The keyboard and touchpad
The most visibleand perhaps most interestingchange from previous models is the 1000HE's new, chiclet-style keyboard. Gone is the scissor-switch keyboard of old, and in its place is a design straight out of Apple's playbook.
Being a daily MacBook user for the last couple of years, I found myself right at home with the 1000HE's new keyboard. The keys are just slightly off-square, measuring 14 mm by 13 mm, with a 3-mm gap between keys. If you've never used a chiclet-style keyboard before, it's difficult to describe what it feels like. Resistance stays even through the range of the key's depression, which results in a soft and quiet typing experience (at least in the 1000HE's case). While there's no exaggerated click corresponding to a key press, there's a distinct tactile feedback to depressionsyou know when you've pressed a key. I also never noticed issues with keys incorrectly registering as being pressed twice, like some users encountered with the previous keyboard design.
Apple's 13.3" unibody MacBook (left) and Asus' Eee PC 1000HE (right).
Typing for extended periods on the Eee PC 1000HE wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as I expected, and the improvements offered by the chiclet design were immediately noticeable over the older style keys. For example, quickly moving your fingers across the keyboard no longer presents the danger of catching a fingernail under a key, potentially popping it off and ruining a keyboard. For my fellow slobs out there who like to snack while typing, you'll be happy to know that chiclet-style keys also appear less likely to accumulate dirt or crumbs under themselves.
Unfortunately, not all is well with the new chiclet-style keyboard. The upgrade has affected the rigidity of the unit, and there's a decent amount of flex to the lower half of the keyboard. You have to press the space bar with a good amount of force to see that, but it's especially noticeable if you push your finger against the plastic between the keyboard and touchpad. Under normal conditions, the keyboard flex isn't a hindrance to typing, but as part of the review, it's my job to poke, prod, and squeeze.
If you've done any research on previous Eee PC 1000 models, you'll know the right-shift key placement has been a large point of contention among users. In order to retain a proper arrow key layout, Asus originally placed shift to the right of the up arrow, much to the disappointment of capitalization enthusiasts everywhere. Our very own Geoff Gasior resorted to desperate measures to correct the issue, physically swapping the keys to avoid frustrating typos.
Thankfully, Asus listened to the complaints and went with a more traditional layout for the 1000HE's keyboard, as you can see in the photo above. The right-shift key is now on the proper side of the up arrow, and Asus even managed to sneak in an extra Fn key on the opposite side. Other keys like the "?" lost a bit of girth for Asus to pull this off, but that's an acceptable sacrifice for a corrected layout. The added Fn key is a bit of a head-scratcher, though. I would prefer the right-shift key be enlarged to the size of the left-shift key (or as close as possible), with the up arrow moved to the edge of the keyboard. But now I'm just nitpicking.
I'm a big fan of multi-touch gestures, so you can imagine my delight upon learning that the 1000HE's 3" touchpad supports multi-finger gestures. Thank goodness it does, too, because the small surface area doesn't leave any room for dedicated scroll areas. The Elantech touchpad understands a number of gestures, including two-finger scrolling and tapping, zooming, rotating, and three-finger swiping and tapping. Gestures generally replace actions found on a full-size mouse, though some unique enhancements are also included. For example, a three-fingered swipe up will launch My Computer, while a swipe down mimics alt-tab, allowing you to quickly switch programs. Swiping left or right will browse back or forward, respectively, in Internet Explorer. It's no Exposé, but anything that improves my efficiency is a welcome addition.
Sadly, this touchpad implementation isn't perfect, with the majority of issues stemming from Elantech's drivers. Accidental actions are common. I specifically had trouble when moving my finger around on the pad too quickly, which the software misinterpreted as a tap. I would often end up with entire pages or a window's worth of icons being highlighted due to errant taps. It also wasn't uncommon for me to zoom in accidentally on a page I meant to scroll, although to be fair, zooming has never worked well on any touchpad I've used. I found the best solution to accidentally triggered gestures was to disable the ones I didn't use, thus preventing false positives.
On a more positive note, the three-finger swipe and tap functions worked perfectly whenever I needed them, which admittedly wasn't all that often. Why? Because gestures aren't customizable. Up is always My Computer, and down is always alt-tab. Left and right don't function as back and forward in Firefox, which is the least of the touchpad's problems with the browser. Scrolling is also hypersensitive in Firefox, and the touchpad software often can't decide whether to go up or down, leaving Internet Explorer as the browser of choice for the 1000HE if you're without a mouse. With that said, the touchpad issues seem like easy fixes for a future driver release, because the hardware itself behaves properly if you concentrate and make your mouse gestures very deliberate. Mousing just shouldn't take that much effort, though.