ASUS Eee PC First Thoughts

Impressions

The ASUS Eee PC’s been out for a little while, but I haven’t had the chance to get a first-hand look at it until earlier this week. A friend picked one up and was kind enough to let me get in a few unboxing pictures as well as some comparison photos of it with my Dell XPS M1330. I was also able to use it a bit and get some quick first impressions in. This device really excited me when it was announced by ASUS for $199. Has the new price tag of $399 and some time with it changed my opinion?

You don’t even have to open the box to realize that this device is going to be small. The retail box it comes in is absolutely tiny. The first box shot doesn’t really do it much justice, but when compared with an EVGA video card box, you get a feel for just how diminutive it is. The Eee PC box is almost exactly the same dimensions as the 8800GT box.

ASUS Eee PC Box ASUS Eee PC Box

Opening up the box, you’re greeted with an even smaller laptop. The package comes with a nice sleeve for the laptop, a 4 cell ~38Whr battery, a charger (no power brick here – it’s like a power adapter for a modem), and some manuals/warranty cards (and a driver CD).

ASUS Eee PC

After removing it from the box and connecting the battery, I performed the subjective weight test and was very impressed. This thing is light! Fortunately, it doesn’t feel like ASUS sacrificed material quality for weight. You can pick it up from a corner with no creaking or flexing (the small size also helps). Don’t get me wrong; the casing is completely made of plastic, but thickness is good and the hinges are especially beefy. They feel like they’ll last plenty of repeated openings and closings.

ASUS Eee PC

I purchased my Dell XPS M1330 because it has a great balance of portability, power, and battery life. But on the portability front, the Eee PC completely shows it up. Just look at the comparison photos and you’ll know what I mean.

ASUS Eee PC ASUS Eee PC ASUS Eee PC

There’s just no comparison in size. The user interface is also extremely simple and attractive. It is extremely graphical and intuitive. There are no long menus of applications and folders. It’s a great setup, especially for beginner users or other non-advanced users.

ASUS Eee PC User Interface

Issues

Unfortunately, that’s also where its disadvantages stem from. A consequence of the small chassis is an even smaller display. I hadn’t thought much of it prior to seeing it, but the 7″ display is tiny. It doesn’t help that the wide bezel and speaker combination makes the display seem even smaller. The 800×480 resolution is enough for many uses, but more and more web pages are expanding beyond 800 pixels of width. Chalk it up to lack of concern of usability by the webmasters or what have you, the fact is, you’ll be side scrolling quite a bit. Fortunately, the integrated graphics and CPU are more than capable to playing back both internet video and DIVX/XVID files.

As well, the size of the keyboard had to be reduced. This means typing is a rather difficult affair, although I’m sure with some time, I’d be able to get used to the size of the keyboard. On the other hand, some of the layout sacrifices are terribly annoying. I’d especially like to point out the smaller than usual backspace and enter keys. Perhaps even more annoying is the fact the right Shift key is on the outside of the up-arrow. Even in the brief amount of time I had with it, attempts to hit the right Shift resulted in going up a line instead.

I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly test the battery life, but ASUS is saying anywhere from 3 to 4 hours. Some reviews have cited around 3.5 hours of battery life with light use, which in itself isn’t bad at all. However, considering the battery is rated at almost 40Whr, we’re talking about approximately 11W power consumption per hour (at light load), which is surprisingly high for such a small and low-powered device. In comparison, with the optical drive disabled, but wireless on and screen brightness at 6/8, the Dell XPS M1330 only consumes around 13W idle and 15W while browsing the internet. That’s with a dual core processor and a dedicated 8400M GS video card. Perhaps ASUS can optimize it further for power as a low-power 900MHz single core mobile CPU, a 4GB SSD, a 7″ LED backlit display, and integrated video still sucks up quite a lot of power. Plus, the two yet-to-be-announced lower-end versions sport even smaller batteries, to the tune of ~18% less capacity. Hitting 3 hours of use under light load may be all you can hope for with those.

I didn’t have a whole lot of time with the device, but I did manage to answer just about all the questions I had. At the original announced price of $199, the Eee PC would have been an absolute steal, but it’s much harder to swallow at double the price. I could stand to lose some usability at the lower price, but for $399+tax, it’s just a little too much money for too many sacrifices. The thing that stands out most is the screen size – it’s just too small to use comfortably or effectively.

I’d wait and see if a 9″ or 10″ version pops up that would solve almost all my complaints in one swoop, from the small display/low resolution to the annoying keyboard. At $399, that device would really be the one to get.

8800GT Deal

I was treated to quite the deal yesterday when I found a GeForce 8800GT 512MB video card at Futureshop. I’ve written about how the fall video card refresh has been great for competition and prices, but I never imagined I’d be able to pick up a 8800GT for $199CAD. Granted, part of the reason was due to a pricing error on Futureshop’s part, which pushed the price to below cost. It was advertised as on sale for $259 from $309, but when I got to the Futureshop in Guelph (thanks for the drive, Justin :)), it rang up as $199.

Although the card is advertised as the stock clocked (600MHz core, 900MHz RAM), it comes clocked at EVGA’s Superclocked specs (650MHz core, 950MHz RAM), making it an even better deal. It’s one of, if not the cheapest 8800GT I’ve seen in Canada, not to mention being overclocked by default. The sale to $259 ends November 15th, so you’ve got some time to find a store with stock if you’re considering it. I was hesitant about getting the card before all this since AMD/ATI will be launching their RV670 based cards in about a week’s time. But at $199, I have absolutely no qualms – there’s no second guessing whatsoever.

And damn, there’s a huge difference from my 7900GTO. The Crysis demo is now playable with all settings at high at my monitor’s native resolution (1680×1050), as opposed to medium details and 1280×800 with the 7900GTO. The Unreal Tournament 3 demo is also playable with the highest detail settings and 1680×1050 as opposed to medium and 1280×800. The visual quality in these two games is absolutely amazing. I still can’t quite believe I’m getting all this for 2 bills. With an E6600 at 3GHz and stock clocks of 650/950 on the 8800GT, I’m hitting around 11.5K in 3DMark 06.

NVIDIA’s got a hell of a card here – let’s see what AMD can do against it in a week’s time.

IE7Pro Saves Internet Explorer 7

I’ve switched from Firefox to Internet Explorer 7. Oh the horror! It’s true, and it was one simple thing that got me to switch, IE7Pro. IE7Pro is an add-on to Internet Explorer 7 that adds all the features Firefox has that made me a Firefox user. I’ve been getting frustrated with Firefox recently. After a browser window was open for a while, performance would become extremely sluggish. The Mozilla Foundation may like to keep to the line that the ‘memory leak’ is actually a feature, but it’s just not acceptable to me when a browser is eating up 500MB+ of memory.

I’ll briefly go over some of the features that have been added to IE7 that has made browsing pretty much as it was in Firefox, minus the performance issues:

  • Ad-blocking. This is probably the biggest reason I didn’t use IE7 in the past, but IE7Pro has a very customizable filter for blocking advertisements.
  • Flash-blocking. Again, many ads are flash-based nowadays, and the flash-block capability is very handy.
  • Search-as-you-type. This does away with IE7′s default pop-up seach box that doesn’t start searching until you hit the search button and implements something that looks very much like Firefox’s search.
  • In-line spell checking. Pretty useful for blogging and posting on forums. It also supports adding user-defined words.
  • Session saver. Saves sessions. It prompts the user to select which tabs to open if tabs were open when the previous browser session was terminated.
  • Undo closed tabs. Accidentally closed a tab? This is a great feature.
  • Mouse Gestures. Instead of need to rely on browser buttons, you can do all your navigation with some fancy mouse-work.

IE7Pro is extremely customizable. Mouse gestures can be customized, as can various keyboard shortcuts. The advertisement filter is easily added to or removed from and search engine aliases can be created, just as in Firefox (for example, type ‘g ie7pro’ to search for ie7pro with Google).

If you’re disgruntled with Firefox’s issues or are restricted in some way by corporate machines perhaps, give IE7Pro a whirl. It’ll make browsing much more convenient.

Finally Some Competition

I purchased my current video card, a 7900GTO 512MB, around a year ago when NVIDIA started clearing stock after the GeForce 8 series launch. As a rebadged and lower binned 7900GTX, it was a hell of a steal at under $300CAD. Since the launch of the 8 series, NVIDIA hasn’t faced much competition in the retail graphics market. ATI’s (or should I say AMD) R600, aka HD2900 was only able to keep up with the 8800GTS 640MB, assuming anti-aliasing wasn’t enabled. Due to the lack of competition both in terms of performance pricing from AMD, the price of the ‘performance mid-range’ 8800GTS didn’t fall more than 20% since that launch a year ago. For the computer industry, that’s hellishly little depreciation.

Which is why I’m happy that NVIDIA and AMD are doing their fall refreshes, but not of their top end. The performance mid range ($200-300) which has been severely neglected by both companies is getting an influx of cards. NVIDIA’s recent launch of the G92 based 8800GT will slot in around $200 for a 256MB version and around $250 for the 512MB version. Those prices are supposed to drop even lower, but with the sky-high demand and poor supply, price gouging has occurred, sending the prices up towards $300. Even still, less than $300 for a card that mostly outperforms the 8800GTS 640MB, which was recently priced around the $400CAD mark is quite an achievement.

On November 19th, AMD is expected to launch a slew of products, including Phenom processors (K10 for the desktop) as well as RV670-based HD3850 and HD3870 video cards. One of the headline features is the inclusion of DX10.1 and Shader Model 4.1 support. Whether these features will be used in upcoming games remains to be seen, but you can be certain AMD will tout its advantage of the 8800GT that doesn’t have support for anything newer than DX10. The cards should slot in from ~$180 to $240. Hopefully this launch will bring down some of the gouging on the 8800GTs. It remains to be seen how these cards will perform in comparison to the 8800GT as well as the outgoing HD2900′s.

I’ve put in a pre-order for an EVGA 8800GT Superclocked, but with supply so scarce, I doubt I’ll get it much before (if before at all) the November 19th launch by AMD. I’m sort of hoping it won’t be back in stock until some leaked performance numbers for the RV670 creeps out. That way, I’ll have a chance to cancel and order the HD3870 is it’s good, or otherwise still be in line for an 8800GT that will eventually be mine. And what good timing with all these new games coming out (Crysis, UT3, Gears of War for PC).

Some Business

I enrolled in what I hope to be first of many business classes at Wilfred Laurier University. Unlike most courses taken over a co-op semester, enrollment in BUS121W, Functional Areas of an Organization, was quite painless. I started filling out a course override form, but after reading this website regarding business courses at WLU, I contacted one of the people responsible for cross-enrollment for the School of Business and Economics at WLU. One email and I was in the class for next semester.

I was initially wary of the cost for a single class – for an engineering student, it happens to be to the tune of around $800. However, a quick tax calculation showed that I’d not be paying anywhere near face value in the end. Since I have two work semesters and only one study semester in 2008, I’ll end up paying a fair amount of taxes. By taking a course in each of my work terms, I become eligible for the part time student tax deduction of something around $150 per month. Plus, taking into account my tuition expenses of ~2x$800 for the two courses, and I’m looking at nearly $3000 in tax deductions. Using a combined federal and provincial tax rate of 21% or so, that works out to ~$630 in tax refunds. I’m almost getting a ‘free’ course if you look at it that way. Spending around $400 for a course is much easier to swallow. Plus, I really want to expand my business and economic knowledge beyond some basic accounting in MSCI261 and economics from ECON102.

I thought this might be interesting for anyone who’s considered taking a course during the work term. I hadn’t thought about it like this before.