Performance, compatibility, and comfort are usually the buzzwords when you’re shopping for a laptop. None of them apply to the Asus Eee PC—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider this unique budget portable. A lightweight, super-small notebook, the Eee PC comes with enough power and preloaded apps to handle basic on-the-road productivity and communication needs, all at a bargain price. Sure, you’ll sacrifice storage space, ergonomics, and Windows compatibility. But users who don’t want to be weighted down—or empty their wallets—may find the Eee PC is a perfect machine for basic jobs.
At $399, the Eee PC is not dramatically cheaper than entry-level, full-size notebooks such as the Dell Inspiron 1501, HP Pavilion DV6000z, and Gateway P-6825. But it’s far less expensive than the typical ultraportable, which can carry a price tag of $1,500 or more—and it’s much more portable, besides.
The Eee PC is not only the cheapest ultraportable on the market, it may be the cutest darn notebook we’ve ever seen. Available in white or black, it looks like a two-thirds-scale model of a real laptop. Its specs are equally miniaturized: our review unit featured a 900MHz Celeron processor under-clocked to 630MHz, 512MB of RAM (upgradable to 2GB), a 4GB solid-state flash drive, and a 7-inch screen. While that configuration is far from powerful, it lets the Eee PC keep its weight at a totable 2 pounds and its measurements at a slim 8.8×6.5×1.4 inches. It also keeps the price extremely budget-friendly.
Of course, the presence of the Linux OS is another element of the cost-cutting. Once the Eee PC finishes its 20-second booting process, what you see is not the typical Windows interface, but rather a highly customized version of Xandros Linux. (Asus has told us that a Windows XP version of the Eee PC is in the works.) The system comes loaded with more than 40 applications, games, and Web links, all easily accessible using a simple, tabbed interface that requires no Linux experience. Advanced users can access a command line to customize the user interface or install additional applications. With Firefox as the browser, Thunderbird as the mail client, OpenOffice.org as the productivity suite, and a versatile media player already installed, you’re ready to go right out of the box. Asus also offers Windows XP drivers for the Eee PC, though with just 4GB of storage, you’ll find space tight for installing additional applications.
Space is tight on the keyboard, as well: Touch-typists will likely find the Eee PC’s tiny keys and compact 8-inch width challenging at first. After a few days, we were able to type at full speed, though a few awkwardly placed, extra-small keys still caused occasional typos.
The notebook’s 800×480 color screen, meanwhile, is sharp and bright, but its low resolution means you’ll do a lot of scrolling (both vertically and horizontally) when viewing Web pages. A pair of speakers framing the screen provide surprisingly good sound for a basic notebook; you’ll also find a VGA-resolution Webcam embedded in the bezel above the LCD.
You can add external storage to the Eee PC using the integrated SD-card slot, or one of the three USB 2.0 ports. Other connections include headphone and microphone jacks, a VGA output, and an Ethernet port, as well as built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. We wouldn’t expect much else from such a small system in this price range, though it would have been nice if Asus included built-in Bluetooth for hooking up wireless peripherals. It’s also worth noting that, like many ultraportables, the Eee PC lacks an optical drive.
We couldn’t run our typical benchmark suite on the Eee PC, which isn’t too much of a concern, since this clearly isn’t a performance machine. That said, we were pleased with what we saw from our informal tests. Large applications such as OpenOffice.org Calc typically took about 5 to 7 seconds to load, and all of the included programs ran smoothly, even when we had several open at once. Full-screen Xvid playback was smooth as well, and the Eee PC didn’t so much as hiccup when we opened other programs while video was playing.
Battery life for the Eee PC varies depending on your activity. Asus rates the battery at 3.5 hours, and we did achieve 3 hours and 25 minutes while writing using OpenOffice, with Wi-Fi and the speaker disabled. With Wi-Fi on, the battery lasted 2 hours and 41 minutes while we performed a mix of Web browsing, e-mailing, and YouTube viewing. When we played an Xvid movie from an SD card with Wi-Fi on but idle, the battery lasted 2 hours and 38 minutes.
In addition to the $399 model we reviewed, Asus offers a less-expensive $349 “Surf” model, which omits the Webcam and is locked at 512MB of memory. You can also find a $499 version with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of solid-state storage. Asus says it’s planning a $299 model with 256MB of RAM and a 2GB flash drive.
In the end, like most ultraportables, the Eee PC isn’t for everyone. Its tiny keyboard, limited performance, and stunted storage are serious compromises that will eliminate it from consideration by some. But when portability is king, and computing needs are few, this notebook is an attractive option. We highly recommend it for entry-level users with small budgets, as well as for frequent travelers looking for a super-cheap secondary system they can take on the road.