Asus created a whole new class of budget sub-notebooks when it launched the Eee PC late last year. Since its launch, the Eee has been so popular that the likes of MSI, Gigabyte, HP, and even Dell are scrambling to come up with their own take on the formula. The formula, of course, combines relatively low-end hardware that’s fast enough for basic tasks with an ultra-portable sub-notebook form factor that’s much smaller than other budget notebooks. These systems come pre-loaded with Linux and free software to keep costs down, allowing Asus to sell the standard Eee PC 4G for only $400.
The marriage of true PC functionality with sub-notebook portability at an affordable price makes the Eee PC ideal for a wide range of applications and users. Many folks who have never even heard of alternative operating systems may be turned off by the Eee’s unfamiliar Linux OS, though. The device’s Xandros distribution is by no means difficult to use, and the bundled applications offer all the right functionality. But the alien environment does take some getting used to, especially if you want to be productive.
The vast majority of consumers have little experience outside the Windows world. While some may enjoy learning the ins and outs of a new operating system, I suspect that most would rather get rolling in a familiar environment. It seems Asus agrees, because the Eee PC is now available with Windows XP.
Getting Windows running on the Eee isn’t a particularly impressive achievementthe original was fully compatible with Windows XP, and Asus even provided the necessary drivers if you wanted to install the OS yourself. What makes this latest XP-powered Eee PC 4G special is the fact that it’s selling for the exact same price as the Linux version, so you’re essentially getting Windows for free. And we like free. Read on to see if XP makes the Eee PC better or if its budget hardware bogs down under the weight of a Windows OS.
An introduction to the Eee PC
Indulge me for a moment, because I’m going to kick things off by getting up on the soapbox. Even after our initial review of the Eee PC, some folks still don’t seem to get what makes this little sub-notebook such an, er, big deal. $400 for a budget notebook, they say, is nothing special.
And they’re right, sort of.
$400 isn’t new territory for budget notebooks, and if you’re willing to spend a little more, you can even find models with dual-core processors and gaming-friendly discrete graphics chips.
What most folks seem to be missing is that the Eee PC isn’t a notebook. It’s a sub-notebook, and the smaller form factor makes all the difference in the world.
The Eee PC measures just 225mm wide, 165mm deep, and up to 35mm thick (8.9″ x 6.5″ x 1.4″ if you prefer inches), which is very small indeed. That gives the device about the same footprint as a couple of CDs. (Kids, you’ll hear about this archaic music storage device in school one day. It’s how your parents listened to music, back when people used to actually pay for it. But I digress.)
So the Eee PC is quite small, then. Small enough that you don’t really need a laptop bag. The Eee PC will easily squeeze into smaller backpacks, purses, and even my CamelBak hydration pack. Asus ships the unit with a neoprene slip case, if you just want to tote it around on its own.
While you might be able to find a budget notebook in the Eee PC’s price range, there’s no way it’s going to compete with the Eee on size. Above, the Eee PC is pictured with a standard-aspect 14″ Dell. The Dell is smaller than the 15.4″ designs that dominate the budget notebook space, but it’s quite a bit bigger than the Eee PC. Weighing in between five and six pounds, the Dell is much heavier, too. The Eee PC weighs only 920 gramsless than two poundsmaking it several times lighter than most budget notebooks.
A couple of extra pounds shouldn’t be a burden to carry around, at least not unless you have arms like the Olsen twins, so it’s the Eee PC’s diminutive dimensions that really make the difference. Try cracking open a 15″ notebook when crammed into steerage class on an airline as the passenger in front of you reclines their seat for a nap, and you’ll see there’s a very big difference between a full-sized laptop and a sub-notebook like the Eee PC. There’s really no sense in comparing the two, even if they’re competitive on price.
A budget hardware tour
The Eee PC’s sub-notebook form factor and budget price tag are really what makes the device appealing, but they also impose some limitations on the hardware under the hood.
With such little real estate available, the Eee PC naturally comes with a smaller screen than you get with full-sized notebooks. The wide-aspect screen measures just seven inches diagonally, with a display resolution of only 800×480less than half the number of pixels available on a standard XGA panel with a 1024×768 resolution.
Screen size has always been a sore spot for the Eee PC, and its move to Windows doesn’t change the fact that 800×480 is a very low resolution, especially since most web pages (TR included) are designed for a minimum width of 1024 pixels. Fortunately, the screen itself is of decent quality, with brightness and colors that rival the screen on my 14″ Dell notebook.
Since the Eee’s screen is flanked by a couple of wide speaker panels and a 0.3-megapixel webcam up above, there’s actually room for a larger panel. Asus’ next-gen Eee PC will feature a larger 8.9″ display, but it’s not quite ready for prime time yet. To be fair, only one of the Eee PC knock-offs currently on the market has a larger screen; HP’s new 2133 Mini-Note PC features an 8.9″ 1280×768 display. The Mini-Note costs $500, though, and that’s $100 more than the Eee PC.
At least Asus will be able to grow the Eee PC’s screen without compromising the form factor. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the keyboard, which already stretches to the edges of the device. Even then, it’s still too cramped for fast, comfortable typing with my larger hands. Slender lady-digits might fare better, and I’m sure children would have no problem adapting to the smaller key size.
The Eee PC’s small keyboard is one of those things you just have to learn to live with. It takes a little getting used to, but it’s really not all that bad. You wouldn’t want to write a thesis on the Eee, but for banging out quick notes, forum posts, or emails, it’s more than adequate. Be prepared to see more typos, though. They’re impossible to avoid, although in my experience, far less common with the Eee’s keyboard than with the Blackberry-style thumb keyboards more common on smart phones, UMPCs, and Internet tablets.
While I’m griping about size, I should probably address the Eee PC’s trackpad. Like the rest of the device, it’s a little on the small side. The problem here isn’t that you need a lot of trackpad area to move the pointer around the Eee’s relatively small desktop, but that the right edge of the trackpad reserved for vertical scrolling is so narrow. You’re liable to spend a lot of time scrolling given the Eee’s low-resolution screen, and it would be much easier if the trackpad’s scroll bar were wider.
As you’ve no doubt realized by now, the Eee PC is really all about trade-offs and compromise. The compromises Asus had to make to bring this system down to the $400 range are perhaps no more apparent when we look at what the Eee PC has under the hood. An “Ultra Low Voltage” Celeron M 353 runs the show, and although the chip is designed to run at 900MHz, Asus underclocks it to just 630MHz in the Eee PC by lowering the front-side bus speed from 100 to 70MHz.
Intel’s 910GML covers chipset duties, packing an integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 900 that doesn’t nearly have enough horsepower for games but does just fine on the Windows desktop. On the storage front, XP-based Eee PC models all come with 4GB solid-state drives that, while slow, should be able to withstand more abuse than mechanical drives. The Eee also features a single memory slot that Asus populates with a 512MB DDR2-667 SO-DIMM. 512MB is what we’d call a functional minimum for Windows XP, and since the Eee PC’s limited horsepower and screen real estate don’t exactly encourage multitasking, it’s probably adequate for most folks. However, if you’re craving more RAM, you can unscrew an access door on the bottom of the system and swap in a 1GB or 2GB module of your own.
The Eee PC’s hardware payload isn’t exactly power-hungrythe processor alone has a TDP of just 5W, and that’s at its default 900MHz clock speedso Asus can get away with equipping the system with a four-cell lithium-ion battery that offers 5,200 mAh of power. Battery life clocks in at around three hours if you’re fiddling around, or slightly less when video playback is involved. That’s not exceptional, but for a budget sub-notebook, it’s certainly reasonable.
With relatively modest hardware inside, the Eee doesn’t require that much cooling. A few vents dot the underside of the case, while a fan pushes air through a side exhaust port. When on, the fan is audible, but not annoying. It seems to come on more often when the Eee is plugged in and charging its battery, though.
Around the left side of the system are a USB port, headphone and microphone jacks, and a 10/100 Ethernet port. 802.11g connectivity is provided by an integrated Atheros AR5007EG Wi-Fi adapter that had no problems connecting to several wireless networks I tried.
Spinning the Eee PC to the right reveals two more USB ports and a VGA output. From here we can also see the beefy hinge that anchors the screen. Build quality is often an issue for budget notebooks, but it’s not a problem with the Eee PC. Asus has been building notebooks for years, and it shows. Despite an all-plastic body, the Eee feels sturdy, solid, and durable. That’s more than we can say for even some high-end sub-notebooks.
Also along the right edge of the system is the Eee PC’s SD slot. Popping in an SD card is the easiest way to bolster the system’s 4GB internal SSD, and although it’s probably not the fastest storage solution around, it’s a simple and inexpensive upgrade that even inexperienced users should be able to handle.
Asus actually bundles an A-Data Turbo 4GB SDHC card with a more expensive version of its Eee PC 4G XP that sells for $469. The card nicely doubles storage capacity while keeping the total cost below that of the $500 Eee PC 8G model, which comes with an 8GB SSD. However, you’re better off sticking with the standard Eee PC 4G XP and adding an SD card of your own. You can find A-Data’s Turbo 4GB SDHC online for around $20, and an 8GB model can be had for less than $30.
The $469 Eee PC XP bundle also includes an Asus-branded mini optical wheel mouse. The mouse is a nice little addition, particularly because it would be silly to lug around a full-sized mouse with a sub-notebook like the Eee. I don’t think it justifies the bundle’s $70 price premium, though.
Welcome back to Windows
So the Eee PC 4G XP is, at least as far as the hardware goes, identical to the original Linux-based 4G. Windows XP is what’s new here, and for those comfortable with the OS, it’s a revelation. Linux may be a fully capable desktop operating system with a rich library of free applications, and it may even be a better fit for modest hardware. I prefer the Eee PC with Windows simply because it’s a familiar environment.
For me, the Eee PC’s biggest strength is that it’s an honest-to-goodness PC rather than a simple web tablet or Internet appliance. Being able to run the same operating systemand more importantly the same applicationsas on my desktop and full-sized laptop is a huge plus for me. There’s no learning curve associated with Windows XP, so you’re up to speed on the Eee PC within minutes of getting it out of the box. Tweak the user interface to match your personal preferences, add any extra applications, and you’re ready to go. If I can appreciate that level of convenience as an enthusiast who doesn’t mind fiddling with Linux every now and then, imagine what a difference it makes for users who have never seen Linux before.
The Eee PC 4G XP comes with Windows XP Home Edition pre-installed, complete with Service Pack 2. XP wasn’t designed for systems with such a low display resolution, and the OS pops up a warning suggesting that you bump up the resolution to 800×600. The higher resolution works well enough if you don’t mind having to scroll around your desktop, but we’d just as soon ignore XP’s warnings and simply work around the few operating system dialog boxes that aren’t easily accommodated by the standard 800×480 resolution.
Dialog boxes that don’t quite fit on-screen are really a minor issue when compared with how little desktop real estate is available to applications. With a standard Internet Explorer and OS configuration, there isn’t much room for web browsing. However, it’s easy to make the most of what few pixels are available.
Set XP to auto-hide the Windows task bar and trim unnecessary tool bars, and you can fit quite a lot onto the Eee’s screen. If you’re going to be doing a lot of web surfing, setting your browser to full-screen mode will free up even more real estate.
When dialed in just right, the Eee PC is a surprisingly potent web browser. Having a real keyboard at your fingertips is a huge plus, as well, since browsing these days tends to be a more interactive experience than simply pointing and clicking.
Of course, there’s more to the Eee PC than web browsing. Windows Media Player 10 is included, which puts you a codec pack away from having a very sweet multimedia playback device. Forget portable DVD players; the Eee PC can handle DivX, Xvid, and just about anything else you might find on BitTorrent, er, I mean rip from your own personal DVD collection.
Fresh out of the box, the Eee’s SSD reports that 1.33GB of its 3.7GB formatted capacity are free, so if you’re planning to bring a media library around with you, a high-capacity SD card is definitely a necessity. But before you go crying Windows bloat, keep in mind that the Linux-based Eee PC ships with about as much free space.
Windows isn’t the only thing taking up space on the Eee PC’s solid-state drive, either. Asus ships the device with a number of applications, including the Microsoft Works and Windows Live application suites. Adobe Reader 7 is included, as well.
Having a basic office suite combined with Live’s instant messaging and photo gallery software gives the Eee PC a little of everything for those who don’t want to fuss around with the default configuration. If you want to tweak, these programs can easily be uninstalled to trim the fat or replaced with ones that you prefer.
But what about the bloat?
I’ve used both Linux and Windows flavors of the Eee PC and can say with confidence that performance between them is comparable. Neither is particularly fast, of course, but for web surfing, multimedia playback, and basic office applications, I’d call both fast enough. Or at least as fast as I would expect from a system with such limited horsepower.
There is a bit of a learning curve associated with the Eee PC’s performance, though. Unlike a modern desktop PC, where everything seems to happen instantly, you have to give the Eee PC a second, particularly when loading applications. Having to pause every now and then isn’t a great inconvenience, but it helps to adjust your expectations ahead of time so you don’t end up frantically clicking on icons, wondering why nothing is happening, only to realize that you’re just bogged down the system by trying to do too many things at once. Keep in mind that all you have is a 630MHz Celeron at your fingertips, and leave any multi-tasking tendencies at the door.
We loved the original Eee PC and even gave it an Editor’s Choice award back in January. One of the reasons for the award was the fact that the Eee could run Windows, making it an honest-to-goodness mobile PC rather than a glorified Internet appliance. At the time, you had to provide and install Windows yourself. Now the Eee PC is available with Windows XP right out of the box, and to our surprise, the cost of the operating system hasn’t been passed along in the final price. As long as you avoid the $469 memory card and mouse bundle, the base Eee PC 4G XP model sells for $400, just like its Linux-based twin. Windows, for once, is free.
The inclusion of Windows XP makes this latest Eee PC an even better value than the original and much more appealing for mainstream users who are unfamiliar with or simply uninterested in Linux. It’s no surprise, then, that the Eee PC 4G XP is now available at electronics giant Best Buy.
As much as we love Windows on the Eee PC, the fact that the system’s hardware remains unchanged means that there are still compromises to endure. Limited screen real estate is the big one, and at least for now, it’s something we’re willing to forgive. We’ve yet to see a rival sub-notebook match the Eee PC’s price with a larger, higher resolution display. Asus is working on an updated Eee with a larger screen, but it’s not on the market yet and there’s no guarantee its price won’t drift beyond $400.
If you’ve been itching for a budget sub-notebook and can afford to wait a month or two, it’s probably best to see what the Eee’s successor looks like and how upcoming rivals based on Intel’s new Atom processor compare. However, if you’re looking for something now, the Eee PC 4G XP is easily the best budget sub-notebook on the marketand another Editor’s Choice award winner.