Home Asus’ Eee PC 1201T ultraportable

Asus’ Eee PC 1201T ultraportable

Cyril Kowaliski
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Manufacturer Asus
Model Eee PC 1201T
Price (Street) $379.99
Availability Now

Few laptops straddle the line between netbook and notebook more than the Eee PC 1201T. On one hand, the recently released Asus system has the telltale Eee PC branding of many netbooks, and its thin “seashell” design would be right at home around an Atom processor. On the other hand, the 1201T defies netbook convention with a 12.1″ 1366×768 display, an AMD Athlon Neo processor, and Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics.

At this point, the distinction would normally come down to the Windows 7 edition included: Starter for netbooks or Home Premium for the rest. But guess what? The Eee PC 1201T doesn’t come with a full operating system. Asus ships the Eee PC 1201T with only its ExpressGate instant-on OS, which provides Internet access, web browsing, and other basic functionality. The company opted to let users decide for themselves whether they want this Eee PC to be a scaled-back netbook or a more grown-up consumer ultraportable.

Those users are clearly meant to be PC enthusiasts. Inside the box, Asus provides only a DVD with some Windows drivers and a manual that doesn’t say a word about picking or installing an OS. Users are expected to choose their poison, stick it on a USB thumb drive, and set up the 1201T to their liking all on their own. If that’s not a departure from the masses of nearly identical netbooks and ultraportables, we don’t know what is.

The question, of course, is whether giving folks a blank slate is more of a blessing than a curse. Last we checked, Windows 7 wasn’t particularly cheap, and other laptops in the same price range were all sold with a version of it pre-installed. Slapping on Linux solves the cost issue, and devotees of open-source operating systems may rejoice at the prospect of dodging the infamous “Microsoft tax.” But does Linux really work as well as Windows on a system like this? And most importantly, is the 1201T’s hardware compelling, regardless of the OS situation?

Let’s start by studying the Eee PC 1201T’s hardware. You might notice the AMD Vision sticker on the palm rest. AMD just introduced its 2010 Ultrathin Platform, previously code-named Nile, but Asus has based the 1201T on the previous-gen Congo platform. The included Athlon Neo MV-40 processor has a single, 65-nm core operating at 1.6GHz, and the accompanying RS780MN north bridge has DirectX 10-class Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics. (Newer offerings, for the record, have 45-nm CPUs and DX10.1 graphics.)

Despite its older innards, the MV-40 still has a pretty tight 15W power envelope. It should also have very respectable performance—higher than a similarly clocked Atom CPU, one would hope—since it’s based on the same out-of-order architecture as desktop Athlon 64 CPUs of old. Couple that with the Radeon integrated graphics, and we could be looking at a decent step up from the performance of your typical netbook.

Processor AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 1.6GHz
Memory 2GB DDR2-667 (1 DIMM)
Chipset AMD RS780MN
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 3200
Display 12.1″ TFT with WXGA (1366×768) resolution and LED backlight
Storage Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 250GB 2.5″ 5,400 RPM hard drive
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Atheros AR8132 controller
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots

802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Realtek RTL8191SE
Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR

Input devices Chiclet keyboard
Synaptics capacitive touchpad
Internal microphone
Camera 0.3-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 11.7″ x 8.2″ x 1.1″ (296 x 208 x 27.3 mm)
Weight 3.2 lbs (1.46 kg)
Battery 6-cell Li-Ion 47 W/h

The rest of the Eee PC 1201T’s components would look as much at home on an Intel-based consumer ultraportable as they would on a netbook, except perhaps for the 1366×768 display resolution. Generally speaking, only the handful of Atom netbooks with Broadcom Crystal HD video decoders, like Asus’ own Eee PC 1005PR, have displays denser than 1024×600. (The 1005PR costs a good $40 more than the 1201T right now, by the way, even though the 1201T’s integrated Radeon HD 3200 should have the chops to handle HD video.)

To us, those 768 vertical pixels seem like a bare minimum for anything without an exceptionally small display. Anything lower, and the touchpad’s primary purpose would likely change from pointing to scrolling.

From a physical standpoint, the Eee PC 1201T is actually a little bigger and heavier than some 11.6″ ultraportables with Intel Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage processors. Regardless, this thing makes full-sized systems like the 13.3″ Asus U30Jc we reviewed last month look positively portly, all without forcing too much of a compromise upon the user when it comes to keyboard size. Speaking of which…

The display and the controls
Now that the nitty-gritty hardware details are out of the way, we can talk about the ergonomics of the Eee PC 1201T’s display, keyboard, and touchpad. Few laptops manage to get all three of these items to look and feel just right. That’s too bad, because unlike desktops, notebooks don’t give you an opportunity to upgrade to a nicer monitor or throw on a nice, clicky keyboard. The best you can usually hope for is being able to carry a Bluetooth mouse along. How does the 1201T fare on this front?

With a moderately bright LED backlight, a TN panel, and a glossy finish, the 1201T’s display wouldn’t exactly make George Takei recoil with an amazed gasp. As we’ve noted before, glossy finishes really ought to go together with powerful backlighting, lest reflections impede usage in brightly lit environments. Considering this machine’s ultraportable credentials, however, we’re willing to make concessions if they can help portability and battery life. You’ll probably want to use a battery-saving, display-dimming power profile when on the go, anyway.

I just wish Asus hadn’t also made the display bezel glossy. Shiny, almost mirror-like display bezels may look gorgeous in product photos, but they seem to attract dust in an almost magnetic fashion. Unless you’re willing to wipe the thing down with a microfiber cloth every few days, we can pretty much guarantee that a gross-looking dust frame will build up around the LCD panel and the hinges.

  Total keyboard area Alpha keys
  Width Height Area Width Height Rough area
Size 280 mm 97 mm 27,160 mm² 159 mm 48 mm 7,632 mm²
Versus full size 98% 88% 86% 92% 84% 78%

The 1201T’s keyboard has a relatively small surface area, as one would expect from a 12.1″ laptop. Nevertheless, Asus has managed to deliver a full layout and comfortably wide alpha keys. Typing effectively on this puppy might involve a little adjustment, but not to anywhere near the same extent as some of the more lilliputian netbook keyboards.

If we have one gripe here, it’s that, as with many ultraportables, the 1201T’s chiclet keyboard flexes. That makes typing a little mushier than it should be, impeding tactile feedback especially in keys like T, Y, and H that sit near the center of the keyboard. We wouldn’t have a problem with an extended typing session on this machine, though, especially if the battery keeps up.

Asus has unfortunately gone with a glossy finish on the palm rest, the touchpad button, and the touchpad surface itself. Those little raised dots you see above draw attention away from some of the oily fingerprints and, more importantly, make the touchpad stand out from the rest of the palm rest, since there’s no other physical separation between the two. However, this design basically dooms users to having the lower third of their laptops covered in smudges.

Looks aside, we’re pleased with the size of the palm rest—it’s not narrow enough to make typing uncomfortable—but we’re less happy with the touchpad’s ergonomics. Asus has used a pretty solid capacitive multi-touch design from Synaptics here, but it’s given it a frustratingly small, poorly defined surface. The little dots don’t do a very good job of delimiting the tracking area, and I often found myself outside of it when attempting to drag and drop a file. Would it have killed Asus just to move the button closer to the edge of the laptop and make the tracking area a little taller, wider, and more clearly defined? As it is, the touchpad almost seems to serve more of a decorative purpose than a functional one. Good thing the Eee PC 1201T has built-in Bluetooth, so at least carrying around a small wireless mouse is an option.

Connectivity and expansion
The spartan nature of the Eee PC 1201T’s external connectivity looks straight out of the netbook playbook. On the starboard side, we’ve got a card reader, two USB ports, an Ethernet jack, and a pair of 3.5-mm ports for headphones and a mic. (There’s a built-in microphone next to the webcam, too.)

On the port side, Asus includes lone USB and VGA ports straddling the thermal exhaust vent. The power connector goes next to the vent, as well.

The bottom surface of the 1201T looks even barer, perhaps in part due to the lack of a Windows license sticker. Asus lets users remove the battery using a pair of sturdy-looking latches, and it offers direct access to the memory via a little door held in place by two Philips screws.

Easy memory upgrades are always a nice plus, but there’s a catch here: lifting the trap door and the protective sheet of black plastic reveals… the 2GB DDR2-667 SO-DIMM that comes with the system, sitting in a lone SO-DIMM slot. Upgrading involves throwing out that module and coughing up the cash for a 4GB SO-DIMM, which would set you back around $140 right now. You might think another SO-DIMM slot resides hidden in the bowels of the system, but the CPU-Z software disproves that hypothesis, reporting naught but a single, already-populated slot.

Admittedly, two gigs of RAM should be plenty for a laptop like this one. The relatively slow processor and tight form factor mean users probably won’t play graphically intensive games or run demanding photo or video editing apps. We’ll look at performance in more detail soon, but we never witnessed the 1201T apparently running out of memory and grinding to a halt, whether in Windows 7 or other operating systems. Besides, it’s not like any ultraportable in this price range would ship with 4GB to begin with—some netbooks not much cheaper than the 1201T sport only a single gigabyte.

Operating system madness
The Eee PC 1201T’s hardware may not be particularly remarkable, but we can’t say as much about its lack of a full bundled operating system. When first booting up, the 1201T greets users with ExpressGate, an “instant-on” OS we’ve already seen in other Asus products. Meant to boot quickly and provide quick access to basic PC functionality, ExpressGate is hardly a replacement for Windows or a full Linux distribution. However, it does let you connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi, browse the web, manage photos, use Skype, and chat on other instant-messaging networks. Asus even includes a shortcut with links to casual web-based games.

ExpressGate is capable of downloading files to a USB drive, so in theory, you could use it to grab a Linux ISO disc image off the web. Except as far as we can tell, there’s no software included to make that image bootable. Also, unlike some ExpressGate implementations we’ve seen on Asus motherboards, this version actually resides on the 1201T’s hard drive, so installing a real OS will wipe it. The only way to get the software back is, believe it or not, to install Windows and run the .exe ExpressGate installer available from Asus’ website.

ExpressGate or not, you’ll want to install a real OS on the Eee PC 1201T. Two obvious choices present themselves here: Linux, which is free, and Windows, which isn’t. Depending on your ability to get cheap Windows licenses (student discounts can be especially juicy) or your willingness to break the law, Windows might be the most attractive option. For the rest of us, installing Linux removes the need to shell out $99.99 for a Windows 7 Home Premium OEM license—the cheapest non-discounted edition available, as far as we can see.

The open-source community has fashioned dozens, perhaps hundreds of Linux distributions, but right now, none seem to be quite as popular as Ubuntu Linux. We downloaded the freshly released 10.04 version and took it for a spin on the 1201T. (Canonical does offer a special “Netbook Edition” of Ubuntu 10.04, but that variant is tweaked for low-resolution netbook displays. The 1201T’s panel has the same 1366×768 resolution as many full-sized laptops, so the regular, grown-up version of Ubuntu seemed like a better fit.)

Normally, installing Linux—or any operating system, for that matter—involves a CD or DVD. The Eee PC 1201T doesn’t have an optical drive, so we instead reached for the closest USB thumb drive and loaded the Ubuntu 10.04 ISO onto it, thanks to Pendrivelinux.com’s Universal USB Installer. Setting the system to boot from USB involved a little trip through the BIOS, but Ubuntu installed pretty much without a hitch, recognizing and supporting almost all of the 1201T’s hardware with one unfortunate exception: the Realtek Wi-Fi controller.

Using the built-in drivers, Ubuntu would detect only a handful of networks and drop Wi-Fi connections within a few minutes. We hunted on the Asus website and the included DVD for some Linux Wi-Fi drivers, but Asus only offers Windows software. After much Googling, we finally came across a custom driver by developer Matt Price. Happily, installing it didn’t involve any command-line hijinks. All we had to do was open up Ubuntu’s Software Centre application, add Price’s Launchpad repository in the options, and then head to the new section under “Get Software” to activate the driver from there. After a reboot, everything was working peachy, down to the laptop’s sleep mode. Ubuntu also prompted us to install AMD’s Linux Catalyst drivers, which gave us a Catalyst Control Center control panel with power-saving options just like in Windows.

Provided you don’t need to do anything particularly elaborate (like set up new hardware or attempt to run Windows apps) Ubuntu 10.04 works surprisingly well. The Software Centre provides a uniquely straightforward way to add or remove software, and the bundled open-source applications should serve most users’ needs. There’s the Firefox browser, OpenOffice productivity suite, Empathy IM client, Totem video player, Rhythmbox music player (with access to the Ubuntu One music store), Pitivi video editor, F-Spot photo manager, and a few other miscellaneous utilities, like a BitTorrent client. Ubuntu even connects to Windows network shares out of the box, so working in a Windows environment shouldn’t be too difficult.

Canonical has polished its user interface quite a bit for the Ubuntu 10.04 release, too, serving up a fairly tasteful default theme with subtle soft shadows and transparency effects. My only complaint is the location of the close, minimize, and maximize buttons: right above the “File” and “Edit” menus in the menu bar, leaving far too much room for accidental clicks. Canonical almost seems to be awkwardly aping Mac OS X. While Apple’s OS does have window buttons on the left, it also locates the menu bar at the top of the screen, well out of harm’s way.

Finally, there’s Windows. Paradoxically, we had a harder time installing Windows 7 Home Premium onto the Eee PC 1201T than Ubuntu. Microsoft provides a special tool to copy the Windows installer on a bootable USB drive, but that tool requires a Windows 7 ISO (hopefully purchased from the Microsoft store online). We had an old-fashioned installation DVD, which required a different solution, as we found out on the Microsoft TechNet website. In a nutshell, you have to open a command prompt and use the diskpart utility to format and partition the USB drive in the correct manner. Then, just copy all the files from the Win7 installation disc to the USB drive, and you’re set.

With Windows 7 installed, getting the 1201T to work as intended is actually much easier. Just copy the contents of the Asus software DVD, then run the installer and tell it to load up all the drivers and utilities. You’ll get perks like multi-touch scrolling, function key shortcuts, and special battery profiles, none of which are available in Ubuntu.

Our testing methods
We’ll be comparing the Eee PC 1201T to two netbooks, the Eee PC 1005PE and 1000HA, plus five grown-up laptops, the Acer Aspire Timeline 1380T, Asus K42F, Asus U30Jc, Asus UL80Vt, and Dell Studio 14z.

Asus’ default power management profile underclocks the Eee PC 1005PE and 1000HA’s Atom processors to 1.33GHz and 1.25GHz, respectively, when those netbooks are running on battery power. We tested both with this profile and the “high performance” mode, which lets CPUs scale up to their top speeds even on the battery. The Asus U30Jc, UL80Vt, and K42F also have special “Battery-saving” modes, which we’ve used in our battery life comparisons. We tested the UL80Vt in its “Turbo” mode, which overclocks the processor, as well. Other laptops were run in their default configurations.

With the exception of battery life, all tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.

System Acer Aspire AS3810-6415 Timeline Asus Eee PC 1000HA Asus Eee PC 1005PE Asus Eee PC 1201T Asus K42F Asus U30Jc Asus UL80Vt-A1 Dell Studio 14z
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 1.4GHz Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz Intel Atom N450 1.66GHz AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-540M 2.53GHz Intel Core i3-350M 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2.4GHz
North bridge Intel GS45 Intel 945GSE Intel NM10 Express AMD RS780MN Intel HM55 Express Intel HM55 Express Intel GS45 Nvidia GeForce 9400M G
South bridge Intel ICH9M Intel ICH7M AMD ID439D Intel ICH9M
Memory size 4GB (2 DIMMs) 1GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 3GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz
Memory timings 6-6-6-15 4-4-4-12 5-5-5-15 5-5-5-15 7-7-7-20 7-7-7-20 6-6-6-15 7-7-7-27
Audio Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with 6.1.7600.16385 drivers Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with drivers IDT codec with drivers
Graphics Intel GMA X4500MHD with drivers Intel GMA 950 with drivers Intel GMA 3150 with drivers AMD Radeon HD 3200 with 8.635.0.0 drivers Intel GMA HD with drivers Intel GMA HD with drivers Intel GMA X4500MHD with drivers
Nvidia GeForce G210M with drivers
Nvidia GeForce 9400M G with drivers
Hard drive Toshiba HDD2HD21 500GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB 5,400 RPM Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 250GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 320GB 5,400-RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Starter x86 x64 Windows 7 Starter x86 x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x86
Ubuntu Linux 10.04
Windows 7 Ultimate x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64

We used the following versions of our test applications:

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Application performance
Although we’ve outlined the merits of Ubuntu Linux a couple of pages back, the performance benchmarks on this page were all run in Windows. We had two good reasons to exclude Linux. First, our 7-Zip and x264 benchmarks don’t run natively in Linux. Also, we weren’t able to track down the same versions of Firefox and Flash we used in Windows for our other tests.

You may skip to the next page for cross-OS comparisons of video playback performance and battery life. In the meantime, think of the graphs below as a raw performance comparison meant to highlight the capabilities of the 1201T’s hardware.

We’ll start off our mobile benchmark suite by looking at browser performance using FutureMark’s Peacekeeper benchmark. FutureMark says this app tests JavaScript functions commonly used on websites like YouTube, Facebook, Gmail, and others. Next, we’ll look at Flash performance using the Flash component of the GUIMark rendering benchmark.

The 1201T’s Athlon Neo processor does most of the work here, and its performance falls right between that of the Intel Atom and full-featured CPUs.

7-Zip’s built-in benchmark is nicely multithreaded, so it should give an advantage to the multi-core CPUs in our comparison.

Indeed, the 1201T falls in line with the netbooks here, although it does manage to outdo the Eee PC 1005PE, which is based on Intel’s latest Pine Trail platform.

We see a roughly similar picture in x264 high-definition video encoding. The Athlon Neo MV-40 outmatches the Atom N450, but not by enough to get close to the same ballpark as Intel’s Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage processors, like the one inside Acer’s Aspire 3810T.

If one can draw a conclusion from the numbers above, it’s probably that the Athlon Neo will make web browsing a little smoother and snappier than an Atom, but users will be hard-pressed to distinguish the two in very CPU-intensive tasks.

Video playback
Considering the 1201T’s performance picture so far, we were curious to see how well its Athlon Neo and Radeon HD 3200 tandem would handle videos. To assess playback performance in Windows 7, we kept an eye on the Task Manager while viewing each clip. In Linux, we whipped up a little shell script to record the CPU utilization of either Firefox (for Flash videos) or Totem (for QuickTime clips) every few seconds. We also jotted down our subjective impressions.

First, in Windows 7, we tried QuickTime for our HD trailers, Flash 10 for the windowed YouTube test, and Windows Media Player for standard-def DivX playback:

  CPU utilization Result
Alice in Wonderland QuickTime 720p 55-100% Frequent dropped frames
Avatar QuickTime 1080p 72-100% Slide show
DivX PAL SD 27-67% Perfect
720p YouTube HD windowed 61-98% Smooth, occasional dropped frames

That’s not very good now, is it? QuickTime evidently doesn’t play well with the Radeon HD 3200, and the Athlon Neo doesn’t quite have what it takes to play back non-hardware-accelerated HD Flash video.

We then tried playing the QuickTime trailers in Windows Media Player, and we installed Flash 10.1 RC4, which has hardware acceleration:

  CPU utilization Result
Alice in Wonderland QuickTime 720p 10-24% Perfect
Avatar QuickTime 1080p 3-93% Smooth, occasional dropped frames
720p YouTube HD windowed 67-100%  Frequent dropped frames

WMP’s accelerated renderer did wonders for our HD clips, even if the 1201T still stumbled occasionally in the 1080p Avatar trailer. Surprisingly, though, the Flash 10.1 release candidate actually made performance worse. We tried grabbing the latest Catalyst drivers from AMD’s website to see if they would help, but the installer would only update the Catalyst Control Center. The latest AMD chipset drivers on Asus’ website, meanwhile, date back to December 2009. For now, this looks like the best the 1201T can do with Flash 10.1.

Last, but certainly not least, we booted up Ubuntu and attempted the same round of tests. Here, we used the latest version of Flash available via the Ubuntu Software Centre, and we viewed the other clips in Totem, which conveniently fetched and installed the relevant codecs automatically.

  CPU utilization Result
Alice in Wonderland QuickTime 720p 38-52% Perfect
Avatar QuickTime 1080p 44-77% Frequent dropped frames
DivX PAL SD 20-35% Perfect
720p YouTube HD windowed 16-64% Smooth, occasional dropped frames

The performance picture here is more or less similar to what we’d get using Windows Media Player and Flash 10 in Windows 7. That said, Totem did drop more frames than WMP in the 1080p Avatar trailer.

Battery life
Each laptop’s battery was run down completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a 40% brightness settings on all displays except for the Aspire Timeline’s, which we cranked up to 50%. (We found the Timeline’s 50% setting more directly comparable to the 40% settings of the K42F, UL80Vt, and Studio 14z.)

For our web surfing test, we opened a Firefox window with two tabs: one for TR and another for Shacknews. These tabs were set to reload automatically every 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, and we left Bluetooth enabled on systems that include it (the U30Jc does not). Our second battery life test involves movie playback. Here, we looped a standard-definition video of the sort one might download off BitTorrent, using Windows Media Player for playback. We disabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth across the board, too.

Just like that, Ubuntu reveals its greatest weakness on the 1201T. The free operating system fared pitifully in our web browsing test, racking up a miserable 2.9 hours of run time. The 4.2 hours we got in Windows 7 might not be particularly worthy of praise, either, but a 31% drop from one operating system to the next is still a very big deal. There’s a real mobility cost to skipping that Windows license.

Now, since we’re talking about Linux, it’s entirely possible that battery life could be improved by recompiling the kernel with different flags or some equally esoteric maneuver. Unless you’re buying this laptop specifically to tinker with, though, we don’t know if that’s a particularly appealing proposition for anyone except die-hard Linux enthusiasts. 

Getting my Tux Racer on
For many years now, Windows users have derided Linux for its dearth of games—some might say Tux Racer, the circa-2000 3D classic, is still the state of the art in the Linux world. As we found out, that’s not quite true. We were able to test the Radeon HD 3200’s gaming chops in several Linux-native titles, starting with Splash Damage’s Enemy Territory: Quake Wars:

Although we did get it to run, Quake Wars didn’t seem to belong on the 1201T. Installing it involved the command line, and once we loaded up the game, performance was atrocious even at the lowest possible resolution and detail settings. (The image above is barely smaller than the original screenshot.) So much for Penguin-powered Strogg slaughtering.

Quake III Arena was once a staple of Linux gaming, and its web-based sibling Quake Live works just as happily on the free operating system. This title runs within Firefox via a special plug-in, but it performed flawlessly at 1280×720 with the default settings. Of course, the original Q3A is more than 10 years old now, so this engine doesn’t exactly need very much graphics horsepower.

We took a break from first-person shooters with Frets On Fire, a free Guitar Hero clone available through the Ubuntu Software Centre. This is more of a casual game, so buttery-smooth performance isn’t as big a requirement, but it maintained acceptable frame rates even in windowed mode with antialiasing enabled. Playing this thing on a laptop keyboard isn’t for everybody, though.

The Ubuntu Software Centre included another cross-platform first-person shooter: Warsow, whose name might refer to a bellicose pig, the similar-sounding Polish city, or both. This multiplayer game is based on a modified version of the Quake II engine snazzed up with cel-shaded graphics and per-pixel shading. Warsow was fairly playable at 1024×768, but we couldn’t get it to work in wide-screen mode.

In spite of the battery life caveat we mentioned earlier, then, using an Eee PC 1201T with Ubuntu doesn’t have to mean turning one’s back on gaming entirely. The Radeon HD 3200 clearly does a decent job with older and casual titles. And with the rumor mill grinding away about a Linux version of Valve’s Steam, perhaps things will only get better.

There’s room for debate over whether the Eee PC 1201T is a netbook or a consumer ultraportable, but we have few reservations about giving it another label entirely: mixed bag. Asus has fashioned this system with many of the ingredients for success, yet we can’t help but feel the company didn’t blend its concoction quite well enough.

A “choose your own adventure” laptop is certainly an original concept, especially in this price range, but the seemingly total lack of Linux software support from Asus puzzles us. If you’re not going to run Linux on this system, then you must buy a Windows license. Assuming no student discounts or the like, tacking the cost of Windows 7 to this system brings the total cost up to $479.99. Some Intel CULV-based consumer ultraportables already pre-installed with Win7 Home Premium actually sell for less right now—and as we’ve seen, the 1201T’s Athlon Neo processor doesn’t perform all that much better than the lowly Atom chips found in $299 netbooks.

Getting Ubuntu Linux 10.04 up and running on the Eee PC 1201T could have been much more difficult, of course. Everything except Wi-Fi functioned right off the bat, and we were able to solve the Wi-Fi issue within an hour or so. However, that choice of operating system comes with other drawbacks. Battery life is much worse, as we’ve seen, and there are other little problems and omissions, like the absence of some function-key shortcuts or multi-touch scrolling support. Flash performance seemed generally worse than in Windows, too; full-screen YouTube videos actually dropped frames even at the 360p setting.

If Asus really wants to cater to Linux users, basic software support seems like a must. Since Ubuntu 10.04 doesn’t cost anything, why not simply pre-load it on the machine instead of the largely useless ExpressGate software? Enthusiasts and tinkerers might format the hard drive and install their own distributions of choice anyway, but with a full pre-loaded OS, they could at least do so directly from the Eee PC.

In the end, though, installing Windows 7 really seems like a necessity in order to get the most out of the Eee PC 1201T’s hardware and battery. I can’t help but think this would have been a more compelling product had Asus actually shipped it with Windows and charged a tad more for it.

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