UPDATED | We now have pricing details for the EeePC in Australia. Note that an updated version of the EeePC containing Intel's Atom CPU is slated to hit Australian shores between July and August.
The ASUS EeePC 701 has earned a permanent place in history. It almost single-handedly defined the sub-notebook — a genre of PC that made slow, inexpensive laptops the hottest properties in the computing world. Many have tried to emulate its success, and most have failed miserably, so it's left to ASUS to push the envelope with a new version of its product.
Step forward the EeePC 900. This brings with it several improvements including a high-resolution 8.9-inch screen, more storage, more memory, a multi-touch mouse trackpad and an improved webcam. In other words, it's a far more attractive proposition even than the original. But is it enough of an evolution to stave off competition from its rivals?
The ASUS EeePC 900 will be available late May, with a Linux version available for AU$649, and a Windows XP Home version for AU$599.
The EeePC 900 isn't too different from its predecessor, at least aesthetically. In comparison to the EeePC 701, it's still ivory white and is still the size of a hardcover book. It is, however, 6 millimetres longer and approximately 100 grams heavier. The speakers that sat on either side of the screen have been removed to accommodate the larger panel — an arrangement that immediately makes the laptop more attractive.
The speakers now live at the bottom of the laptop below the wrist rest — an arrangement that adversely affects sound quality, particularly if you're using the EeePC 900 on your lap. We'll forgive it this oversight, however, because the quality of the speakers on the original EeePC 701 was rubbish in the first place.
We rather hoped the EeePC 900 would have a larger keyboard than that of the 701, but that isn't the case. We still had the same trouble typing on it as we did before and had to adopt a four-finger — index and middle finger — approach to typing instead of our standard all-action, all-digit touch typing. It slows you down, but you'll get used to it after extended use.
The mouse trackpad has been improved, and notably so. It now has a wide aspect ratio to match that of the screen, meaning your finger inputs will more closely mirror what's possible with the on-screen cursor. The left and right selector buttons have also been improved. They now sport a silver finish and are easier to press.
Best of all, though, is the addition of multi-finger input, often referred to as multi-touch. The trackpad now lets you scroll horizontally and vertically through documents by swiping two fingers up or down across the surface of the trackpad. You can also zoom in or zoom out of pictures by making pinching or stretching movement with your fingers — just like on the MacBook Air.
The selection of input-output ports on the EeePC 900 is identical to that of the 701. The left side consists of an Ethernet port, a single USB port, mic and headphone jacks. The right is home to a D-Sub VGA video output, two additional USB ports and an SD card reader. The latter can accommodate third-party SDHC cards for up to 32GB of additional storage. Larger cards are expected to emerge in due course.
The aforementioned 8.9-inch display isn't simply for making the laptop look nicer. It's also of a very good standard. It runs at a native resolution of 1,024 x 600 pixels, which is significantly higher than the 800 x 480 pixel screen on the old 7-inch model. The quality of the display is also commendable, especially given the price of the laptop. The vertical viewing angle is a little limited, so you'll need to adjust the horizontal tilt to get the picture just right. Still, the horizontal viewing angle is wide enough to allow two users to watch a movie side by side in relative comfort.
Anyone expecting the new Intel Atom CPUs in the EeePC 900 will be sorely disappointed. This iteration uses the same Intel Celeron 900MHz CPU as the old 701, but it now has the backing of 1GB of DDR 400 RAM — twice as much as you got in its predecessor. The geek inside us yearns for an Atom — or similar — CPU, but we'll have to wait until at least the summer before Asus updates the Eee again. In the meantime, we'll thank our lucky stars Asus didn't opt for a VIA C7-M CPU as seen in the HP 2133.
The amount of storage you get in your EeePC 900 depends on whether you opt for the version containing Linux or Windows XP Home as an operating system. The Linux model comes with a fairly capacious 20GB of storage, while the Windows XP model has just 12GB.
While in the UK ASUS has kept the price identical, using the extra 8GB storage on the Linux version to bring its price in line with the cost of the XP licence, in Australia ASUS has clearly done a better deal with Microsoft, significantly undercutting the cost of the modified Xandros system.
Both versions of the EeePC 900 use Samsung flash memory chips rather than an actual off-the-shelf hard disk drive. The only drawback here is that it's not as large as the 32GB or 64GB SSDs in fully-grown laptops like the MacBook Air, but that's not a massive issue. The Eee PC 900's storage is still of the solid-state variety, so you can hurl the machine to the ground in frustration, safe in the knowledge that your data won't be lost. The screen and the keyboard will likely shatter into a million tiny pieces (don't worry, the machine is actually quite sturdy), but your data will be safe.
Those who opt for the Linux version of the Eee PC 900 won't be disappointed. It uses the same Linux-based OS as the EeePC 701, and comes with some 40 applications pre-installed. You can add your own applications as you might expect, but we found pretty much everything we needed was already on the system, including the OpenOffice productivity suite, Firefox browser, a media player and more. Applications are logically arranged in tab groups labeled "Internet", "work", "learn", "play", "settings" and "favourites", so everything is easy to find.
The Eee PC 900 isn't designed to replace your primary PC — it's at its best when used as second PC or a Web access tool, and is well-equipped for doing just that. It has an Ethernet port, plus an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi adaptor so you can jump online regardless of whether you're in your lounge, your garden or a local Starbucks. Unfortunately, there's still no support for 802.11n high-speed wireless, but we can't say we really miss this feature.
The EeePC 900 feels swifter in everyday use than the previous model — something we put down to it having twice the memory. The 1GB of DDR 400 RAM also helped the system cope better with running multiple applications simultaneously. We were able to, for example, browse the Internet while watching a movie in a window without it dropping frames. It must be noted that this capability is only possible now that the EeePC has a larger screen size and higher resolution.
The Eee PC 900 still isn't the ideal candidate for playing games. Yes, there are some titles with modest enough system requirements to be compatible, but these are few and far between. It's also important to note that you'll need to install Windows XP in order to run the vast majority of these, and even then you'll only have a limited amount of space to install your favourite games.
ASUS claims the EeePC 900 will last approximately three hours on its standard battery — half an hour less than its predictions for the EeePC 701. In our own DivX movie playback test, it ran for 1 hour 29 minutes, which was just about long enough for us to enjoy a feature-length movie or a couple episodes of our favourite TV show. Your own mileage will vary, but expect it to last slightly longer if you run applications that are not CPU-intensive and with the wireless adaptor switched off.
The EeePC 900 is a likeable update to the EeePC 701. We're disappointed its keyboard is still so difficult to use, but the addition of a larger, high-resolution screen, multi-touch mouse trackpad and better storage gives it the edge over just about all of its rivals. It falls slightly short of a wholehearted recommendation due to the rumoured touchscreen version and the huge likelihood that ASUS will begin using newer Intel Atom CPUs, but for those who can't wait, it's a fantastic purchase.