The human interface elements
The 901's 8.9" display is the single biggest improvement it offers over the original Eee PC, and indeed, its 1024x600 resolution seems to have become something of standard in this second wave of netbooks. That's an eminently sensible development, since netbooks are generally about basic competency for an affordable price, and anything below 1024 pixels wide isn't really a full "web width" display. When paired up with the compact interface of Google's Chrome beta, this resolution shows you just enough of most web pages to be comfortable, so long as you're willing to engage in plenty of scrolling.
Cramming this many dots into an 8.9" panel means using a pretty fine dot pitch, which I suspect might be an annoyance to folks over a certain age. I'm not there yet, though, and my sharpness-addicted eyeballs really appreciate the fine pitch of this display.
Even with its matte coating, the 901's LED-backlit screen is impressively bright, and it offers plenty of incremental dimming steps through its considerable dynamic range, so you can save on battery life when possible. Heck, I wrote part of this review on the 901 in the middle seat of an airplane with the window open and daylight streaming in from outside, and I had the screen's brightness set only half-way up the scale. Off-angle viewing is excellent, too, allowing the passengers on either side of me to participate in the writing process with ease. (Deb says the 901 is "adorable," and Jared would like to buy one for his daughter in college, although the keys are just too small for him.) Nothing about this panel feels cut-rate in the least.
Asus has carried over the same diminutive keyboard from the first Eee PCs into the 901. That's to be expected given the size of this system, but unfortunately, it means the 901 shares the same difficult placement of the right-shift and tilde keys. I understand that compromises are necessary to fit a full keyboard layout into such a tiny space, but after you've hit the up arrow for the umpteenth time during an attempt to capitalize, you'll curse the choices Asus made here. That's especially true because they've come so close to nailing it otherwise. Yes, the keys are teensy, but they have unexpectedly good positive feedback. So long as you line up directly in front of the 901 and concentrate, touch typing at a decent rate and level of accuracy is in fact possible on this thingsurprisingly so. Slouch off to one side or another, as one tends to do when sitting on the couch surfing with a netbook like this, and you'll have to hunt and peck in order to avoid scrambling your oighoerha.
See what I mean?
So how much smaller is this keyboard than a full-sized one? Good question. Unbeknownst to me, my colleague Geoff Gasior seems to have concocted a formula for measuring keyboard size while I was out at IDF and Nvision over the past couple of weeks. He suggests measuring a QWERTY keyboard from the A to the L keys for width and from the T to V keys for height, then comparing against similar measurements taken from of the keyboard on his 14" Dell laptop. By that standard, the 901's keyboard's GasiorWidth, or widthg is 84% that of full size, while its heightg is only 69%. Average those together, and you have a keyboard that's 76.5% of full size.
However, I prefer to think in terms of area. Across its total width and height, including squished shift and function keys and all the rest, the 901 keyboard's area is only 51% of full sizenearly half. That seems intuitively correct to me when I think about making a size comparison. This thing is small. But Geoff has something of a point in focusing on the alpha keys, which are obviously the most important ones for touch typing. If we calculate area by multiplying width by heightand fudging a little since the keys involved don't make a perfect rectanglethen areag may be an enlightening standard of measure. The 901 keyboard's areag is 58%.
Lest you think we're being ridiculous, I'd like to point out that we are now the only review site fully prepared to quantify the size of the Dell Inspiron Mini's rather, er, innovative keyboard. And remember, kids, the universal constant for a full-sized areag, known as Kg, is 9,860 mm².
There, now you know we're being ridiculous.
This almost goes without saying, but the Eee PC 1000 and a whole host of netbook competitors come with larger keyboards. The 901 remains true to the original Eee PC formula, but staying small requires a big tradeoff. Personally, I'd trade up on device size a little to get more keyboard real estate. Not everyoneand certainly not those who intend the 901 for use primarily by childrenwill feel the same as I do.
Speaking of size, the 901's touchpad is wonderfully enormouslarger than the ones on most full-sized laptops. Also, Asus has, blessedly, decided to separate the right and left buttons below it, unlike the rocker-switch arrangement on earlier Eee PCs. The goodness rolls on when you look at the feature list, which for this touchpad includes full multitouch capability a la the iPhone. Swiping two fingers together across the touchpad invokes scrolling, an arrangement that can make web surfing a joy. Other motions will allow one to zoom, rotate, issue a page-up or page-down command, and so on.
Sadly, the touchpad's large size and nifty features are largely blunted by some other realities. The supplier for this touchpad isn't a big player like Synaptics, but a company called Elantech. Compared to the more common Synaptics touchpads, the 901's is perceptibly less precise. Its finish looks "brushed," with the grain running side to side, giving it more grip on the vertical axis. Scrolling can be a chore as a result. Also, although two-finger multitouch scrolling does work, I had to disable most other multitouch functions in order to avoid accidentally activating them when trying to scroll.
Worse, Elantech's software is simply immature. Although it has sensitivity adjustments for some multitouch gestures, it doesn't expose an option to adjust the general sensitivity of the touchpad itself or to account for humidity. The control panel does have a feature intended to prevent stray swipes from registering while you're typing, but it doesn't seem to work very well. And although two-finger scrolling works in Firefox, it doesn't work at all in IE7. Those who prefer a dedicated scrolling region on the touchpad rather than multitouch madness are also out of luck: Elantech's software won't do that, either.
I suppose it's possible Elantech will address many of my gripes in future software updates, but I wouldn't count on it. The present reality is that the 901's touchpad is more of a liability than an asset, despite its size and multitouch capability.
On a more positive note, the speakers in the 901, which are located just under the front corners of the chassis, are actually pretty good. They're Dolby Sound Room certified, whatever that means. They're still tinny and kind of cheesy, of course, but the volume levels are decent and the sound is better than what you'd hear coming out of some full-sized laptops.
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