ASUS Eee PC 900 Thoughts

When I had my first hands-on experience with the ASUS Eee PC, I came away impressed with the package, but pricing was a sticking point, given the sacrifices. At the originally-announced $199 price point, the Eee 701 would have been an absolute steal, but at double that, it was less desirable to me. Specifically, I had issues the tiny screen and mediocre battery life. I suggested waiting for a 9″ or 10″ version that could (potentially) solve most if not all the problems I had with the 7″ model.

Now that the Eee PC 900 series has been announced and reviews are coming in, I’d like to follow up on some of the points I made in my previous article. I don’t have an Eee PC 900 in my possession, so like with the HP 2133 Mini-Note, I’ll have to make do with the observations of other reviewers.

Clearly the main change has been with the display. At 8.9″, ASUS has solved one of my main concerns with the Eee PC 701, display size and resolution. The new 1024×600 resolution yields 60% more real estate than the 800×480 resolution of the 7″ Eee PC. Furthermore, the display size increase did not come at the expense of size or portability. The speakers have been moved to the bottom of the machine, leaving almost the entire lid for the display itself. Not only does the improved display make the device more usable, it also vastly improves its aesthetics. No longer are there thick black bezels to ruin the cute design of the Eee PC.

It would be a shame to need a mouse to make user input pain-free, so I’m glad ASUS has increased the size and functionality of the touchpad. I wrote about touchpad functionality not long ago, so it pleases me that ASUS is thinking along the same lines. The touchpad is proportionally very large and the two-finger scrolling capability is impressive as well. Compared to the Eee PC 701, the Eee 900’s touchpad looks to have almost twice the surface area. That along with the increased screen size and resolution should make usability significantly better, especially on the go.



Courtesy of VR-Zone

Storage size has also been increased, quite significantly, especially with the Linux version. Both Linux and Windows configurations come with 4GB NAND flash soldered on the mainboard, and an additional 8GB (Windows) or 16GB (Linux) flash module. These increases help justify the increase in price, which is now $549USD for both Windows and Linux machines.

But not all is well. Like I harped in my HP 2133 commentary, the key here is battery life, and with the larger display, it has taken a bit of a dive from the Eee 701’s already mediocre battery life. Reviewers are observing in the range of 2 to 2.5 hours of productivity battery life. Watching videos or doing anything more intensive will drop than down to 1.5 hours. This is unacceptable for something that’s supposed to be an on-the-go device. The battery in the Eee PC 900 is rated at just under 42Whr, which means at the high-end of the observed battery life, this device is still pulling over 16W in productivity mode. To put that in perspective, that’s as much or more than my M1330 under the same load conditions.

I’m extremely tempted by this iteration of the Eee PC. It’s so close to being perfect for my mobile-productivity needs. One of my biggest gripes with the 701, the display size, has been rectified in the 900. Now, stuff a more power-efficient processor in there (Intel’s upcoming Atom processor is slated to make an appearance in a future version), boost battery life on the standard 4 cell to over 4 hours and I will definitely consider it for purchase.

HP 2133 Mini-Note – So Close, Yet So Far Away

Now that HP has officially announced the 2133 Mini-Note PC, I’d like to discuss why I don’t believe it will succeed like the ASUS Eee PC has. Note that since I don’t have a unit in my possession, I can only base my analysis on what the initial reviews have observed. (By all means, if HP wants to send me a sample to review, I’d be more than happy to do so…) For reference, the Notebook Review article is what I’ll be speaking to mostly.

HP 2133 Mini-Note

I previously wrote about the HP 2133 mini-notebook back when it was but a rumor in the blogosphere. I touched on some key points it aimed to address, namely screen size, keyboard usability, and battery life. By combining these three improvements with what the Eee PC does well, I reckoned it could be a very compelling choice in the sub-notebook space, assuming appropriate pricing. It looks like HP’s nailed two of the problems, completely missed the third and added a few issues of its own along the way.

Screen and Keyboard

Let’s talk about the good things first – the screen and the keyboard. There will be people who dislike the WXGA resolution display (1280×800) on a relatively small 8.9″ display, but I think it’s great. That’s a ton of real estate – the same as most mainstream widescreen laptops these days, which means you’re really not sacrificing much, despite having a much smaller chassis and display. The keyboard is also significantly larger than what the Eee PC has, advertised as 92% of the regular size (although there’s some weirdness going on with the number keys). These two key improvements over the 7″ Eee PC could make the 2133 a significantly more useful productivity tool. That is until you reach the next couple points.

The Steve Ballmer

Battery life, battery life, battery life. Battery life, battery life, battery life. (Imagine me saying that while dancing on a stage if you like.) You cannot make a small, portable, mini-laptop, touting it as the mobile internet browsing, email writing machine and then give it about 2 hours of battery life. That’s what the reviewers are getting on the 3 cell default battery (productivity work gives anywhere between 2 and 2.5 hours). Granted the review samples are running Vista, which isn’t exactly the most efficient system, but if you’re selling them in that configuration, make sure it works well. Upping the battery to the 6 cell (55Whr) makes it awkwardly thick towards the rear and brings the weight up to over 3.2lbs, making the whole ‘just toss it into your bag‘ proposition go out the window. And even then, the 4-4.5 hours of battery life isn’t anything to brag about. The Dell XPS M1330 I’m typing this on gets close to 4 hours of productivity battery life on the standard 6 cell (56Whr). How does a 8.9″ display, an ULV VIA C7-M processor, and integrated graphics consume almost as much power as a standard voltage Core 2 Duo, a discrete 8400M GS video card, and a 13.3″ LED backlit panel?

VIA As a Scapegoat

Many people are blaming the CPU, a VIA C7-M ULV ranging from 1.0GHz to 1.6GHz, for almost all of the machine’s problems. I don’t believe this to be the case. However, it may very well be the cause of one problem – performance. Typically performance would be a non-issue for laptops in this category. The ASUS Eee PC wasn’t designed for number crunching, but at least internet performance was fluid. Based on Notebook Review, the tasks the HP 2133 was designed for, internet usage and productivity, are somewhat hindered by sluggish performance.

On paper the 1.6GHz VIA C7-M processor should provide excellent speed for general computing tasks. In reality, web pages rendered slower than expected, multi-tasking was painfully slow, and most processor-hungry applications like Photoshop or video encoding software just didn’t like the VIA processor. – NBR

I’m not worried about Photoshop or encoding performance, but web page rendering and multitasking issues? With the reviewed system being the absolute top-of-line 2133 (1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, 160GB 7200RPM hard drive), it should eat up multitasking with ease. Slower than expected web page rendering is appalling. Whether these issues can be chalked up to Vista remains to be seen (hopefully some testing with the SuSE Linux version will show a different outcome), but regardless, as I mentioned above, the out-of-box experience is what most people will end up having and it’s not looking good. In addition, heat dissipation seems to be a problem, and for a laptop that’s very portable, having the fan constantly running and the bottom of the chassis heating up to close to 50C are not conducive to classroom use or use on one’s lap.

HP 2133 temperatures
Temperatures in Fahrenheit. Courtesy of Notebook Review.

One reason HP may have decided to go with the VIA platform is the upcoming Isaiah processor. It looks like it could be very well suited for the mini-laptop design, and being pin compatible, it should be a simple switch over for HP when it becomes available. In the meantime, the top-end 2133 will be stuck with a processor that performs similarly or worse than the 900MHz Celeron M in the Eee PC. I don’t even want to think about what the user experience would be like with the 1.0GHz C7-M for the $499 version.

Pricing is out-of-line

Add that all up and we come down the price. The starting $499 price isn’t bad, until you consider the $399 Eee PC will vastly outperform it and weight half a pound less. If you can wait for the 8.9″ version of the Eee PC, you’ll get a similar sized display as well (albeit at a lower resolution). When you start moving up the 2133 price chain, things get expensive awfully fast, with $50 more giving you a 1.2GHz, 1GB RAM, and a 120GB HDD. the $749 model gets you a 1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, and a 120GB 7200RPM drive. The samples reviewed by most sites included a 160GB 7200RPM drive, which will add even more to the price. When you consider the laptop from a performance point of view, it’s an abysmal price proposition. At the top end of its price range, I’d imagine even something like the $999CAD XPS M1330 would start to enter into the equation, with similar battery life to the 6-cell 2133 and about a pound heavier, but sporting a full Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, and a 160GB hard drive, not to mention other features.

The Best Case Scenario

The best case scenario for the HP 2133 Mini-Note currently being reviewed would be that the power management system isn’t functional. That would explain things like the heat dissipation and poor battery life. I’ve asked the reviewer at Notebook Review to confirm that the expected power saving features (such as downclocking the CPU and/or voltage) are working, but I haven’t heard back yet. The nicely designed shell and gorgeous screen and keyboard are more than offset by failing at the one the thing it’s designed to be, a mobile, internet browsing and productivity machine. Without some serious changes, it’ll be but a pretty face.

ASUS Eee PC at Best Buy

The Windows XP version of the ASUS Eee PC has made its way to Best Buy and, as far as I know, it is the first major technology retailer that is offering the system. I’d imagine having Windows XP was one of the critical requirements laid out by Best Buy. Most of the customers there will be most familiar with a Windows-based system. It’ll be interesting to see if ASUS can keep up with demand, which is certain to grow quickly, given the new market.

HP Compaq 2133 UMPC Inbound?

It may have one seriously thick bezel, but if it turns out to be real, the HP Compaq 2133 UMPC will have addressed just about every single issue I had with the ASUS Eee PC in my short time with it. And as I guessed, the device is built around a larger, higher resolution display.

HP 2133 UMPC
Image courtesy of Engadget

Some information of a possible UMPC from HP leaked out yesterday via CNET’s Crave blog, where the comments leads one to believe the device will the targeted at a low price point, while addressing some of the problems people have had with the ASUS Eee PC. From one of the HP staff:

…you won’t even need to consider this purchase. You’ll buy it like a handphone without a thought…

So what were some of the problems I had with the ASUS Eee PC and how does HP rectify them?

  1. 7″ screen too small and 800×480 resolution too low – HP is fitting the 2133 with a 8.9″ LCD, but more importantly, a 1366×768 resolution (although even standard WXGA, 1280×800 would suffice). We’re talking nearly 3 times the resolution of the Eee PC’s display.
  2. Keyboard is difficult to use – And that’s where the thick bezels come in on HP’s rumoured offering. They’ve been able to fit in a keyboard that is 95% the size of a standard QWERTY keyboard. Compare that to Sony’s TZ series laptop, which manages to fit in a keyboard about 90% of standard size. This number also gives us a peek into the overall size of the HP 2133 – probably around the same footprint as a Sony TZ, which isn’t bad at all.
  3. Power consumption/Battery life – The ASUS Eee PC doesn’t have terrible battery life, far from it, but at a bit over 3 hours of web browsing, it’s also not befitting of a super-portable device that’s supposed to be on the go with you, where ever you happen to be. But if you need to use it for more than 3 hours, you’ll have to bring along a power adapter, which hurts the proposition. HP is targeting improved battery life with its 2133 UMPC.

The main issue will be how HP chooses to price the device. Anodized aluminum, a high resolution display, and gigabit ethernet don’t seem to place this in the bargain bin, which conflicts somewhat with the comment by HP staff. I’m more than willing to be pleasantly surprised though. Less than $600? I just may take them up on one.

On a somewhat related note, Hewlett Packard reported Q1 earnings that surpassed analyst expectations (again) and full-year forecasts were also raised. It seems like the well-diversified tech giants, including IBM, HP and Microsoft, are finding success in the difficult economic environment, while more focused companies, such as Cisco, Intel and Google are running into some trouble.

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.