Price: £218.99 inc vat. (dabs.com [discontinued])
I would be lost without Tinkerbell, (the name I gave my diminutive EeePC on account of it being tiny and magical.) It's been a couple of months that I've had it now, and I still don't feel I've found any serious problems or limitations. In summary it's an awesome machine, well suited to the needs of a mobile geek like me.
To give an idea of where I'm reviewing this from, I have 4 PCs running around me at the moment, all of which are running variants of Ubuntu Linux. I have been using Linux for several years now and have tried a lot of distros and systems. So I'm not your average computer user who's just moved from a Windows XP desktop to this thing. I'm also not saying that it's the perfect machine and it's all you need, I wouldn't want to do the hours of website work I do without my dual monitor desktop system. However, I am also a student at university and I have lectures, labs and meetings to attend, and more often than not I need to reference material online, or need a speedy way to make notes or do calculations, for these things the EeePC is perfect.
The speed with which it powers up, and the brilliant built in Wi-Fi make it perfect for just grabbing out of a bag and connecting to the internet. Also, it's tiny, smaller than a decent text book, so you can chuck it in whatever bag you're taking without any problems. For me the EeePC has perfectly filled the gap between my ageing IBM Thinkpad which although several years old is still powerful and speedy, but at the cost of being over 5kg, more than is fun to carry around, and my Palm Tungsten E2, which I still use for reading eBooks etc. I had been using my E2 regularly at Uni for checking mail and the odd bit of web browsing, but at 320x320 it's really not up to the task, add that to the fact that the Blazer browser was really rather poor, and you can see why the EeePC running a full version of Firefox at 800x480 is a huge improvement.
My EeePC will run for about 3-4 hours on the original battery pack without sacrificing too much on features, I usually have the screen brightness right down, and at uni the sound card is normally off which saves some battery, but Wi-Fi is almost always on, and I use the external card reader all the time. I am looking forward to the new 6 cell battery pack which has been announced by ASUS and will increase the running time by 50%.
At only 800x480 a lot of people have said this screen is too small to do anything serious with, and whilst it is small, it hasn't caused a big problem for me. It's only 7" diagonally as well, which means that is really tiny, but to fit that many pixels into that area, it has to be the highest dpi for any of my monitors. There are some things that can be done to mitigate the minuscule screen real-estate, one is to install the "Fuller Screen" Firefox addon. This means that when you press the F11 key in Firefox, you end up with a web page, and the scroll bar (if it's needed) and nothing else on screen. This is great for looking at pictures, videos, or just browsing the web.
It is also handy to note that in the default Xandros install of Linux, you can press ALT and left click anywhere on a window to move it around the screen, so you don't need to have the title bar on the screen. Most of the applications on the machine have been set up to work well on the smaller screen, however disappointingly the configuration for Thunderbird which is included requires use of the ALT key, along with some other dialogues.
The screen is widescreen, and at 800x480 makes a good choice for watching high quality widescreen video, such as the latest series of Torchwood, which I have been able to watch fullscreen on my EeePC using the BBC's iPlayer streaming system.
Actually, the Eee doesn't have a hard disk as such, it uses a solid state disk (SSD) as the main form of storage. This means that it's completely silent, and is more shock resistant, especially whilst running, than a normal laptop hard disk. It also has excellent random access read times, helping with the extremely fast boot. There have been some suggestions that the SSD is likely to wear out quickly because of life time problems with flash memory, however some of the more technical studies have suggested that even with considerable use this could take several years, which is just as good as modern laptop hard disks.
The biggest problem is capacity, mine has a 4GB drive, and plans for an 8GB version were announced soon after I ordered mine, however set backs have meant these are still not available. I have always had a 4GB SDHC card in my machine, and have so far not run out of memory for anything, I even have an ISO on the card which I downloaded, along with a number of podcasts, documents and images. With the cost of SDHC cards being so low now (8GB is less than £20 if you look in the right place) I can't really see a problem. The card slot is a sprung eject system so there is nothing sticking out of the laptop when you've got a card plugged in that might cause damage. The lack of internal storage also encourages you to keep everything on the separate drive, making recovery of data easier in software crashes.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard on this laptop is small, it has to be. However it isn't unusably small, with a little practice it becomes quite natural. It is harder to switch between that and a normal keyboard than it is to use the small one for a long period. For Linux terminal power users, the fact that the "|" symbol, known as a pipe is accessible only using FUNCTION - SHIFT - Z, which can be annoying, although not as annoying as the fact that the "\" symbol is only accessible through a function key if you are running Windows on it.
The touchpad is also very small, but it has a scrolling section on the right and a horizontal scroll can be enabled across the bottom as well, which is useful in Firefox for wide web pages. I also got a mini USB optical mouse for mine, which has been very useful when doing image editing on it.
Only 900MHz and 512MB RAM? That's rather slow isn't it? Well, yes it is compared to today's über machines, however, do you remember when that used to be a top end gaming machine spec, and everyone said, oh well you don't need that kind of power for office applications? Well, it runs great with these minimal specs, and uses less power, resulting in a longer battery life with light batteries. This machine isn't going to run any really performance hungry software like Windows Vista, but it doesn't need to, it runs OpenOffice and Firefox easily as quickly as my desktop does, and there isn't much more it needs to do. Having said that there are rumours on the internet that people have managed to get Compiz (the Linux desktop effects software which does everything that Vista/OSX can do) running on different versions of Linux.
The installed Xandros based version of Linux is superbly matched to the machine. Although somewhat limited compared to Ubuntu or Debian in terms of extra software, it provides all the essentials, and they are all fitted together seamlessly.
- Wi Fi
- The included wifi software and general network management is excellent, allowing the user to easily select a wireless network, auto connect, store WEP and WPA keys and access wired networks. I am not entirely sure of the free (as in freedom) status of the software used for this, as it seems that ndiswrapper, the Windows driver wrapper for wifi is needed if you use another version of Linux. However it does work very well.
- ASUS have based the desktop experience on the well known Linux KDE desktop, however they have re-written the fundamental basics with a new "Easy User Interface". This is an innovative system using a tabbed interface, and no "Start Menu" equivalent. All software is launched by an icon on the desktop. There are a maximum of about 12 programs in each category, and there are several categories on the tabs along the top of the desktop. Categories of software include Internet, including Firefox, an instant messaging (MSN/WLM, AIM, Yahoo! etc) program, Skype etc. Work, which contains OpenOffice, a Dictionary and a file browser etc. Play with games a webcam capture program, music and photo software, and Learn with educational tools such as a function plotter, an interactive periodic table and an astronomy tool. The desktop, although innovative and easy to use lacks any form of customisability unless you are willing to go and manually edit administrator only config files. A way to customise what is on the tabs would have made this system really great.
- Recovery, and Support
- It is a sad fact that it is not unlikely for you to need to re-install your operating system at some point, and ASUS have thought this out thankfully. Obviously, with no CD drive you can't just chuck in a recovery disk and re-install, so ASUS have provided two things, a restore function from the internal SSD, and a desktop recovery CD. The built in recovery system allows you to re-set the system to factory settings by holding a key during start up. This has been achieved by making a 2GB read only root partition on the SSD, and using UnionFS to allow changes to be stored on the other half of the SSD. So, when you edit a file on the internal SSD, the changes to it are saved as a file on the re-writeable part of the drive, and automatically integrated when the file is requested, but the original isn't altered. This means that if you do something that prevents the machine from booting (as I did by trying to change the default user) you can select the restore to factory settings, which wipes the editable half of the drive, setting it back to just the read only part that was there when you got it. If you have managed to do something even more aggravating to it, the desktop recovery CD has a tool to make a recovery installer on a USB memory stick or external hard disk which you can then plug in and boot from.
So in summary, it is a great internet access tool, but is far from helpless when it doesn't have an internet connection. It is light, fast, rugged and overall amazingly cheap. This is the ideal thing for students who want to get lecture notes/browse Facebook during lectures. The MacBooks were very popular on campus because of their size and wieght, but with a £400 advantage on even the student price MacBooks, surely the EeePC is headed to make a pretty big impact.
If you've got one of these and want to know what I've done with mine (extra software new OS etc.) keep an eye on the site and I'll probably be posting more articles from and about this excellent gadget. I would also highly recommend visiting eeeuser.com, a brilliant community run resource in the true co-operative style of a good Linux project. The wiki has loads of useful articles from tweaks and tips to how to mod your hardware and install new operating systems, along with good forums and a useful news feed.