Asus Eee PC 4G Review

by Jerry Jackson Reads (552,368)

by Jerry Jackson

The Asus Eee PC 701 4G is the new affordable ultraportable notebook that’s bound to be on many consumers’ Christmas wish lists this year. Retailing for $399 or less, the Eee PC isn’t exactly a workhorse, but it will do just about every basic task you’d need from a laptop. Our initial hands-on actually proved it does more than we expected, but the more detailed review below helps explain exactly why we’re so excited about a $400 notebook.

First, the specs for the review unit we have on hand, which is the Eee PC 701 4G:

  • Processor: Intel Celeron M ULV 900MHz
  • Graphics: Integrated Intel GMA 900 GPU
  • Storage: 4GB of Flash-based storage (SSD)
  • Memory: 512MB of DDR2 RAM (667MHz)
  • OS: Xandros Linux (Asus customized)
  • Screen: 7-inch screen with 800 x 480 resolution
  • Ports: 3 USB 2.0, 1 VGA monitor out, headphone jack, microphone input, SD card reader (SDHC compatible), Kensington lock slot, Ethernet 10/100
  • Webcam (0.3 MP)
  • Battery: 4-cell 5200 mAh 7.4V Li-Ion (rated at 3.5 hours)
  • Wireless: 802.11b/g Atheros
  • Input: Keyboard and Touchpad
  • Weight: approximately 2 lbs with battery, 2.5 lbs travel weight with AC adapter.
  • Two-year warranty


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Build and Design

The designers at Asus had no easy task creating an attractive ultraportable notebook while also making it cheap to produce. The case seams match up with reasonably tight tolerances, plastics feel thick (though the pearl-like white plastics look cheap) and the display hinges are molded into body with the battery. Lifting the display cover you find the amazingly small keyboard surface and even smaller touchpad resting below the recessed display and speakers. In short, the build quality is quite high despite the low cost.


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The design of the Eee PC is something truly unique in the market. Weighing in at just two pounds and delivering a performance level similar to a full-featured budget notebook, the only notebook that comes close to “directly” competing with the Eee PC is the Fujitsu LifeBook U810 tablet PC … which retails for more than $1,000 at the time of this writing. The next closest competitor to the Eee PC would be traditional ultraportables like the Toshiba Portege R500 ($2,000) and the Sony VAIO TZ ($3,000).

True, the more expensive rivals come preloaded with Microsoft Windows XP or Vista and feature a range of superior technical specs … but our review of the Asus Eee PC shows this tiny white titan packs an impressive punch.

Screen

The screen is 7-inches diagonally with LED back lighting and has a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels. For the sake of a reference, below is what you can see when you pull up the homepage of the site you are on right now:


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The Eee PC might not have a glossy, high contrast display like most notebooks made in the last year, but the bright and even backlight helps make for an enjoyable reading experience. We even found the quality of the colors more than sufficient for viewing movies or You Tube videos.

Below is a screenshot we took on the Asus Eee PC of the YouTube.com homepage, this is a good example of what you’ll see using the Eee PC screen resolution and size:


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Operating System and Software

Asus teamed up with Xandros to develop a customized version of the Linux operating system for the new Eee PC. Microsoft Windows requires a significant amount of storage space on the tiny 4GB SSD, and the added cost from installing genuine Windows would have added to the final retail price of the Eee PC. Despite the lack of Microsoft software the Eee PC is remarkably easy to use. Xandros developed a point-and-click user interface that looks and acts similar to Windows … but easier.


A view of the "Internet" tab displayed after startup. (view large image)

The Asus Eee PC comes preloaded with more than 40 applications for everything from work and email to listening to music and watching movies. Unlike the many free applications that come preinstalled on Windows-based computers, almost none of the applications on the Eee PC can be considered “bloatware.” In fact, almost every application on this notebook is both useful and easy to use.


The "Work" tab. (view large image)


The "Learn" tab. (view large image)


The "Play" tab. (view large image)

Click on the “Web” icon and the Firefox web browser opens. Click on the “Documents,” “Spreadsheets,” or “Presentations” icons and the Open Office application (compatible with Microsoft Office) opens so you don’t have to purchase additional office software. Click on any standard movie file and the video plays in either the Media Player application or inside Firefox … you don’t need to spend hours searching for video plugins and codecs, the movies just play. Don’t waste time downloading iTunes. Just plug in your iPod and the Music Manager detects the music player and begins importing the songs.

The point is that the Eee PC just works. We only wish we could say the same thing about the many Windows-based notebooks we review.


The "Settings" tab. (view large image)

In fact, the only minor issue we had where something didn’t work on the Eee PC right out of the box was the built-in 0.3 megapixel webcam. For whatever reason the camera was by default turned off in the BIOS and we had to go in and enable it for the camera to work. For something that dubs itself as "Easy to learn, Easy to work, Easy to play" that’s not exactly “easy.” We don’t think grandma will figure out how to enable the webcam on her own. However, this issue is easily correctable by a BIOS update from Asus … so if Asus fixes the problem all you have to do is click on the “Add/Remove Software” icon and click the “install” button when a new BIOS is available. On that note, Asus already made several updates available at the time of this review.

If the fact that Asus uses Linux is a concern for you, then don’t worry. Asus recently announced that they are teaming up with Microsoft to release a version of the Eee PC that will come preloaded with Windows in 2008. Neither company specified which version of Windows will find its way onto the Eee PC, but given the 4GB SSD and low voltage processor Windows XP is the obvious choice. Whether or not Windows will help or hurt the performance of the Eee PC remains to be seen. In any case, you can expect the cost of a Windows-based Eee PC to be higher.

Speakers

The speakers on the Eee PC are hard to miss. They are located to the left and right of the screen and, thanks to their black speaker grills, stand out in comparison to the rest of the all white notebook. The location might appear odd, but it provides a clear path to your head for maximum listening pleasure. Despite the diminutive size of the built-in speakers they worked quite well for watching movies, playing games, or listening to some music while moving from room to room in my house. With the volume set to max, the decibel meter registered ~75dB at one foot. The audio was only slightly distorting on high notes, but stayed mostly clear.

As is common with small built-in speakers, the high and upper midrange came through well, but bass didn’t sound nearly as impressive. Thankfully, Asus included a standard headphone jack on the Eee PC so it is quite simple to connect headphones or an external speaker system if you want a superior listening experience.

Keyboard and Touchpad

Most low-priced notebooks currently on the market feature poorly built keyboards that show significant flex/bounce when typing pressure is applied. Much to our surprise, the keyboard on the Eee PC is remarkably firm, though the keys are small and have a large degree of “wiggle” when pressed.


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The keyboard on the Eee PC is very, very compact. The first two days I spent typing on the Eee PC were quite frustrating as the small footprint and tiny keys require you to use a “hunt and peck” style of typing rather than traditional touch typing methods. This means that passwords get mangled, emails look like gibberish, and playing games that require keyboard commands becomes quite aggravating.

Of course, once I got used to typing on the tiny keyboard the keys felt just fine … but this keyboard isn’t designed to be used as a primary/main computer. For users who would buy this notebook as their “main computer” in their home or office, a full-size keyboard and external mouse are recommended.

The touchpad and single button (with left and right “rocker” buttons underneath) are easy to use and responsive. The only issue we encountered with the touchpad was that the small size made it a little difficult to use when moving across the screen and it was easy to press the wrong side of the single touchpad button (so sometimes a right click turned into a left click).

Performance

Our regular selection of performance benchmarks can’t be used with the Eee PC given the fact that it is a Linux-based notebook. However, we can measure the time it take to perform a number of simple procedures in order to give you an idea of how the Eee PC performs. Please keep in mind that the speeds listed below will vary depending on the number of applications you have open at any given time (multitasking always slows things down).

  • Startup: ~12 seconds
  • Opening and loading the NotebookReview.com website in Firefox: ~3 seconds
  • Starting playback on a 700MB AVI video file: ~3 seconds
  • Starting the Open Office application: ~6 seconds
  • Opening a 3.64MB PDF document: ~3 seconds
  • Opening a 2.35MB PowerPoint presentation: ~10 seconds

For those interested in the speed of the 4GB SSD, hdparm benchmarks the SSD buffered read speed at 21.78 MB/sec. For comparison, a Lenovo ThinkPad T60 with a fast 7200rpm Seagate hard drive has a buffered read speed of 54.62 MB/sec and a Toshiba Tecra A9 with standard 5400rpm hard drive has a buffered read speed of 44.87 MB/sec.

While the Eee PC won’t win any awards for performance within applications, startup is remarkably fast and overall performance is fast enough to keep most users happy.

Port Selection and Expansion


Front: Indicator lights (view large image)


Left side: 10/100 Ethernet port, empty modem port, USB 2.0 port, air vent, microphone in, and headphone jack. (view large image)


Rear view: AC power jack (view large image)


Right side: SD card reader, two USB 2.0 ports, VGA out, Kensington lock slot. (view large image)

If you open the bottom panel on the Eee PC (which may void the two-year warranty) you’ll find a standard DDR2 RAM slot and a PCI-E mini card slot for possible future expansion. We tested the Eee PC with both the standard 512MB memory and a 1GB memory module. Theoretically, a 2GB module of RAM should fit in the slot just as easily as a 1GB module did … but we didn’t have a 2GB module available in the office.


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Heat and Noise

Even with the low voltage processor and SSD drive, the Asus Eee PC produced as much heat as any other notebook in the same price range. The keyboard and bottom of the notebook got quite hot even under normal use, and the fan was always running in an attempt to keep the system cool. Fan noise was among the quietest we’ve heard. The only way to tell the fan is blowing is to put your hand next to the air vent to feel the warm air blow past.

Below are heat overlay images showing where the Eee PC warmed up (in degrees Fahrenheit) during normal extended use. You’ll notice that we only listed one temperature for each side … that’s because the Eee PC is so small that they’re basically only one temperature for the top and one temperature for the bottom.


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Wireless

The Eee PC uses an Atheros AR5BXB63 wireless module for 802.11b/g wireless Internet access. Reception is quite good for a budget notebook. The Eee PC maintained a connection to my home router from anywhere inside my three-level home and from anywhere in my front or back yard. At the editorial offices for NotebookReview.com the Eee PC managed to stay connected to the office router even after I left the building and walked across the parking lot. The wireless connection only dropped to 75 percent signal strength after I walked more than 50 yards away from the building. Being able to travel a distance equivalent to half the length of a football field means you won’t have trouble browsing the web with the Eee PC.

Battery

Under normal use, backlight at 100 percent and using wireless for web browsing and watching a DivX movie at 75 percent volume, the Eee PC managed to deliver three hours and 23 minutes of battery life. We were hoping for more given the low voltage processor and flash-based storage, but for a $400 notebook the battery life is still very good. Lowering the screen brightness and turning off the wireless card should provide enough battery life for prolonged use.

While the battery life was reasonable, we did experience some minor problems with the on-screen battery meter. After two hours and 8 minutes of browsing the web wirelessly and watching a DivX movie the low battery warning popped up on screen and reported that the Eee PC would shut down in 3 minutes unless it was plugged into a power source. The Eee PC then kept working for another one hour and 15 minutes before the notebook shutdown. Bottom line, the on-screen battery indicator cannot be trusted.

Conclusion

In the end, the Eee PC is the single most impressive notebook we’ve seen priced below $400. The technical specs might look sub par, but the usability and overall performance of the Eee PC rivals notebooks costing several thousand dollars more. Granted, you can’t install Photoshop on this little notebook and you can forget about playing Bioshock on this thing, but the Eee PC can do just about everything you “need” to do with a notebook while on the go.

The only features missing from the Eee PC that really stand out are the lack of Bluetooth 2.0 and the lack of a Verizon or Sprint wireless card option. If Asus can find a way to add these features to the Eee PC we will go as far as to say, “No home should be without an Eee PC.” As it stands now, the Eee PC is a truly impressive ultraportable with a value much higher than the sale price suggests. The Eee PC can’t replace a full-featured desktop or notebook, but it makes the perfect choice if you are in the market for an ultraportable notebook for school, work, or vacation.

The Eee PC might have a weird name, but it’s one of the few products that lives up to the marketing hype. This notebook truly is “easy to learn, easy to work, and easy to play.”

Pros

  • Small and light

  • Easy to use

  • Reasonably well built and durable

  • Low price for an ultraportable

  • Works right out of the box!

  • That’s right. It works right out of the box!

  • Did I mention it works right out of the box?

Cons

  • A little expensive for a notebook with only 4GB of storage

  • No Microsoft Windows pre-installed is a negative for some buyers.

  • Plastics “look” cheap

  • The battery meter isn’t very accurate.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for our special “Eee PC Tweak Guide” where we show how the Eee PC performs after Microsoft XP is installed!


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