January 11, 2008

Review: Tiny Asus Eee packs a big punch

Author: Lisa Hoover

The Asus Eee PC has been heralded as a groundbreaking new computing experience and great for children. While the computer didn't bowl me over, my kids were another matter.

When you hear about how small the Eee is, believe it: the unit measures approximately nine by six inches and weighs a mere two pounds. It's hard to take something that small seriously because it looks like a toy (and its name sounds like a sneeze). Open the lid, however, and you'll find power and features that belie its diminutive size.

Hardware

Asus managed to pack a surprising amount of heft into one little package. All the units have a 900MHz Intel Celeron fan-cooled processor, but different models are equipped with varying memory specifications. My review unit has 512MB socketed RAM (upgradeable to 2GB), and 4GB solid-state disk storage. Asus opted to build the Eee with SSD rather than a hard drive so stored data would be less susceptible to shock and possible data loss or corruption. All units are also equipped with 802.11b/g wireless LAN.

The integrated Intel GMA 900 graphics processor handled whatever games or videos I threw at it without skipping a beat. The unit sports a 7-inch 800x480 LCD screen with LED backlight that was crisp and clear in all kinds of lighting. I was impressed by the (optional) built-in webcam, microphone, and stereo speakers -- nice touches for an entry-level computer.

While hardware the Eee provides out of the box is noteworthy, the amount of peripherals you can add on is simply dazzling. Asus crammed several ports and outlets into the right and left sides of the unit: three 2.0 USB ports, VGA out, Ethernet and modem ports, microphone input and headphone jacks, a lock slot, and even an MMC/SD card reader.

Software

The Eee PC comes preloaded with a spiffy operating system based on Xandros Linux and running KDE. It boots in seconds to reveal a tabbed screen that divides the bundled applications into sections. Wikipdeia, Skype, iGoogle, and Firefox are in the Internet section; OpenOffice.org, a note-taker, and a PDF reader are filed under the Work; games, a photo manager, and a media player are in the Play section. There are six sections in all, each packed with apps, and you can customize the tab names via the command line.

Although much of the pre-installed software is aimed at children (TuxMath, an interactive periodic table, a dictionary), there are plenty of apps to keep most adults occupied as well -- the robust personal information manager Kontact, Mozilla's Thunderbird email client, and the aforementioned OpenOffice.org suite among them. Additional software is available for download via Debian repositories.

The Eee PC and me

I spent the better part of a week trying to incorporate the Eee PC into my already computer-centric life by substituting it for one of my other computers as I worked and played. Much as I'd hoped for a different outcome, the Eee PC and I just aren't meant to be together.

For starters, the touchpad drove me to distraction. It's all of two inches wide (not that there's room for it to be much larger) and its button is sticky and hard to press. After experimenting with various touchpad sensitivity settings, I finally gave up and attached a USB mouse.

What really ruined the experience for me, however, was the unreliable wireless Internet connection. It worked out of the box, but after a couple of days the connection inexplicably failed and refused to reconnect to my office wireless. After a long bout of tinkering -- while all the other computers in my office stayed connected, ruling out a router issue -- an online search revealed that I'm not alone in my troubles. While I was never able to solve my connection problems, many Eee PC users say they've been told by Asus technical support that the unit must be paired with a "qualified router" -- documentation that I was unable to locate.

While the Eee keyboard is decidedly teeny, there was only a small learning curve while I got used to it, and soon I was able to type at near normal speed. For someone with larger hands, however, adapting to the small keyboard might be an insurmountable obstacle.

I have no quibble with the selected software and apps. The familiar favorites -- OpenOffice.org, Skype, Firefox, Pidgin -- made me feel at home when I turned on the Eee for the first time. I never got used to the slightly cartoonish icons, but that's just a personal preference.

Perhaps if I'd been able to work online more effectively I would have had better success incorporating the Eee PC into my daily routine. It's exceptionally well-designed and has a great package of software. It's tiny enough to slip in a small bag as I run out the door, yet sturdy enough that I don't feel I have to handle it gingerly.

The Eee PC and my kids

After I got to know the Eee PC, I handed it over to its target market: my kids. Though they've been around computers all their young lives and are used to seeing them all over our home, they were genuinely smitten with the Eee.

My three sons range in age from 10 to 7 and each took a liking to a different aspect of the unit. My oldest immediately homed in on the math and science apps and actually traded in his alloted Gameboy time for extra time with the Eee. Once he discovered the Planetarium app, he spent many evenings plugging in coordinates, then trying to locate the Belt of Orion and other evening sky goodies.

My nine-year-old loved the media apps. He made "newscasts" of himself, then mailed them to family members. He organized his pictures and videos within their respective managers, and tested out different sound effects with the sound recorder. My seven-year-old budding artist thought Tux Paint suited him just fine, and liked using the Letter Game to learn new words.

All three were able to navigate in and around the apps that interested them with no help from Mom. They had no trouble figuring out how to save their work or where the apps they wanted were likely to be found. While my children are familiar with navigating their way around a computer, the Eee's software is laid out sensibly enough that even a novice user should have no trouble figuring it out.

The Eee's keyboard's small design is ideal for a child's hands. In fact, my kids said they found it easier to type on the smaller keyboard than on a standard one.

 

Maybe someday

The Eee PC is appropriate for people who are always on the go and for whom a smartphone just isn't smart enough. It seems to fit neatly in the gap left between smartphones that do little more than push email and full-blown laptops that are overkill in many mobile situations. I could easily see myself giving up my BlackBerry for a portable computer like this one and an EVDO card so I can truly work from anywhere. Perhaps in a future iteration the Eee PC will be exactly what I'm looking for.

If I were in the market to equip my children with a computer to call their own, there's no question -- the Eee PC gets my vote.

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