Reviewed May 23, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Get less, pay more-- that's been the rule for ultralight notebooks whose price and size are inversely proportional. Miniaturizing state of the art components (or nearly state of the art) costs money in terms of design time, dealing with thermal issues and power consumption. Then along comes ASUS with the Eee PC, a budget, plastic-cased notebook that sells for $299 to $399 in its 7" display form. That sure threw the industry for a loop-- consumers loved the first version running the usually less-than-popular (among average budget consumers) Linux. Sony, whose Vaio UX and TZ series notebooks illustrate their diametrically opposed design philosophy, grumbled that the likes of the Eee PC would doom the evolution of the cutting edge ultra-mobile computer. HP merely quickly followed suit with their own affordable HP 2133 Mini-Note notebook running Linux or XP (though not as quite affordable as the Eee PC, it does boast more features and a classier casing). Acer jumped into the ring with their very affordable Aspire One in September 2008.
The Eee PC may look Walmart- chic, but even in its XP iteration, it outperforms many pricier UMPCs in terms of pure speed. Much of this has to do with XP vs. Vista: XP is much better suited to low-spec CPU machines and ASUS was wise enough to stick with it rather than turn out a sluggish Vista machine. We've reviewed a bevy of sexy UMPCs like the Sony Vaio UX380N, Fujitsu U810 (though you can get the Fuji with XP and then it's good) and the HTC Shift; all were dragged down by hoggish Vista. In comparison, the $399 Eee PC 4G running XP Home Edition runs responsively enough that you won't be taking coffee or bathroom breaks every time you launch a new application. Now that doesn't mean you can run 5 applications at once and still have a responsive machine; the 4G ships with a paltry 512 megs of DDR2 RAM (remember the good old days when XP ran OK with 512 and really "flew" with a gig of RAM?). There are only so many significant applications you can run on 512 megs of RAM before things slow down. The Eee is best suited to run 1 or 2 "serious" apps at a time-- for example, Internet Explorer and MS Works. You can throw Outlook Express in there and things are OK, but full Outlook will add just enough of a burden to slow the machine down some.
The good news is that you can upgrade the memory easily enough. Remove two phillips head screws on the bottom to open the RAM door. There's a single RAM slot for a standard PC-5300 SODIMM, so you'll toss the 512 meg module and install a 1 or 2 gig SODIMM. At an average of $25 for a 1 gig and $50 for a 2 gig module, we'd say it's worth it to go to 1 gig if you wish to run 3 apps at once without paging to disk for virtual memory.
Speaking of the disk, the Eee PC 4G has a 4 gig SSD flash drive which is much faster than conventional hard drives with spinning platters and it's impervious to motion (no crashed heads if you dance with your Eee). This means virtual memory is relatively fast, though for $25, why compromise. The bad news is that 4 gigs really isn't enough for Windows XP plus the included MS Works 9 Office suite. Those take up 3.5 gigs, leaving less than 500 megs free for other software installations, documents and Windows updates. Out of the box, XP wanted to install a slew of Windows updates and then kept complaining that space was getting tight as it downloaded and installed these. After all updates were done and the installers had cleaned up after themselves, we were back to almost 350 megs free, as a consolation. As another consolation, the Eee has an SD card slot that's compatible with SDHC high capacity cards. So we put 8 gigs of iTunes videos and music on a card and enjoyed a sudden tripling of storage. Now, you won't want to install programs to the SD card (it's slower than a drive and removable which can confuse XP), but it's great for multimedia storage, documents and the like. Tip: Change system restore settings which will use a good deal of drive space by default-- reduce it to the min setting or turn it off.
The machine runs on a retro Intel Celeron 900MHz CPU, which is actually an acceptable match for Windows XP. When using the nearly silent Eee PC for web surfing, Office documents and even video playback the bottom gets warm but not burning hot. The machine has an ample set of vents, mostly on the bottom, so we suggest not using it directly on a couch cushion or bed covers as those will blocks the vents (put a magazine or some rigid item under it).
The Eee PC is too small to fit an internal optical drive, but you can use a USB CD/DVD drive with the Eee. In fact, you'll need one to install software from discs or if you ever need to restore the Eee using the included recovery DVD.
For graphics the Eee has the standard Intel solution found in notebooks from 2 years ago. The graphics driver combined with Windows XP is a little peculiar. It's Intel's own 915GM integrated graphics chipset and software which usually work fine. But in this case, XP kept nagging us with a balloon message stating that the display resolution wasn't ideal, and could it please make things better? We finally gave in and said yes and XP switched to 800 x 600 which didn't suit the aspect ratio of the display and looked bad. But there was no way to switch back as the 800 x 480 native option wasn't listed under display options. Argh. The 800 x 480 resolution is a bit low, but we definitely managed when web browsing and working with Word documents. Obviously there's not much point encoding video above VGA or WVGA resolution unless you plan to use an external monitor via the VGA port. We did run into problems with dialogs running off-screen, sometimes making the OK and Cancel buttons elusive.
ASUS recently released a 8.9" display version of the Eee PC with a 1026 x 600 resolution display that ameliorates the off-screen dialog problem and reduces scrolling a bit. It's about the same size as the Eee PC 701 7" model, and the display loses the big bezel and large speaker grilles. Readability should be about the same, which means not too hard on the eyes even if you aren't a spring chicken, but not as easy on the eyes as a full sized notebook.
Skype and Multimedia? Yes!
Skype for video calls has a way of bringing most UMPCs running Vista to their knees. The ultra-affordable Eee PC 4G managed fine, especially after we upgraded RAM to 1 gig (Skype is a resource hog and wants lots of memory). Video calls with the built-in web cam were smooth with clear video on each end. Impressive! Sound quality was clear on both ends: the ASUS' stereo speakers that flank the display sounded good and the mic, though underneath the front edge, picked up my voice well.
The Eee 4G did a surprisingly good job of playing video encoded at VGA resolution up to 650kbps. Most Vista UMPCs fall flat here, but we enjoyed smooth playback of a variety of iTunes, WMV and DivX movies burned from DVDs. Sound through the built-in stereo speakers is good and we enjoyed listening to music stored on a card through headphones.
Design and Ergonomics
The Eee PC looks just like a standard notebook, only lots smaller and more plasticky. Many budget notebooks, and even some mid-range notebooks are cased in plastic but manufacturers try harder to gussy things up. The Eee 7" isn't too small for light typing, unlike the Fujitsu U810 and OQO model 02. Men with large fingers won't want to type on it all day but it's fine for emails, posting to a blog and writing a two page Word document. Key travel is similar to standard notebooks, and it's a full layout with dedicated Fn key row, number row and arrow keys. Though it can't compare to a full size notebook, the keyboard is surprisingly good overall, and it works fine for touch-typing.
The single button mouse button below the track pad is joint-gnawing stiff. Worse yet, it's single button (this is one area where companies should never copy Apple), but the left half effects a left-click and the right half a left click. ASUS does include a small USB two button mouse with the Eee PC 4G in case you don't want to wrestle with the trackpad and button. The trackpad does have a dedicated scroll up/down area on the far right side and we loved that.
The notebook weighs just 2 pounds and is between the size of a paperback and hardback book (closer to the hardback but not very thick at 1.3" at its thickest). The charger is a large wall wart that's smaller and lighter than traditional notebook bricks (there's nothing worse than a subnotebook burdened with a large, heavy charger-- thank you, ASUS). It easily fits into a medium size purse or a small backpack or briefcase. Our unit is pearl white and ASUS also makes the 4G XP unit in black. The 2G (2 gig) "Surf" Linux models are available in pink, green and blue as well.
Ports and Expansion
For a tiny notebook, the 7" Eee PC has more ports than most pricier UMPCs and subnotebooks. It has a VGA port for an external monitor or projector, three USB 2.0 ports (one on the right, two on the left), an SD card slot, stereo headphone jack, mic jack (there's a built-in mic as well), RJ45 Ethernet and RJ11 modem. Not bad. There is no docking station or docking connector, but those tend to be expensive and wouldn't fit in with the Eee's design philosophy of wildly portable and affordable computing. We tested the 4G with the Ridata Quattro portable CD-RW/DVD burner and a Sony external dual layer DVD burner and both worked fine for booting and installing software.
The Eee PC 4G has a 5200 mAh, 7.4 volt 4 cell Lithium Ion battery that's user replaceable. That's a very high capacity battery for a small fella, and it's double that of the HTC Shift. Not surprisingly, the Eee runs for about 3 to 3.5 hours on that beefy power pack, which is better than most UMPCs on the market. The 7" Eee PC is a bit bigger than most UMPCs to be fair, and crams fewer components and features in, so there's room for that larger battery.
It's hard not to like the Eee PC 4G. What it does, it does well. It lacks high end features like a touch screen, biometric security and WAN networking like the HTC Shift, but the Shift costs 4x more. Though some clearance 15" notebooks can be found for $500, they aren't nearly as portable as the Eee PC, and we applaud ASUS for bringing the UMPC or ultra-portable to the masses. At $399 many folks can afford one, and it makes a useful second machine. Clearly, with only 4 gigs of storage, it can't be a primary machine, even for a child, because there's barely enough room to install an Office suite and a few other apps along with staples like Quicktime, Flash and anti-virus software. But as a second machine for the couch or travel that handles web surfing, email, office docs and even video playback, the Eee is great.
Pro: Light, small (but not too small) and sturdy. Very affordable. Good connectivity with WiFi, Ethernet and a modem. Can run Internet, productivity and even video apps respectably. Familiar OS, can run Windows programs. Flash drive is fast, quiet and durable-- won't crash due to motion or shock. WiFi range is good for an ultraportable. Mouse, neoprene carry case and restore DVD are in the box: excellent.
Con: 4 gig hard drive is too small for Windows XP, Office suite and a small collection of additional programs without nearly running out of space. Low resolution means windows and dialogs sometimes run off screen making the OK and cancel buttons elusive. Trackpad button is super-stiff and hard to use.