Two Pounds of Efficiency

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, January 3, 2008

The first time I took Asus's Eee PC laptop on a flight, the security screener assumed it was a portable DVD player.

That's an easy mistake to make. This tiny, two-pound machine is barely bigger or heavier and not much more expensive, at $399 for one I tested and $299 for the cheapest model.

For some time, it has been possible to buy laptops for less than $500. But the ones you see in most stores, such as a $450 Compaq, either weigh too much or can barely run Windows.

The Eee (the Asus site says the name stands for "Easy to Learn, Easy to Work, Easy to Play") is different. It's lighter than any super-cheap laptop and cheaper than any ultralight laptop, and it can do Web work about as well as other computers.

Tech enthusiasts have been raving about this little machine for months. And it is, indeed, a remarkable piece of work. The Eee is both a successor to such long-ago ultralights as the Tandy Model 100 and far more usable than pricier attempts like the OQO Model 01 or Ultra-Mobile PCs from Samsung and others.

Two parts in particular set this machine apart from most other laptops. (One exception is the One Laptop Per Child project's $200 XO, which is built for kids without computing experience, not adults used to Windows PCs or Macs.)

One is the Eee's flash memory. In place of the usual hard disk drive, which is filled with moving parts, the Eee uses flash memory, like what comes in an iPod Nano or a USB thumb drive. It also has no CD or DVD reader. All that cuts down on storage-- the review model had only four gigabytes -- but makes the machine lighter and sturdier.

The other is the Eee's efficient, secure software. Windows Vista's bulk would swamp the Eee's limited storage, so Asus chose the free, open-source Linux operating system.

The result is a nifty but sometimes tricky Internet machine usable for basic writing, spreadsheet and presentation work -- and which can't get sick from Windows viruses or spyware. If you stick to those activities, you can be happy with the Eee.

But you will need to adapt. If you're not ready to do that, you should not rush out to buy one of these things. You'd do better to see what Asus can do on a second try -- or what another vendor might accomplish with some of the same components.

The Eee's diminutive screen and keyboard may be major obstacles. The seven-inch LCD doesn't leave enough room to view many Web pages without scrolling, and the keyboard is a bit over eight inches wide. You can touch type on an Eee, but the narrow period, slash and right-hand shift keys may make that a struggle.

Otherwise, the Eee provides the same functions as most other laptops. It connects to wired or wireless networks but leaves out a dial-up modem. It also packs in an SD Card slot for extra memory, three USB ports for printers and other add-ons, and a Webcam above the screen to take pictures and video. (The cheapest Eee models omit the Webcam and have only two GB of storage, while the most expensive, $499 unit doubles the standard capacity, to eight GB.)

The unit I tested had a battery that lasted for 3 hours 42 minutes while playing a loop of digital music and regularly reloading a Web page. Its cooling fan was generally off, but after extended Web browsing it would groan to life.

It may take more time to adjust to the Eee's quirky software. Although its core programs -- the Mozilla Firefox Web browser, the Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail client, the OpenOffice productivity suite -- should be familiar to many Windows users, the version of Linux underneath them won't be.

There are simple, elegant editions of Linux out there, such as the Ubuntu version that Dell sells on some desktops and laptops. But Asus didn't pick one of those. Instead, it wrote its own interface for Linux.

This greatly simplifies some things but limits your ability to do others. For example, its desktop consists of a series of can't-miss, one-click shortcuts to programs. But because most of its system settings are fixed, you can't easily change things that bug you, such as the way the Eee won't connect to your WiFi network automatically.

The Eee's programs are also effectively bolted in place, with no easy way to add to them or replace any with equivalent applications you'd rather use.

After spending a few weeks with the Eee, I can see why people are so excited about this machine. Asus has built something -- the lightweight, take-anywhere laptop alternative -- that has eluded much larger competitors.

But I also think some Eee fans make a common tech-industry mistake in judging this product by its parts list. It's not enough to use ingredients that people like, such as flash memory or Linux; a key point of good design is to put together components that anybody could employ in a simpler, more artful form than anybody else.

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