The Eee PC – 120 Lines and 1" Short of Great

I bought an Asus Eee PC a few months ago. More specifically, I bought the Asus Eee PC 710 4G.

Those of you who aren’t familiar with this machine should look here. The Eee PC is a mini-laptop (2 pounds). Mine came with 512Mb of DDR2 memory, a 4Gb flash “hard disk” and a 7″ 800×480 display. It’s also got wired and wireless 802.11 b/g networking, 3 USB2 ports, an SD memory slot, VGA output and a built-in camera and microphone. All for only $400! There’s another version (the 2G) for only $300.

Although the Eee PC comes with a serviceable version of Xandros Linux, I swapped it out with a pared down version of Ubuntu 8.04 (Xubuntu). I also upgraded the RAM to 1 Gb and plugged in a 4 Gb SD card for extra disk space.

This is a pretty capable machine! Although the CPU is somewhat anemic (it’s a 900MHz Pentium M), it’s got a nice graphics chip in it. At work, I plug it into my 22″ Dell monitor and a full-size USB keyboard and mouse. I use the cool Compiz window manager and it looks great on the big monitor.

For the most part, I use this machine a communication device. I take it with me places that I wouldn’t want to lug a full-size laptop. I’ve taken it with me on trips and used ssh tunneling and rdesktop to connect to my Windows machine at the office to do some work on the road. I’ve set up Skype on it and hope to test the built-in camera soon, too. The battery will last a good 2-3 hours if you keep the screen dim and turn off disk swapping.

There are only two things lacking in my little Eee PC. First, its display is 800×480. Not bad, but it desperately needs another 120 lines to get it to a more standard 800×600. There is just too much software that expects to have at least 600 lines of display to work with. Having to “drag” dialog boxes up just to reach the “ok” button is a…drag (sorry). Additionally, the keyboard is a tad bit small. It is certainly preferable to typing on a Blackberry but some keys (e.g. Tab) are just too tiny. The variation in key size also means that I’m constantly hitting the wrong key. Another 1″ of width, judiciously spread among the narrow keys would make it much more usable.

There is a new version of the Eee PC available – the 20G – that corrects these shortcomings. It boasts a 1024×600 display and 20Gb of flash disk space. It comes with 1Gb of RAM. The beefed up specifications are mostly so that it can run Windows (an option). Alas, these improvements tack on an extra $150 dollars to the price of the machine ($550). At this price, you can get a full-featured (though much heavier) laptop (this one, for example).

Hopefully, as more companies enter this sub-sub-notebook business, we’ll start to see some more capable machines that are still able to keep their prices down below $400. I think there is a market for very lightweight machines that are intended for only web browsing, Skype and occasional other use.