Pronounced "E PC", it seems the world plus dog is going crazy for ASUS's diminutive laptop, its attractive styling and even more attractive price-point gaining a lot of deserved attention.
Our 0.92kg review sample arrived in pearlescent white, with a black option available soon. In fact the box depicts pink, green and blue models as well, so more colours may be on the way. A black neoprene pouch is included to protect against scratches while transporting.
The 7-inch, 800 x 480 resolution screen is flocked by speakers which are deceptively good for their size, while an entry level Webcam sits above. The resolution of the screen does the job with a simple but clever interface, however we did run across a few problems with programs that ran off-screen, not allowing us to hit the "OK" button — most likely expecting a minimum vertical resolution of 600 pixels.
The screen and hinge are surprisingly sturdy, and although we weren't game to try it would probably survive a drop from standing to floor. In fact ASUS seems to have managed what most others have found impossible — a sturdy, rugged laptop that also manages to be attractive.
In terms of input the keys are quite tiny, which could cause problems for adults using it for extended periods of time. The trackpad is just as comfortable as its bigger cousins, but can sometimes be hard to tap-click and the scroll region is tiny, making it quite difficult to activate, and the configuration tool doesn't allow you to change this.
The only real design SNAFU is that the built-in microphone is situated under the laptop, meaning you'll either need to pick up the notebook or lower yourself to desk level to register your voice at a decent volume, resigning users to the external microphone port for decent results.
The GUI is built on Xandros (a distribution of Linux), with the application skins appearing to be taken wholesale from Windows XP's silver "Luna" theme. Xandros signed a "broad collaboration agreement" with Microsoft in June, of which the public details are very vague — so presumably this is part of it or Microsoft's lawyers must be getting really itchy trigger fingers by now. Either way, ASUS plans to release an EeePC with Windows XP Home installed in the future.
The interface is simple yet highly usable, with large icons ordered across the screen for each application. These programs are segregated into tabs akin to a Web browser, with the topics "Internet", "Work", "Learn", "Play", "Settings" and "Favourites". A "Help" tab also launches a quite in-depth but easy to follow user guide.
A taskbar lines the bottom of the screen, with a house icon on the left that minimises applications to show the desktop, and a system tray on the right that reports battery charge, wireless/wired network access, volume, time, and clicking on these icons will either give information or configuration tools.
Updates to existing programs or drivers are provided through ASUS's Add/Remove Programs panel. Presumably extra applications will be made available here, but there seems to be no easy way to add your own applications from other sources so that they appear in the existing menus.
ASUS has pitched the EeePC primarily at first PC users, in particular drawing attention to school children and the elderly. While the school children will no doubt have a blast, we imagine the elderly would have problems with the small keys and screen.
Of course there's the entire other market of technophiles who would love to get their hands on this thing as a second PC or something to hack around with, and being small enough to slip into a handbag it fills the gap nicely between PDA and full-sized laptop, an appealing proposition to those always on the move who have to do light computing duties such as word processing and Web browsing.
The EeePC runs a 900MHz Celeron M which has been clocked down to 630MHz (a later BIOS update allows you to push the speed higher if you like, but can cause lockups), features 512MB DDR2 RAM and 4GB of solid state storage (with an 8GB SSD/1GB RAM version to come). A sticker across the door that hides the RAM warns that the warranty is void upon opening, however ASUS has stated that removing this won't affect the warranty, so users can now upgrade their RAM without fear — note though that the default OS will only recognise 1GB RAM. There's also a mini PCI-e connector under the bay which can be coaxed into doing cool things like adding extra storage or a Bluetooth receiver, however revisions of the EeePC have started appearing overseas which lack this connector altogether, and newer revisions still remove the door to these components completely.
In terms of connectivity Wi-Fi b/g is available as is 100Mbit Ethernet, however the 56k modem port is blanked out with a protective rubber plug as there's no modem onboard. Two USB ports can be found on the right, with an additional USB port plus a headphone and microphone jack on the left. An MMC/SD/MS card reader is present, with support for SDHC and could be potentially used to expand the EeePC's storage capability. Above this is a VGA output, powered by the integrated Intel GMA 900 GPU — usually we'd bang on about the travesty of not including a digital video output, but really at this size and price that's an unrealistic expectation.
It's worth mentioning the charger at this point, which is about the size you'd see typically attached to a mobile phone — the super brick is banished in the petite world of the Eee.
Applications wise it's a fairly standard suite of open source software, but renamed to its function rather than its brand name — Firefox has become "Web", and Pidgin (an IM client with sadly no Webcam support) called "Messenger" for example — something that will make a lot more sense to first time or Windows users than their native names.
Other applications included under various guises are Open Office, Adobe Reader, Skype and SMPlayer. Music Manager is notably excellent for organising and playing back your MP3 collection, but like Picture Manager and Video Manager is a bit complex for first-time users. In total quite a large wad of useful applications are bundled, although a bunch of them are simply links to Web sites like Wikipedia.
For the tweakers, the console can be uncovered from the Tools menu in the File Manager, which is located amusingly under the "Work" category. If you're inclined to tweak or modify your EeePC, you might want to check out Eeeuser.
The performance was more than acceptable for the EeePC's target market — in all, it took about 20 seconds to boot up, and while it's difficult to benchmark the system versus a typical laptop, we can say that it was perfectly fine for its intended audience when running the included applications. ASUS claims three hours for battery life, and with light use the four-cell battery certainly met that expectation. While the fan occasionally got noisy, this was generally only after hitting it with something intense like the 3D game Tux Racer.
The EeePC isn't for everyone — in fact within about two seconds from picking it up you'll know if it's for you or not. For those it does appeal to, it's a brilliant little thing that fills a much lamented gap.
The ASUS EeePC is available for AU$499, and for now is exclusively sold at Myer.