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Reflections on the Asus Eee PC

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Three weeks after the Eee PC was released for retail sale to a thunderous roar of applause, we consider the hardware, the software and the significance of this new ultramobile notebook from Asus in an article that’s equal parts review and editorial.

November 20, 2007 by Mike
Chin

Product
Asus Eee PC 4G
Manufacturer
Asus
Market Price
US$399

It’s been three weeks since the Asus
Eee PC
was released for retail sale to a thunderous roar of applause. In
the first week of November, reviews and news pieces seemed to spring up on all
kinds of media: The usual array of computer hardware and mobile computing web
sites and magazines, various “gizmo and gadget” sites, Linux web sites,
and even tech columns in the mainstream media. You have to hand it to Asus;
they did a great job of getting attention for their new product.


One of many appealing images used to promote the Asus Eee PC

We managed to borrow a Eee PC sample with 4GB flash drive immediately after
the launch event and to play with it for a few hours. Just long enough to do
a few measurements, run the machine through basic operations and get a general
feel for it.

So after such a brief encounter, what can SPCR add to the thousands of words,
pictures, and videos that have already been produced for the EEE PC? Mostly,
a minor counterpoint to the virtually unanimous praise: The EEE PC is an important
ground-breaking product in many ways, but its usefulness really depends on your
own expectations.


The Asus Eee PC is dwarfed by an IBM T42 14″ monitor 5 lb business
laptop.

 

Asus Eee PC 4G Specifications
Display
7″ 800×480 TFT LCD with LED
backlight
CPU
900 MHz Intel Celeron-M ULV 353 – 512KB
L2 cache RAM; thermally controlled fan cooling
Chipset
Intel 910GML
Graphics
Integrated Intel GMA 900; VGA port (up to
1600×1280 )
Storage
2GB solid state flash drive
Memory
512MB DDR2-400 RAM; upgradeable to 2 GB
Battery
4-cell, Li-Ion, 5200 mAh, 7.4V; ~3.5 hrs
battery life
Audio
Realtek ALC6628 Hi-Def 5.1; built-in mic
& stereo speakers
Communication
10/100 Mbit Ethernet; 802.11b/g wireless
LAN card
I/O
3 USB 2.0, MMC/SD (HC) card reader, Ethernet,
mic in, headphone, external power, VGA, Kensington lock slot
OS & other software
Linux Xandros;
Open Office and many others.
Size & weight
22.5 × 16.5 × 2.1~3.5mm (8.9
× 6.5 × 0.9~1.4″); 0.92kg


Eee PC undercarriage with battery removed and AC adapter/charger.

Why is the EEE PC important? There are many reasons, but these stand out:

  • It’s the world’s first widely distributed low power laptop PC, not just
    for Third World children.
  • It’s seems to be a viable for-profit alternative to OLPC.
  • It’s the first seriously small eco-footprint PC by a mainstream manufacturer.
  • It’s the first really small (UltraMobile – UMPC) yet inexpensive portable
    PC.
  • It’s the first laptop from a major brand to come equipped with a Linux OS.
  • Could it actually be a “computing anywhere device” for everyone?

To expand on these points….


Here’s another visual comparison of the Eee PC vs the IBM T42.

Not just for Third World children

Just how low power is it?
  • The OLPC’s XO-1 is claimed by its makers to consume less than two
    watts in normal operation.
  • The 2-3 year old IBM T42 laptop shown in some of the photos pulled
    22~32W while wirelessly web-enabled when powered from the wall via its
    adapter with no battery (and thus no power drawn for charging the battery).
    With the battery connected and charging, AC power measured 31~43W. It’s
    equipped with a Pentium M 1.6G, 1GB RAM, and a 40GB 2.5″ hard drive.
    Its performance was snappier than the Eee PC.
  • Under the same conditions as the IBM, our Asus Eee PC 4G sample drew
    14~17W AC.
  • Green No-No: Neither IBM nor Asus AC adapter has PF correction;
    power factor on both measured a low 0.62~0.64.

Both the IBM and the Eee PC power measurements include conversion losses
within their respective AC/DC adapters, which generally run ~85% efficient
(hence, the loss is AC power mutiplied by 0.15) while the OLPC XO’s 2W
is most likely just the DC power. Still, the Eee appears to be many times
more power hungry than the XO-1. It ran only about 10W lower, on average,
than the IBM. It isn’t quite the energy miser we’d expected.

OLPC turned attention
to “bridging the digital divide” with a very ambitious educational
project to bring a computer to every child in the world, specifically the developing
world, but it’s been a slow haul, and the original target price of $100 has
doubled. The benefits of a small, very low power computer than can perform all
the nominal functions of a laptop are increasingly evident to everyone, so making
a commercial for-profit product that anyone can buy makes perfect sense. Such
an approach might have helped to expedite the development of the OLPC.

The Eee PC is being sold all over the world, and initial
sales were very promising
. Their original plan was “to
start shipping the units in July or August, with a target of selling 200,000
units this year
,” a target that’s obviously going to be hard to meet
with the delayed launch.

Small eco-footprint

It’s become fashionable to tout low power consumption devices as green, but
when it comes to computers, this is very misleading. Operational
energy consumption represents only about a quarter of a computer’s total ecological
cost.
Most of the CO2 emissions associated with a computer have already
occurred before the end user ever boots it up. (See this
page on Life Cycle Analysis
of computers at EcoPC
Review
.)

It’s difficult to assess the pre-user eco-footprint without a detailed life
cycle analysis of the particular computer. In the absence of such an analysis,
the quick and dirty guideline is weight and size: The smaller and lighter it
is, the lower its production environmental costs are likely to be. The Eee PC
weights just 0.92 kg; it is pretty green by the rough weight/size guideline,
as are all UMPCs. The casing, which looks pretty good and feels quite sturdy,
is made of ABS, a good quality plastic that’s relatively benign as plastics
go.

Inexpensive

$250 was the anticipated price of the base Eee PC when it was first unveiled
in June 2007, so the $399 price of the 4G model is considerably higher. But
compared to other UMPC devices, it’s much less costly. There is hardly a single
product under $1,000 in
UMPC Portal’s database of available products
, and none with similar capabilities
at this Eee’s price. Compared to much larger budget latops, it is still cheaper
by a couple hundred dollars. The low pricing is one of the reasons for all the
attention this products has been getting in the media.

Linux Still Rising

It’s no surprise that Linux (Xandros)
is the OS Asus chose for the Eee PC, along with Open
Office
productivity applications. These appear to be the favorite choices
for the vast majority of UMPC devices. Windows would surely have resulted in
a slower experience and required more storage, no small matter, considering
the 2G flash drive of the bottom model. Let’s not forget the licencing fees,
either. It’s interesting that the most serious Linux challenge to Microsoft
OS dominance looks to come via the UMPC and low end PC markets. No matter; there’s
enough demand for the comfort of Microsoft familiarity that Asus has announced
a version preloaded with Windows (apparently XP) by the end of this year.

A large collection of other software is preloaded; these are best covered in
reviews by PC
Perspective
and Hot
Hardware
. The latter noted that many “have “kids” written
all over them
” despite Asus denying that the Eee PC is not meant to
be a direct competitor to OPLC.


A protective pouch is part of the package.


Right side view.


The back.

Small Size Vs. Usability

All of the aforementioned factors combined have the potential to make the Eee
PC the first successful “computing everywhere for everyone” device
that Intel fantasized about at the September 2007 IDF (see this youtube
video
). The fact that their Celeron
M ULV 900MHz
powers the Eee PC surely delights Intel, especially in light
of the AMD Geode powering the OLPC XO-1.

A key question is usability: Does the Eee PC have enough of it to be a truly
useful mobile computing device for everyone? The answer depends
at least partly on expectations.

The responsiveness felt fine to me, which jibes with most other reviewers.
There were no annoying lags or obvious bottlenecks with most tasks I tried.
Most reviewers seemed to prefer Eee over other smaller UMPC for the better usability
of its larger keyboard. Most also felt the 7″ diagonal 800 x 480 screen
was fine, with good brightness and color.


Small adult hands can navigate the keyboard without much difficulty.
Larger hands would have a lot more trouble.

But what about when you compare the Eee to a bigger conventional laptop? If
you’re expecting to exchange emails, view images and videos, scan a few web
pages and review the odd document, especially in short sessions, the Eee is
fine, and its mobility a great asset. But for me, trying to do more extended
work that’s comfortable on a larger laptop — actually create documents,
work on spreadsheets, build web pages, or photo editing — very quickly
led to frustration mostly because of the lateral / horizontal scrolling that’s
so often necessary on the small screen. As one
reviewer commented
, “It’s enough for only 18 lines of 12pt text in
OpenOffice.” This is not to say one cannot adapt to using the Eee in this
way, but I, for one, would not be interested in making that kind of painful
adjustment.

This means I could not travel for work only with the Eee; it would have to
be considered a secondary machine for use on the run, perhaps on holiday or
around town if I really felt the need to be constantly connected. On the other
hand, that kind of mobile connectedness seems best served by something like
an Apple iPhone,
which is only a bit larger than a typical cellular phone, and far more convenient
for quick communication.

Some people at Asus must have anticipated reactions like mine, because at Computex
Taipei in June when the Eee PC was first shown, Asus suggested a selling price
of “about USD $299 for the 10″ version.” Asus contradicted
their own June
8/07 news release
, however, and quashed persistent rumours about a 10″
screen version last week, saying it was not in their current plans. I wouldn’t
count a larger screen model out, though.


The Eee PC screen is bordered on either side by a mesh plastic strip
perhaps an inch wide. It’s where the tiny speakers are hidden. Is this
space into which the monitor screen could be expanded?

Ubiquitous Computing for Everyone?

Again, we have to ask, what is your vision of “computing”? If it’s
brief forays into web, email, image viewing, etc, via a small wireless mobile
computer, then OK, the Eee will work for you. But Asus has a vision of the Eee
PC being used not only by the young but also by the old, who do not have the
near vision and nimble small fingers of the young. I doubt the older target
audience would be as interested, although some might be interested in giving
it a try. Never mind my doubts: Asus reports that as the holiday season looms,
orders for the Eee PC are brisk.

My take is that it’s an interesting attempt at ubiquitous mobile computing
for everyone, probably the best yet, but it’s not without flaws and shortcomings.
This means little in terms of marketing success; business history is full of
examples of flawed products that came in at the right time, captured people’s
whim and fancy, and sold shiploads. The Eee PC just the first of a whole series
of low priced computing products, both mobile and wired, that the industry will
roll out over the next year or two. Better ones (and probably worse ones) will
come along, you can be assured of it. It’s all part of the effort to keep the
computer market growing.

When you come right down to it, the movement to cheaper, easier, more mobile
computers is not really about bringing them to “the next billion users“,
as some companies have quipped. It’s about selling the next billion computers…
never mind to whom.

 


Finally, Notes about Noise

It couldn’t be an SPCR article without some discussion of noise, could it?
Of course not!

The Eee PC has no moving parts except a CPU cooling fan which is thermally
controlled to come on only when temperature rises above a certain point. It
was essentially silent through most of my short audition. If I pressed my ear
up to the unit, some electronic noise (hum, squeal) could be heard faintly at
a very low level, but this is perfectly normal for any electronics. Outside
of a serious anechoic chamber, there’s no way this noise could be measured with
a sound level meter, and recording it would have been a serious challenge. Its
CPU cooling fan remained off most of the time, although other reviewers have
talked about it coming on more often. Perhaps they pushed their Eee PC harder
and longer. When the fan did come on, it was audible, but not at all offensive.
Unfortunately, the SPL with the fan on was not measured.

This is about all I can report. With the Linux OS, my familiar Windows torture
tools were not operative and there was no time to collect appropriate alternatives.
Perhaps we report back later with more detail, with another sample we can keep
longer.

Many thanks to Vivian Lien of Asus
for the short but sweet loan.

* * *

Reviews of the Asus Eee PC on other web sites:
PC
Perspective: Ultramobile Notebook with Linux

Hot
Hardware: Asus Eee PC Full Retail Review Showcase

Notebook
Review: Asus Eee PC 701 4G

PC
Magazine: Asus Eee PC 4G Full Review

Web commentary on the Asus Eee PC:
Ars
Technica – Game-changer: Asus Eee PC a win for Intel and Linux, at Microsoft’s
expense

OLPC
News: A Closer Look at Asus Eee PC Impact on OLPC

* * *

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