Talking 'bout a Reeevolution

The fact that a laptop with a 630MHz Celeron strapped to a 7" screen and with less hard drive space than an iPod nano would command such enthusiast interest seems about as likely as a crackhead winning five Grammys. Who would have thought? But there's something to the Eee PC that transcends the sum of its pedestrian underpinnings. In fact, one of the keys to the Eee's appeal is the fact that those pedestrian underpinnings are still reasonably adequate for most computing tasks. Sure, the Eee isn't going to set any performance records, but it's snappy enough for basic tasks like web surfing, email, and even multimedia playback. And it'll do all that running Windows, too.

Relatively modest hardware allows the Eee PC to hit price points between $300 and $400, and that's what really seals the deal. Three to four bills buys you not a clumsy Internet appliance designed to do only a handful of things, but a bona fide subnotebook PC that's much smaller and lighter—and thus more portable—than even the best budget laptops on the market.

What the Eee PC represents, then, is the democratization of ultra-mobile computing. No longer do consumers looking for an extremely portable computing platform have to shell out for expensive UMPCs or fancy subnotebooks that run two to three times the cost of an Eee, if not more.

The praise lumped upon Asus for crafting the Eee PC is well-deserved, but what makes this subnotebook really special isn't intrinsic to Asus' implementation—it's the idea that budget parts can be combined to form a whole new class of subnotebooks that are portable, affordable, and very much functional PC platforms whose appeal extends far beyond third-world classrooms.

As one might expect, many are eager to jump on the Eee bandwagon with their own take on the formula. VIA has a NanoBook reference design that offers similar functionality to the Eee and is being used by a number of hardware vendors looking to enter the budget subnotebook space. Everex's CloudBook is perhaps the most interesting of the NanoBook-based designs we've seen, combining a 1.2GHz VIA C7-M ULV processor, 7" 800x480 screen, and claimed five hours of battery life with an Ubuntu-based gOS Linux distribution. The CloudBook adheres to the key tenets of the budget subnotebook creed popularized by the Eee, including nailing the $400 price point and allowing users to install whichever operating system they choose. In this case, Everex is also upping the ante, answering the Eee's diminutive solid-state flash drive with a whopping 30GB of storage capacity.

VIA isn't the only one with a budget notebook platform, either. Intel's Shelton'08 platform is due to make its way into subnotebook PCs in the third quarter of this year, bringing DirectX 9-class integrated graphics and a single-core Diamondville processor rumored to run at 1.6GHz while consuming just 3.5W. Apparently loathe to let Asus bask alone in the attention surrounding the Eee PC, MSI and Gigabyte are reportedly working on Shelton-based designs to compete for budget subnotebook consumers.

By the time most of the competition throws their hats into the ring, Asus should have already rolled out its second-generation Eee PC. This redux promises a larger screen with a higher display resolution that should address one of the biggest complaints about the current Eee. Integrated WiMax capabilities are also on tap, which should dramatically boost the Eee's connectivity options, so users can take better advantage of its portability.

This burgeoning budget subnotebook market reminds me a little of the beginning of the small form factor barebones craze. Shuttle was the first to offer SFF barebones systems, setting the tone and standard for a new genre of desktop PCs that were greeted with great enthusiasm by those sick of large and boring beige towers. Numerous competitors jumped into the market looking to carve themselves a slice of the pie, but few were able to match Shuttle older designs, let alone its latest efforts.

The bar has been set pretty high by the Eee PC, and already, punters are lining up to take a shot while Asus tweaks the formula for its sophomore effort. That should make it particularly interesting to see how things play out over the next few quarters. The demand and interest in budget subnotebook PCs is certainly there, and consumers are about to get an interesting batch of new options from which to choose. I can't wait to see what happens, because after parting with our Eee PC review sample, I've started to really miss its company. The void in my life—or more specifically, the empty space on my coffee table—left by the Eee's absence must be filled. Oh, and my mom has her eye on one, too.

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