When Asus released the Eee PC, it introduced a brand-new class of notebook to the market. Asus's goal seemed fairly simple: to create a notebook as inexpensive and portable as possible. In doing so, it recognized our most common computing tasksInternet use and word processingand used those tasks as a baseline for the hardware. The result was a machine designed around a "waste not, want not" sort of philosophy coupled with a recognition that oftentimes, notebooks are used not as a primary computer, but as a secondary companion.
Released at an attractively low $299 price point, the Eee PC was such a runaway success that it led Asus to spin off an entire Eee division and brand, and inspired countless imitators from major competitors such as Dell, HP, and Acer. Recently, even Lenovo has gotten in on the action, announcing the IdeaPad S10 as the latest competitor in this new class of notebook popularly dubbed the "netbook."
Emboldened by the success of the Eee PC, and with its new Eee division blossoming, Asus seeks to do for the desktop market what it did for notebooks. Many of the ideas the Eee PC was built around also apply to desktops, so it stands to reason a similar bare-essentials approach could be just as effective in a small form factor PC. Thus, the Eee Box was born.
Introducing the Eee Box B202
Asus's Eee Box B202 can be considered neither as the big nor the little brother of the Eee PC. Asus took the same critical eye to desktops with the Eee Box that it did to laptops with the Eee PC. The result is a PC that's superficially similar to its laptop cousin, but differs from it in several key respects.
First, the Eee Box has one notable advantage that the Eee PC didn't have at the time of release: Intel's Atom processor. While the Eee PC had to make do with a substantially underclocked Celeron M, the Eee Box comes out of the gate equipped with a highly optimized low-power processor, potentially improving performance while reducing power consumption.
The other key difference, of course, is in aesthetics. The overarching reaction to the Eee Box that I've experienced since unpacking the review unit has been, "How adorable!" Asus has created a tiny, sleek PC that rivals and in some ways exceeds the design of Apple's Mac Mini. The B202's omission of a built-in optical drive, coupled with extremely low power consumption (and accordingly low heat production), produces a box that measures just 8.5" x 7" x 1", which is thinner than the Mac Mini and, indeed, even substantially smaller than a Mini-ITX board. In order to maximize the efficient use of space, the Eee Box ships with both a stand and a wall mount. The unit is meant to stand vertically, and its remarkably thin profile won't take up much space no matter where you put it.
As I mentioned before, the Eee Box comes equipped with an Intel Atom processor, in this case an N270 clocked at 1.6GHz with Hyper-Threading enabled. This is more or less the mobile variant of the Atom 230 chip we played with last week. Supporting the processor is what may be the weak link in Intel's existing Atom strategy: the same 945 chipset that was paired with the Celeron M in the original Eee PC. This venerable chipset brings with it support for dual-channel DDR2 memory at 400 or 533MHz along with the ICH7 south bridge, and while these aren't real drawbacksthe Atom isn't powerful enough to require a more robust chipsetthe chipset's integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 950 is. Later on, we'll see the impact Intel's GMA 950 has on the overall performance of the Eee Box.
The 945 chipset also brings unncessary power consumption. If you take a look at the Mini-ITX board Intel designed for the Atom, the heatsink configuration seems superficially normal: a tiny heatsink on the chipset and a larger one with a fan to cool the processor. But it's actually the other way around: the tiny heatsink is all that's needed to cool the Atom, while the 945 chipset requires more robust, active cooling. It seems counterintuitive that an x86 processor can sip power and run happily with the most minimal of cooling while the less complex chipset behind it is producing the lion's share of heat and drawing the majority of the power going into the machine. One wonders how much smaller still Asus might have been able to make the Eee Box if Intel had turned its engineering genius on the chipset supporting the Atom.
So what else is in the box? Our review unit arrived outfitted with 1GB of DDR2-400 RAM running at exceptionally tight 3-3-3-9 timings. Curiously, despite the presence of a pair of 512MB DIMMs in the unit, a visit to Everest notes that the memory is running on a single channel. The memory controller itself is dual-channel-capable. Asus says retail units will have a single DIMM installed and a slot free, but realistically, 1GB of single-channel memory is plenty for this type of computer. Asus also mentioned that users should be able to upgrade the memory by popping off one of the unit's side panels with a putty knife, and that won't void the device's warranty. Asus won't service the replacement parts, though.
On the front of the unit in the image above, you can see the hard disk light, power button, flash reader, two USB 2.0 ports, and headphone and microphone jacks. The ports are hidden behind a hinge-mounted shield that tastefully accentuates the Eee Box's credentials as a basic computing appliance.
The rear of the Eee Box is outfitted with a wireless antenna connected to a Ralink 802.11n networking adapter, a power jack that connects to a separate AC adapter unit, a DVI port, two more USB 2.0 ports, a Gigabit-capable Ethernet jack, and a speaker jack. Asus made the somewhat unusual decision to employ a DVI port as opposed to an analog D-SUB port. Today's budget monitors are still largely equipped with D-SUB ports only, so Asus is throwing a DVI-to-VGA adapter into the Eee Box's, er, box, as well.
The Eee Box also includes an 80GB, 5,400-RPM 2.5" Seagate hard disk. This is a great compromise: I expected a 1.8" drive running at a not-so-scorching 4,200RPM, so I was happy to see a faster drive in the B202. While the drive isn't particularly fast, it's snappy enough for the tasks at hand, and it's user-upgradeable through a slot on the bottom of the unit. Two retention screws can be removed, and from there you can use a small, flathead screwdriver to "unlock" the tray and slide it out. Replacing the hard drive won't void your warranty, although our review unit actually had an "Eee Box" sticker that would have to be removed or broken to access the hard drive tray.
The first wave of Eee Box B202 systems come pre-installed with Windows XP Home Edition. Asus plans to offer slightly less expensive Linux flavors, as well.