Asus Eee PC 4G

Ultra-portable notebook

The Eee PC is the first in a new range of affordable ultra-portables from the Taiwanese giant Asus. Measuring 225 x 164 x 35mm and weighing 0.92kg, it’s head-turningly compact, yet at just $599 it’s closer to the price of a PDA than a laptop.

So what’s the secret? Well, the hardware is relatively modest: a 900MHz Mobile Celeron CPU with 512MB of RAM, a 4GB Solid State Drive (SSD) and a 7-inch 800 x 480 pixel screen. That’ll ring alarm bells for Windows, but Asus’ killer move is not to bother – the Eee PC runs Linux.

A customised version of Xandros to be precise, which with lower overheads than Windows can run quite happily on this kind of hardware. There are also plenty of decent open source applications available and Asus pre-installs a wide array to get you started including the excellent Open Office for documents, spreadsheets and presentations, Firefox for browsing, Thunderbird for email, Pidgin for Instant Messaging and Skype for VoIP. There’s also a pretty capable media player.

Asus has also created a customised front-end which presents the applications and utilities as big, friendly icons under six main tabs: Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings and Favourites. The application icons themselves also have generic names – so Firefox and OpenOffice Writer are simply labelled Web and Documents. Some desktop icons are actually shortcuts to websites like Hotmail, Wikipedia or Google Documents. This presentation along with a tab for Learning reveal the Eee PC as a kids’ laptop, but the applications are full versions of serious programs, allowing anyone to get proper work done.

It’s well-connected with wireless b and g (supporting WEP and WPA), a 10/100 Ethernet port, three USB 2 ports, an SD card slot and a VGA port for an external monitor. The 4GB SSD in the standard 4G model may not accommodate large media collections or photo backups, but after the default installation there’s still around 1.3GB free for documents, emails and other applications.

If you want more entertainment or backup opportunities, simply connect an external hard disk – I plugged-in a bus-powered 160GB Seagate FreeAgent Go and played Divx movies along with backing-up digital photos via the SD card slot. Widescreen material fits the screen nicely and the display itself looks pretty good for the money.

In terms of performance the Eee PC feels responsive considering the specification. Our test model, upgraded to 1GB of RAM, started up and connected to a wireless network in 27 seconds, launched OpenOffice Writer and Firefox in 11.8 and 4.5 seconds respectively, and shut down in 1.5 seconds. It certainly feels quicker than most Windows laptops and the keyboard, while obviously small, is surprisingly usable with practice.

Running a version of Linux also gives enormous potential for tweaking, and there’s already a great community at http://forum.eeeuser.com. Add some Xandros repositories and you could install a number of apps. Compatibility isn’t guaranteed, but I successfully installed the GIMP photo editor, and also updated Skype to the latest Linux beta, which supported video calls with the Eee’s built-in webcam.

With another small tweak you could also swap the childish front-end for a proper Linux desktop. Asus even includes drivers for Windows XP should you wish to install it with an external optical drive, but also supplies a recovery disc, allowing you to sensibly return it back to Linux afterwards.

Of course a laptop running Linux on a 4GB drive is going to be outside the comfort zone of many who find standard Windows configurations very reassuring – and certainly the Eee PC isn’t going to replace the traditional workhorses of road warriors. I’d also have preferred a 1024 pixel screen to avoid scrolling on many websites, a CF slot to support Microdrives, and a better than 3.5-hour battery life considering the lack of a traditional hard disk.

But the Eee PC really does almost everything most people want from a portable, and does so quickly in a small and light form factor at a bargain price. There are few no-brainers in the IT world, but this is the closest I’ve seen for a long time.

The hidden power of the Eee PC

Asus is shipping its Eee PC with an underclocked processor.

Surprisingly, and probably unbeknownst to most people, the Eee PC’s CPU is actually underclocked. While the Celeron M processor is rated at 900 MHz, the BIOS shipped with the PC limits the speed of the front size bus. This has had the effect that the CPU is actually running at 630 MHz, significantly slower than the advertised speed. There are advantages to having an underclocked processor such as extended battery life and less heat generation. The current CPU speed is also enough to handle most of the applications thrown at it.

Why Asus has decided to equip the Eee with an underclocked CPU remains a mystery, however. The CPU is of older Intel stock, but this shouldn’t affect performance or durability. There is also the very real possibility that Asus will release a kernel module, or BIOS release, to realise the true power potential of the CPU. We put the Eee through some benchmarks using Primate Labs’ Geekbench, both running Windows XP and the Eee’s native Linux-based OS. We also overclocked the CPU to its native speed, 900 MHz. On the factory-supplied CPU speed, the Eee scored a 480 while running XP, and 558 while running the Linux-based OS. After upping the front bus speed, we managed to get a score of 802 on the Linux system, effectively increasing the speed by 43 per cent. Overclocking the CPU is a relatively simple exercise, but should only be considered if you are familiar with it. Most users will also find the speed increase after overclocking to be minimal.

Jan Birkeland

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Ultra-portable notebook

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