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Review of Asus Eee PC 4G

So, I've been toying with the idea of buying a new laptop for a while now. I used to own a Macbook but simply found I wasn't using it enough to justify the £750 that I spent on it in the first place. I'd sit downstairs and use it for web browsing once in a while, and that was about it. So, I sold it and bought myself an iPhone as soon as they came out. Whilst it's been nothing but fantastic, and the web browsing experience in it is brilliant, it's just not the same when you're sat in front of the TV and want to do a bit of Neowin-ing, or chat with your friends on MSN from the comfort of the couch.

As I'm sure you're all aware, Asus released their fantastic Eee PC range quite some time ago now, and to be frank I've been fascinated ever since they were released. On getting to the airport for our recent venture to Amsterdam for the 2008 European Neowindex event, I was absolutely delighted to find that Dixons were selling the 4G version of the dinky little laptop for the same price as the 2G (£199), so my curiosity finally got the better of me and I caved.

For those of you who haven't seen the Eee before – it's a fantastic little device. Weighs in at just under 1kg (that's 2 and a bit lb's for our American friends), and comes with a 7" screen. On the downside, it doesn't use traditional hard drives for storage – it uses built in Solid State storage. In this case, it comes with 4GB built in. We've got 512MB of RAM and a 900MHz Celeron processor on board. There's a total of 3 USB 2.0 ports (so easy to attach a pen drive, or USB Hard drive if needed), and a built in SD Card port, so you can easily add extra "permanent" storage to the device if you want to by just chucking a card in and leaving it there. For what it's worth, there's also a 0.3 Megapixel Webcam built in as well, and we also have the now mandatory Wireless networking adapter, and a built in 10/100 Ethernet Port. Generally the Eee comes in one of 2 colours – white, or black. I personally think the white looks pretty sexy but having seen the state of the display model in my local PC World a few weeks back, I decided against it and went for the black. The grubbiness on the keyboard of the white version was quite shocking, and according to the sales guy it'd only been on display for about a week.

Having gotten to the hotel in Haarlem, I couldn't resist opening the laptop up to see what it was like. The box itself was pretty small and to be honest I was very glad not to see over-zealous packaging all over the place. Just enough bits of cardboard to make sure it was well protected, without going over board. In the box you get the laptop itself (obviously), a charger, a battery, the usual manual and warranty information, a recovery CD and, what I personally think is a really neat touch, a small protective case to keep the laptop in.
Plugging the battery in is easy enough and the laptop was duly left on charge whilst we went out drinking for the evening wink.gif Coming back to the hotel somewhat worse for wear later in the evening, we decided to give it a quick try.

By default, Asus install their own "Eee OS" operating system on to the computer. Basically, it's a very reduced version of Xandros Linux, with Asus' own User Interface put over the front of it. For those of you that are familiar with Linux as an operating system – it uses IceWM as the window manager rather than something more "heavy" such as Gnome or KDE which are infinitely more popular in the desktop world. Despite this, the OS is very easy to use indeed, and I'd defy anybody to struggle with it. There are several "Tabs" along the top of the screen which help you find the program you want: Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings, and Favourites.

As with any good Linux distro – there's a wide variety of software built in to the Eee by default. Although frankly – this is a good thing. Installing additional software of your own on their built in distribution is not an easy task to do.

Bundled software includes many favourites such as Pidgin, Firefox, OpenOffice and Skype as well as many others including an assortment of games and learning tools. There's also built in utilities for managing your music and photographs as well.

All in all, the built in OS is very simple to use and pretty powerful for what it is. Joining a wireless network is pretty easy to do, although god help you if there is an error joining it. Instead of giving you a decent error message you could either figure out for yourself or speak to someone tech savvy about (for example "Unable to obtain IP Address"), it would rather give you a "Status" code – which, if there's a problem joining the network, simply sits at "Pending". Trying to troubleshoot what the issue is, is by no means an easy task.

The software included is plenty enough to keep you going if all you want to do is use the machine as a little internet tablet to carry around with you, or sit on the sofa and surf 'n chat with your mates, although if you want to get a little more bang for your buck then you're not going to be satisfied with the built in distribution. Adding your own software is not made easy at all, and only Asus "Approved" products are built in to the Add/Remove programs dialog.

On the plus side though, this little machine is capable of running Windows XP without too much of a problem. I've not installed it personally however any research on the web will show you plenty of instructions on how to do so, and from my understanding it's pretty darned easy as well. There's also specialised versions of other Linux distributions such as Fedora, or Ubuntu which you can put on in place of the built in distro.
Personally – I'm sticking with the default Eee OS for now. It's got everything I want it for at the click of a button, and it's speedy. Considering the constraints of the included hardware – I'm not entirely sure how happy I would be, running something like Windows XP or Ubuntu on it. I'm sure it would run just fine, but I can't help but feel that on a 900MHz Celeron, with 512MB of RAM it would be a little on the sluggish side.

So, what's the final call on this? If you want a little portable machine for going on the web and chatting whilst on the sofa, or if you're off to visit friends for a weekend and want a computer with you – then it's great. For surfing the internet, catching up on your e-mails, it's perfect. For anything else, you're going to need something with a bit more backbone to it. The screen can get very difficult to read in some instances, and there's a lot of scrolling involved in more "modern" web pages that are designed for people who have at least a 1024x768 screen resolution. The keyboard also takes an awful lot of getting used to. In the first week or two, you're gonna struggle to hit the right keys. But, as with anything, if you stick with it you'll get used to it after a while. For a 0.3MP Webcam, the quality is remarkably good as well, although given how cheap such technology is these days I'm surprised they didn't include something with a slightly higher resolution.

The Eee 900 series is now out, at a cost of around £330 per unit. It's got more storage, more memory, a better webcam, a bigger screen, and you can buy it with Windows XP pre-installed. Do I wish I'd waited? Not at all. For the £199 I paid for this version, I am completely happy with it and wouldn't trade it for anything.

Performance: 3/5
Ease of Use: 4/5
Display: 3/5
Ergonomics: 2/5
Built in software: 4/5
Value for money: 5/5

Overall: 3.5/5

Images: Eee in its Carrying Case | Eee in its closed form | Eee Closed, compared to a UK passport
Images: Eee closed, compared to a Dell D610 | Eee open, with OS Home screen
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