by Perry Longinotti
Over the past couple of years computers designed for developing nations have received a fair bit of media attention, especially in the tech community. Immediately, the implications of computing for the masses gained traction and immediate attention from the world’s poorest economies. Could this be a great equalizer?
While the altruistic ambitions of organizations like OLPC are laudable, for many people in richer countries the introduction of small, simple to operate computers with low prices was just as interesting. We’ve all known for many years that the needs of most computer users could be met with relatively modest machines. Indeed, a minority of users have found happiness using efficient operating systems on the hot hardware of yesteryear. Clearly this recycling is counterintuitive to the massive PC industry.
Big PC makers would rather see you buy their latest computational monstrosities. Software makers add evermore features to their products thus choking current hardware and encouraging upgrades. It is strange to see one of the companies that benefits most from the PC industry as it exists today, come forward with a revolutionary computer that defies convention.
I am of course referring to the Asus Eee PC. This tiny computer has been reviewed quite a bit lately in its various configurations. The Eee PC 2G Surf edition will be the subject of this review.
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Asus Eee PC 2G Surf Specs:
- 800 MHz Intel Celeron ULV processor
- 512 MB DDR2 RAM (Soldered to motherboard)
- 2 GB Solid State Disk (Soldered to motherboard)
- 7" 800×480 LCD monitor
- 10/100 Ethernet
- 802.11b/g wireless
- VGA port
- SD Card Slot (supporting SDHC)
- 4400 mAh Battery (4 cell)
The "Eee" represents a philosophy; easy to work, easy to learn and easy to play. Just about the hardest part of using this computer is deciding on which model to buy – both in terms of specifications and color. Versions consist of 2G, 4G and 8G units (the number refers to the size of the unit’s solid state drive). Black, white and (at least in the case of the 2G) pink, blue and green are your color choices.
When you grab an Eee PC off the shelf at your local computer store, you will probably do a double take at the box. It looks like a video card or motherboard box … it looks very small. The packaging is very consumer friendly and feminine with comforting images of happy Eee PC users. When you open the box, the tiny computer is nestled inside with a restore disk, driver disk (for Windows installs) and documentation.
Handling the Eee PC for the first time the matte "Galaxy Black" plastic feels pretty durable. It is no ThinkPad or MacBook, but it is creak free. The hinges are solid and the battery fits snug and secure with nary a rattle (even some ThinkPads can’t say that).
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There are zero removable access panels on the 2G Eee PC. While this gives a very nice – almost Apple-like – cleanliness to the design it will represent a challenge if you ever have occasion to open the Eee up for upgrades (more on that later).
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Hardware and Performance
The 2G version of the Eee PC is the most modest configuration available as of this writing and it is doubtful that you could shave off any more from the specifications and have a usable computer. Form factor is unchanged between the models except for the addition of VGA webcams and access panels on the more expensive versions. Differences between the 2G, 4G and 8G are primarily inside.
First, the CPU in the 2G Eee PC is downgraded to a Celeron-M 800 MHz operating at 571 MHz. You might not know this looking at the specs because Asus is being vague about what exactly is (or isn’t) inside these things.
Other than a small drop in clock speed, the biggest difference is in the 2G Eee PC’s CPU versus its bigger brothers is lack of level 2 cache. Without getting too technical, this inhibits the 2G Eee PC’s brain from caching instructions as its more robust siblings can. Performance in many applications will suffer as a result. During usability testing, I found performance to be poor. This was primarily manifested by sluggishness when launching applications, switching between tabs in Firefox and jerky playback of video on sites like www.gametrailers.com (unrelated to network performance because I let most of the data buffer). YouTube was equally disappointing, for example TayZonday’s delivery of chocolate rain looking even stranger as the Eee PC failed to deliver stutter free playback.
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Having spent a lot of time using computers with similar Intel low voltage architectures and clock speeds, I have to admit I was disappointed by the 2G Eee PC’s performance doing basic tasks. I know that banias-based Pentium-M 900 MHz CPUs are quite usable, so in this case I am going to chalk up the poor performance to the lack of cache and CPU under clock. The EEE PC 2G did not meet expectations exhibiting a general lack of responsiveness that tried my patience during the test.
Low CPU speed should translate into reduced heat build up, the Eee gets warm to the touch even when on battery power. I found the right palm rest was where the heat was most concentrated, but the temperature does not make Eee uncomfortable to use. Fan noise was tolerable, although the high pitch of the fan might annoy some people.
System memory, at 512 MB suits the intended purpose of the Eee PC – as the name indicates this is meant for surfing. Its operating system and applications are very efficient and I don’t require lots of memory. Realistically, 2-3 concurrent applications should be the limit – unless you are really patient. If you need to run more apps, consider the 8G model or an upgradeable 4G unit (either can go as high a 2GB of RAM).
Memory in the Eee PC 2G, both RAM and the Solid State Disk (SSD), are not user upgradeable. Unlike the 8G and early models of the 4G Eee PC, the memory is soldered into place. I understand the need to differentiate the product line from bottom to top, but I think this was an unfortunate decision by Asus. The 2G model, if it possessed the socketed RAM and SSD slots would have made a very attractive and risk free entry point.
Boot and shutdown time are extremely fast by Windows standards. It took just under thirty seconds to cold boot and just under nine seconds to completely shut off.
Using the Eee PC for cloud computing, whereby you rely on web apps and storage, the 2 GB of storage should be fine. You can of course add an SD memory card in the available flash memory reader slot, but read/write performance on these cards (even the fastest ones) does not come close to that of the SSD.
Read/write performance on Linux
You might expect the keyboard to be terrible. The diminutive size of sub notebooks always presents a problem to PC makers. You need to make some sacrifices to get everything jammed into the limited space. I don’t like flexy keyboard bases and loose rattling keys. Although some of the Eee PC’s keys rattle the base itself is rigid. It only takes a short while to get used to the size and key feel.
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I found the touchpad well made but it took some serious tinkering to get it setup the way I like it. Its single mouse button is firm and feels durable. But as someone that taps his mouse pad instead of button clocks, it took a while to get the Eee PC to register clicks reliably. The page scrolling feature works well and is appreciated on a notebook without dedicated page up/down buttons.
Wireless performance was good. I encountered a problem whereby the Eee would not reconnect automatically to my wireless network on resume from standby or restart. This is probably a software issue.
What can I say about the Ethernet port? It worked.
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Right side view (view large image)
Chipset is the venerable Intel 910GML with integrated graphics (shared memory). Some people are squeezing old 3D games onto this device and claiming to be seeing playable frame rates. I think that is hogwash. This GPU could not handle 3D games when mated to CPUs running three times as fast and with much more memory. I suspect games like Fallout, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape should work fine.
The 7" screen is bright with good contrast. Screen width, in terms of usable desktop space, is a challenge. Increasingly, web designers are creating pages that are wider than 800 pixels across. On sites like this you will have to do some horizontal scrolling. Video playback performance on the screen was acceptable – no ghosting.
On either side of the screen are speakers. They are adequate for the type of media you will be enjoying on the Eee PC – highly compressed low bit rate audio and video.
Asus equips all models of the Eee PC with a microphone that works with the pre-installed Skype software. It worked fine in everyday VoIP use. Spend a little more money and you can get the Eee with an integrated webcam.
Last but not least is the battery. Another differentiator between the 2G Eee PC and the more expensive 4G and 8G models is the battery rating. The 2G gets a 4400 mAh 4 cell unit good for a claimed 2.5 hours. Spend more money and you will get a 5600 mAh rated for 3.5 hours. Actual life on my test unit was exactly 2 hours while typing this review on Google Docs while connected by WiFi. Considering the compromises in performance, I would have liked to see more life away from the plug. It seems silly using this device tethered to a powercord.
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The Xandros OS installed on the Eee is based on Ubuntu 7.10. Asus have done a good job trimming the fat and hiding the scarier elements of Linux from the casual user. Rest assured though, the terminal is there for your hacking pleasure if you so desire. A quick key combination brings it out of hiding.
Applications are sorted by Internet, Work, Learn, and Play. A settings tabs holds the modest array of control panels. You can also create your won custom tabs with shortcuts to your favorite apps. The launch tabs can be accessed by clicking the home icon on the taskbar or pressing the home key on the keyboard. This last method does not work when you have Firefox maximized and full screen (F11).
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Settings (view large image)
Firefox is a big part of the application suite considering how many of the ‘apps’ are simply links to web applications and services. When Firefox 3 completes beta, it will offer and even better experience with better performance and fewer memory leaks.
Although I like what Asus have done with the Eee PC OS my preference would be to see either:
- gOS – a smaller Linux distribution also based on Ubuntu, it does a better job in my opinion of emphasizing good web applications and services rather than dedicated apps.
- Asus SplashTop embedded OS, this is pre-boot environment was demonstrated on an Eee PC at CES recently and would make a lot of sense. It contains Firefox and Skype among other apps and boots almost instantly.
Both would suit the 2G Eee PC’s modest specs better. For example removing Open Office from the Eee and keeping only the link to Google Docs would free up a couple hundred megabytes.
Consider this a buy and avoid recommendation at the same time. Avoid the 2G and consider the 4G and 8G variants.
Our 2G Eee PC is a dead end. While it does some things reasonably well, for an extra $50 or $100 you will be happier with the 4G models. With a smaller Linux distribution installed your experience might differ, but we are talking out of the box experience here. Considered in that context, I can’t recommend the 2G model. If you really want to tweak and have fun, the 4 and 8G models still offer more possibilities and are easier to recommend.
In addition to being slightly faster, the 4G and 8G versions have a superior processor (speed and level 2 cache). In some cases they have socketed RAM and Storage for expandability. Having played around with an 8G Eee PC running Windows XP I can say that the difference in performance was noticeable.
Sadly, there is un-necessary confusion over the exact upgradability of each model. Without doing some digging it is hard to know with certainty what you are getting with the 4G models. Certain revisions of the 4G model have socketed memory, others do not. This is a surefire way for Asus to end up with lots of RMA’ed Eee PCs that have been cracked open to peer inside.
Why is the upgradability so important? Asus have successfully created an enthusiast device that is growing a decent community. Why not let them have fun with it and in the process grow some loyalty. The people that will be buying these initially are influencers – in other words the folks that non technical people turn to for buying advice. These folks might not want to guide their pals into a completely closed solution. Hey Asus, let the community help you make the Eee easier to use and more useful; make all Eee PCs upgradeable.
Keep in mind that a Toshiba Portege R100, a much thinner, faster and expandable subnotebook with a bigger/higher resolution screen can be had on eBay for about the same price as a 4G Eee PC. ThinkPad X41 and Dell Latitude X1 sub-notebooks are also in the same range. These might be as much fun to experiment with as the Eee PC.
Ultimately, I think the Eee PC is a really good first step. But as it exists today it is more of a companion device than a single email and Internet solution. On the low end, and I am referring specifically to the 2G model, it is a nearly useless novelty. The 4G and 8G models are worthy of early adopter consideration with their better performance, upgradability and battery life.
What I would like to see in the next Eee PC:
- Ram and HDD sockets
- Speedstep support – keep the clockspeed slow to conserve power, but ramp it up for media files.
- Non-crippled CPUs – give us the cache!
- Higher resolution 1024 pixels across.
- $299 and $399 price points (4G and 8G)