Laptops

Review: Miniature Laptop That Makes Sense

To me, the ultrasmall, ultralightweight computer remains the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, you still pay a premium for miniaturization. The $399 Asus Eee PC 4G (available November 1, and referred to as the Eee PC 701 prior to its official launch) shatters that perception, though. For a fraction of the cost of competing ultramobile computing devices, Asus delivers a highly functional portable, without the fancy specs.

Eee PC isn't for everyone; its modest components see to that. The unit is packed with a small, 7-inch, low-resolution display; virtually non-existent on-board storage (just 4GB of solid-state memory, of which the system requires 2.4GB, leaving just 1.4 of user-available memory); low memory (512MB, at a time when notebooks typically come with a minimum of 1GB); and an Intel Mobile Processor that doesn't even merit anything more specific than that designation in the system information screen. Opening even the built-in Longman Dictionary took time.

However, after my initial hands-on with the unit, I do see Eee PC appealing to the highly mobile--including road warriors and students--and to those who want an unobtrusive and inexpensive computer for basic Web surfing, word processing, and e-mail.

Initial Setup

Upon first boot, I was greeted not by the familiar chime of Windows but by a license agreement for the Asus Desktop OS. After clicking "I agree," I proceeded through the First Boot Wizard. I selected my keyboard type (English/US), entered my name, chose a password (you can set it up to log in automatically upon system start-up), set the date and time, let the system reboot, and voila, I was off and running.

The system immediately rebooted into the Linux-based Asus desktop interface. And right away, I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Asus describes the device "as easy to use as any electrical appliance, like a toaster or a microwave." I wouldn't go quite that far, but I agree with the company's confident assertion that the Eee PC is easy to use.

Asus's operating environment mimics much of Windows' functionality (for example, a Home button where the Start button would be; a Taskbar that shows open apps and apps in memory; and window minimize, maximize, and resize controls). A nice addition is the happy face icon at the lower right for Eee PC usage tips, and the green SOS icon (hover the pointer over the icon to figure out what it is) to show you which apps are open in the background--and how to close them.

The most confusing part of the interface is the row of icons in the Taskbar-equivalent at the bottom of the display. The icons are tiny, and sometimes I opened apps without realizing I hadn't closed them--which in turn sapped memory and made the Taskbar more cluttered until I went back to close those apps.

Functional Built-in Applications

You can install Windows XP on the device if you choose, but only business travelers might need it. With applications like Mozilla Firefox for Web browsing and Thunderbird for e-mail, and OpenOffice.org for word processing and spreadsheet needs, you'll be able to seamlessly continue being productive.

The tabbed desktop screen is uncluttered, graced by large icons that clearly state their purpose. At the top of the interface are six tabs, each containing a cluster of apps that represent a specific activity: Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings, Favorites. The latter actually lets you choose which app icons should appear on the screen--handy if you know exactly what you want, and how you want to access it.

The icons represent both built-in apps and shortcuts to Web-based applications, and they cover a wide degree of functionality. Among those provided are Xandros Antivirus (set to automatically update virus definitions); iGoogle and Google Docs, and Wikipedia shortcuts; Skype and Pidgin (instant messaging) clients; an eBook reader; Internet Radio; Web Mail shortcuts (for Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and AOL); and Adobe Acrobat Reader.

In my experience, moving files from my Windows desktop to the Eee PC went smoothly. When I plugged in a USB flash drive or a Secure Digital card, up popped a window asking which program I wanted to open the device with--File Manager (reminiscent of Windows Explorer), Music Manager, or Image Manager.

I had no problems opening PDF files; ditto for high-resolution JPEG photos, MP3 files, and for .AVI, .MOV, and .WMV video files. Sometimes files took awhile to open, though: for example, a three-page Word document took a few moments to open in OpenOffice.org. I could even multitask: the Asus operating system allows multiple open application windows, so I could browse an Excel spreadsheet in OpenOffice while listening to an MP3 playlist.

The Music Manager is inelegant and no iTunes in terms of its ease of use; however, the interface is fairly straightforward and something even neophytes can figure out. You have a modicum of control--for example, you can change equalizer presets (yes, doing so helps--at the baseline, music sounded even more tinny and flat through the built-in stereo speakers) or create your own equalizer setting. And you can build playlists.

The unit's KDE Image Manager is similarly inelegant, with the window divided into three sections (as with the Music Manager, this organization is by default; you can close or customize it if you choose). My images looked adequate on-screen and opened quickly (including high-resolution 13-megapixel images). Right-clicking on an open image yields a variety of viewing options, including slideshow mode and--bonus points here--the ability to view the image full screen (terrific for photography enthusiasts who want to get in close and cross whether an image is blurry).

Since the Eee PC is Asus' answer to the One Laptop Per Child initiative, the company targets students with the education-minded apps under its Learn tab. These apps include a periodic table, KStars' Planetarium for burgeoning astronomers, letter games, a typing assistant, and math tutorials. The Eee PC also has a handful of games for all ages, such as Sudoku, Solitaire, and a variant on Tetris.

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