Review: First Impressions of the Eee PC 701

Okay, I can be a little obsessive. (For example, see my recent posts about fountain pens, fountain pens, fountain pens, and …erm… fountain pens.) Unfortunately, combined with my persistent belief that my next productivity tool could be the non plus ultra, this can translate into drawers filled with unused gadgets, bookcases jammed with partially used planners and notebooks, and a selection of writing utensils that would shame any office supply store. And, although I am embarrassed to admit it, while I tend towards the intimacy of pen and paper, the tinker in me is certainly inclined towards items demonstrating an almost awkward complexity. But do those help me be more productive? Rarely.

I’ve mentioned not only my Macs in these pages, but my Palms, my Newtons, and various other attempts to find a perfect portable writing machine that also allows for efficient time management. The Newton eMate 300 (or alternatively, the Newton MessagePad 2100 with keyboard) was the closest thing thus far, as it offered me the ability to write without being tempted by the distractions of the web, use the amazing MoreInfo to structure my days, and have a smallish and rugged package that lasted up to 20 hours. But, as attractive as the Newtons were, I started yearning for the ability to look up online resources, draw small diagrams, send email, sync easily with my other computers, and so on, all of which are possible on the Newtons, but not easy nor intuitive. The thought of typing several dozen pages on a cramped smartphone thumb-board while the battery ticks down didn’t seem to offer any respite. What I needed was a very small laptop… a subnotebook, and one that wouldn’t cost a fortune. And then, I unexpectedly received one: an Asus Eee PC 701 4G Surf, currently going for an average retail value of roughly $350 USD ($400 for the non-Surf model, which means it has a webcam).

I eyed it suspiciously. Small, clunky, inexpensive, tiny-screened, Linuxy, and therefore decidedly un-Mac-like. Could it fit the bill?

After extracting it from its small box and laying it on my desk, I couldn’t help but notice that the Eee PC (pronounced “eeeeeeee pee cee”?) was smaller and roughly the same weight as the mid-size hardback book lying next to it. It’s a black model, as sexy as possible for such an inelegant and squarish creature, although one can find white, green, baby blue and pink versions if so inclined. Still, the plastic shell seems rather strong and well reinforced. It looks like it could withstand some rough treatment, and indeed it has. As I lifted the screen, I noted that the hinge was a little stiff, but seeing that there isn’t a catch to secure it, this would prove necessary. I plugged the small and lightweight charger –about the size of a cell phone’s– into the wall and pressed the power switch.

In about 15-20 seconds, a modified Linux operating system appeared, sporting large tasteful icons within a tabbed interface. The icons were generic in nature — instead of OpenOffice.org Writer, for example, the Work tab provided access to Documents, and instead of Amarok, there was a Music Manager. As the “Eee” in Eee PC stands for “Easy to learn, easy to work, easy to play”, developed no doubt for a significant demographic of small children and grandparents, this made perfect sense.

First things first: that screen is small. At 7″ and a resolution of 800×480, don’t expect to do any high-end design work on this. Even viewing webpages designed for much larger monitors can be a little trying. Sitting next to my 17″ MacBook Pro, the effect is almost comical, like toddler standing next to a Harlem Globetrotter. The screen size, more than anything else, would be the source of most issues on this machine.

The keyboard is small, too. I’m a very big boy with big hands, and at first it proved almost impossible to touch-type as I normally do (roughly 60-80 WPM on my regular Mac keyboards). I had the same problem at first with the eMate, but like its funkier predecessor, all it took was an hour or two of practice to get used to the spacing of the keys. I still occasionally miss the right shift key and hit the up arrow, royally screwing up my paragraph, but that’s happening less and less now.

The trackpad is also tiny, but I don’t find this a hassle at all. The sensitivity is fine for my uses, and one can slide a finger along its right side to scroll a page. A mouse, though, is still my preferred option on every computer, and I did get a nice tiny black mouse with a retractable cable. They make quite a cute combination. Not that I’m into cute. Except for my wife. Ahem.

This being a Linux box, it didn’t take long for me to start diving under the hood, turning on the advanced desktop mode (a.k.a., KDE), setting up some repositories, and delving once more into my time-honoured UNIX geekiness. The base (“easy”) system doesn’t allow access to easily install the many thousands of free applications out there, but I’m sure the typical ten-year-old will figure it out very quickly. Since it uses a Debian-style apt-get system, if you’re proficient, you can fetch and install anything within seconds, and you won’t have to worry about virii, spyware, or endless software costs.

So, how do the rest of the machine’s specifications measure up?

  • Processor: 900 MHz Celeron – surprisingly zippy with Linux!
  • Operating System: Linux (Xandros based), although it is possible to install WinXP and Vista on it — from what I understand, the latter experience provides an excellent opportunity for masochists
  • Memory: 512 MB RAM, although it’s possible to upgrade using regular non-proprietary laptop RAM sticks
  • Storage: 4 GB solid state (on the 4G, with other options being the 2G and the 8G), not a hard drive. This means that it’s quite fast with data access, unlike several other UMPCs. About half of that 4 GB is taken up by the OS, which still leaves a lot of “working” room for documents. However, if you have a lot of music and video, I’d recommend using either a nice big thumb drive or the …
  • Card reader: SD/MMC or SDHC — a card fits flush inside, so you can install a roomy 4 GB or higher to hold big(ger) media files
  • Ports: Three USB 2.0 ports, a VGA out (capable of 1024×768, perfect for a projector), Kensington lock, mic in, audio out, and the aforementioned SD reader — no Firewire, but no one is likely to use this rig for video editing
  • Webcam: only on certain (non-“Surf”) models — it isn’t included on my 4G Surf
  • Battery: roughly three hours, depending on usage and settings — surprisingly, I watched a 110 minute movie using VLC, and still had enough juice left for nearly an hour’s browsing
  • Networking: built-in ethernet and wireless, both of worked without any hassle
  • Missing bits? – No internal CD or DVD optical drive, no expansion cards, no modem, no replaceable hard drive — these, of course, aren’t insurmountable, since the machine seems to have recognised every USB device I’ve thrown at it
  • Weight: less than 1 kg (roughly two pounds), which doesn’t feel like much in a backpack or messenger bag
  • Bundled Software: OpenOffice.org (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, etc.), Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client, a handful of addictive games, several utilities, and a score of other small but useful applications that only become revealed in advanced desktop mode

So, is it a perfect fit with my writing and productivity cycles? Not quite, although it does have more going for it than not. I like the light weight and the compact size: I can haul it out on a moment’s notice and start using it within five seconds or so. I love Linux and the horde of free software out there, but the temptation for me to get lost in tinkering is great, so that might ding my productivity a bit. (“Ooo! I can install the Beryl 3D desktop!”) The keyboard and trackpad may be cramped, but most people will eventually get used to them. And the included software is a top-notch collection that allows me to do most day-to-day tasks I generally do on a computer.

Still, the screen size is the biggest issue. It’s fine for basic word processing, but graphics work becomes difficult –the basic Gimp toolbars and panels take up half the screen. Video playback using VLC, on the other hand, displays a wide-screen DivX with sharp colours, good contrast, great sound (via earbuds), and no discernable skipping or artifacting.

Likewise, browsing certain websites becomes a chore in sliding scrollbars back and forth, although this can be mostly rectified by using Opera and its ability to scale everything on the screen to fit by width, especially in full-screen mode –a brilliant touch for mobile browsers! I attempted to use Google Docs, Google Calendar and Backpack for productivity purposes, and eventually tripped upon the idea of setting up Prisms for each of them that eliminated the need for toolbars and the like. (Or one could hit F11 in Firefox to jump into full-screen mode.) Those online apps work well (notwithstanding the nearly three weeks my co-op’s net connection has been broken at home) and they allow me to access the same data from any net-connected computer. (Alas, just not at home, did I mention? Grrr.)

Obviously, between the tiny screen and the low specs, this isn’t an ideal primary machine, but it makes a darned fine secondary laptop, one that you can toss in a small bag and forget about till you need it, something I’ve been doing quite a bit lately. I must admit that I really miss MoreInfo on the Newton, probably the single best time management tool I’ve ever used, but the Eee PC does signal a wave worth catching — the ultra-cheap, ultra-mobile computing experience.

For more information, check out Amazon.com, the official ASUS Eee PC site, and the EeeUser wiki and blog. Note that a new 9″ Eee PC model was just announced, but the price is starting to creep upwards into the cost of a full-fledged laptop; much more, I’d be sore tempted to get a MacBook 13″ instead.

Next week, more about fountain pens….

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