Just one year ago, there was no such thing as a netbook. The word simply didn’t exist. Today, however, everyone and their contract manufacturer seems to have at least one of a new breed of diminutive portables available for sale or looming just over the horizon. This explosion of interest in what was formerly the budget subnotebook space all started with Asus’ Eee PCan unlikely hero saddled with a low-resolution 7″ screen, a cramped keyboard comfortable only for munchkin fingers, limited storage capacity, an underclocked Celeron processor, and average battery life.
My, how things have changed.
Today’s netbook market is littered with much more capable devices powered by Intel’s slick new Atom processor. Screens have gotten bigger, too, bringing with them not only higher display resolutions, but enough space for larger keyboards that can easily accommodate adult hands and high-speed typing. Storage capacity has also risen to the occasion, and battery life and connectivity options have expanded. The netbook has quickly grown up before our eyes.
I quite liked the first Eee PC, but despite its infectious novelty and honest-to-goodness utility, what is now known as the 700 series is hampered by too many limitations to be a viable notebook replacement for most folks. Asus’ new Eee PC 1000 40G, however, is another beast entirely. Perhaps the most mature of this latest crop of netbooks, the 40G sports a 1.6GHz Atom processor, a 10″ screen with 1024×600 display resolution, a 91% keyboard, 40GB of solid-state storage, and a six-cell battery. Of course, the Eee PC’s form factor has grown to host this new goodness, and so has its price. Read on to see whether the result strikes a good enough balance between value, functionality, and portability to make you reconsider your next netbookor even notebookpurchase.
Glossing it up
The first Eee PC had all the stark whiteness of a Mac. I don’t particularly like the clinical dental equipment look, but I can at least appreciate Apple’s distinct sense of simplistic style. Style, however, seemed to be completely absent from the original Eee PC, which was just, well, white.
Asus looks intent to impress on the aesthetics front with the Eee PC 1000, which will be available in a number of colors, including a shiny black pictured above. The decidedly upscale high-gloss finish looks great in pictures, although that’s only because I polished it up to remove unsightly fingerprints and smudges. Those accumulate rather quickly, given that a netbook is the sort of device that’s typically handled a lot. Asus would have been better off with a matte or flat finish here, trading showroom shine for a cleaner look in day-to-day usage.
Looks don’t count for much, of course, or at least they shouldn’t. However, HP’s gorgeous Mini-Note proves that relatively inexpensive netbooks can be sleek and sexy, and that’s not a bad thing.
While the Eee PC 1000’s glossy coat transcends the low-rent aesthetics of the original, Asus’ latest netbook has put on a little weight. Tipping the scales at just under 3lbs (1.33kg), the 1000 is nearly a full pound heavier than the original. A pound isn’t much in the grand scheme of thingsor at least it shouldn’t be, unless you have a particularly spindly constitutionbut with the extra weight also comes a larger form factor.
The Eee PC 1000 measures 10.5 x 7.5 x 1.5″ (266 x 191 x 38mm), with its thickest point made up by a battery bulge that’s only a couple of inches deep. The rest of the system is closer to 1.2 inches thick. Above, you can see the system pictured with one of those old-fashioned audio CDs for perspective. As you can see, even at more than 10 inches across, the largest Eee PC is still quite small.
Although the Eee PC 1000 is an inch wider and deeper than the original, it’s still much smaller than my 14″ Dell notebook. Notice how the Eee’s widescreen format yields a much shallower footprint than the Dell’s standard aspect ratio. That really comes in handy when traveling in coach, where you can open the Eee without fear that its screen will be crushed when the obnoxious tourist in front of you decides to recline for a nap without warning.
|Processor||Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz|
|Memory||1GB DDR2-533 (1 DIMM)|
|North bridge||Intel 945GSE|
|South bridge||Intel ICH7M|
|Graphics||Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950|
10.2″ TFT with SWGA (1024×600) resolution and
8GB solid-state drive
32GB internal SDHC
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek ALC6628 codec|
3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet
1 analog headphone output
|Expansion slots||1 SDHC|
91% horizontal/86% vertical keyboard
with two-finger scrolling
|Camera||1.3 megapixel webcam|
|Dimensions||10.5 x 7.5 x 1.5″ (266 x 191 x 38mm)|
|Battery||6-cell Li-Ion 6600mAh|
Under the hood, the 1000 is equipped with the netbook processor du jour, Intel’s Atom N270 1.6GHz. We reviewed the Atom earlier this month, finding it to be a little slower than VIA’s Nano processor (which has yet to appear in a netbook), but still quick enough for basic tasks, with great power efficiency to boot.
The Atom’s Achilles’ heel is actually the 945GSE chipset that Asus pairs with it here. Or rather, that Intel pairs with itthe chip giant has yet to release a core logic counterpart for the Atom that lives up to the processor’s frugal power consumption. The 945GSE chipset is otherwise adequate, although its integrated GMA 950 graphics processor doesn’t pack much pixel processing potential. More importantly, it lacks HD video decode acceleration, which when combined with the Atom’s relatively limited horsepower, effectively limits video playback to standard definition resolutions.
On the storage front, the Eee PC 1000 40G model we’re looking at today comes with 40GB of solid-state capacity. This configuration is also equipped with a Xandros-based Linux install, and it carries a $699 suggested retail price. Detractors will surely point out that you can buy all sorts of much faster full-sized notebooks for less, but keep in mind that those systems can’t hold a candle to the Eee’s portability or battery life. Asus also offers an Eee PC 1000H with identical Atom internals to the 40G for just $549. This system ditches solid-state storage in favor of an 80GB mechanical hard drive, and Asus throws in a copy of Windows XP for good measure.
Good screen, even better keyboard
Talk of Atom’s inability to play back HD content may be a concern for desktop systems like the Eee Box B202, but it’s less of a problem for netbooks given their smaller displays. The Eee PC 1000’s 10.2″ screen is actually quite big for a mini-notebook, but its resolution tops out at only 1024×600.
This WSVGA resolution that seems to have popped up with just about every new netbook design falls well short of the number of pixels needed for 720p content, let alone 1080p, yet it’s still an improvement over the original Eee PC’s 7″ 800×480 display. The extra width is really what’s important here, since most web pages (including TR) are designed for displays at least 1024 pixels wide. Side-scrolling was common with the original Eee PC, but apart from fiddling with spreadsheets, I didn’t find myself doing much of it with the 1000. Of course, having only 600 vertical pixels means you’ll still do a fair amount of vertical scrolling while browsing.
Asus’ decision to go with a 10.2″ panel on 1000 series is particularly interesting given that the company recently released an Eee PC 900 series with 8.9″ displays. Both screens share the same WSVGA resolution, with the 10.2″ delivering a lower dot pitch that folks with poor eyesight may prefer for reading text. Asus intends to offer consumers as much choice as possible in the netbook space, so expect to see 8.9″ and 10.2″ Eee PCs continue to coexist.
The screen itself is CCFL-backlit, and it looks just a little brighter than that of the Eee PC 700 series. There is, however, the faintest of blue tinges to the display (this effect is greatly exaggerated in the picture above because I’m lousy at taking screen, er, shots).
Continuing to improve on its forebear, the Eee PC 1000 ditches its predecessor’s thick bezel speakers in favor of a thinner frame around the screen. The screen’s matte finish hasn’t changed, though, and I couldn’t be happier. We recently reviewed HP’s Mini-Note, which features a glossy display, and I found reflectivity to be a serious problem under normal lighting conditions. Reflections aren’t a problem with the Eee screen’s flat finish, although it’s worth noting that matte displays generally look a little grainer than their glossy counterparts.
Up above the 1000’s screen you’ll find a 1.3 megapixel webcam. The integrated camera is nothing special, but it’s well-integrated with the Eee’s pre-installed Skype client.
Below the screen lies the Eee’s spacious keyboard, which does away with one of the original’s more damning limitations. The first Eee PC’s keyboard measures 144 mm between the outer boundaries of the A and L keys and 40 mm between the top and bottom edges of the T and V keys, making it 83% of the horizontal and 69% of the vertical footprint of the “full size” keyboard on my 14″ Dell laptop (the Dell’s keyboard is actually slightly larger than the only non-ergo desktop keyboard I have in the lab, which is a bargain bin special that’s always felt a little small). According to my measurements, the Eee PC 1000 keyboard’s horizontal footprint has grown to 91% of full size, while its vertical span is up to 86% of the real deal. That’s a big improvement, and it makes all the difference in the world.
The Eee PC 1000’s keys aren’t quite as big as we saw with HP’s Mini-Note (which has the best netbook keyboard we’ve used to date), but the effective key spacing is very similar, and that’s what matters. On the 40G, even my stumpy digits have no problems cranking out relatively typo-free text at close to 100 words per minute. Thank you, compulsory grade eight typing class.
There are a few problems with the new Eee’s keyboard, though. For whatever reason, it seems to have a tendency to double-tap every so often. A more serious problem, however, is the placement of the up arrow key, which sits exactly where the right shift key should be. Even when typing slowly on the Eee, I constantly found myself hitting the up arrow instead of right shifta typo that isn’t easy to recover from with a quick backspace.
Asus has prioritized here, trading proper right shift placement for a traditional directional pad layout. As a writer, that annoys me. A lot. But if you don’t do a lot of typing or don’t particularly care for capitalization, it might not be an issue at all. The proper directional key layout is certainly nice if you plan on using the Eee as a basic gaming platform; it would make a pretty sweet little MAME machine.
The 40G’s right shift placement is an unfortunate quirk for what is otherwise a great keyboard. I found the Eee’s key feedback to be surprisingly positive for such a small system, with just enough travel and a solid overall feel. Of the few netbooks I’ve sampled thus far, the Eee PC 1000 is second only to the HP Mini-Note in keyboard quality.
The only other gripe I really have with the Eee PC’s keyboard is that it doesn’t have an “eraser-head” pointing device. This ThinkPad throwback is a personal favorite of mine, and it’s tragically under-used.
I’m not usually a fan of touchpads, but the one Asus includes with the Eee PC 1000 is pretty good. The tracking surface is nice and smooth, and there’s limited multi-touch functionality for two-finger horizontal and vertical scrolling. Two-finger scrolling works well here, since there’s little touchpad real estate for a dedicated horizontal or vertical scrolling bar. The touchpad interface also shows a greyed-out option for circular scrolling that Asus says will be unlocked with a future driver update.
More expansion capacity than you’d expect
While the Eee PC 1000 isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with expansion and connectivity options, it has more of them than a MacBook Air, which is good for a chuckle.
Around the left side of the system we can see headphone and microphone jacks, one of three USB ports, and an RJ45 Ethernet port that tops out at 100Mbps. Gigabit Ethernet would be nice, but for a netbook, the 40G’s built-in 802.11n wireless connectivity is probably more important. I had no problems getting the Eee connected to a handful of different 802.11g networks in my area, although I don’t currently have access to any n-capable hardware.
Complementing the new Eee’s already impressive Wi-Fi component is Bluetooth 2.0 connectivity. This is a nice little extra to have, and something that isn’t standard equipment on many full-size notebooks.
Over on the right-hand side of the Eee, we find an SDHC slot that gives users an easy path to bolstering the system’s storage capacity. However, with 40GB of solid-state storage under the hood, the 40G isn’t desperate for additional storage like the first Eee PCs.
From this angle we can also see the 1000’s VGA output and the remainder of the system’s USB ports. These ports are capable of charging portable devices even if a system is turned offsomething my three-year-old Dell laptop can’t do. The ports only get power if the Eee is plugged into a wall socket, so you can’t charge on the move. But you won’t have to worry about unwittingly draining your battery, either.
Flipping the Eee reveals an access door we’ll crack open in a moment. Note that the underside of the system has plenty of venting to keep internal components cool. The Eee can’t get by with passive cooling alone, though. Asus equips the unit with small fan that seems to be on just about all the time. I suspect this fan is charged more with cooling the chipset than the Atom processor; after all, Intel’s Atom-based Mini-ITX board gets by with a tiny passive processor heatsink but requires active chipset cooling.
Fortunately, the Eee’s fan is practically inaudible. Unless you’re sitting in an absolutely silent room, you’ll have to hold the system up to your hear to hear the fan’s gentle whir. The air the fan exhausts from the left side of the system isn’t much warmer than room temperature, either.
The Eee PC 1000 is powered by a six-cell, 6600mAh Lithium Ion battery that feels like it makes up most of the system’s total weight. Because of its position at the rear of the system, the battery makes the Eee a little back-heavy, almost like it’s about to tip over if you open the screen too far. Tipping wasn’t an issue in normal use on my desk or my lap, though. And speaking of my lap, after a four-hour writing session with the Eee PC perched on my thighs, I can happily report that the bottom of the system barely gets warm.
Asus claims that up to eight hours of run time can be squeezed from the 1000’s battery, but that estimate may be a little ambitious. For our first battery life test, I loaded up the TR front page over Wi-Fi and let the system sit, ensuring that its screen didn’t power down. The system was left in its standard on-battery config, which drops the screen brightness by what looks to be about 10%. Just about six hours later, the battery finally gave up. Our next test probed video playback, looping an hour’s worth of standard-definition DivX video. The Eee handled this task with aplomb, managing fluid playback for nearly five-and-a-half hours.
So, while the Eee PC’s battery life’s falls short of the eight-hour mark, it’s still exceptionally good for a netbook, and about what we’d expect from a six-cell battery. Good luck getting even close to similar run time from a full-sized notebook in this price range.
A two-part power adapter keeps the Eee’s battery topped up. This charger is a little bulkier than the one-piece unit that came with the original Eee PC, but the new adapter’s plug won’t block adjacent outlets like the original’s.
Asus also throws a zippered neoprene slip case into the Eee PC 1000’s box. The slip case is actually a couple of inches deeper than is necessary given the Eee’s modest proportions, leaving enough room to cram in the power adapter, as well. Since cases designed for smaller netbook footprints aren’t exactly common, it’s especially handy that Asus includes one in the box.
A window to the Eee’s internals
Those eager to get their hands dirty will be pleased to know that just a couple of screws gate the guts of the Eee PC.
There isn’t much you can do with the 40G once it’s opened up, but in the picture above you can see the single SO-DIMM slot occupied by 1GB of DDR2 memory. The slot itself should support 2GB DIMMs, but previous versions of Asus’ Xandros-based Linux distro haven’t been able to use more than 1GB of memory. That shouldn’t be an issue if you swap the Eee’s OS for another Linux variant or a version of Windows.
To the left of the DIMM slot you can see the SDHC card responsible for 32GB of the 40G’s storage capacity. A separate 8GB solid-state drive rounds out the rest.
A little more Linux
Like the first Eee PC, the 1000 40G comes equipped with a surprisingly user-friendly Linux-based operating system. All the essentials are there, including a Firefox-based web browser, StarOffice 8, Skype, the Pigdin IM client, media playback software, and even a Picasa app.
The Xandros-based Linux desktop is organized into tabs filled with handy shortcuts, and it’s easy for users to set up a set of their own favorites. There are plenty of student-oriented goodies, as well, such as a dictionary, math program, periodic table and star map, and even a copy of Let’s Learn Chinese. Users can also tweak the desktop appearance with a handful of color themes.
Mainstream users may not be familiar with Linux, but even my mother found the Eee’s interface appealing and easy to use. Asus has dialed software updates, too, allowing the Eee to automatically download new BIOSes, drivers, and software patches as easily as Windows Update. The update system could use a little more polish to help mainstream users understand what’s going on, though. I received one update message asking to install the 1.1-1 version of Icewm-config-override, with no other details provided. That’s the kind of thing that might easily confuse Joe Sixpack.
Apart from the potentially confusing update messages, the Eee’s OS should serve mainstream users well. For enthusiasts, however, it feels a little too dumbed down. Simple things take more effort than they should, such as shutting down the system, which despite the presence of an “instant shutdown” icon, still takes at least three separate mouse clicks to complete. PC enthusiasts are probably better off supplanting the default OS with one of the new netbook-optimized Linux distributions that are floating around. Windows XP is also an option, and that’s probably what I’d run if I were using the Eee every day.
The Eee PC 1000 deserves a more robust operating system because with a bigger screen and usable keyboard, it feels more like a proper laptop than a cut-down netbook. A 1.6GHz Atom processor may not deliver lightning performance, but it’s quick enough for basic apps, and certainly up to the task of handling the Remote Desktop Connection sessions that make up the bulk of my own mobile computing.
We don’t expect much from netbook performance, and the Eee PC 1000 40G delivers on those modest expectations. Intel’s Atom processor isn’t the quickest chip on the block, but it’s fast enough for web browsing, IM chatter, email, word processing, and a little spreadsheet work. You could dip into photo editing and other tasks, too, but that’s where the Atom’s limited horsepower really starts to hurt. Of course, these limitations aren’t unique to the Eee PC; most of the new netbooks on the market use the same 1.6GHz N270 processor and its associated 945GSE chipset.
The Atom is an obvious upgrade over the original Eee’s underclocked Celeron, but the 1000’s bigger screen and higher display resolution are much more important improvements. Having 1024 horizontal pixels makes web browsing a breeze, particularly when coupled with two-finger scrolling. The larger screen also stretches the form factor to accommodate a larger keyboard. Typing on the original Eee PC was an unpleasant chore, but surprisingly comfortable on the 1000, whose keyboard is roomy enough for high-speed typing even with those with larger hands.
Of course, the keyboard isn’t perfect; the placement of the right shift key is all wrong, and that creates some serious problems if you do a lot of writing. But in return you get a proper directional key layout, and for some folks, that might matter more than easy capitalization.
As a writer, the right shift key almost ruins the Eee PC 1000 for me. But only almost. The Eee’s saving grace is its incredible battery life. Achieving six hours of run time is an impressive feat to say the least, and it’s by far the best battery life we’ve seen from a netbook. Asus also scores points for not skimping on extras, bundling in Bluetooth and 802.11n wireless connectivity that you have to pay extra for with most notebooks.
Those critical of netbooks will be quick to point out that the 40G’s $673 street price is really quite expensive, and nearly twice the cost of the original 4G Surf. Calling the system over-priced would be a stretch, though; keep in mind that you’re getting a much bigger screen, a comfy keyboard, better Wi-Fi, a six-cell battery, and 40GB of solid-state storage. SSDs aren’t cheap, folks.
Fortunately, Asus also offers an Eee PC 1000H (not to be confused with the Celeron-based 1000HD) that’s virtually identical to the 40G. This 1000H variant trades solid-state storage for an 80GB mechanical hard drive, ditches Linux for Windows XP, and can be had for as little as $540. That’s one heck of a deal, and if I were shopping for a netbook today, the 1000H is the one I’d pick up. In fact, if I were a cash-strapped student or had otherwise simple mobile computing needs, I’d be taking a long, hard look at a Eee PC 1000H as a notebook replacement, too.