Reflections on the Asus Eee PC

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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.

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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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