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Tech tip 158

Getting to know the Eee PC

By Scott Nesbitt - Sunday, February 24, 2008

PullQuoteDuring Christmas, 2007 one of the hottest selling gadgets wasn't something from Apple. Shocking as that may sound, it's true. The hot item was a little notebook computer from Asus called the Eee PC. This device sold like mad. So much so, that it was difficult to get hold of one over the holiday season.

Luckily, I was nicer than I was naughty during 2007 and was able to get my hands on an Eee PC. I've been using it for over a month, and have come away more than just a little impressed with this computer.

If you're thinking of jumping on the Eee PC bandwagon, keep reading.

 

MenuWhat the Eee PC is, and what it isn't

The Eee PC belongs to a class of gadgets called ultra mobile personal computers, or UMPC for short. From the name, you've probably guessed what these devices have in common: they're small, light, and designed to be used while travelling. And they're (relatively) easy to use. The Eee PC comes loaded with all of the software that you need to do basic tasks like word processing, email, and surfing the Web. But more on this later.

The Eee PC is one of the more successful of the UMPCs that have been released in the last few years. Its sales topped 300,000 in 2007, and as mentioned earlier many people found it difficult to get their hands on an Eee PC over Christmas.

Something that many casual observers and a number of reviewers overlook is that the Eee PC, like any other UMPC, isn't a replacement for a desktop or notebook computer. It's really designed for people on the go who want to do things like access their email, check out their favorite Web sites, or do some light work without being weighed down by a comparatively bulky laptop or notebook computer.

Obviously, the Eee PC (or any other UMPC) isn't for everyone. And the price -- almost $400 -- has definitely put a number of people off. But for people like myself, who use the device quite heavily, it's worth every penny.

 

IM_1Hardware

The Eee PC is small. It won't fit in your pocket, but it does comfortably fit in a bag. The Eee PC weighs just under two pounds, is slightly larger than a hardcover book, and has a 7" screen. The screen is small, but not unusable. The contrast and resolution of the screen are excellent, and the default icons are large and well labeled.

It packs a 900 MHz Intel Celeron mobile processor, 512 MB of memory (which you can upgrade to 2 GB), and a 4 GB solid-state hard drive. Models with 2 GB and 8 GB drives are available, too.
The Eee PC also comes with three USB ports, an Ethernet port for wired network connections, a memory card reader, as well as ports for headphones and a microphone. Not too shabby for something that measures 8.9" x 6.5" x 1".

 

Input

The keys on the keyboard are tiny. They're not the chiclet keys that were popular with the tiny home computers from the early 80s, but definitely smaller than the ones that I'm used to. But the keys do give a nice tactile response -- they make a clacking sound not unlike the old IM_2IBM PC keyboards. However, I can't type quickly with the keys. My fingers aren't big, but the keys are small and tightly spaced. They take a bit of getting used to, and chances are you won't be able to type at full speed on the Eee PC.

I like using a mouse. I don't mind using the little nubs on the keyboards of IBM ThinkPads. But I hate track pads. And guess what the Eee PC comes with? A track pad. Actually, the pad itself isn't too bad. I just don't like the button that goes with it. It's not as responsive as what I'm used to and I can't right click. It's adequate, but only just. Luckily, the Eee PC has three USB ports. One of my laptop mice is now the exclusive user of one of those ports and I couldn't be happier.

A neat feature of the Eee PC is its built-in webcam. While nothing spectacular -- 0.3 megapixel, with a resolution of up to 640x480 -- it doesn't do too bad a job of snapping still photos or recording videos. You can use it with the built-in webcam software, or with newer versions of Skype that support video chat.

 

Interface

I have to admit that I wasn't too sure about the Eee PC's default interface. It's divided into six tabs: Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings, and Favorites. Each tab contains a set of icons that launch applications -- for example, under the Internet tab you can start Firefox, jump to Google Docs, or open an application to connect to a wired or wireless network.

The interface is based on [KDE](http://www.kde.org]. The default configuration isn't quite like any other Linux window manager, or even Windows or Mac OS, though. It doesn't take long to adapt to that interface, though. While there are instructions available that enable you to set up a traditional desktop on the Eee PC, that doesn't suit this device. At least, not from my perspective. I quickly grew to like the tabs and icons, and found them to be relatively intuitive.

While the Eee PC runs Linux, versions that run Windows XP are expected to be available in 2008. If you can't wait, you can install XP yourself.

 

Applications

For a small device, the Eee PC comes packed with a decent amount of software. If you've used Linux for any length of time, you'll recognize most of the applications that are installed on the Eee PC. Some of the more notable ones include Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, Skype, and OpenOffice.org. There are also links to a number of Web-based applications like Google Docs and Gmail.

OfficeSome of the other software that's installed is pretty interesting and useful. There's a personal information manager, a decent media player, and a dictionary. My wife (who's studying Mandarin) was surprised that the dictionary had an English-Chinese module.

To test the software, I launched OpenOffice.org Writer. On every computer I've use it on, Writer takes a long time to start. On the Eee PC (which only packs 512 MB of memory out of the box), Writer's start up wasn't instantaneous but it was the fastest I've ever seen it. Other applications start quickly too.

 

Getting online

The Eee PC comes with both wired and wireless network interfaces. Since we use notebooks exclusively in our home, I immediately double clicked the Wireless Network icon on the desktop. It detected the wireless networks in my immediate vicinity. After I supplied the authentication credentials for my network, I was online.

WirelessOn top of that, the Eee PC remembers the wireless access points that you've connected to, and enables you to access them with a couple of mouse clicks. You can even configure the software to automatically log into a particular access point when it detects it.

 

Multimedia

The Eee PC comes with both a media player and a link to an Internet radio portal. I tried the portal first, and the audio streamed in fairly smoothly. Other sites, like YouTube, also work well in Firefox on the Eee PC.

I loaded a few MP3 files on a USB flash drive, plugged it into the Eee PC, and played them back using the media player. The playback wasn't choppy at all. The sound coming out of the speakers was clear, but not spectacular; the quality of the sound from my ThinkPad is better.

 

The need for speed

My Eee PC has a small hard drive (4 GB; there's also an 8 GB model out there), and an average amount of memory at 512 MB. Still, I was impressed with how quickly and smoothly the applications that I tested started up and ran. Even the Eee PC starts up quickly -- in less than 15 seconds.

Still, I'd like to bump the amount of memory up to 1 GB. That should make things even faster. As for the hard drive, if I need any extra storage I can easily plug in a USB flash drive.

 

Quibbles and comments

Since it's such a small device, the Eee PC doesn't come with a CD/DVD drive. I can live without that since I have several USB flash drives. However, I can see this being a problem for some people. From what I saw in the documentation, you can hook a USB external CD/DVD drive to the Eee PC. But that's an extra expense that I'm sure some people don't want to shoulder.

Using wireless (which I do a lot) really depletes the battery -- as quickly, if not quicker, than my other notebook computers. This only becomes a problem when I don't have my adapter with me or when there's nowhere to plug in.

I'm not going to harp on about the small screen, the small hard drive, and the like. For me, those aren't problems. Obviously, a device this size isn't going to have a 17 inch wide screen. And since it's not my main workstation, I don't need a lot of space for files -- I wind up copying any file that I create over to my ThinkPad via a USB flash drive.

 

What's Next?

While the Eee PC is quite young, a large and growing user community has already developed around it. On the Web, sites like eeesite, eeelite, eeeuser, and at least one dedicated blog have sprung up. These sites offer news, tips, and hacks for the Eee PC. A lot of the information, like how to customize the interface is really useful. Some of it can turn the device into a brick if you're not careful.

And if you don't like the Linux distribution that comes with the Eee PC, you can replace it with something else. A popular choice is eeexubuntu, a stripped-down variant of Xubuntu. Another option is Arch Linux. If you do a search I'm sure you can find other alternatives, too.

The only major upgrade that I really recommend is to increase the memory to 1 GB. You could max it out to to 2 GB, but for most people that's overkill.

 

Conclusion

The Eee PC serves a specific purpose -- light, simple mobile computing. All in all, the Eee PC was a great buy. At least for me. Your mileage may vary. The Eee PC is definitely not a replacement for a desktop or notebook computer, but it's really not meant to be. It's a little device that you can take just about anywhere to stay connected and to get some work done -- simply and effectively.

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