The ASUS Eee PC 701 was released in Australia on Saturday 1 December at Myers. I went into the Sydney store to collect one at around 3pm and was told they had sold out. Fortunately I had one reserved for me by the ANU. My impressions after a first few hours with the unit are favourable (the report was typed on the unit and posted from it).
My first impression was the small size of the cardboard box holding the unit, which fitted in a plastic shopping bag and the commodity nature of the purchase. Buying my previous notebook took about 30 minutes and was quite a ceremony. The store set up the operating system for me and registered the Microsoft Windows software. That 12 inch little computer (a Twinhead) came in a big box (which I left behind in the store).
In contrast the Eee PC was in a box you might find with a portable CD player. The sales staff handed the box to the register staff who took my payment and gave me a cash register receipt and the computer in a shopping bag. This took about 30 seconds and was almost an insult to such a momentous event. It shows how computers are becoming commodities.
The ASUS box shows it is offered in a range of pastel colors, as well as silver and black, but only white is being currently offered. The case has a shiny pearl finish which is attractive but does cause some unwanted reflections when used outdoors (I am typing this at an outdoor cafe in trendy inner west Sydney). Unlike the Zombu, the ASUS box has an excess of packing, with components in plastic bags, cardboard spacers and several instruction slips. ASUS should consider reducing the amount and size of the packaging. Particularly when bought in bulk for school or company, the packaging could be reduced.
One unexpected inclusion is a black neoprene slip case for the computer. I had to buy one of these for my Twinhead (actually a case designed for the Apple iBook) and it cost more than $30. These cases allow you to carry a laptop inconspicuously, they protect it from small knocks and are useful when putting in a briefcase. The slip case was in a plastic bag and it is a shame ASUS did not simply use it to protect the Eee PC, eliminating some of the packaging.
Another surprise is the power supply. This is a 9.5 Volt 2.315 Amp plug pack, (white to match the PC). I noticed that the Australian two pin plug seemed to be removable. Pressing a latch, the Australian plug slid off, revealing a hinged US plug underneath. This should prove very handy for travelling and is much more compact and secure than the Zonbu's slip on adaptor (which could slip off and be lost). Perhaps ASUS will make replacement plugs for the UK and Europe available as an optional accessory.
The computer is rated at 22 Watts. I measured the power consumption at 23 Watt while charging the battery and 14 Watts once charged (and also 14 Watt with the battery removed). In standby mode the computer consumed less than one Watt (the limit of my Electricity Usage Monitor).
The Eee PC is wedge shaped, giving the keyboard a comfortable slope. There is a cylinder above the keyboard holding the battery. This also raises the underside of the case above the desktop, providing better ventilation and a hand grip (as per my proposed $50 laptop design).
Opening the unit reveals a very small and cramped keyboard. This is much the same as was on my old Toshiba libretto and other B5 size sub-sub notebook computers. It is too small for my fingers to touch type on, but should be okay for children. There is a small touch pad below the keyboard with what appears to be one button underneath, Apple Mac style. In fact this is actually the left and right mouse buttons depending on which end of the bar you press. The bar is too stiff for my liking and I would have preferred two conventional buttons. However, most of the time you will simply tap the touch pad for a left button click.
There is also a slider bar on the right of the touch pad, but the pad is so small this is difficult to use. There is a power button above the keyboard. The small 7 inch screen is surrounded by a wide black bezel, obviously designed to fill the space which will be taken by the larger 10 inch screen model. The bezel emphasizes the small size of the screen.
The LCD display is clear and despite its low 800 x 480 resolution very easy to read. ASUS have gone to some trouble to make the icons and fonts of the interface large enough to read comfortably. But I found I had to increase the font size in OpenOffice.Org (version 2.0) and Firefox (Version 220.127.116.11) to be able to read the text. The screen is not a daylight readable model, like the OLPC, but worked well at an outdoor cafe under an awning in Sydney's bright daylight.
One disappointing inclusion is a fan, which is audible in a quiet office environment. This also is makes the built in microphone all but unusable, due to noise from the fan.
Above the screen is a camera for video conferencing, This has a green light to tell you the camera is on. The light is a clever feature as you tend to look towards it (and thus the camera).
The unit is running version 1.0.1 of the software (17/10/2007 build) but seems quite stable. There is 512 of RAM, with 1.4 Gbytes of the 4 Gbyte flash memory available for user files.
In place of the usual desktop metaphor, the user interface has a tab card display, with five tabs: Internet, work, learn, play, setting and favourites. Each tab card has three rows of five large icons. There are the usual open source applications, such as: OOO, Firefox and Thunderbird email. Also there are several shortcuts to web based applications, such as Google's Gmail and the Wikipedia.
The unit has three USB 2 sockets and I was able to use this with a flash drive and recharge my mobile phone. There are two USB sockets on one side and one on the other, which is useful. There is an Ethernet port and a phone socket. The Ethernet socket works, but the phone socket is plugged with a rubber bung and according to the diagnostic program, there is no modem installed. The WiFi works and I was able to enter the key for my wireless router and be on the Internet quickly. One problem was that the system forgot the WiFi key when I turned the system off.
A useful companion for the Eee PC would be a USB wireless modem. Mobile carrier "Three" are now offering a wireless USB modem for $199 with 1 Gbyte of data for $29.95 per month (cheaper rates for a long term plan). The Eee PC bundled with a modem and data plan would be an attractive offer. However, Three provide no details of how to use their modem with Linux.
The Eee PC also has a SD card slot. But these are being supplanted by smaller formats. It would be better if there was a bay for installing a USB wireless modem, or a flash drive.
In operation the Eee PC works much like the Zonbu, or other Linux computer. You can have the web browser, word processor and other applications open simultaneously and flip between them using “Alt+Tab”. Because of the small screen size it is difficult to see two applications on screen at once and easier to have each in full screen mode, flipping between them.
Standby mode, which keeps open applications suspended and the computer in a low power mode is activated when you close the lid. As there is no hard disk to worry about, it is quite convenient to slam the lid closed and immediately pick the computer up. The suspend mode takes a second or two to activate, but you do not have to worry about this as there is no disk to damage.
The unit comes with an eight page Quick User Guide, which is all that is really needed. There is also a comprehensive User Guide of about one hundred pages, but I doubt many users will ever open it. There is also a support DVD included, which is unlikely ever to be used.
The ASUS Eee PC manual includes instructions for installing Microsoft Windows XP, in place of Linux. This requires a USB DVD drive and at least 1 Gbyte of extra storage (flash drive or hard disk). That the machine can run XP is impressive, but of little practical value. Most users will not really notice they are running Linux and replacing it with a very limited capacity XP would be frustrating.
The inability to run Windows programs will be seen as a bonus by many corporate system administrators, teachers and parents. The system is thus immune to most computer viruses (but anti-virus software is included). Many of the other Windows vulnerabilities which have to be patched with setting changes and additional software are unnecessary on the Linux system. Many of the Windows applications which the Eee PC does not have can now be provided via the Web, avoiding installation and maintenance problems.
About all that was needed to do to configure the unit for Linux was to accept the licence conditions, enter my name and password and set the local time.
There has been some customisation of the applications by ASUS. As an example, OpenOffice.Org usually saves documents by default in ODF format (the format developed for OOO which is now an international standard). But on the Eee PC, OOO save in Microsoft Word 97 format by default. Standards purists may object to this, but it is a sensible real world choice. Many users of the Eee PC will never realise they are not using Microsoft Office, happily creating and editing Microsoft Word documents.
There are some gimmick applications with the Eee PC, such as “Voice Command”, which allows you to start applications using voice recognition with the inbuilt microphone. This works without the need for training the recognition software, so for example saying “Computer Web”
will be acknowledged with a synthetic voice saying “WEB”, then Firefox is started. This is a clever but pointless trick, as there is no provision for voice operation in Firefox or any of the other applications. You can voice activate Firefox, but then you need to use the keyboard to operate it. Synthetic voice output for the applications for used by blind and vision impaired users would have been a far more useful way to use the Eee's limited application space.
It will take a few days to fully assess the ASUS Eee PC, but the first few hours have been good. The unit feels solid and very high quality. The Eee PC is not suitable as a laptop replacement for adults with big fat fingers and poor eyesight, but may be usable as a computer for children. It would be very useful as an ultra portable computer.
Also the Eee PC has potential as a desktop replacement, when used with an external keyboard and screen. Add a cheap phone handset to use with VoIP and you have a very functional videophone and workstation.
However, I would like the bigger keyboard of my 12 inch Twinhead notebook. Perhaps ASUS (or someone else) will make a unit like the Eee PC, but in a bigger case. This might use the 10 inch screen, with a 12 Inch wide screen option. I would be happy to do without the web camera for the bigger keyboard. Also the Eee PC's 7.4 Volt 5200 mAh Lithium battery, which came with a long list of safety warnings, could be replaced with a less compact, but cheaper and less flammable NiMh unit.