Asus Eee PC Review Part 2: Budget Subnotebook Perfection

by Reads (35,101)

by Jerry Jackson

Asus announced the Eee PC series of budget ultraportable notebooks (subnotebooks) in 2007 and the Eee PC has quickly become one of the most popular notebooks on the market. Every laptop manufacturer from Acer to Everex is racing to bring their own version of the Eee PC to customers in 2008 … but is that a great idea?

Last week the Internet was abuzz about an article on Gizmodo in which the author claimed the Eee PC wasn’t worth the $399 price tag. Well, since I’ve owned and actively used an Asus Eee PC 4G for the last three months, I was recruited by the editorial staff to write a follow up to my original Eee PC review. Continue reading to understand why I’m still in love with this tiny titan.


I Don’t Have To Compensate For Size

The first thing that everyone says when they see the Eee PC is, "It’s so tiny!" While this might be a problem for some of my fellow insecure computer geeks, I’m proud that my Eee PC weighs only two pounds with the battery and measures just 8.75 inches. When I travel on flights to various press events I can set the Eee PC on the seatback tray table and still have plenty of room for my iPod, a wireless mouse, a beverage and a snack.

When I’m at home watching TV on the couch I keep the Eee PC handy so I can jump online and browse websites during commercials. The Eee PC is small enough that it doesn’t get in the way but is large enough to be useful.

Most laptops are, well, laptops. The Eee PC can accurately be described as a "legtop" … in that it rests on a single leg rather than spanning across your entire lap. I’ll often keep my Eee PC on my knee (without holding it) while I’m sitting on the couch at home. Try resting a 15-inch notebook on one knee for 30 minutes without holding it in place.

I keep ebook PDF documents on my Eee PC and use the screen rotation feature to rotate the screen and hold the Eee PC like a book. This has the benefit of turning my Eee PC into an instant ebook reader … about the same size as a small paperback book and much more useful than an Amazon Kindle.

The Price: "Almost" Disposable

The key to the Eee PC’s overnight success has been the extremely compact form factor (smaller than a $2,000 Sony VAIO TZ) combined with an extremely low price ($399 for the 4G model and $299 for the 2G model).

As we’ve said previously on this site, the Eee PC 2G model probably isn’t a particularly good investment since it only has 2GB of flash storage, less RAM, and a slower processor. However, the Eee PC 4G model continues to be a solid purchase with a faster processor and twice the RAM and storage space. Add an 8GB SDHC card to the built-in card reader and you’ve got plenty of storage for short-term computing needs.

The price range of $400 or less basically makes the Eee PC a "disposable" laptop for many consumers. Sure, I expect my Eee PC to last at least a solid 12 months or more, but if it gets damaged or lost on a business trip I’m not going to lose any sleep. Ask someone with a $2,000 ultraportable notebook how they’d feel if their notebook was damaged or lost.


Would you rather lose $399 or $1,799 when you travel? (view large image)

The Screen: All Things Great and Small

The first thing you have to expect when buying the Eee PC is that the 7-inch screen size is going to be small. In fact, as much as I love the Eee PC, the truth is that the 800 x 480 screen resolution is too small for long-term use. That said, the Eee PC is not designed for long-term use. The Eee PC is a subnotebook designed for short-term travel or quick computer needs at school or the office. In that capacity, the 7-inch screen is fine.

As I mentioned above, if you’ve ever used a standard 14-inch laptop on a commercial airline or while riding on a bus/train you’ll quickly realize that the 7-inch screen can be a blessing in disguise when you’re in cramped spaces.

Bottom line, if you plan to use the Eee PC for more than a few hours at a time you’ll probably want to invest in an external monitor.


Here’s a view of our homepage on the Eee PC. (view large image)

Easy, Easy, Easy … Then Add XP

One of the first things that impressed me about the Eee PC was the customized Xandros Linux operating system. After years of dealing with Windows headaches in the office I was amazed at how trouble-free the Eee PC was straight out of the box. Simply press the power button, log onto your WiFi network, and start using your Eee PC. Using a computer doesn’t get any easier than this.

I could give the Eee PC to anyone … even my computer-illiterate wife or technophobic parents and they could use it without any difficulty. The point-and-click tabbed OS makes everything a breeze.


A view of the "Internet" tab under Linux. (view large image)

The Linux operating system on the Eee PC might not offer all the gorgeous eye candy seen in the latest offerings from Microsoft and Apple, but the interface is remarkably simple. In fact, as a long-time Mac OS user I have to admit the Eee PC’s Linux is actually easier than using a Mac … if you don’t get too complicated.

The only problems I experienced with the Eee PC came in the form of more complicated "power user" needs and specific applications required for my work. I often need to use Bluetooth devices and Bluetooth connections just aren’t easy to manage using the included Linux on the Eee PC. Likewise, tethering my smartphone to my Eee PC for use as a broadband wireless modem was also problematic under Linux. After about a month I decided to wipe the internal 4GB flash drive and install Microsoft Windows XP SP2.

Windows has the down side of taking up more space on the internal storage, but with an 8GB SDHC card inside the Eee PC’s built-in card reader I have plenty of space for all my applications (even Photoshop CS2) and enough extra space for games and movies. I’ve also added a Mac OS X Leopard theme to Windows XP and the Stardock ObjectDock which makes using XP much more enjoyable.


A view of the Eee PC’s Window’s XP desktop … after some modification. (view large image)

Battery Life: Good and Bad

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 under Linux. While the battery life was reasonable, the on-screen battery meter has a few problems. After two hours and 8 minutes of browsing the web wirelessly and watching a DivX movie for part of that time 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 in Linux cannot be trusted.

Battery life under Windows XP doesn’t fair much better. With minimal power management under Windows XP (running the processor at a full 900MHz speed, keeping the screen at full brightness, not letting the screen turn off, and keeping WiFi on while browsing the web) I’m able to get approximately 3 hours of battery life from my Eee PC 4G. That’s not bad for a standard 4-cell battery. Unfortunately, the battery meter in Windows also indicates a low battery long before the battery is fully drained.

Asus has also announced a 6-cell extended life battery for the Eee PC and that battery should be available in stores during February or March of 2008. The 6-cell battery should provide considerably more runtime with a minor increase in weight.

Wireless: WiFi and Broadband

The Eee PC uses an Atheros AR5BXB63 wireless module for 802.11b/g wireless Internet access. Reception is quite good for a budget notebook. As I stated in my full review last year, 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.

Some users have reported that the Eee PC doesn’t store the security keys for saved networks with Linux. I never experienced this problem … unless it was user error. There are actually two different ways to connect to WiFi networks using the default Linux that comes installed on the Eee PC, and if you select the wrong method you’ll be asked to re-enter your security key even if you’ve entered it previously. Although it might be a little annoying, that’s not a problem with the Eee PC … that’s a problem with the user.

As I mentioned in the operating system section above, I installed Microsoft Windows XP on my Eee PC 4G in order to tether my smartphone to use as a broadband modem. Thanks to a Windows application called PDAnet, I can now connect my Eee PC to my phone and browse the web from anywhere … as long as I can get cell phone reception.


Eee PC tethered to Motorola Q with PDAnet. (view large image)

The combination of excellent WiFi and broadband makes the Eee PC the perfect travel notebook for my personal needs. It’s small, reasonably powerful, and stays connected to the web everywhere I go.


Conclusion

Back in October of 2007 we gave the Eee PC 4G the Editors Choice Award. Would we do the same today? Yes, without hesitation. The truth is you can get a much more powerful laptop for the same amount of money if you’re willing do deal with a larger notebook. However, no other laptop on the market gives you this much computer in such a small package for such a low price … at least for now.

As I said last year, 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 travel.

If you don’t need jaw-dropping performance (and most people don’t) and want a small, inexpensive notebook then the Asus Eee PC is almost perfect. Until other laptop manufacturers bring their own low-priced subnotebooks to the market later this year, the Eee PC is the only game in town. We’re just amazed it took so long for a company to realize that consumers wanted an ultraportable notebook at an extremely low price.



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