If you’ve been living in a cave on Mars and haven’t heard of the Eee PC, then in a nutshell it’s a tiny laptop-style PC created by manufacturer Asustek that runs on a Solid-State Hard Disk (no moving parts) and is very cheap to buy. In this case, I paid £199 from PC World in Birmingham – using Collect in Store I ordered on-line, then strolled in and picked it up with one hand… literally, it’s that light!
You expect the unit to be small, but unboxing it I was still surprised at how tiny it is – it’s not much larger than a standard DVD case and weighs around the same as a large mobile phone – around 100g. The enclosed Power-Charger is equ ally tiny and won’t take up much space in a carry bag.
The unit I bought, a 2G surf, is White in Colour and sports a 7′ display (running at 800×400). The CPU is an Intel Celeron M running at 800Mhz. It comes with 512MB RAM (which I understand is upgradeable) and a 2GB SSD Hard Disk.
Setting up the unit is simplicity itself. Pop the battery in to the space at the back of the Eee PC, plug in the PSU and power on. After realising that yes, the unit is on (there is little or no noise) a familiar BIOS screen greets you and disappears quickly. Around 20 seconds later, the Operating System (a custom Linux distribution based on Xandros) has loaded and you’re taken through a setup wizard. 30 seconds after that – you’re dropped at the “Easy” menu which is just that… Easy to use! You’re immediately presented with icons for “Web”, “Messenger”, “Skype” and other applications.
But before you can use any of those applications, I needed to get the unit connected to the Internet. As well as a standard Ethernet socket, the unit has 3 x USB 2.0 sockets and in-built Wi-Fi. Clicking the Wireless icon, a few seconds later I was connected to a WPA-PSK protected signal and I clicked “Web” to load Mozilla Firefox and began surfing the web!
It’s at this point that the first downside of this tiny PC becomes apparent – and that is that… well… it’s tiny! Each of the keys on the keyboard is about the size of a fingernail and if you struggle with a normal sized laptop touch-pad then you’ll hate the Eee PC’s equivalent tiny pad. For a bloke with sausage like fingers like me, initially using the keyboard/mouse was a struggle – but I soon got used to it. I wouldn’t like to work on the unit for lengthy periods, but it’s fine for what it is.
As well as Firefox, the unit comes with an Instant Messenger client that immediately connected me to both Live Messenger (MSN) and Yahoo Messenger with ease, and Skype fired up and let me call my brother via VoIP to boast about my new purchase with no problems at all. Sound quality was absolutely fine – no headset required.
Talking of which, using the in-built File Manager I connected to a Windows server SMB share with no difficulty and seconds later was playing MP3′s through the in-built speakers. The speakers are hardly going to enable you to hold a house party with booming tunes, but they are fine for background music as you work.
Also included on the unit are Open Office, an Internet Radio application (which again, just works!), the Thunderbird e-Mail client, a Dictionary, some basic games and a raft of Administration tools. Battery life is about 2 hours in continuous use from my experience.
Once the initial excitement of owning such a tiny device had worn off (although I still find myself glancing at the unit at smiling a few days later…) thoughts turned to how I could use the Eee PC in the real-world “on the road”. Being as small as it is, you could easily pop it into an overnight bag – and as I’ve got a trip to London coming up in a few days, I began to consider what I’d find myself wanting to use in the way of software/devices away from home.
Now, I consider myself an advanced computer user and know my way around most systems. If, however, you’ve spent the last few years in the warm fuzzy walled garden of the Microsoft Windows world… you may (as I did) initially panic when you want to install new software. Let me explain… In my case, I wanted to install the Sun Java VM to enable me to use Remote Control software LogMeIn. So I fired up Firefox, visited www.logmein.com and was told I needed the Java plug-in. No problem. At this point on a Windows system would have automatically pulled down the update, installed it, asked you to restart and voila. Not so this version of Linux. I was presented with a series of files and some very patchy instructions on how to use them. By patchy I mean the instructions said, and I kid not, “Install Sun Java VM”… exactly how though?!
At this point the thought of zapping the system and installing Windows XP (which Asus actually promote as being possible to install in the attached literature and many others have documented) became tempting – but I was determined to use this as a learning experience. One thing I’ll say for the Linux community is that they have a ton of freely available documentation and are obviously a very helpful bunch – you can immediately see that from looking at resources such as EEEguides.com and EEEuser.com, but they sure don’t speak in plain terms a whole lot! Maybe (and I’m sure this is the case) I’m used to Microsoft Knowledgebase articles that literally walk you through the instructions like a dummy, but there was none of that to be found here!
Around an hour later I’d sussed from various (sometimes contradictory) web-pages that I would be better off switching from the Eee PC’s “Easy” mode into “Advanced” mode (which then presented me with a “proper” GUI Desktop as opposed to a series of buttons). Once this was done, I discovered the Synaptic Installation GUI and the concept of “Repositories” for downloading new software. 30 minutes later I’d got Sun Java working and I could remote into client servers using LogMeIn. Huzzah!
Next up – would my Three 3G USB modem work with the unit? Guess what… I plugged it in to one of the Eee PC’s USB 2.0 slots, I created a new connection in the relevant section of the OS and… it simply worked. Amazing! Seconds later I was browsing the web via a broadband-like speed through a HSDPA signal – so could literally pick the unit up and wander anywhere and get an Internet connection!
Here you can see a picture of my new Eee PC – surround by my USB Modem, iPod Touch and Windows Mobile 5 phone – it should give you an idea of comparative size.
In conclusion – I’ve only had a few hours to play with the unit this week but I simply do love it! Once you move outside the realms of simply using it as a bog-standard Web Browser/E-Mail/IM client, you do need to be prepared to put your Geek hat-on and get your hands dirty (on the upside, I’m attending my next local Linux User Group meeting as a result of this experience!) However, some Linux crash-learning later I now have a fully functioning “laptop” PC with 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity that I can literally throw into an overnight bag and take anywhere with me, unlike my now seemingly “bulky” Dell Inspiron laptop!
The acid test will be taking the unit to London with me and seeing how I fare out of the office with just the EeePC for company! Before then though I’m taking my new baby with me to this evenings AMITPRO meeting to see if any of the hardcore Microsofties in attendance coo over it like I have all this week…