reviewasus eee pc 901 netbook

Asus’ Eee PC 901 netbook

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.

Packed to the gills with… stuff
At the heart of the Eee PC 901, beating at 1.6GHz, is an Intel Atom N230 processor. Although it’s a single-core CPU, you’ll see two hardware threads represented in Task Manager thanks to Hyper-Threading. The CPU talks to the rest of the system via a 533MHz front-side bus, on the other of side of which lies the Intel 945GME north bridge, a part of the Intel’s “Diamondville” platform, along with the ICH7M south bridge chip. We’ve found this same combination of elements to provide reasonably acceptable performance in a desktop config, and it certainly doesn’t seem to slow down the 901 much, either. More on why in a second.

Beyond that, this little system is packed full of connectivity and I/O capabilities, many of which are visible during a quick spin around its edges.

On one side, you can see the SD media flash reader slot, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, and VGA output for driving an external monitor. The SD media slot accepts higher-capacity SDHC cards and is the 901’s primary means of storage expansion. The final jack on this side, near the rear of the chassis, is the 901’s power input. On the other side is an additional USB port, a mic input and headphone output port, and a Fast Ethernet port. Some of the 901’s most important connectivity is wireless, including an 802.11b/g/n adapter and a Bluetooth transceiver.

The 901’s underside is fairly clean, with all of the interesting bits hidden under a single panel. Removing this panel reveals the 901’s expansion slots. On the upper left is a 1GB SO-DIMM seated in the system’s single memory slot. (Although ours came with a DDR memory module rated for 333MHz, it ran at 266MHz with 4-4-4-12 timings.)

I’ve surely missed something, so here’s the rest of the 901’s spec sheet laid out in table form, so you can check it all out.

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
Display 8.9″ TFT with WSVGA (1024×600) resolution and
LED backlight

Storage 12GB solid-state drive (4GB + 8GB partitions)
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek ALC269 codec

3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input

Expansion slots


802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 2.0

Input devices Keyboard (51% of full size)
with multitouch
Array microphone

Camera 1.3 megapixel webcam
Dimensions 8.6″ x 6.9″ x 0.89-1.54″ (225
mm x 175.5 mm x 22.7-39 mm)
Weight 2.43 lbs (1.1 kg)
Battery 6-cell Li-Ion 6600 mAh

I suppose one of the most notable things I haven’t mentioned is the classic Eee PC combo of a built-in webcam (1.3 megapixels in this case) and an array microphone. True to its netbook roots, the 901 comes with Skype pre-installed and is ready out of the box for impromptu video conferencing. I tried it out, and the video quality is decent enough, though nothing earth-shattering. Cyril claims the array mic’s quality is higher than that of my Bluetooth headset, though, which is fairly impressive. If you’d rather use a Bluetooth headset, of course, the 901 can accommodate that, as well.

The human interface elements
The 901’s 8.9″ display is the single biggest improvement it offers over the original Eee PC, and indeed, its 1024×600 resolution seems to have become something of standard in this second wave of netbooks. That’s an eminently sensible development, since netbooks are generally about basic competency for an affordable price, and anything below 1024 pixels wide isn’t really a full “web width” display. When paired up with the compact interface of Google’s Chrome beta, this resolution shows you just enough of most web pages to be comfortable, so long as you’re willing to engage in plenty of scrolling.

Cramming this many dots into an 8.9″ panel means using a pretty fine dot pitch, which I suspect might be an annoyance to folks over a certain age. I’m not there yet, though, and my sharpness-addicted eyeballs really appreciate the fine pitch of this display.

Even with its matte coating, the 901’s LED-backlit screen is impressively bright, and it offers plenty of incremental dimming steps through its considerable dynamic range, so you can save on battery life when possible. Heck, I wrote part of this review on the 901 in the middle seat of an airplane with the window open and daylight streaming in from outside, and I had the screen’s brightness set only half-way up the scale. Off-angle viewing is excellent, too, allowing the passengers on either side of me to participate in the writing process with ease. (Deb says the 901 is “adorable,” and Jared would like to buy one for his daughter in college, although the keys are just too small for him.) Nothing about this panel feels cut-rate in the least.

Asus has carried over the same diminutive keyboard from the first Eee PCs into the 901. That’s to be expected given the size of this system, but unfortunately, it means the 901 shares the same difficult placement of the right-shift and tilde keys. I understand that compromises are necessary to fit a full keyboard layout into such a tiny space, but after you’ve hit the up arrow for the umpteenth time during an attempt to capitalize, you’ll curse the choices Asus made here. That’s especially true because they’ve come so close to nailing it otherwise. Yes, the keys are teensy, but they have unexpectedly good positive feedback. So long as you line up directly in front of the 901 and concentrate, touch typing at a decent rate and level of accuracy is in fact possible on this thing—surprisingly so. Slouch off to one side or another, as one tends to do when sitting on the couch surfing with a netbook like this, and you’ll have to hunt and peck in order to avoid scrambling your oighoerha.

See what I mean?

So how much smaller is this keyboard than a full-sized one? Good question. Unbeknownst to me, my colleague Geoff Gasior seems to have concocted a formula for measuring keyboard size while I was out at IDF and Nvision over the past couple of weeks. He suggests measuring a QWERTY keyboard from the A to the L keys for width and from the T to V keys for height, then comparing against similar measurements taken from of the keyboard on his 14″ Dell laptop. By that standard, the 901’s keyboard’s GasiorWidth, or widthg is 84% that of full size, while its heightg is only 69%. Average those together, and you have a keyboard that’s 76.5% of full size.

However, I prefer to think in terms of area. Across its total width and height, including squished shift and function keys and all the rest, the 901 keyboard’s area is only 51% of full size—nearly half. That seems intuitively correct to me when I think about making a size comparison. This thing is small. But Geoff has something of a point in focusing on the alpha keys, which are obviously the most important ones for touch typing. If we calculate area by multiplying width by height—and fudging a little since the keys involved don’t make a perfect rectangle—then areag may be an enlightening standard of measure. The 901 keyboard’s areag is 58%.

Lest you think we’re being ridiculous, I’d like to point out that we are now the only review site fully prepared to quantify the size of the Dell Inspiron Mini’s rather, er, innovative keyboard. And remember, kids, the universal constant for a full-sized areag, known as Kg, is 9,860 mm².

There, now you know we’re being ridiculous.

This almost goes without saying, but the Eee PC 1000 and a whole host of netbook competitors come with larger keyboards. The 901 remains true to the original Eee PC formula, but staying small requires a big tradeoff. Personally, I’d trade up on device size a little to get more keyboard real estate. Not everyone—and certainly not those who intend the 901 for use primarily by children—will feel the same as I do.

Speaking of size, the 901’s touchpad is wonderfully enormous—larger than the ones on most full-sized laptops. Also, Asus has, blessedly, decided to separate the right and left buttons below it, unlike the rocker-switch arrangement on earlier Eee PCs. The goodness rolls on when you look at the feature list, which for this touchpad includes full multitouch capability a la the iPhone. Swiping two fingers together across the touchpad invokes scrolling, an arrangement that can make web surfing a joy. Other motions will allow one to zoom, rotate, issue a page-up or page-down command, and so on.

Sadly, the touchpad’s large size and nifty features are largely blunted by some other realities. The supplier for this touchpad isn’t a big player like Synaptics, but a company called Elantech. Compared to the more common Synaptics touchpads, the 901’s is perceptibly less precise. Its finish looks “brushed,” with the grain running side to side, giving it more grip on the vertical axis. Scrolling can be a chore as a result. Also, although two-finger multitouch scrolling does work, I had to disable most other multitouch functions in order to avoid accidentally activating them when trying to scroll.

Worse, Elantech’s software is simply immature. Although it has sensitivity adjustments for some multitouch gestures, it doesn’t expose an option to adjust the general sensitivity of the touchpad itself or to account for humidity. The control panel does have a feature intended to prevent stray swipes from registering while you’re typing, but it doesn’t seem to work very well. And although two-finger scrolling works in Firefox, it doesn’t work at all in IE7. Those who prefer a dedicated scrolling region on the touchpad rather than multitouch madness are also out of luck: Elantech’s software won’t do that, either.

I suppose it’s possible Elantech will address many of my gripes in future software updates, but I wouldn’t count on it. The present reality is that the 901’s touchpad is more of a liability than an asset, despite its size and multitouch capability.

On a more positive note, the speakers in the 901, which are located just under the front corners of the chassis, are actually pretty good. They’re Dolby Sound Room certified, whatever that means. They’re still tinny and kind of cheesy, of course, but the volume levels are decent and the sound is better than what you’d hear coming out of some full-sized laptops.

The storage situation
This version of the Eee PC 901—the one with Windows XP pre-installed on it—has a 12GB solid-state disk. The Linux version costs the same but comes with a 20GB SSD. You may hear the letters S-S-D and think warm thoughts about durability, long battery life, and high performance, but, well, this is a low-cost device, so there are caveats.

In this case, the big caveat is how that SSD is arranged. The 901’s 12GB SSD has a 4GB partition of relatively quick flash memory and an 8GB partition of much slower (we’re talking USB key grade) flash RAM. This setup presents immediate problems for Windows XP, since the 901’s OS installation and basic set of applications take up over 3GB of space on the 4GB C: drive by default. Asus has dealt with this issue in several ways. For one, the 901 comes configured with no page file, and thus no virtual memory. That’s not necessarily a big deal on a netbook, but going commando has never appealed to me personally. On top of that, the 901 isn’t set up to hibernate to disk. To me, that’s a fundamental problem.

Now, this is the part where I stop and acknowledge that a netbook like this one a different sort of product than a full-fledged laptop and that one should expect some limitations in such a device. Noted. But I still wanna hibernate it.

You see, hibernation very handy for saving the state of your system, with all of the apps and browser tabs and text editor tabs and IM windows open just as you had them, and shutting down the system for a move elsewhere. Sure, a simple netbook may boot to the Windows desktop almost as quickly as it will come up from hibernation, but it won’t finish booting completely for some time after that, and then you have to load up all of your apps and documents again. Quite simply, I want to be able to hibernate a laptop.

But in order to do so, you must have enough space free on the OS drive to store the contents of memory—1GB on a stock 901. Finding enough free space on the 901’s 4GB C: drive is a challenge.

The 901’s SSD is divided into a faster 4GB partition and a brutally slow 8GB one

I was up to it, of course, determined to clear off enough space to make it work. I uninstalled a bunch of the Windows Live! stuff (Asus puts a whole truckload of Live! apps on the 901), reinstalled some apps into a Program Files directory on the 8GB D: partition, fiddled with NTFS compression on both partitions before finally going all in on both of ’em (with a 1.6GHz dual-threaded CPU and a slow storage device, this seems like a clear win), moved my user profile to D:, and moved the Windows temp directories to D:.

At last, I had it: Hibernation! The 901 was terribly slow at writing a 1GB hibernation file to the SSD, but at least it worked. Then I got crazy, creating a small page file on C: and a larger one on D:, like I thought it should be done.

My victory was short-lived, however, when I realized that web pages were slow to load in Firefox. I’m talking multi-second delays before the page fully loaded and rendered, even on a fast ‘net connection. Fairly quickly, I figured out that the problem was the 8GB D: drive, which is slow enough to make installing a program a 20-minute affair. The system was sluggish while rendering web pages because it was taking a long time to write objects to the browser cache. Eventually, I had to move my user profile, temp directories, and Firefox back to the C: drive. I even got rid of the page file, just to be sure it wasn’t part of the problem, and backed down on NTFS compression on the C: drive. After that, browsing was much faster—acceptable, though not particularly snappy.

Incidentally, the SSD is the reason I said the 901’s Atom processor doesn’t tend to slow it down much. In day-to-day use, I’ve found that disk I/O is this system’s overriding performance constraint.

The bottom line here is that Eee PC’s SSD is not a desirable feature compared to a traditional mobile hard disk. This SSD has advantages in terms of packaging size, durability, and probably cost, but any power efficiency gains you might see with it surely evaporate when disk I/O operations take this long to complete. The whole system is left waiting, burning battery power, during those intervals. And the 4GB limit on the quicker root partition is a severe limitation, in my book. Given the choice, I’d take a mobile hard drive over this thing any day of the week.

Battery life and heat
Before you get the sense that I’m totally down on the 901, we should talk about this Eee PC’s ace in the hole: battery life. The rear portion of the machine is anchored by a beefy, 6600 mAh lithium-ion battery. When coupled with the Atom processor and LED display backlight, that makes for some very nice run times on a single charge. Asus rates the 901 for 7.8 hours of run time, and they aren’t kidding. You can get a good eight-hour day out of a fully charged 901, if you’re judicious about how you use it. That’s a fragile thing, though. In my experience, you’re probably more likely to see run times closer to six hours, if you’re using Wi-Fi, surfing the web, and chatting via an IM program. Still, the new Eee PCs stand out among the current constellation of netbooks for their endurance, a critical factor in a product like this one.

One reason the battery life is so good, perhaps, is that Asus’ software auto-tunes the 901’s CPU in response to the power source. When plugged into a wall socket, the CPU runs at up to 1.6GHz, less via SpeedStep if there’s no demand. On battery power, the system switches into “battery saver” mode, in which the CPU ranges between a minimum of 600MHz and a max of 1200MHz. One may also switch between power modes manually and select a third “super performance” mode that overclocks the front-side bus to 560MHz and the CPU to 1680MHz. I didn’t bother with this mode, though, and I found Asus’ auto-switching software to be seamless and acceptable.

Here’s a look at the temperatures on the 901’s exterior after a web-surfing session via Wi-Fi. The temps are pretty reasonable, all things considered, but I’m pretty sure the 901 can get warmer than this in the right conditions. I measured on an unseasonably cool day, and the thing has felt warmer to the touch to me in the past when surfing via a wireless network, for whatever that’s worth. I still wouldn’t consider heat a particular weakness of the 901. It can get warm to the touch, and every so often its fan has to kick up and make a little noise getting it cooled down. Most of the time, though, it’s not especially hot and almost completely inaudible.

The original Eee PC was an intriguing device because it was just a step above a Blackberry, a basic web client device for about $400. The Eee PC 901, meanwhile, is something else: With Windows XP installed, it’s a strikingly complete little laptop PC. With a suggested retail price of $599 and street prices ranging down to $569, the 901 also treads into “real laptop” territory in terms of pricing. I think those prices are eminently justifiable given the 901’s robust feature set, bright screen, solid build quality, and workday-length battery life. Ultraportable PCs of this size and capability have traditionally cost a couple of thousand dollars.

With that said, though, the 901 will cramp your style if you try to use it exactly like a “real” laptop, most notably because its “fast 4GB/slow 8GB” SSD arrangement presents space constraints with Windows XP. You can, like I did, hack your way around that to some extent, but it’s a problem you’ll have to manage as you install new applications or download updates to Windows over time. If you know in advance that you simply want to use the 901 as a traditional “netbook” and nothing more, you may want to consider the Linux version seriously. For just surfing the web, sending IMs, and using Skype, Asus’ version of Linux is fine. It’s well integrated, covers all of the basics, is simpler to use, boots faster than Windows XP, and is better adapted to the 901’s SSD limitations. You won’t be able to install new applications with ease, but that should keep you out of trouble.

As for the 901’s place in the ever-expanding universe of Eee PC look-alikes and competitors, well, that’s an intriguing question. Asus has clearly indicated its intention to defend its turf by making the 901 as good as it is. But as I’ve said, the larger Eee PC 1000 looks like the more comfortable size for most folks, and Asus’ competitors would seem to agree, since they’ve mostly produced larger netbooks with keyboards that are around 90% of full size. Among those systems, the Eee PC 1000H—which relies on a mobile hard drive rather than an SSD—may be the most compelling choice. (In fact, I’ve been sorely tempted to order one for myself lately.) But the 901, even with a few flaws in execution, is the most faithful extension of the original Eee PC concept yet, and it packs the longest battery life into the smallest package among this second wave of netbooks. You will pay something of a premium for the 901 over its competitors, but folks who value mobility over all else may find it to be a bargain.

Scott Wasson

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