Life on the EEEdge: Daily life with Asus' tiny laptop

6 annoying things (and 3 great ones) about Asus' ultraportable
  • Eric Lai (Computerworld)
  • 04 January, 2008 07:15

Like many gearheads, I've owned a lot of portable computers over the years -- and I've wanted to replace every last one with a smaller, sleeker upgrade, from the "luggable" Apple IIc onward. But most of those upgrades have left me disappointed: with the lack of software; with cheap, hard-to-use interfaces; and with "optional" add-ons that were in fact very much necessary to make the machine useful.

And then the Asus Eee came around, leaving a trail of effusive reviews and eager buyers. I started to feel the same old hope: Could the Eee be the Mini-Me of PCs that I've been searching for all these years?

After spending the past month with the Eee, the answer for me is still no. For sure, the Linux-based, 2-lb. Eee is an all-in-one wonder that I enjoy using as much or more than most of the notebooks I've owned in the past. It has exceeded my expectations in many areas. And who doesn't get a little thrill from carrying a full-fledged computer that's half the size of a hardback Jonathan Franzen novel and costs just US$400 -- or the US$350 I paid for mine on a recent trip to Taiwan?

But I believe in the 80/20 rule: 80% of your time on a computer is spent using 20% of its capabilities. As applied to the Eee, that means users will spend most of their time doing e-mail, working with short documents and surfing the Web. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, the Eee may be the best computer I've ever used. But some of the compromises Asus made to meet Eee's size and price targets were just too costly for that 80%. I have a list of six more-or-less-critical system flaws.

1) Typing is diffocu difficvultr !!!#$!@# very hard. I use perhaps the worst BlackBerry sold in the past three years: the 7290. So it's not hard for me to declare the Eee a huge upgrade typing-wise over my BlackBerry and similar phone/e-mail devices (the SideKick, Treo, etc.).

But the Eee's 8¼-in. x 3-in. keyboard is only ¾ the size of my ThinkPad T42's keyboard. It's also significantly smaller than the keyboards of subnotebooks I've owned in the past, such as the HP Omnibook 300 and the IBM ThinkPad 535 (which both weighed just 3 lb.), as well as modern ultraportables such as the Dell Latitude X1, the Sony Vaio TZ or the many models available from Averatec Inc.

The problem is that Asus made significant compromises in the miniaturization process. For instance, in order to fit four arrow keys on the lower right-hand side, Asus made the right Shift key smaller than the left one. Most users will need to retrain themselves to use the left Shift key lest they risk constantly hitting the arrow keys by mistake (though one Eee user has posted a software fix that actually turns the right Shift key into the Up Arrow key).

The touchpad is sensitive and sturdy, but I had to really mash the touchpad button down to get it to click, especially when I was typing with the laptop in my lap. Also, because a single touchpad surface acts as both the left and the right "mouse" button -- without a break, visible line or other demarcation in the middle -- it was sometimes hard to tell whether the Eee didn't respond because I didn't press hard enough or because my finger was too close to the middle.

When Asus conceived the Eee, it may have sincerely believed that cute-obsessed young women and children -- both demographics whose fingers tend toward the Slim Jim rather than the kielbasa end of the continuum -- were the one true market for the Eee. That was a misread of the market. With projected sales of 350,000 Eees by year's end and between 3 to 5 million in 2008, the mainstream is eyeing the Eee. (One sign the Eee has lost the stigma of being "too cute": The salesman in the Taipei computer mall who sold me the Eee said that most of his buyers were young salesmen who wanted a way to carry their contacts and presentations to sales meetings.)

2) The Eee's battery life is mediocre. PC makers exaggerate many things, but on battery life, they pull out the stops and lie like rugs. Asus is no exception, claiming that the Eee can go for up to 3.5 hours on the 5,200 mAH (milliamp-hour) lithium-ion battery. Apart from one outlier session in which I logged 2:45, my Eee mostly wound down around the 2:15 mark. By comparison, my old HP Omnibook could run 5 hours on one charge, and that could be extended using four AA batteries.

I'm chalking much of that up to cooling. The Eee runs pretty hot, and the fan kicks in a lot, especially if it's in my lap. (Perhaps Asus overestimated how much cooler the Eee's 4GB solid-state drive would be versus a conventional, spinning hard disk drive?)

Two-plus hours wouldn't be so objectionable if we were talking about one of those supersized desktop replacement laptops with a 20-in. screen, speakers worthy of a small home theater and a shoulder-sagging 15- to 19-lb. weight, but it negates much of the Eee's portability promise.

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Standby-mode performance was even less impressive. We expect smaller electronic gadgets (for instance, mobile phones) to last for days when we put them in standby or sleep mode. In standby, my Eee goes fully charged to fully drained in one night. That's no better than a regular laptop -- though in practice, the Eee's instant-on/off feature mostly mitigates the need for standby mode.

The Eee uses a white 100-240-volt AC adaptor that is the size of a mobile phone charger, rather than the black bricks of most laptops. While petite, its output -- 9.5 volts and 2.3 amps, or about 22 watts -- is also nonstandard. Trying to use your phone or other laptop charger as an ad hoc replacement could be risky to your Eee's health, though some Eee users say they've successfully substituted a charger from a portable DVD player. A universal car charger might be the better solution for owners in urgent need, but don't expect to walk into your average big-box retailer if you need a fast replacement.

3) The screen is too small. The Eee's 7-in. horizontally stretched (I hesitate to call any screen this small a "widescreen") 800-by-480-pixel screen boasts more than double the pixels of the old Mac Plus. But users now are accustomed to much larger real estate -- and most Web pages are coded so as to display properly only on monitors of 1,024-by-768 resolution or greater. For the Eee, that means the viewing experience isn't just nostalgic; it's cramped.

Surfing in particular was frustrating, since every time I downloaded a new Web page in Firefox, I had to click on the bottom toolbar to re-center the screen if I wanted to see the right-hand text and/or links. Shrinking the text size in Firefox -- which otherwise works great on the Eee -- doesn't help, because the column grids don't shrink correspondingly.

4) The webcam and internal microphone are weak. Going again by the 80/20 rule (repeat: 80% of the time you use only 20% of the machine's capabilities), things like the Eee's built-in webcam and internal microphone -- the latter of which can be used for Skype-powered Internet telephony -- are simply nice bonuses as long as they work properly.

Unfortunately, that's an open question. The webcam's maximum resolution is just 640 by 480 pixels, about one-quarter of state-of-the-art models from Logitech. And while Asus claims the webcam can grab up to 30 frames per second, don't expect anything approaching that in real life unless you're hooked up to a Verizon FiOS connection or you have access to the same industrial-strength lighting they use on Hollywood sets.

The hum of the Eee's fan motor drowns out the sound or voices you might hope to capture via the internal microphone, a not-uncommon problem with these smaller devices. In contrast, the Eee's stereo speakers, mounted to each side of the screen, sound pretty good. Still, for Skype or any other audio-input application, a USB headset or external microphone is advisable.

5) The Eee is, for now, underpowered. For the most part, the Eee's use of components that stopped being state of the art around the time the dot-com bubble burst hasn't hurt its nimbleness. Many familiar applications -- such as Firefox, Adobe Acrobat Reader and OpenOffice -- loaded and ran much faster than they do on a Windows XP PC.

The Eee runs so well that I wasn't even jonesing to replace the 512MB So-DIMM memory chip with something more capacious. (The original Eee 701, a.k.a. the 4G, can be easily upgraded to a 1GB PC2-5300 by opening a slot at the bottom of the machine, but other models may use RAM that is soldered on, making it harder to remove.)

Unwilling to miss the key Christmas season, Asus was forced to ship the Eee with an incomplete BIOS, and it's got several problems: The USB ports don't run at full USB 2.0 speed; Skype videoconferencing doesn't work, and the BIOS doesn't support the motherboard's 100-MHz front-side bus. That effectively restricts the 900-MHz Intel Celeron processor to running at just 600 MHz.

Asus has released a BIOS update that supposedly fixes those problems. But early testers say the update also causes the Eee to freeze and crash. As of early December, the new BIOS remains unfixed and unreleased.

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6) I couldn't set up my printer. Device support has long been one of Linux's knottiest problems. In light of that, things could have been worse: I had no problem connecting external monitors, SD cards or USB storage drives -- none of which were certified by Asus -- to the Eee.

But I wasted an entire day trying to get my Eee to print to my Brother HL-2070N laser printer. It was unclear whether I ran into a network problem or a driver issue; maybe I was doing something wrong at the third-party Common Unix and Printing System (CUPS) Web site.

Neither the printed manual nor Asus' support site had any info. Even the super-helpful Eee online user community had no suggestions.

In the end, I decided that because I hated typing anything substantial on the Eee, it's doubtful I would need to print from it. And if I did, I could use a flash drive, Google Docs or e-mail to transport the document to a more print-friendly computer.

On the other hand: The good stuff

I don't mean to be a nattering nabob of negativity. There are plenty of things to praise about the Eee, and I'll highlight three of my favorites.

a) The keyboard design has its moments. Yes, even after everything I said before, there are things to like about the Eee's keyboard. It makes sense if you consider that a keyboard is both a typing instrument as well as a tool for navigating software and Web sites. In those respects, Asus has some very good ideas in the Eee.

Most important, the Eee makes smart and extensive use of the Function (Fn) keys. Using those, users can put the Eee to sleep, turn the Wi-Fi on or off, adjust the screen's brightness, control speaker volume, switch between the Eee screen and an external display, launch the task manager and more. This allowed me to avoid using the touchpad or an external mouse to execute many common tasks.

Meanwhile, PgUp, PgDn, Home and End can be accessed by holding Fn and tapping the arrow keys. In the absence of a scroll-wheel-enabled mouse, that becomes very useful. There's also a key on the lower left, labeled with a Home icon, that takes you back to the main page of the Xandros desktop. I found myself tapping it a surprising number of times.

And while the keyboard may be too small for my average-sized male hands, I will grant that the feel and depth of the keys is pretty adequate.

b) The Eee can transform into a (modest) desktop. Not only does the Eee have a VGA monitor port, it actually has three USB ports -- more than the ThinkPad T42 I use for work (or the 15-in. MacBook Pro I use.). You can easily hook up a bigger, external monitor along with a full-size keyboard and mouse, and still have a leftover USB port for a thumb drive or a four-port hub.

For example, I plugged my Eee into my 19-in. CRT and, voila, was treated to full 1,600-by-1,200 resolution. At that resolution, Web surfing was fast and flicker-free, though watching large video files was rough on the Intel graphics chip; for those, I ratcheted down to 1,024 by 768 pixels.

I was able to use both displays to show the same desktop image. If you want to have two independent desktops, you can do some command-line hacking in Linux. It may not be worth it, however: The maximum combined width of the two screens will be limited to 1,680 pixels.

The Eee does have trouble automatically resizing desktops when switching between the external and internal display, due to the latter's awkward proportions. That meant manually resetting the resolution whenever I switched monitors. That sort of thing is trivial in the middle of all the adjustments one makes to a new machine, but it could get annoying over time.

c) I didn't miss Windows XP or Microsoft Office. I've never had much beef with XP or Office. I consider both to be quality products from Microsoft. But after using Xandros Linux in combination with OpenOffice and Google Documents, it struck me how much I remain loyal to those products purely out of convenience and inertia.

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And it's never crossed my mind to swap out Linux in favor of XP on the Eee -- partly because of the cost, and partly because I truly enjoy the Xandros Linux desktop. Besides the fast boot (25 seconds; add another 20 seconds and the Eee will automatically connect with the nearest Wi-Fi hot spot, too), I loved the default Xandros interface, which was intuitive and easy enough for a child to use.

If you choose to use an external display or simply prefer a more conventional desktop, you can easily download and add the Xandros' KDE desktop's "advanced mode," which will be familiar to any Windows user.

As for OpenOffice, I had used OpenOffice 2.0 full time for several months last year, but dropped it -- not because of the oft-cited document format incompatibility issues, but because I was frustrated with the amount of time it took to start up as well as to open and save documents compared with Microsoft Office 2003.

Whether it's the Eee's faster solid-state drive or the way the code was optimized, OpenOffice is much faster on the Eee than it is on my current ThinkPad T42. Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is such a hog that I've replaced it with FoxIt Reader for reading PDFs on the ThinkPad, opened very fast on the Eee as well.

As the competition heats up...

The Eee reaches far higher than earlier mini-notebook PCs, while asking far less from customers. It costs just one-sixth what I paid for my ThinkPad 535 mini-notebook in 1999 -- even less if you account for inflation.

But other laptops are getting absurdly cheap as competitors behold the market demand. In response to the Eee and the OLPC's "give one, get one" deal, Dell has slashed the price of its Vostro business laptop to US$399. That unit has a 1.7-GHz AMD 64 dual-core processor, a 15.4-in. screen, Windows XP Home, a 120GB hard drive, 1GB of RAM and a dual-layer DVD+R writer.

Asus' response was to roll out the new 4G Surf for US$350, which is US$50 less. The Surf comes in business black, but it lacks a webcam, has a smaller battery and has the aforementioned soldered-in RAM. There is also talk of a 2G Surf that would have half the storage and memory (a 2GB drive and 256MB of RAM, respectively) but cost just US$300 in the US, as well as an 8G that would double capacities (8GB drive and 1GB of RAM) and cost US$500.

Alas, none of those options solve the usability problems that will likely doom the Eee to third string on my PC roster. No, what I'm waiting for is the rumored Eee that comes with a 10-in. screen and, presumably, a much roomier keyboard. Asus has tried to quash this rumor, probably to keep customers from holding off on buying the existing Eee this Christmas season.

What I think, however, is that it doesn't serve Asus to let buyers like me get an early Eee only to end up disillusioned by its form factor and other limitations. A backlash will ensue, and the technorati will move onto another gadget. Or perhaps a mainstream maker such as Dell, which has been in an experimental, Linux-hugging mood, will come out with a low-end version of its ultraportable Latitude X1 that uses Ubuntu Linux and OpenOffice, truly runs four hours on a single battery and costs below US$600.

I would be the first to line up for such a machine. What gearhead would miss out on that?