You gets what you pays for, right? Which is why if you want an ultraportable laptop with a decent battery life and wireless capabilities, you pay through the nose. Until now, anyway. The ASUS Eee PC is a small, light Linux-based laptop selling in the UK for £219, but with features you’d expect to see in something double its price.
The question is whether its small size means a too-cramped keyboard, whether it’s powerful enough to run all the applications you’d want, and whether its battery life is up to the job. Does it deliver? Read on for my verdict on the 4G model.
First thing’s first: the Eee is startlingly small and light. It’s basically the size of a small hardback book, and not much heavier at 0.92kg. I’ve been slinging it into a bag to carry round all week, and my shoulder is feeling the benefit. Happily though, this small size doesn’t mean it’s a toylike device: the black model I reviewed (it’s also available in white) looks sleek and feels solid – certainly not something to be embarrassed about using in public.
The reason the Eee PC impresses is because in almost every area, it delivers more than you’d expect from a laptop this size. Ports is a good example: you get three USB ports, a video-out socket for an external monitor, an Ethernet port, plus mic and headphone sockets. Oh, and you get an SD/MMC memory card reader, which is excellent for adding storage capacity.
There’s also a built-in webcam – another feature traditionally restricted to more expensive laptops – and even though it’s not particularly high-quality, it’s more than fine for grabbing quick stills or simple videochatting. Wi-Fi is also on board, which was what attracted me to the Eee in the first place, allowing you to use it around the home, or perched in a coffee-shop or airport.
Battery life is pretty good, at a claimed 3.5 hours that judging by my use of the laptop, is about right. Obviously, dimming the screen and turning off Wi-Fi when not in use helps, but as someone used to seeing my venerable iBook die after an hour and a half of liveblogging using Wi-Fi, the Eee was a step on.
What about actually using the Eee though? It’s a Linux-based laptop, with one of the pros being that it’s super-quick to boot up, and fast to use. ASUS has clearly spent a bit of time organising the applications to get users up and running quickly, so they’re divided into five categories: Work, Learn, Play, Settings and Favourites.
You get Firefox for web browsing, Skype is preloaded, and OpenOffice is an impressive alternative to Microsoft Office for all your document needs. Email (Thunderbird), video-playing,a simple photo-editor, and there’s even a few games preloaded too. The Eee has 512MB of RAM, and handles all these tasks without fuss or delay.
There are negative aspects too. Some users will find the keyboard too small: it took me an hour or two of typing before I stopped hitting the wrong keys, but since then it’s been fine. I’m seeing the Eee as a potential liveblogging laptop, and one concern is that the faster I type, the more mistakes I make – but again, practice appears to be sorting that out.
There’s no full hard drive on board – instead, the 4G Eee has a 4GB solid-state disc. This is a pro and a con – the pro is in the increased battery life, while the con is less space for your files and media. This is where that memory card reader really proves its worth, of course, especially if you invest in a decent-capacity card.
Another con is the Eee’s screen resolution of 800×480, which with the Firefox browser means you have a fair bit of scrolling around to do on some websites (I also had the irritation of some pop-up menus disappearing off the screen on Gmail and other similar sites). I’ve read comments online suggesting Opera can help with rescaling, so may try installing that browser in the future.
Then there’s Linux. Yes, it’s a con too, for some people at least. Personally, I’ve never used Linux before, and while I’ve found the Eee itself easy to use, I’m still a bit intimidated by the idea of downloading other applications for it. What’s a good Linux photo-editor, for example? What’s all this talk about command-lines?
These aren’t insurmountable problems, of course, but from my viewpoint, they’re aspects that are more intimidating than if the Eee was just a Windows-based laptop. You can install Windows XP, but frankly the process sounds too complicated for my liking, and I’d worry about sluggishness. Interestingly, ASUS has announced plans to sell a version of the Eee with “Genuine Microsoft Windows” installed later this year.
A few other niggles: I’m still not sure if I can get my Vodafone 3G USB modem working with the Eee, but in future, a 3G-enabled model would be welcome. The buttons below the fingerpad are a bit stiff, and Bluetooth would have been nice. But these aren’t big flaws by any stretch of the imagination.
Judged by paragraph length alone, the above review might make you think the Eee is good and bad in equal measure. That’s not true though: for the price, it’s an excellent device that delivers nearly everything you’d want to use it for.
Some of that is airy-fairy stuff too, like the weight, or the comfort of using it on your lap in the evenings, rather than a bigger, hotter notebook. You could see the Eee as a second, more portable laptop, but I’m seeing it as a perfectly adequate replacement for my (admittedly getting-on-a-bit) primary laptop.
Assuming my typing continues to improve on its keyboard, it will also make the perfect liveblogging machine, thanks to its size, wireless capabilities and battery life. It seems to have been popular already, with ASUS reporting a sale every six seconds on Taiwanese shopping TV channels, while when I popped into a few retailers stocking the device in London last week, they were selling like hot cakes.
With the £219 price point, ASUS has created a new and exciting laptop niche – one that will appeal to casual users as well as geeks like me. And if you want the ultimate recommendation? My review unit goes back this week, but as soon as it does, I’m buying my own.
Asus Eee PC website