Tuesday, 15 January 2008
Posted by Dave
Just because something is small, doesn't mean it is any less functional. Or so I would frequently tell my ex-wife. She didn't buy it though. Maybe if I had produced an Asus EEE PC by way of evidence, my argument may have been met with more sympathy.
I picked up one of these dinky marvels last week for the princely sum of £220 sir, after I'd finally found a place that had stock that is. By 21st century standards, the EEE is deeply underpowered: a 900MHz Celeron CPU (running at 630MHz thanks to a BIOS stability issue), a tiny 4Gb hard drive, 512Mb of memory and an 800x480 screen. It might be an upgrade for Pod, but this kind of spec is a step backwards for even a low impact PC user like myself. Luckily, performance is not really the point of this device.
The EEE is the forerunner of a new breed of laptops - the affordable sub-notebook. Sub-notebooks are not a new thing of course - a number of my fine peers in this very clan have used the likes of Sony's TR1MP for ages, but paid a hefty price for the privilege of portability. The EEE looks to fill the other end of the market - at about a sixth of the price of high end sub-notebooks, it is easy to overlook the hardware deficiencies and see through to the machine's strengths.
And it's not short of strengths: Extremely fast boot time. Solid state hard drive. Built in wireless. A very crisp and bright display. And, above all, size. It's hard to describe how truely tiny the EEE is. The picture above shows it alongside a DS lite, which should give some indication. Think of two DVD cases stacked and you're on the right lines. It feels small. It feels light. But it also feels sturdy. It feels like the kind of machine you could throw in a bag and not worry about it all day.
Another potential plus point is the installed OS. To save costs, and for performance, it comes shipped with a custom Linux distribution: Xandros. Initially, the OS is set to so-called "Easy Mode", nice big icons linking to commonly used applications or webpages - firefox for example, Wikipedia or Google Docs. This mode emphasises that Asus is squarely aiming this machine at a casual user - someone who doesn't need much more than IM, a browser and an email client. Somewhat confusingly though, Asus have chosen not to include an option to drop out to a full desktop out of the box, though the machine is perfectly capable of doing this. With just a small amount of lunix tinkering, the machine can be turned into a bog-standard linux box, allowing you the same flexibility that you would find in a standard distribution and removing the "toy like" feel of easy mode.
Even better, the machine is perfectly capable of running Windows XP and this is the route I decided to take. I'm no stranger to Linux, and had no doubts that it would be a perfectly good OS for the casual user, but in the end I figured XP would be more useful for my needs (mIrc, browsing, MSN and VPN to work). On top of that, XP's power management is far better than Xandros, and standby times are apparently significantly greater in Windows. A potential downside of going to XP is that Xandros is designed to deal with the limited resolution more cleverly, something that is apparent in positioning of confirmation dialogues. If this was a heavily used Windows installation then maybe this would be an issue, but in truth, I've not yet encountered the problem.
So let's be honest about this: how is the EEE to use? No bones about it, by far the most limiting aspect of the EEE is the screen resolution. 800x480 is, shall we say, a difficult resolution to love. 800x600 would have been fine, giving it that extra chunk of vertical height to make browsing more comfortable. But, for whatever reason the EEE is stuck with a measly 480 vertical pixels, so it's something that needs to be worked around. Luckily, most applications are fine. MSN's chat boxes are large, but not overly so. mIrc doesn't stretch the boundaries at all, and basic explorer file operations are no problem at all. Even digiguide scales well on the small screen. The main weakness is browsing - with a standard setup, firefox renders Google Reader with about three lines of RSS item text. Not good.
Luckily, through tweaking, extensions and general common sense , you can happily recover most of the 480 pixels and make browsing a lot more comfortable. This image shows my current EEE desktop, which is fine for most webpages. Hitting F11 expands the browser so that the only remaining toolbar is the tab bar. Similarly, auto-hiding of the task bar gives some extra space to play about with. That said, even with all of this tinkering, the screen may still put some people off, and will certainly limit the scope of this otherwise very capable machine. A higher resolution model has got to be a certainty in the near future.
In terms of performance, the EEE is surprising. Surprising in that it is hard to criticise. The 4Gb solid state hard drive means that the machine boots in about 20 seconds to an XP login prompt. It is, of course, necessary to reconfigure XP to limit writes to the hard drive, but things like turning off pagefiles and moving My Documents to the SDHC card help with this. I have yet to encounter a low memory situation, but if I did I could easily add a stick of SODIMM into the slot in the bottom. Similarly, graphics are fast and the screen is extremely bright and crisp. It has plenty of USB ports, networking options and even a VGA output.
The bottom line, what is the EEE good for? It would be easy to dismiss the EEE as a toy, partly because of the price, partly because of the Fisher Price OS and partly because of the somewhat odd screen that make it all look a bit V-tech. But you shouldn't overlook the fact that the EEE is also a perfectly capable computer which can do pretty much everything that a "real" laptop can do.
I bought the EEE as a replacement for my chunky normal laptop, something to have on while I'm kicking back on the sofa watching TV. My original intent was to sell the other laptop on Ebay if the EEE worked out. So will I be doing this? In all honesty, no. As much as I love the EEE, general useage is not its strong point. It isn't a replacement machine, it is a complementary machine. You couldn't spend hours on it browsing your RSS feeds, or reading wiki pages. For that, you need a large screen. The EEE is something else. It is a machine you can pick up and take out into the garden or the conservatory. A machine you can drag around the house to fix broken routers or printer. A machine that you can put into a bag for a train ride, or take to a Starbucks or a library. In reality, it is closer to the laptop ideal than the 15 inch pseudo-desktops we seem to drag around everywhere - true portability, but without sacrificing functionality. My ex-wife would have loved it.