Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2390
ASUS Eee PC: Laptop, UMPC, or Something Else?by Jarred Walton on November 30, 2007 4:00 AM EST
- Posted in
Every now and again, a product comes out that defies easy categorization. The ASUS Eee PC is such a product. Is it a small laptop for children? Is it something that your grandma might like, or perhaps just a tchotchke that an enthusiast would enjoy as a secondary portable computer? ASUS seems to think that it's all of these things and more, and they're probably right. It's also less than the sum of its parts at times, for those that prefer to be a bit more pessimistic.
At its core, the Eee PC is simply a new take on old hardware. Flash back to the state-of-the-art in computer performance, around the time of the dreaded attack of the Y2K bug. Back then, a high-end desktop computer might come equipped with a Pentium III 800MHz chip (or Athlon 650), 512MB of RAM, a GeForce DDR graphics card, and a 15GB hard drive. Throw in the rest of the accessories, and you're talking about a computer that would have cost somewhere approximately $1500 for a midrange setup, and as much as $3,000 (or more) if you purchased bleeding-edge components.
Now squish all of that into a 7" ultraportable laptop chassis, cut the hard drive size down to 4GB, and sell it for $400. You also get wireless networking and a webcam, or you can ditch the webcam and save yourself $50. Almost eight years later, that's more or less what ASUS has done. Depending on your perspective, that sounds like either a great new product or a complete waste of time. There really is no easy way to say which opinion is correct, and not surprisingly user reviews popping up around the Internet show both sides of the coin.
The "Eee" in Eee PC is an acronym of sorts, because computer people love those. "Easy to Learn, Easy to Work, Easy to Play"; "Excellent Internet Experience"; "Excellent On-the-Go". Look at the ASUS Eee webpages, and you will find a preponderance of the use of words starting with "E" used to describe the Eee PC. One acronym you won't see used is UMPC, but while the Eee PC is certainly different from your typical UMPC - it lacks the touch sensitive stylus interface and it runs Linux by default - it can certainly fulfill the same niche if necessary, with some caveats. Considering it costs half as much as the cheapest UMPCs, anyone looking for such a device should give the Eee PC some consideration.
What about grandma and grandpa who need an easy to use computer for Internet and email access, or little Billy who's in elementary school? Despite the low price, the Eee PC might not be the right choice for that sort of person. Grandma and grandpa will probably scream in pain as they try to type on the tiny keyboard with their arthritic fingers while squinting at the screen, and Billy is going to wonder why there aren't more games or other "cool stuff". That's not to say that these people can't use the Eee PC, but there are other options out there that might be a better fit.
Trying to put together a review of the Eee PC is actually quite difficult, so instead of our usual gauntlet of benchmark results, we're going to be giving more of a touchy-feely overview of what it's like to use the Eee PC. There are plenty of things to like, but we also encountered a fair share of irritation. If you tried to sell us on the idea of using the Eee PC as our only computer, we would balk and walk away quickly. As a secondary or tertiary computing device, however, it has a lot more potential. Join us as we run applications, write letters, surf the web, and dismantle the Eee PC.
Upon first opening up the box and removing the Eee PC from its packaging, you will almost certainly be impressed. This is a stylish, small, sleek laptop that you certainly wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen using in public. If you're the type of person that likes to whip out their new gadget to impress friends, the Eee PC is certainly a conversation piece. "Hey, check out my new laptop! This thing only weighs two pounds and it doesn't cost as much as an iPhone. Sure, it can't make regular phone calls, but I can still talk to people using Skype and I have a regular keyboard for typing messages. Plus, I don't need to sign up for any expensive two-year contract...." While all of that might be true, that doesn't begin to quantify what it's truly like to use the Eee PC.
Here's a quick look at the Eee PC from the various angles. There's not a lot to say, other than that ASUS did a good job with the overall appearance. If you don't like the pearl white color, you can also get the Eee PC in black. At least, certain versions of the Eee PC are available in black - we're not entirely sure what ASUS plans for the future, and unfortunately availability at present is limited with most online vendors being backordered.
Given the small chassis, it's no surprise that expansion options are relatively limited. There are two USB ports and a flash memory reader that handles MMC/SD/SDHC on the right side, as well as a VGA connection and a Kensington lock socket. You get headphone, microphone, Ethernet, and modem jacks on the left side, along with another USB port. The power socket is on the rear.
A built-in webcam and microphone are included on the Eee PC 4G that we're reviewing today. The webcam is above the display, while the microphone is located under the front lip on the bottom of the laptop. If it wasn't already apparent, there is no optical drive present. USB support for optical drives is available, and that's currently the only way to install a different operating system. ASUS includes a driver CD for Windows XP should you wish to try that, and they are also planning to release a version that comes with Windows XP preinstalled in the near future. If you do not already have a USB optical drive, we would recommend waiting a few more months to see what ASUS does with XP versions.
That takes care of the outside, but what sort of stuff can we find inside the Eee PC? Let's don our operating room attire and find out.
The first area you can access - voiding your warranty! - is on the bottom of the laptop. Here you will find a single DDR2 SO-DIMM slot, which on this model comes fitted with 512MB of memory. Above the SO-DIMM slot is a mini PCI slot, at least on the version we received. We have seen information circulating on the Internet that indicates ASUS may have decided to remove the mini PCI slot on later versions; if that's important to you, you will want to do additional research.
Note that there are rumors that the cost reduced version of the Eee PC 4G, the Eee PC 4G Surf, does not have the upgradable memory - there are conflicting reports, so we recommend double-checking before making any purchase. In addition, the 4G Surf lacks the microphone and webcam and it has a smaller battery - 4400 mAh instead of 5200 mAh.
We are rather disappointed that ASUS chose to void the warranty if any user decides to upgrade their memory (though whether they can enforce this remains to be seen). We expect them to release a model in the future with 1GB of RAM, and we know a model with 8GB of solid-state storage is in the works. Still, upgrading your memory is a simple and painless operation that users are capable of doing without damaging anything. Anyway, since we've already voided our "warranty" we might as well continue taking this thing apart.
The first step is to remove the keyboard; three metal prongs along the top edge hold it in place, and we used a small screwdriver to help with this process. Like all laptop keyboards, a flat data ribbon connects to the motherboard. You'll need to disconnect this in order to continue the dissection process. There's no reason to do so, as the internal components aren't upgradable, but we like taking things apart.
Getting at the motherboard proves to be more difficult than usual. Four screws on the bottom and eight screws underneath the keyboard secure the top panel. Besides these 12 screws, however, there are also plastic tabs around the edges that hold the top panel in place. With some patience, a small flat head screwdriver, and some poking and prodding we were able to remove this panel, which also serves as something of a heatsink. We also had to disconnect the small ribbon cable for the touchpad. With that accomplished, we get a nice view of the densely packed motherboard.
Taking a closer look at the motherboard, and removing the heat transfer pads from the middle and right chips, we get to the heart of the Eee PC. The left chip is a 900MHz Celeron M processor, based on the Dothan core with 512K of cache. As reported elsewhere, ASUS underclocks the chip to 630MHz with a 70MHz front side bus. ASUS likely does this to keep temperatures and power requirements in check, although this may change in the future. The center and right chips are the Northbridge and Southbridge.
The center chip is unmarked, but the other two chips are copyright 2003. It's too bad ASUS wasn't able to use a single System-on-a-Chip design; something manufactured using a 45nm process could easily reduce power requirements and improve performance, were such a chip available. Both AMD and Intel are working on such designs, though perhaps it was simply cheaper for ASUS to use old surplus microchips.
If you didn't notice, the flash memory that serves as the main storage is not visible. This should be on the other side of the motherboard, but after some initial attempts at removing the motherboard from the case, we decided discretion was the better course of action. Again, as seen in the above images, there are no user upgradable parts inside anyway.
Give Her the Boot
So far, we've looked at the exterior and poked around at the internal components, but we still haven't gotten around to actually using the Eee PC. It's time to turn the system on and look at what we get in terms of software. The Eee PC uses Linux - the Xandros distro - and most of the included software comes from the open source community, released under the GPL. (Or at least it should be.) Booting up the Eee PC takes less than 30 seconds, at which point the main interface appears.
There are six tabs across the top of the screen, though where certain items are located is somewhat arbitrary. The Internet page for example contains several icons that load Firefox and open a webpage, a couple of chat clients, and network settings (wired and wireless). The work tab contains your typical office applications, courtesy of Open Office.org. Also present are a file manager, email application, and a dictionary. The dictionary definitely could use work, as much of the interface is in Chinese by default, and it takes longer to load than any of the other applications. Of course, we didn't find the dictionary to be particularly useful anyway; an Internet link to a site like Merriam-Webster might be a better choice.
The utilities and applications on the other tabs should be self-explanatory. You get games, multimedia applications, learning tools (i.e. educational games), and settings management. The Eee PC doesn't come with a ton of software, but instead focuses on the basics that most people will use. Outside of games, all most people really need is a web browser, email application, word processor, and spreadsheet.
If you would like to install additional software, this is where you encounter your first set of difficulties. ASUS includes an Add/Remove Software icon on the settings page, but it only allows users to install/remove a few programs. We expect this to change over time, but short of installing your own operating system we did not see any easy way to install any other applications. Considering the amount of open source software currently available, it's unfortunate ASUS does not include the option to install/use more of it.
Access to the command console is available, albeit hidden. (Thanks to the reader that pointed this out.) Still, our inclination after playing around with the Eee PC for a bit is to want to install a different OS. Yes, some people are perfectly happy with Linux, but with a huge portion of the computing world using Windows we are more comfortable with that environment. Even a modified Linux interface would be preferable - the ASUS Eee PC environment just feels a bit too scaled back for our tastes. However, for this review, we will evaluate the Eee PC without installing other applications and using the default OS - the way most people will use it.
The User Experience
Okay, so ASUS created this svelte little laptop that's available at a reasonable price - assuming you can find it in stock, which is currently difficult. What's it like to use the Eee PC on a regular basis? This is where things can get a little difficult to quantify, as we're dealing with the user experience and a subjective evaluation. Let's start with some quick benchmark numbers, for the interested.
|ASUS Eee PC 4G Performance Testing|
|Battery Life - Web Surfing (minutes)||162|
|Operating System (seconds)|
|Restart and WiFi||49|
|Application Load Times (seconds)|
|Open Office Documents||6|
|Open Office Calc||8|
|Open Office Presentations||6|
|Web Browser (Firefox)||5|
Start/shutdown, suspend/resume, and application load times are all reasonable. This definitely isn't a superfast laptop, but for casual use it's more than sufficient. Of course, if you start loading more than one application, things might get a little less snappy in terms of performance. Upgrading the memory to 1GB addresses that problem, but that would of course increase the price and void your warranty. (Yes, we are aware that it may not be possible for ASUS to void the warranty for memory upgrade; how that plays out remains to be seen.) We should also mention that Open Office load times increase by around five seconds the first time you run on OOo program. Open Office uses Java, so there's an additional delay the first time while the OS loads Java into memory. Why the dictionary application takes so long to load is something of a mystery, but most people will probably never use it anyway. (Most other applications load in a second or two.)
Battery life is decent but not great, coming in at just under three hours. However, note that we are running the display at maximum brightness (as we usually do with any laptop that we're using), and we are generating near constant traffic over the wireless adapter. If you want to turn down the brightness level and you're not surfing the net, it should not be difficult to reach the 3.5 hours of battery life that ASUS lists in their specifications. That's the good news; the bad news is that it seems to take almost as long to recharge the battery.
While performance is generally sufficient for the intended use, where things can get difficult is when you actually start trying to use the Eee PC on a regular basis. For one, the keyboard is tiny - really tiny. Maybe this is great for kids, but after using the keyboard for several hours I personally found it extremely uncomfortable to use. My hands aren't large, but neither are they small - pretty average I would say - but while I can adapt to using the keyboard on a 12" laptop, the diminutive keyboard on the Eee PC really won't work for me as anything more than a temporary solution while I'm away from the office. Other people likely aren't as picky about keyboards - Blackberry devices, iPhones, and SMS messaging are all things that I try to avoid typing on - so this is definitely an area where personal opinion matters - a lot!. If you're like Anand and can type like a demon on your iPhone, the keyboard almost certainly isn't going to be a sticking point.
On a similar note, the touchpad isn't the best that we've encountered. Double-tapping in order to execute a click, or a double-tap followed by a drag, just didn't work as well as we're used to. The buttons below the touchpad also have a mushy feel. Trying to adjust the properties of the touchpad and the settings screen didn't help matters. It's not that the touchpad is unusable, but it's just not as precise as we would like. Again, personal opinion will likely play a role in terms of how important this is. When you aren't on the road, you can of course plug in a keyboard and mouse and eliminate the input device as a point of contention, but that's not really the point of an ultraportable.
We are full of criticisms right now, but let's get them all out of the way at once. The display is plenty bright and not too hard on the eyes, but the native resolution (800x480) is low. We like widescreen displays as much as the next person does, but mostly when we're already talking about larger displays and higher resolutions. An 800x600 display would have been better; there are times when a dialog box will open and you can't see the "OK" button on the bottom because of the lack of vertical screen size. Most operating systems (Windows XP and Vista for sure) are designed for 800x600 or higher resolutions. Plugging the Eee PC into a separate display gets around this problem, but that's not something most people will do.
Another issue is with the wireless support: WPA encryption works, but only if the passphrase doesn't contain spaces. This is something that ASUS can easily fix with a driver update, but so far they have not done so. In fact, they have taken a different approach, as ASUS now states that WPA support is "unofficial" and that the end-user is on their own. For our own network this wasn't a problem, but if you're frequently on the road or trying to use the Eee PC on corporate/school networks this is almost certainly unacceptable. We also had frequent occurrences where the Eee PC would disconnect from our wireless network, particularly after a suspend/resume. We could then manually reconnect without trouble, but why the auto-connect setting would fail at times isn't clear.
All of the above probably makes it sound like we hate - or at least dislike - the Eee PC. Remember how we said evaluating the Eee PC is one of the more challenging reviews we've done? This is part of the problem; the Eee PC doesn't really target the computer enthusiast, and it's difficult to place ourselves in the role of the target market. For us, the Eee PC is not a great choice as a primary computer, but it can work well in a secondary role. Many of the above concerns also deserve a rebuttal, so that's what we'll do.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Many of the complaints that we've leveled against the Eee PC are intentional design decisions. There's really no good way to fit a full-size keyboard into a 7" laptop chassis. ASUS' goal was to create an ultraportable laptop that would be great for computer neophytes and children. We don't have any children readily available to write a review of the Eee PC, and we certainly don't qualify as computer neophytes. (Okay, that's not quite true. My five-year-old thinks it's cool; she calls it her "baby computer" and thinks Tux Racer is awesome.) While we may feel that the user interface is Spartan and that there aren't enough applications, ASUS actually put a lot of time and effort into creating the OS front-end. As a power user, we might not like it too much, but it does keep complexity down to a minimum.
It's easy to see the Eee PC as a popular item for people whose lives don't revolve around technology. It does everything you really need from a computer, and if you're looking for similarly priced options, you either have to get something a lot larger or something smaller. Look around on eBay and you can find a used laptop that probably offers more performance for the same price (or less) than what you will spend on an Eee PC. For that matter, you might not even need to go to eBay. You can also pick up PDAs for under $400. The problem is, both of these options end up being completely different from the Eee PC. Any new or used laptop that costs under $500 will likely be twice the size of the Eee PC, if not larger, so you're no longer getting an ultraportable. PDAs on the other hand serve a completely different market. Keeping track of your calendar, checking an email, or writing a quick note are all things that you can do with a PDA. However, you need to do this with a stylus input device (unless you grab a keyboard accessory) and the screens you get on PDAs make the 7" LCD on the Eee PC look positively huge.
There are 7" computers out there, of course. We're talking about the UMPC (Ultra-Mobile PC). That still isn't the same as an Eee PC, however, and they cost more than twice as much. They still use a stylus input/touch-sensitive screen as well, so if you're comfortable using a keyboard - even a small keyboard - writing any lengthier notes/emails/documents on a UMPC could take some time. It's all about using the best tool for the task at hand, and UMPCs serve a different niche. The stylus interface allows you to walk around a warehouse for example, jotting down notes or checking inventory.
That's really the crux of the problem: in what areas does the Eee PC excel? It's too large to be a PDA, too small to function as a laptop for most people, not particularly fast, and the default input devices are somewhat limited. Anyone interested in purchasing a UMPC might find the Eee PC functions adequately and costs a lot less, but with the Eee PC, you have to flip it open and use a regular keyboard/touchpad. That makes using the Eee while standing or walking around somewhat difficult. There are still things that the Eee PC can do better than other systems, however.
Going out on a quick luncheon trip and don't feel like lugging along your regular laptop? Grab your Eee PC. You'll have plenty of battery life, it doesn't require a lot of table space, and if you happen to be carrying a purse anyway you should be able to fit it inside. Jot down notes, maybe fire off an email, or just surf the web. If the thought of trying to lug around a large 10-15 pound laptop bag makes you cringe, the Eee PC can provide nearly all the same functionality in a much smaller package. You could do this with a PDA as well, and it would require even less space than the Eee PC; however, while surfing the web at 800x480 might feel a bit limiting it's still worlds better than trying to surf on a 240x320 screen.
In short, the Eee PC is exactly what it appears to be: a really small laptop. It's a different take on the ultraportable market from UMPC, at a much more attractive price. It's easy to fit in a child's backpack for school, and it weighs a lot less than your typical textbook. You still get a regular QWERTY keyboard, even if it's small, decent networking, and a display that's better suited to surfing the Internet than other tiny computing devices (cell phones/iPhones, PDAs, etc.) If size matters and you are simply unwilling to carry around a 5-10 pound laptop, the Eee PC might be exactly what you need. We would still have issues using it as our primary computing device, but then you just can't run stuff like Crysis on an Eee PC.
There has been loads of praise heaped on the Eee PC since its launch. We're not quite so gung ho about running out and buying them - or recommending them to friends or family - but there's still a good market for the device. As an out of box experience, the Eee PC does prove the viability of Linux. Anyone familiar with computers should have no difficulty using the applications that come with the Eee PC. That's not to say that using the Eee PC and Open Office is the same as running Windows XP with Microsoft Office, but it's close enough that users should be able to figure things out.
Getting all of the drivers and applications to work properly on a Linux installation can be a time-consuming affair for the uninitiated, and ASUS removes a lot of the legwork from the process. For example, Flash works within Firefox (so you don't have to miss any advertisements!), and we watched a variety of video formats without difficulty. DivX, Xvid, WMV, and various AVI and MPEG video files all played without difficulty, provided the resolution was reasonable. (High-definition content proved to be too much for the little Celeron M processor.) What didn't work? Apple QuickTime - all of it - MPEG-4, and x264 content failed to work, and Xvid movies experienced difficulties including crashes and the inability to scan/seek within the video files. Generally speaking, if you stick with DivX or MPEG and a resolution of 800x480 or less, you should be able to watch it on the Eee PC.
Audio file support was also good, although as expected support is lacking for certain codecs. Using the Internet radio icon brings up a website that lists a large number of (wait for it…) Internet radio broadcasts. In testing, more than half of these failed to work, due to a missing plug-in as far as we could discern. If you know your way around Linux, you can probably even address any of these missing features.
Accessing Windows networks was possible, but again the results are hit-or-miss. The Eee PC cannot open hidden Windows shares (i.e., \\computername\c$), but it can open explicit shares. However, when accessing shared folders, we encountered situations where we received repeated prompts to enter our login credentials for every file/folder in the directory. We had far less difficulties using an external USB drive to pass data between computers. We have seen reports that suggest the Eee PC USB ports only function in Full-Speed (USB 1.1) mode. We measured transfer rates between external USB storage and the internal flash drive up over 20MBps, so clearly the USB ports can function in Hi-Speed mode with certain devices. We cannot test with every USB device, obviously, but we did test with four different flash memory sticks and one external hard drive enclosure, and all five devices worked properly with 5-20MBps transfer rates.
The Eee PC is an interesting device, and given the low cost and the features it includes there will certainly be plenty of people that are interested in getting one - the fact that most resellers are currently out of stock is a clear indication of this. It's a novel electronics gadget that's cheap enough that you can buy one to play around with and not feel too bad about the expenditure; if it turns out that you don't like it, give it to your kid/parents as a Christmas present! Alternately, you can give it to your significant other as a fashion accessory. If you're looking for something revolutionary, the Eee PC isn't going to set the world on fire, but that was never ASUS' intent.
Of course, we can say that the pricing of the Eee PC isn't that special. Shop at any of the large computer OEMs, and you can frequently find fully functional laptops priced under $500. They come with Windows, they will have far more storage space, and typing on the keyboard isn't going to cause your carpal tunnels to rebel. For example, the Compaq C700T comes with a CPU that's over twice as fast (1.73GHz 1MB cache) as the Celeron M in the Eee PC, 20 times as much mass storage (80GB hard drive), and a DVD/CD-RW optical drive. You get all that for a price of $449 with the current sale. Unfortunately, if what you're after is something smaller, the 15.4" chassis will disappoint.
The ASUS Eee PC can be a fun computer accessory, but we're not surprised to see that user opinions are split between either loving it or hating it - we've felt the same way at times during this review. Depending on what you're after, it can function perfectly or not at all. If what you really want is an inexpensive laptop, you may be best off spending a bit more money and getting a true laptop. If you want something to stick in your pocket, buy a PDA or an iPhone. If you want an ultraportable computer with somewhat limited functionality out of box - but which can be upgraded with more applications and/or memory iif desired - and you don't want to pay a lot of money for it, then the Eee PC is a good match. Children might also find the streamlined interface to be a better introduction to computers. Alternately, if you're not really sure what you want but you like to play around with computer gadgets and the thought of trying to install Windows XP or a hacked version of OS X Leopard on an Eee PC sounds like a good way to spend a weekend, there are far worse ways to spend $400. Now all you need to do is find one in stock.