Hands on with Asus's Eee PC 901 and 1000

Taiwan's Asustek Computer (Asus), the leader of the mini-notebook category due to its early launch of the Eee PC, launched two new models of the family last month, the 901 and 1000, the first Eee PCs that use Intel's Atom microprocessor.

I was able to use both models at a company visit and you can see why Asustek is the leader in mini-notebooks.

For one, the company has put the speediest wireless Internet I've seen so far on a mini-noteboook, Wi-Fi 802.11n, which is a generation better than the 802.11b/g that's in most rival mini-laptops. Since mini-laptops, or netbooks, are mainly designed as Internet devices, a speedy wireless connection is vital.

The device I tried out downloaded Web sites much faster than rival mini-laptops with 802.11b/g, making it a big plus for the new Eee PCs. The only caveat here is that there are other variables to consider in Internet speed, such as the technology in the network itself and the number of users online at the same time. I didn't have an 802.11b/g device with me to make a comparison.

Asustek has also worked to make the batteries last as long as possible by using power-saving components such as SSDs (solid state drives) for storage and LED (light emitting diode) backlights for the screen. The company added some of its own technology to the mix as well, its Super Hybrid Engine, which adjusts power consumption.

The result is that batteries in the Eee PC 901 and 1000 last around 8 hours, according to Asustek, which is about an hour longer than most rival devices with similar 6-cell lithium-ion batteries. But the Eee PC 1000H, which carries an 80G-byte HDD (hard disk drive) lasts only around 7 hours.

In general, the new Eee PC 901 and 1000 series differ mainly in size, with the 901 weighing in at around 1.1 kilograms and sporting an 8.9-inch screen, while the 1000 weighs 1.33 kg and has a 10-inch screen.

The Eee PC 1000H weighs 1.45kg and has a 10-inch screen. The 80G byte HDD on board might sound better if you need more storage, but overall a 40G byte SSD in the Eee PC 1000 is better for three reasons. First, SSDs are made from flash memory chips and have no moving parts, therefore they don't drain batteries as much as HDDs. SSDs are also more shock resistant, so they don't break as easily if the laptop is dropped. Finally, machines with SSDs boot up, load and run software faster than HDDs.

Another nice aspect of the new Eee PCs is high-definition audio with stereo speakers, as well as Dolby Sound Room for versions that run Windows XP. That turns an Eee PC into a portable stereo, or you can plug your iPod or other MP3 player into the Eee PC and play music through the speakers.

The Linux and Windows versions differ slightly in price -- but more in features. Asustek added hardware to the Eee PCs running a Linux OS to boost performance, but the side effect is to keep the price the same as a similar Eee PC shipped with a licensed copy of Windows XP.

In the Eee PC 1000 series with the 10-inch screen, the Linux OS device has the 40G byte SSD, while the 1000H runs Windows XP and has the 80G byte HDD. There is only a small price difference. The Eee PC with the SSD costs NT$19,988 (US$658) in Taiwan -- prices differ slightly depending on the market and components -- while the Eee PC with an HDD costs NT$18,988 (US$625).

The Eee PC with Linux is even a better deal on the 901 series, with the 8.9-inch screens. The version with Windows XP has a 12G byte SSD, while the Linux version has a 20G byte SSD for the same price of NT$16,988 (US$562).

Price on the new Eee PCs is also a concern. Most of the other mini-notebook makers have worked to keep the 8.9-inch screen models cheaper at US$399-$499 and the 10-inch screen models at $499-$599. Asustek's prices are slightly higher, but the components on board may justify that, especially the speedier Wi-Fi and SSDs.

Overall, I still think the new Eee PCs offer more than other models due to Asustek's experience with them.

One area Asustek has not listened to user feedback is on the keypad. I won't be the first to complain about it, other reviews and blogs have also pointed out that the keypad is small and some keys are too hard to find. Typing isn't easy on the smaller keyboards but over time you get used to it. Asustek also made the same mistake many Taiwanese companies make in the design of the keyboard, making keys flat with little or no space between them for looks. It makes too many keys easy to miss or miss-hit.

The best keypad I've used so far on a small device was the ClassMate PC, and the keypad is far smaller than the Eee PC 1000's. Keys on the ClassMate PC's keyboard are raised and there is a lot of space between them, making them easy to find by touch.

Asustek took more care choosing software to install on the devices. In some meetings with different laptop makers, engineers said "we don't put much software on because of limited storage space. Besides, people can download the software they want."

That may be true, but not everyone is as tech savvy as a laptop PC engineer, and most people like to have something that's ready right out of the box. Asustek took the trouble of loading its machines with necessary software, including Star Suite so people have an Office-like experience from the start. Most of the laptops I've tested did not come with any kind of Office-like software.

The new Eee PCs also include Microsoft Works, Powerpoint viewer, Skype and an Intervideo WinDVD multimedia player for music and in case you want to load a movie onto a USB stick or onto your hard drive. Movies on SD cards will likely be a big hit in mini-notebooks since most of them have SD ports instead of DVD players.

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