Hands-On: Asus Eee PC 1008HA, UX50, and U80V

New laptops, netbooks...and hints of a competitor to iTunes? Asus has a lot up its sleeve these days, but let's start with the netbook that some folks in the press circles are comparing to a MacBook: the Eee PC 1008HA.

It's thin, sleek, and light. I had a chance to play with one, and I'll tell you one thing: Asus may be spitting out more revisions of its netbook line than I can count, but at least its designers are continuing to look at ways to refine the machine. The proof is in this new $420 netbook.

Though I couldn't steal the 1008HA away from its PR handlers to lock away in our labs, I did get a few minutes for a quick test-drive. So consider this a hands-on teaser of what's in store for when the unit ships.

Under its frosty exterior, the system sports current netbook innards: an Intel Atom N280 CPU, 1GB RAM, a 160GB hard drive, Bluetooth, 802.11n, and a three-cell battery (just don't ask me about the battery life yet).

The 92-percent full-size keyboard is big and comfortable, with a good layout. The buttons felt firm and large enough to type up a quick story. Even the metallic mouse-button bar was reasonably secure. That said, I'm a little concerned about the touchpad. On the device that I tried, I found little indication between where the touch area ends and where the wrist rest begins. But the spokesperson on hand assured me that the final unit will have bigger grooves so that users can feel their way around without having to eyeball the strike zone.

To accommodate its thin-and-light design, the creators of the 1008HA dropped a few ports--and made an interesting design move in the process. In a hidden compartment on the netbook's bottom sits a VGA adapter dongle. When you need it, you simply pop it out and plug it into the mini-USB port on one side of the machine. It's a pretty smart move that keeps the functionality while cutting down the size, and it minimizes the chance of losing dongles. (I also have to give props to Sony's VAIO P netbook, which sneaks the VGA dongle onto its power supply...but I digress.) Otherwise, on the 1008HA you'll find hiding behind flaps the usual retinue--an ethernet hookup, two USB ports, an SD Card reader, and headphone and microphone jacks.

One last thing that I need to mention is the sneak peek I had at the software that Asus plans to bring to its future machines. My contact at the company let me smuggle out these pictures, though he isn't certain whether the 1008HA will actually ship with the software. Here's hoping that it will.

The interface gives quick access to a host of shortcuts for useful features. The more interesting ones fall under tabs called 'Eee Arena' and 'Eee Sharing'. The Arena is basically Asus's attempt at creating an online download site for songs, videos, and (my favorite) games. My insider can't talk business model or pricing for downloads yet, but he did mention the term "iTunes-like" to me in a recent phone call.That's one heck of a tease, but it's all I have to go on for now. The Eee Sharing feature simplifies syncing documents between the Eee PC and other computers (as well as uploading files to online storage).

Though I can't give you WorldBench 6 scores--or a final rating--just yet, I can honestly tell you that the Eee PC 1008HA has a lot to like, based on my initial glance. Once I've had a chance to lay my mitts on this little beaut in its final iteration, I'll be able to give you a definitive call. Stay tuned.

Yes, Asus Makes 'Regular' Laptops, Too

With all the rapid releases on the netbook front, you might forget that Asus also has a reasonably large stable of standard laptops. I got a quick hands-on look at a couple other eye-catchers, the UX50 and the U80V. As you can see in the pictures here (hands not included), these machines are made to be pretty spry, considering their all-purpose size.

The UX50 makes a few nods to luxury design by incorporating a backlit Chiclet-style keyboard (think MacBook Air). It also utilizes an AI light sensor to automatically adjust the brightness of the display and keyboard to make it more usable wherever you set up shop. (Don't worry, I'll put that one to the test the first chance I get with a final unit.)

Packing an Intel Core 2 Solo SU3300 1.2GHz CPU, the UX50 is shooting for low-end performance but long battery life, though we can't confirm yet what kind of battery life you should expect. With 4GB of RAM and a modest, discrete nVidia GPU, the system can handle Vista Home Premium with little problems, Asus claims.

The 15.6-inch display and slot-loading DVD burner will allow for decent on-the-go movie viewing, while the 802.11n and Bluetooth support means you'll be able to connect with ease.The UX50 is set to sell for about $1199.

As for the other new laptop, the U80V has a couple of unique, flashy features of its own. This 14-inch notebook sports the same backlit Chiclet-style keyboard and ambient light-sensing tech that you find on the UX50, but in addition it has a wacky light vapor trail on the touchpad that actually traces where your fingertip moves. Who the heck ordered up the Pink Floyd planetarium laser show for my laptop? Yeah, it's more of a style/status effect, but if you want to impress the cute barista you've had your eye on, now you have your "move"--even if it'll reduce the battery life of the laptop. (Asus claims that this machine will last for 6 hours. We'll see about that after one shows up for proper lab tests.)

As for the stuff that really matters, namely performance, this machine rolls along with a Core 2 Duo T9550 2.66GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a decent 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD4750 GPU. Throw in the 14-inch screen and built-in DVD-R drive, and I can't help but wonder how Asus plans to hit the $899 asking price. Honestly, the U80V looks like a pretty solid mobility choice that I'd like to get my hands on for further testing. We're stuck waiting until "sometime this summer" before any of these machines ship, though. Hurry, Asus: The baristas are waiting.

This story, "Hands-On: Asus Eee PC 1008HA, UX50, and U80V" was originally published by PCWorld.

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