Review : Asus EEE, the laptop that changed everything

Anandtech says that this product defies categorisation and it was something the team at Trusted Reviews say hello to Asus diminutive laptop, the EEE was truly excited about. Dear Readers, Say hello to Asus' diminutive laptop, the EEE.

Why EEE?

The EEE PC series marks a significant shift in the way Asus will probably design its computers and is the first step towards commoditisation of the personal computer.

By this time in 2008, expect computers, desktops and laptops, to become white appliances like your LCD TV and your washing machine. Out of the box, into your hands - what started as a toy will revolutionise the way we experience computing.

It is hard not to be impressed by Asus' EEE micro laptop. Like ECS' take at the laptop segment with the Desknote back in 2002, the EEE PC series has the potential to change the very way computers - not only laptops - are made and marketed.

The Genesis

On the 12th of November 2007, the online edition of Forbes, published an interesting article which related the story of the Asus EEE, through the words of Computer Legend and Asus CEO, Jonney Shih.

To say that there is a before and after EEE would be an understatement with regards to the impact that this device will have on the world of mobile computing.

A fitting analogy would be if Mercedes Benz suddenly decides to sell its most expensive and sexiest SLR car for the price of an entry level Vauxhall car without a few whistles.

What's even more impressive is that the EEE was designed in eight months exactly - from the moment the idea germinated to its first shipped order.

In the bag

The box it came in was much too big for its content - there were a CDROM, a few pamphlets, a superbly designed English 100-page user guide (no multilingual translation), a nice neoprene like case and a power adaptor adaptor - so small is the later that it could easily have been mistaken for a cell phone one.

It begets belief that other manufacturers can't get their heads around adopting this format to power laptops in general.

The CDROM is actually a software support CDROM for Windows XP Home and Professional and contained Drivers, Manuals and Various utilities including a Linux USB Flash Utility.

It is therefore obvious that Asus expects a number of users to install Windows XP on the laptop even though the laptop comes with a small hard drive. This also opens the way for a Windows XP based EEE Laptop

So far so good, first impressions are excellent.

The one thing that surprises you at first about the EEE is how small it is: It is incredibly small. One has to go back to the legendary Toshiba Libretto 70CT

(Image Courtesy of Brian Tung)

or the equally fantastic NetBook to get so much packed in such a small volume.

(Image Courtesy : Amiga History)

To give you an idea how petite it is, take a piece of A4 sheet, fold it in two and add 10mm on each sides; as for its depth, it's around half a ream of A4 paper - at its thickest, at the back where the battery is - and it is just as light (or heavy).

Using the laptop

I am currently typing this review on that EEE, exploring my findings over a one week period.

On the outside, the laptop feels sturdy and reassuringly solid with a pearly white albeit plastic shell.

Opening it reveals a gorgeous looking white frame with a full size QWERTY keyboard.

The keys are very closely packed together and as one can guess in a package of that size, this is one of the compromises that Asus designers had to make.

The keys themselves are not that awful. At 15.5 mm x 13 mm, they are just about the size of my Dell USB Keyboard.

What's hurting is the fact that the distance between the edges of the keys - which will determine whether you press two keys simultaneously instead of one - is only 3mm, which is less than half my desktop keyboard's.

But that's not all, the keyboard keys themselves are differently laid.

But that's a common criticism to many sub or micro-laptops and only a butterfly keyboard would probably do the trick.

Still, I've written this whole review on the EEE's keyboard and that's a tribute to the keyboard's quality.

The touchpad is another bone of contention.

It is impossibly small (45mm x 29mm) and sports what is certainly one of the worst touch pad buttons ever to have graced a laptop.

It is essentially a long silvery-looking plastic bar which produces the expected click only when pressed hard in the middle or more gently on either side.

As for the Palm rests, they are just good enough for the average user's hands.

The right palm rest has four tiny LEDs to provide information on Wifi signal, whether the laptop is on, whether it is charging and whether the hard drive is spinning - although there's no spin in the EEE's drive.

Moving up to the hinge area; the EEE's hinges are certainly the strongest design I've ever seen on any laptop and it would be a blessing if other laptop manufacturers did adopt them.

Having solid hinges solved the problem on getting a latch to close the laptop properly - and there's no screen buckling on this laptop.

Laptop users know all too well that latches are the first thing to break in laptops.

The EEE has no latch to keep it closed; the hinges being the only thing that keep the laptop closed.

The only nagging issue I can find has to do with its stability; it is very difficult to hold the laptop open at a decent angle (135 degrees) on your lap without it tilting backwards.

That's because the weight of the battery - which dovetails nicely at the back of the EEE - causes its centre of gravity - remember that - to move backwards.

The screen has a horizontal angle of vision which is exceptionally good - close to 180 degrees.

It is a 7-inch 800x600 TFT display flanked on both sides by two flat/slim speakers and there's a pin hole 300,000 pixels webcam on top - complemented by the microphone which is just underneath the touchpad.

The screen is unsurprisingly much smaller than the frame - which reminds me of ... a digital photo frame.

My guess though is that Asus could keep the same format and bring in a larger screen - a 10-inch one - with some modifications; something it has just announced.

Inside the EEE, you will find a Celeron ULV, with a Dothan core and 512KB cache - that's has been downclocked from 900MHz to 630MHz (to decrease the heat output and to increase battery life) coupled with an Intel 915GM chipset.

Also in the package is 512MB DDR2 memory which can be upgraded to much more - although the test laptop that came with a "void if removed" sticker.

The EEE tested came with a 4GB Solid State Disk drive.

Of this, only 1.4GB can be used; however, this ridiculously low free capacity is mitigated by a number of factors which we will see later.

Connectivity options of the EEE are excellent; It has one 10/100 Ethernet port, three USB ports, one D-Sub entry - you can hook it up to a normal PC monitor, a Kensington lock port, a SD/MMC card slot, speaker and external microphone jacks and a 802.11b/g WiFi connection.

USB drives and SD card prices have seen their priced plumet recently and adding 4GB extra capacity wouldn't cost you less than £9.

The USB connectors were supposed to be USB 1.1 models but Anandtech tested them with a range of storage devices and it looks that they function as USB 2.0 depending on the device connected.

Furthermore, thanks to its WiFi connection, one can use online storage should there be a need for it - I used my Gmail's 6.5GB account during this review.

It would not be surprising to see Asus collaborate with Google to launch an Asus-sponsored 5GB online drive in the near future or even a subscription based scheme like Zombu's partnership with Everex.

Powering it up

Surprisingly, there's a murmuring fan on powering up the EEE, although it is nothing like one "vacuum cleaner" laptop that I once used.

The EEE heats up a bit even if it was using a ULV Intel Celeron processor.

This partly explains why Asus has decided to underclock it.

The keyboard and underneath the laptop turns a bit hot when left on charge.

You can boot into the laptop's BIOS although there's nothing much to see.

Booting into the main desktop area takes only around 20 seconds or so.

The EEE comes with a Linux Operating System based on the Xandros Distribution coupled with a KDE desktop which shares the same looks with Windows XP.

The interface is bright and colourful and takes a page from the concept of tabular navigation with six tabs on the top of the screen and a taskbar located at the bottom.

Opening applications appear on the task bar, with tray bubble messages popping up and there's even a hack that allows you to create a green start button a la Windows XP.

The choice of Linux though should not come as a surprise as (a) it is free (b) it is more tweakable and flexible than Windows (c) Vista, even in its basic version, would not run properly on that laptop (read the excellent Cheap laptops bad for Vista, Good for Linux from eWeek).

Underneath the hood, although it is a Linux OS, Asus has gone to great lengths to make it look like a Windows system.

As a Windows person, I was surprised to see there's even a task manager which allows you to close down processes and closing the wrong one actually restart the laptop.

Using the EEE

Well, so far so good. I have managed to crash the EEE only once while powering it down.

Other than that, the EEE looks pretty nifty and responsive, certainly speedier than what one can expect on a 512MB machine running Windows Vista Basic Home Edition.

There's a whole array of free and open source software and Asus seems to be looking to use the internet as an extension of the desktop as it provides with shortcuts like iGoogle, Google Docs and Wikipedia which would NOT work without a connection to the web.

You will even find an antivirus application but no firewall.

One application that I was curious to try is the Voicecommand which allow you to shout commands at the laptop in the hope that something will happen.

Unsurprisingly, it was more of a hit and miss as you might expect.

The software packages are not named in the traditional way but according to their features - hence, there's no Firefox, but "web", no Open Office.org business suite but Documents, Spreadsheets and Presentations.

What has been loaded on the EEE is really a mix of shortcuts - like webmail or internet radio, full fledge applications and half baked applications - like messenger IM client which cannot even connect with the Webcam.

There's a slightly useless add/remove software option - useless because there's only five applications listed out of the numerous ones.

Another more useful option is the diagnostic tool that checks the system health and delivers a detailed and quick analysis.

The screen resolution is not ideal - a width of 1024 is the minimum nowadays to navigate the web correctly and having a built in zoom in/out function (like for the sound) would have been welcomed.

One reviewer in particular suggests that Opera (even mobile Opera) would have been a better option because it does offer a few tricks that Firefox is still lacking; it is quicker, has a zoom function and has a smaller memory footprint.

Connecting wirelessly to the web is a doodle if you have a - spot or a wireless router nearby.

As the Register puts it rightly though, the fact that there are two separate icons in the taskbar for all your network connections though adds to confusion.

I could get roughly two and a half hours of typing and surfing the net using the wireless capabilities of the EEE.

However, trying to charge the EEE and work at the same time won't do your battery any good. In a non-scientific test, it took my test EEE almost three hours to get the battery charged to two sticks while I was typing away this review which is simply unacceptable.

Shutting down the laptop though takes only a few seconds, so does the standby mode.

To bring the EEE back to full working mode from standby, you will have to press on the "start" button again and your working area appears in a matter of seconds. Microsoft, where are thou?

The future

The future of the EEE is already looking very bright. There's a dedicated EEE user group that is growing very fast at eeeuser.com which came up with a number of tips, tricks and most importantly hacks.

Asus has already announced that it is expecting to ship 3.8 million EEE laptops in 2008; some of them may even sport a cut down version of Windows XP according to Asus sources.

Asus has already announced that it is going to have a desktop version of the EEE. One could envision that Asus should simply remove the laptop's screen and start selling the hidden son of the Commodore C-64.

Think about it and it all makes sense. The screen is the most expensive component of the laptop. Removing it would certainly bring down the price substantially.

A screenless laptop would enable Asus to save on support and make substantial economies of scales. Research and Development costs would be next to zero and it would be easy to ship around.

But the reality is less nostalgic.

Underneath, the EEE will change substantially. Right now, it is nearer to a laptop than to a PDA or a smartphone, but expect that to change as Intel prepares the next generation family for low power mobile appliances.

The Atom Diamondville will bring the BOM (Bill of materials) costs even lower. In a move reminescent of the decade old now AMD owned MediaGX, Intel plans to integrate everything onboard (Processor, Chipset, Video, Audio etc) into one package.

In a few years' time, don't be surprised if Intel launches a silicon chip which would merge the flash memory as well. Granted doing it on the same die will be difficult but housing everything in the same package should be doable.

As for the competition, well it is alive and kicking. Every major manufacturer has announced or has already launched an EEE competitor.

Conclusion

Although there are much more powerful laptops available on the market for not much extra, the EEE does pricing in style, something that others should try to emulate if not copy.

Things like the minuscule adaptor, the pearl finish and the latchless shell should become standard on all laptops.

At the end of the day, one should think of the EEE as a secondary ultra portable laptop. It is not powerful enough for certain tasks but should be sufficient for the rest.

The user interface and the bundled software are more than adequate and suit the targeted audience. There are a few rough edges but nothing critical.

Computer novices and crack hackers will love the sheer value for money of this little piece of technology.

Should we expect a larger 10-inch screen with a XGA resolution to be launched fairly soon? I am not too sure. Doing so would put the EEE squarely in the realms of high end sub laptops which bring a non-negligeable amount of revenue to Apple. Asus could do it but for now, the sweet spot appears to be GBP 199.

Asus would probably do EEE users a favour by increasing the size of the laptop a bit (one cm each way). Bear in mind though that Asus is performing a balancing act.

Delivering a low-profit, high volume product that outperforms what the competition is selling while making sure that it doesn't impede on its ODM/OEM alliances - Sony, Apple.

The EEE will certainly have a brighter legacy than all the other internet appliances like the 3Com Audrey, that tried to do exactly what the EEE is aiming at: Setting the internet free at an affordable price.

Ironically, Asus will have to make sure that the EEE does not become too popular or it will embarass its other ODM clients like Sony and Apple. After all, if Asus's range of EEE laptops monopolises and cannibalise sales, it can't be a good thing for revenues, can it?

10 Things we liked about the EEE

The price

The size

The preloaded software

The user interface

The webcam

The wealth of connections

The design and finish

The power adaptor

The gorgeous screen

The two year warranty

The Latchless shell

The gorgeous finish

10 improvements to the EEE

Zoom in/out functionality

Blank EEE laptop and provide with downloadable images to boot from.

Have a Google branded EEE laptop

Something akin of a CNR option to install software. Linspire are you listening?

Lose that phone connnection socket, dial up is dead; get another USB port instead

No need for a Kensington lock

I want a headless EEE NOW

Have a bigger screen

Have a bigger touchpad

Put the microphone elsewhere, but not UNDER the laptop

A much better, faster charging battery

A cooler running system.

We would like to thanks to RM for sending this test sample.