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.
If the blue LEDs behind the power button and hard disk activity light didn’t glow, I’m not sure you’d have any idea the Eee Box was on. It really is that silent. Even when pushing the Atom processor and hard disk with high-definition video, you’ll be hard pressed to hear anything unless you put your ear up next to the Eee’s exhaust vent. Even the hard drive seek noise is completely inaudible. The B202 is easily the quietest computer I’ve ever used, and as someone who has gone through six laptops and used Antec Sonata cases for the vast majority of his desktop builds, that’s saying something.
Unfortunately, my experience with the Eee Box took a slight downhill turn from here. The DVI output could be charitably described as quirky. I tested the Eee Box using two different monitors: a 24″ LG L246WP-BN widescreen flat panel and a 17″ Sony standard aspect, both over DVI. While the Eee Box had no problems with the Sony, it seemed to get more than a little confused by my LG, locking the monitor to 1024×768. In particular, the top and bottom of the BIOS screen was cut off, and no amount of fiddling in the monitor’s controls could correct it. Again, the Sony had no problems, and once I plugged the LG back into my desktop machine, the monitor was right as rain. It’s entirely possible that this is due to a limitation with the GMA 950; its specifications list display resolutions up to 2048×1536, but I’ve seen implementations that are capped at 1600×1200, and that may be the case here. Still, it’s a limitation that bears mentioning for those who might have planned on using the Eee Box with a high-resolution display.
Beyond the resolution issues, I also found the quality of the image scaling at non-native resolutions to be somewhat poor. Perhaps I’m spoiled by the image quality of the Radeon HD 3850s I use in my desktop machine, but the GMA 950’s scaled images look slightly duller and blurrier. If you’ve seen the middling scaling quality of the initial GeForce 8800 series, the GMA 950’s unusually blurry edges will feel familiar.
Another issue I had with our review unit had to do with its speaker jack. The sound levels were remarkably low from that jack, while the headphone plug at the front produced normal audio levels. Based on a conversation with Asus, I suspect this is an isolated problem particular to the Eee Box we were sent, but it bears noting just the same.
Now, with those gripes aside, what the Eee Box does right, it does very right. I use a wireless mouse that I keep plugged into my USB keyboard, and the Eee Box had no trouble detecting and using both. This may seem like a small thing, but I’ve run into my fair share of instances where I had to to dig out a PS/2 keyboard to get a computer to work or to enter the BIOS. Seeing my slightly unorthodox solution have no problems whatsoever was welcome.
The silent operation of the unit is impressive, as I mentioned before, and overall responsiveness is as good as can be expected from this sort of hardware. Hard disk LEDs can be a potential source of irritation, but I found the light levels from the Eee Box to be reasonable, and I wouldn’t mind keeping the system on a desktop right next to a monitor. I haven’t seen the white version of the Eee Box in person, but I can tell you that the old adage “black goes with everything” is appropriate with the model we tested; our black review unit had no trouble blending in with its environment.
Living in Windows
The Eee Box’s Windows XP boot times aren’t terribly fast, but it’s the processes loaded by the operating system that really drag on. The B202 takes upwards of a minute before it boots to a useful, fully loaded desktop, and the chief culprit is Asus’s curious decision to go with a 90-day Norton Antivirus trial on our review unit. The program feels a bit too large and bloated to be running on a computer as pared down as the Eee Box, and the result is a substantial wait between when the desktop loads and when Norton finally appears in the system tray. Fortunately, Norton won’t be included on retail Eee Box systems.
The rest of the processes the Eee Box loads into the system tray are all reasonable. Beyond the Windows defaults, the only additional applications are Asus’ Easy Update software and Realtek’s tray manager for audio.
Mercifully, Asus doesn’t include the mountain of bloatware you would expect from a similarly priced system at your local Best Buy. Our review unit’s software payload was very sparse, although Asus informs us that the shipping retail units will include StarOffice and Microsoft Works. Neither of these are unwelcome inclusions, and their addition should maintain a largely bloat-free install that other manufacturers would do well to emulate.
Windows XP remained relatively snappy and the wireless connectivity was solid and reliable, detecting my router with no trouble. The default Internet Explorer 7 browser felt a little sluggish, though, and you might want to install Firefox instead. Firefox seems to do a better job of handling YouTube videos, which, when viewed through Internet Explorer, tend to hiccup if you so much as move the mouse.
Windows certainly isn’t as responsive on the Eee Box as on a modern desktop machine, but if all you’re planning on doing is checking e-mail, instant messaging, surfing the web, and doing a little word processing, the B202 fits the bill just fine. If you used a desktop computer circa 2002, you’ll find using the Eee Box is a similar experience.
As I mentioned before, the Eee Box handles YouTube with aplomb (provided you’re using Firefox), and will be more than happy to copy and e-mail photos off your SD card. Yet as Scott mentioned in his Atom vs. Nano review, the Atom isn’t ideal for doing any kind of real Photoshop work; it’s better suited for simple image manipulation like a quick red-eye removal filter.
Video playback is a major point of weakness for the 945 chipset’s GMA 950. The GMA 950’s hardware video decoding capabilities are fairly sparse, and this proves to be a real issue when paired with a low-power processor like the Atom. To test the video capabilities of the Eee Box, I encoded one of my short films into 480p, 720p, and 1080p WMV files. The playback results were not encouraging.
The 480p video ran without a hitch in Windows Media Player 9, but the 720p version began to show small stutters here and there. The stutters weren’t major, but a picky viewer would find them a bit agitating.
Unfortunately, 1080p playback is simply beyond the Eee Box’s capabilities. Some bits of our highest resolution video played back smoothly, but any major changes in the image resulted in fits of lag lasting at least a couple of seconds, rendering the video as a whole largely unwatchable. Because of this difficulty and the infrequent but noticeable stutters during 720p playback, I can’t recommend using the Eee Box for watching high-definition content. YouTube and other video rendered at or below standard definition runs perfectly fine, but the Atom and GM950 can’t handle much more.
This reality leads to a disappointment. Something like the Eee Box could potentially be an ideal multimedia machine, but Intel’s decision to tie the Atom to the 945 chipset is a real hindrance. Even an inexpensive GPU like a Radeon HD 2400 could mitigate the weaknesses of the GMA 950. Unfortunately, Intel is reportedly preventing partners from including PCI Express interfaces on their Atom-based Mini-ITX boards, and it stands to reason that this limitation extends to OEM designs like the Eee Box. Atom system builders may be forced to rely on Intel for the platform’s graphics component, which makes it hard to blame Asus alone for the Eee Box’s high-definition playback shortcomings.
If you’ve ever wandered into a laptop BIOS, you may find the Eee Box spartan layout and limited functionality fairly familiar.
The BIOS options available in the Eee Box are decidedlythough appropriatelysparse, but there are little treats here and there. Users have limited access to CPU clock speeds along with the core speed of the GMA 950, but the options given are very abstract with the former and underwhelming with the latter. The GMA 950 can only be clocked up to 266MHz, and CPU overclocking is limited to confusing and ultimately useless settings like “High.” As a result, the frequency settings page is probably best left alone. There doesn’t seem to be much additional performance to be wrung from this little machine.
The memory tab is similarly bare, though one can at least choose between DDR2-400 and DDR2-533 speeds. This kind of tweaking probably won’t do a whole lot for the Eee Box, though.
The rest of the BIOS is standard fare, although the inclusion of Asus’ EZ Flash 2 is certainly welcome. The EZ Flash utility is built into the BIOS and allows for easy updates from a flash drive, the hard disk, or just about any storage medium connected to the machine. While this seems like a simple and necessary inclusion for a system without a floppy drive, many desktop boards from top-tier manufacturers still don’t have a similar utility.
Asus plans to include Express Gate on all its motherboards, so it’s fitting to see the instant-on OS make an appearance in the Eee Box. Express Gate is a pre-OS desktop environment filled with the bare essentials, providing access to the most basic apps without booting into Windows.
Express Gate can be quickly booted when you turn the Eee Box on, and it offers a decent amount of configurability and four main options: a web surfing application that appears to be an implementation of Firefox, a chat and IM application in the form of Pidgin, a photo manager remarkably well-linked to your Windows installation, and Skype.
Again, pushing the idea of the Eee Box as a potential multimedia device, I went ahead and visited YouTube. Happily, videos again played back stutter-free, reinforcing my suspicions that the hitching I experienced in Internet Explorer was chiefly that browser’s fault.
Express Gate’s photo manager is fairly novel, though it runs a bit sluggishly and takes a little time to load thumbnails for the images in a given directory. The app can read images from anything you plug into the Eee Box, and uploading to Flickr requires just the click of a button, which is a great touch.
The one real hitch I experienced with Express Gate was wireless connectivity. For some odd reason, the software was able to find just about every wireless router in range except for mine. In fairness, though, my router is a bit of a temperamental piece of hardware (a Linksys WRT54G v5 configured to use WPA-PSK), so I’m not apt to hold this against the Eee Box.
The utility of Express Gate makes a pretty strong case for going with a Linux-based Eee Box as opposed to the Windows version. Windows XP is designed to run on a broad base of PCs, but it may be a little too bloated for something as pared down as the B202. Express Gate is fundamentally a Linux-based operating environment whittled down to fit in just 512MB of flash memory. The fact that it offers a substantial amount of functionality, solid performance, and a pleasing aesthetic make a convincing case for running a more robust Linux installation as your primary operating system.
My time with the Eee Box was enjoyable, and the device is full of great ideas. It’s the kind of thing I’d recommend to less computer-literate family and friends, but the limitations of the Atom platform at presentspecifically the underwhelming video decoding performance of the processor and the GMA 950 graphics coremake it a more conditional recommendation than I’d like.
Eventually, we have to talk about the value proposition, and here things get a little foggy. Asus is releasing the Eee Box on August 11th, packaged with StarOffice, Microsoft Works, and a keyboard and mouse for $349. Asus is targeting students, and I think that’s a great strategy, but $349 doesn’t take into account the cost of a monitor and speakers. Suddenly, you’re getting into the range occupied by complete desktop systems on sale at your local Best Buy. I was able to find a complete Acer desktop with 19″ monitor and printer on Best Buy’s website for $549, and that’s with a 3GHz AMD Athlon X2. At that point, you have to ask if the slower but sleeker Eee Box is preferable to a more feature-rich desktop machine. It really comes down to your needs and priorities, and the Eee Box’s value proposition becomes potentially less than ideal for a student who may want a more robust system for multimedia work, high-definition video playback, media encoding, or gaming. However, I’d recommend the Eee Box over the Acer desktop in a heartbeat for my folks and my grandparents, or for anyone who just needs a simple Internet and word processing appliance. The Eee Box takes up very little space, draws very little power, and makes no noiseattributes that the average desktop system can’t match.
This incarnation of the Eee Box may not revolutionize the desktop market the way the Eee PC did for notebooks. The Eee PC introduced a reliable ultraportable notebook in a price range where none existed. Low-end desktops are already very affordable, and the form factor of a desktop PC is much less important. After all, you have to carry your notebook around with you, but how often do you have to move your desktop PC? Still, a capable and well-rounded machine like the B202 has an excellent chance of finding a niche with users who want a computer designed to tackle the simple tasks the Eee Box handles best. For those folks, I’d have a very hard time finding a better alternative.