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Asus' Eee PC 901 netbook

The pint-sized wonder grows up—a little

If you hang around these parts at all, you're surely familiar by now with Asus' little Eee PC laptops. These miniature, low-priced laptops were initially inspired by the One Laptop Per Child effort aimed at providing laptops to kids in developing nations, but the Eee PC has become something of a minor phenomenon in more traditional PC markets. They're portable, cute, simple to use, will let you access the 'net on the go, and are cheap enough to be an impulse buy. The Eee PC was an instant success for Asus, and the firm has responded by rallying around the concept with a whole line of Eee PC products.

The original Eee PC required some compromises in overall utility in order to meet its price point, but newer models have brought more functionality in exchange for somewhat higher prices. In many ways, the 901 is the quintessential second-generation Eee PC, a direct extension of the concept that does away with many of the original's shortcomings. With an 8.9" screen that's full "web width" resolution, an Intel Atom processor, and a rated battery life of nearly eight hours, the 901 is a much more capable basic computer. In fact, Asus didn't stop there. Thanks to a rich complement of extras like Bluetooth, a multi-touch-capable touchpad, and Windows XP, the 901 forges deep into ultraportable territory traditionally occupied by the likes of the pricey Sony T series. Yet the Eee PC 901 still sells for only $599.

Is there a catch? Sort of, but the tradeoffs aren't as bad as you might think. I've spent a few weeks acquainting myself with this system, and I'm generally impressed. Read on for my take on life with the Eee PC 901.

First things first: this thing is really very small
Since we first started covering the Eee PC, I think some folks have failed to understand exactly how small these things actually are. We've taken pictures and offered them up, like so:

And I'll admit, you might be tempted to think you're viewing something close to a full-sized laptop when looking at a picture like that, devoid of any size reference. So, we've tried some size comparisons, to help folks catch a sense of it. Like this one, next to a CD jewel case.

That kind of helps, I think. You can probably look at this and begin to absorb the fact that the Eee PC 901 measures 8.86" wide by 6.9" deep. A size comparison against my "ultraportable" Sharp M4000 Widenote, with its 13.3" screen, might bring things further into focus.

Here, you can see that the Eee PC 901 is roughly half the size of my relatively small laptop in terms of width and depth. That might bring it home for you, but perhaps not. You may simply need to see one in person in order to grasp the fact that these things are small—hold-it-in-one-hand, slide-it-into-the-map-pocket small. Asus even provides a nifty black neoprene sleeve with each Eee PC that serves to protect it as you lug it about in one hand.

That said, the 901 isn't quite as tiny as the original Eee PC. A big part of the difference is its thickness, which ranges from 0.83" at the front of the unit to 1.54" at the back—nearly as thick as my Sharp, as you can see above. The 901 is also just a tad larger all around than the Eee PC 700.

The Eee PC 700 (left) and the 901 (right)

The Eee PC 700 squats atop the 901

You might think that when you get this small, adding a little extra bulk won't really matter—and you'd be mostly right, but at these dimension and 2.43 lbs., the 901 does feel quite a bit more substantial in the hand. It's large enough to remind you it's a real computer, whereas the original Eee PC looked and felt like a toy.

Then again, that impression isn't entirely inaccurate. The 901's slightly larger frame houses considerably more functionality than the original Eee PC, all told. Not only that, but the 901's build quality, fit, and finish belong to the big leagues. Gone is the flat, white exterior of the original, replaced by a pearlescent finish that looks like it would be at home on a Lexus. Of course, keeping a white car clean isn't easy, and this netbook's shiny finish collects fingerprints faster than the FBI. That's the price of flashiness, I suppose. Meanwhile, the 901's big hinges suggest sturdiness, and they're tensioned perfectly. The screen folds closed with a satisfying snap.