playbook and incorporated double-fingered scrolling in the touchpad. Less about the touchpad buttons the better. Suffice to say that they look and feel cheap.

Third gripe is the heat generated by it. You would not expect such a small laptop to generate as much heat as it actually does. For something aimed at mobility, it gets so hot at times that it’s unusable, on your lap or in your hand. I’m hoping hat this is an issue that will be addressed through adoption of Intel Atom processors as and when they become available.

I wish I could open up the laptop to see what kind of heatsink they have inside and also if its been pasted on properly. From what I gather online, it’s not an issue isolated to my unit. (Update: It seems that there is no heatsink per se, but there is a steel cover for the motherboard acting as one. No wonder.)

A niggling gripe is that there is no indication lights for the Lock keys, so if you have accidentally pressed the Caps Lock, Num Lock or Scroll Lock there is absolutely no way of knowing what you did till you start typing. How much money can Asus save by omitting three LEDs or is just a simple oversight?

Final gripe and one of the most important according to me is the case of the Eee. Since it is so light and also bottom-heavy, due to the placement of the battery at the back, it has an unfortunate tendency to tip over at little provocation (slight nudge to the screen for example). This can get really annoying especially when you’re in the middle of doing some work on it. It is also nearly impossible to use when it’s resting on a soft surface like a bed or sofa.

Coming back to the million-dollar question? Is the Eee worth buying as a secondary laptop? My answer to that would be an emphatic no. Unless you are using a 17” or 19” desktop replacement monstrosity as your primary laptop, you would be hard-pressed to make a logical case for buying an Eee. (But then, which gadget buying geek would qualify as being logical when it comes to gadgets)

Is it worth it as a desktop replacement or road-warrior laptop? Hmmm, slightly more difficult question. It all depends on whether you have big meaty fingers or not, whether weight is a very significant parameter in your choice, and whether you can live with the compromises of working with limited storage and no optical drive.

It is definitely not a laptop where you will be playing Half-Life 2 LAN parties but for the basic usage of accessing the web, using Office applications and listening to music or watching videos, it more than adequately meets the demands raised by the user.

At 18,000 rupees in India, it’s definitely not going to be an impulse buy for most, unlike the US where the Eee is available for less than USD 400. Also, unlike the US where Asus is targeting markets such as primary and secondary education, first-time computer users and parents, in India most of these markets are still very nascent.

Also in India, computer purchases are still driven by the “value” mentality rather than the “gadget” mentality. Even for me, making a laptop purchasing decision depends on a complete comparison of hardware in the market, and assessing the differential price that each brand name is commanding. It is very difficult for me to see how Asus will penetrate the Indian market in any effective manner or even expand the market to include first-time computer users.

Would I buy it? No. Not even if I had the money to spare. This is mainly because while the Asus Eee was a revolutionary way of thinking about portable computing and reducing hardware clutter to the basic minimum required to get the job done, it has also attracted a whole new batch of competitors into this market, most notable being the HP Mini-Note series.

As prices and hardware configurations start getting better, the Eee’s basic values of cheap and simple computing start to get more devalued. Therefore, while my vote is against the Asus Eee as a product, I would definitely vote for the new crop of ultra-mini laptops coming into the market. And we all have to thank Asus and the Eee for that.

Hopefully, I will be able to get my hands on the HP Mini-Note laptop for a review as well as comparison with the Asus Eee. Until then, some more links that might be of use to a person looking into getting an Eee:

By the way, this whole post was written using the Eee. It did take longer than my usual time but I’m sure that in some time typing speeds will even out. In all it was good fun, but I could not imagine using the Eee on a daily basis.

If you want some more information regarding the different ultra-mini laptops out there, head over to my earlier post on this topic called The New Ultra-Mini Revolution.

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The New Ultra-Mini Revolution

I’m sure anyone who is even a remote follower of gadget blogs would have seen the steady trickle of ultra-mini laptops over the past six months or so. The first culprit to emerge was the Asus EEE PC, followed by the Cloudbook by Everex and now HP’s sleek-looking Mini-Note laptop.

I’m excluding the XO and the Classmate PC in this evaluation because of their target segment being totally different. Getting back to ultra-minis, there is one heartening trend that I see in the introduction of these laptops, which I hope percolates down to the rest of the electronics industry.

Less Bloatware!!

And that encompasses bloatware in both hardware and software. Now, I’m not a neo-Luddite, Amish or a Gandhian. Gadgets like the IPhone and the IMac still make me utter low moans of pleasure in the sub-sonic frequency range. I see that purely as a reflection of their design and not the hardware and software included in them.

Seeing how laptops over the years have evolved from 9″ VGA Toshiba Porteges to 19″ Ultra-Glossy-Superblack-Carbonite Widescreen!!™ equipped behemoths, I wonder whether we are sacrificing usability and portability at the altar of the gadget-equivalent of a nuclear arms race.

I have been using a 12″ Powerbook for the past 3 years now. At the time I bought it, I looked around all over the place for a laptop that had a screen 12″ or lower. Just two manufacturers met my criteria, Apple and Asus. Everything else I could find was 14.1″ and above. I finally chose Apple even though it was more expensive because I fell in love with its build quality.

Over the past 3 years of usage I’ve realized that except for brief forays into computer games and graphics usage, my main application usage has been restricted to Microsoft Office, IWork, Safari and now Firefox, Mail, ITunes and DVD Player. Not exactly usage that would require the bleeding edge in Core 2 Duo processors, dedicated 512MB-equipped DDR RAM video cards and the like.

There has been a very slight sluggishness that has set in to the system, and my reasoning is that it might be because of my heavy hard disk usage. And this might be Mac-specific also, but I usually keep my laptop up and running for over 15 days without a single crash and/or restart.

Now I’m sure that it will be a stretch without any scientific polling or survey backing it, but I’m willing to make the bold claim that nearly 80% of laptop users across the world mirror my application usage patterns. Thanks Pareto.

Since I seem to be getting into the habit of making assumptions, lets add one more to the list. I’m assuming that over the past 3 years, similar applications on Windows XP based-PCs have not increased their hardware requirements. On the Mac, all the revisions of Tiger that I have installed so far have not uttered a murmur about increased hardware requirements.

So if, commonly used applications on both platforms have not increased hardware requirements and that most users have not significantly altered their application usage patterns, then what is the psychology driving people to throw their hard-earned dollars, rupees, kwachas and what-have-you at Moore’s Law?

Why are users still on the hamster wheel?

There are some trends that I hope will start with the introduction of these ultra-mini laptops, namely

  • Emphasis on low-power and as important, low-heat emitting 1.2-1.5 ghz processors such as the Intel Atom
  • Users realizing that 60-80 GB hard disks are really enough, unless you are doing non-linear video editing, audio production, running a BitTorrent haven or taking a full-time plunge into becoming a warez (sic)baron
  • Sub 1.5 kg weight limit for laptops
  • An end to glossy screens. There must be a reason why anti gloss returns 677,000 hits on Google after all
  • Ultra-mini battery lives hitting 3 plus hours on the road. Looking at reviews of the Asus EEE PC and HP Mini-Note, this is yet to happen
  • No more bloated software and crapware

In short, lets hope that laptops become less like swiss army knives and more precision knives.

If you want to get more information about the different products out there in this burgeoning space, follow through to this link from a site on ultra-mini laptops called appropriately, Liliputing

(Update: Head on over to my review of the Asus Eee to see what I had to say about using it as a full-time laptop)

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