|Introduction and Specifications|
Hype, we all know the drill. We've seen it many times before. There's only so much commotion you can digest before you start to wonder if something is as good as it's played up to be. Such is the case with the highly anticipated Asus Eee PC. In fact, this product has been easily the most researched and searched-upon product in the HotHardware.com content database in many years. Some speculate that this new ultra-mobile PC or UMPC, if you're the acronym-loving type, is an answer to the competitive call of the OLPC XO-1 notebook from the One Laptop per Child organization. We would offer that this just isn't so.
In the pages ahead, we'll give you a detailed technical view of the new Asus Eee PC and show you that in fact, the product, with its custom KDE equipped Linux-based OS, is currently in a class by itself. While the OLPC is targeted as a child's computer or learning device, the Eee PC, while it also makes for an excellent kids' starter PC, actually offers much more as well.
We specifically will be taking a look at an Eee PC model 701 4G. As you can see in the spec list above, this model as well as all Eee PCs curently, is built on an Intel 910 mobile chipset with integrated graphics and an Intel mobile Celeron processor. The Celeron is clocked at 900MHz and has 512K of L2 cache. The TDP (thermal design power) of the CPU is very low at only 5.5 watts. More on power consumption ahead. For now, here's a look at other configurations of the 701 in the Eee PC lineup.
One notable item that we're sure you've keyed in on above, is that all of these machines are Windows XP compatible. In fact, Asus informed us that there will be a Windows XP-enabled version coming out very soon as well. Pricing on the various configurations of the Eee PC model 701 is as follows:
|Product Design and Ergonomics|
The Eee PC is a UMPC that is designed with three basic product positioning statements in mind - Easy to Learn, Easy to Work, Easy to Play. We'll step through the design, hardware and software of the product next to let you know if we feel Asus hit the mark on their branding.
The casing of the Eee PC is built of a fairly rugged plastic composite. We tested a unit built with a pearl white finish that looks great and gives the unit a very "clean presentation and feel". This unit's finish is also sturdy and resistant to scratches, within reason.
Side ports on the unit offer three USB 2.0 connections, a d-sub VGA port, 10/100 Ethernet and a 56K modem jack.
The unit's small Lithium-Ion battery stays secured with one keyed switch and a slide switch. Unlike some smaller notebooks in this class, the battery actually stays put and doesn't rattle at all once installed. The battery we tested is 5200mAh rated pack and is specified to provide 3.5 hours of continuous operation.
The sitxy-four thousand dollar question we're sure you're all wondering about is, "How does the user interface, screen and keyboard hold up to every day use?" While this definitely is a very subjective area, we'd say that most folks interested in a machine like this will be happy with the Eee PC's operation, look and feel.
For starters, the keyboard - it is what it is. Alright, we'll give you a bit more technical detail than that. As you can see in the shot above, my delicate hand is placed neatly across the touch pad and space bar. Actually, my hand isn't all that delicate but rather an average-sized to large-sized paw for a guy. In all honestly, it took a bit of ramp up time to get used to the proximity of the keys and things felt pretty cramped in general, especially while using the touch pad and then going back to the keyboard to type. We'd recommend a USB mouse if you have one nearby as they're automatically detected and installed very easily by the OS. Regardless, after a few hours of learning curve, things started to feel a bit more natural using the Eee PC for every day tasks. However, don't expect the machine to feel like a full-sized notebook. It's an ultra-mobile PC, hence trade-offs in available keyboard real estate have to be made. That said, for this type of product the Eee PC actually excels comparatively, offering a near standard sized keyboard in a not-so standard available space.
|Internal Design, BIOS, Boot Times|
The Asus Eee PC is very much a single-board computer built on standard notebook-class components based on Intel architecture. As such, we see some rather familiar sights inside the inner workings of the machine.
The very familiar Phoenix BIOS we're used to seeing on many a motherboard, has been employed here by Asus yet again. Of course there really aren't a lot of options to play with and you can forget about overclocking; not that anyone would have any practical use for overclocking a machine like this anyway. Instead you're given the ability to enabled and disable various peripherals, which is great for things like WiFi, where you might not want to give access to connectivity for the kids or if you don't want to be radiating too many signals for whatever reason.
As we mention earlier, the Asus Eee PC is mostly all Intel inside, at least with respect to the major system functional block. Here's a high level block diagram of the system:
Intel's 910GML Express Northbridge provides the memory controller and display interface functionality for the system, while Intel's CH6-M Southbridge provides connectivity and control of all IO functions, including Keyboard, USB, IDE, SATA, Gigabit LAN and High Definition/AC97 audio.
Of course you knew we had to dismantle the machine to get our geek on a bit and see what's inside...
The three amigos, or so to speak, are seen here; CPU, Northbridge and Southbridge. And they're all Intel born and bread.
You might be wondering about the cooling solution used for these chips, since there are no obvious heatsinks exposed here. Actually, we were very surprised to see that Asus simply uses three thermal interface pads to stick these three chips to the back of a thin piece of sheet metal that covers the entire motherboard. That sheet metal (sorry, no pictures of it here) functions as a heat spreader and diffuser for the entire circuit pack including the CPU, Northbridge and Southbridge.
Ene Semi has a rather interestingly large chip located in the bottom left hand corner of the unit. Though we researched the part number, we couldn't come up with its functionality from what we could find on Ene's site. We'd hazard a guess, relative to its proximity, that it assists with LED light management and functionality.
|Software and Applications|
This first thing you'll notice, when firing up the Eee PC for the first time, is that the machine comes loaded with enough applications, tools, utilities and extra software, that you pretty much have anything you need to get started and then some. Next we'll step you through some of the major software components of this new ultra-portal, ultra cost-efficient PC from Asus.
As we noted earlier, the Asus Eee PC comes loaded with a custom-built tab-based user interface from KDE that is built on Linux. The machine actually takes about 15 - 20 seconds to boot and shuts down in even less time. You can see in the above top right shot, that the OS and various applications take up a solid 2.3 Gig of the total available 4G (in round numbers) of storage. This leaves something on the order of 1.5 - 1.7 Gigs of space for files etc but we'd suggest going with a high density USB flash drive.
The Eee PC's built-in diags software show us that the machine is built on an Intel Mobile processor with 512MB of RAM and on-board Intel Graphics capable of 24-bit color depth. The on-board 4GB Flash drive on board is built by Silicon Motion. Finally, the system also comes with a pre-built system health check utility for testing all the major functionalities of the machine.
Again, the Eee PC comes pre-loaded with lots of "stuff", so much so that we can't possibly cover each and every application in detail in one article. We will however, cover the major software features and functionality.
The primary tabbed functional categories of the Eee PC are Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings and Favorites. Think of favorites as bookmark shortcuts for your favorite applications that you can bring out on that tab specifically. There is also a built-in file manager, similar to Windows Explorer. As you can see, our Corsair Voyager USB flash drive was detected correctly and is shown as an available storage volume. The bottom toolbar allows for intuitive management and alerts for things like battery life, WiFi connectivity, date and time, and even caps or num-lock status.
|Software and Applications Continued|
Though Asus states that this machine isn't intended to compete with the XO-1 laptop from OLPC, we can't help but notice the available games and software bundled in with the system that have "kid" written all over them.
Music manager is a digital audio playback program that has pretty slick organization functionality and will pipe various digital audio formats in through the available built-in stereo speakers. Just don't expect high fidelity here. We'd suggest plugging external speakers into the system's audio output, if you want something with a bit more fidelity and punch.
Finally, as you can see in the bottom left shot, we hit the Microsoft WMV HD content showcase site and downloaded one of the HD video files in 720p format. Our 802.11G WiFi connection was able to pump out 344KB/sec from this site, sometimes peaking even higher. The Atheros WiFi chipset that is built into the machine is excellent in terms of speed and stability. And of course we were actually able to playback that HD content on the Eee PC, though frankly frame rate poked along a bit since clearly decoding a video stream of this quality takes a bit of muscle. Perhaps some optimized video drivers or the Windows XP version machine, when it comes out, will be able to handle this task a bit better.
Another key feature of the Eee PC is the inclusion of Open Office applications such as Writer (word processing), Impress (PowerPoint-like), and Calc (Excel-like). There is also a PDF reader installed as well as a dictionary.
Web browsing functionality is handle by Firefox of course and again there is also a built-in WiFi connection manager that handles multiple connections and security features like WEP.
Asus even went so far as to bundle in both Skype and Pigeon, for chat and VOIP connectivity. We tried out both and they worked like a charm. Our unit also came equipped with a built-in web cam with associated software that also worked quite well. We've also given you look at the system's Photo Manager software that does a nice job of organizing your pictures and providing slide show and various other viewing features.
The Asus Eee PC is very much positioned as a "learning" computer, in that the three "easys" that we mentioned earlier (learn, work, play) are focused on the novice user, quick navigation and an intuitive interface. Though the Eee PC is much more than a child's starter machine, Asus has also bundled in some great educational tools and software that will surely bode well with kids and parents alike.
Whether you or your young key-masher is interested in geographic time zone differences, astronomy, geometry or a basic dictionary reference, the Eee PC comes nicely appointed with applications that can really come in handy. You can get your Pythagorean Theorem on real good and prove it. Let's face it, chicks dig Euclidean Geometry. Who doesn't?
|Performance, Power, and Thermal Profile|
A Note On Standard Peformance Metrics:
With the available power budget of the Eee PC, which we're sure was classified as "not much" by Asus Engineering management, we fully expected the machine to sip power in very modest amounts. Modest was obviously an understatement...
We hooked up the Eee PC 701 to our test-bench power analyzer with the system's small power adapter brick plugged into the load socket and the analyzer plugged into a wall outlet power source. The battery was removed from the unit. We wanted to measure exactly how much total power the system drew under idle and load conditions.
As you can see, with roughly 15 Watts draw at idle and 17.5 Watts under load, the design engineers definitely hit that "not much" target square on. Our best efforts to load the system down with Peguin Racer, Open Office Writer and Firefox running all simultaneously, yielded the highest power draw we observed at 18 Watts.
In addition, though Asus lists the battery life of our Eee PC 701 4G model for 3.5 hours, we actually experienced even a bit more life than what the system is technically rated for. Bravo.
Low power consumption generally means a fairly cool thermal profile as well. So we baked the Eee PC in for a while, with a 3D game running and a bit of web surfing in the background, just to make sure the WiFi NIC was pulling some juice as well.
The two hottest spots on the Eee PC were right underneath the main CPU area on the keyboard and in roughly the same location on the backside of the machine as well. The palm rest area checked in at just under 100ºF on either side of the touch pad with our infrared digital thermometer. In short, the Eee PC is more than comfortable to handle for long periods of time without having to worry about sweaty palm syndrome.
|Product Evaluation Summary and Conclusion|
Rounding-up our general experiences from a performance perspective, is a relatively easy task with the Asus Eee PC. The system basically delivered on nearly every expected metric, save perhaps the somewhat cramped feel of the keyboard area, which is part of the territory for a machine of this form-factor. The operating system was lightning-quick to boot and application load times were also snappy.
In addition, we plugged in a few standard components like USB memory sticks and a USB optical mouse, all of which were instantly recognized by the OS, transparently installed and instantly available for use. The Linux-based Eee PC even discovered our Windows network automatically and we were able to access files on our storage server with the system's File Manager and other applications as well. And so, from a high-level interoperability standpoint, the Eee PC also scored high marks with us.
Short of the learning curve with its tighter keyboard real estate, about the only thing we felt was lacking in the Eee PC was some sort of "family PC" security and content filtering for young minds. Obviously this machine will make a fantastic first PC for many aspiring tech-minded youngster but parents will have to lock down the communications ports on the machine, if they want to ensure access limitation and appropriate content monitoring. This of course can be done easily just by disabling these peripherals in the BIOS. Hopefully, due to the open source nature of the OS, third party software developers will offer these sorts of family-oriented tools for the Eee PC moving forward. The chances are good for this, or so it would seem.
As we bring this product evaluation to a close, we'll touch again on the level of hype that currently surrounds this product and try and answer the obvious question for you to the best of our ability. Does the Eee PC live up to the marketing spin and hype? In our not-so humble opinion, the answer would be a resounding "yes". For around $300 - $350 you get a fully functional, well equipped, highly portable PC that is reliable, responsive and just works. You also get a boat-load of software, games and utilities for your money, thanks to the open source initiative surrounding the Linux community in general. Admittedly, we haven't spent a ton of time with Linux distros for the desktop but what Asus has brought to market with their incarnation for the Eee PC felt perfectly natural for even the Windows snobs amongst our team. We feel very comfortable giving the Asus Eee PC our coveted Editor Choice Award for product innovation and excellence.