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The Eee, as it presents itself to you upon boot.  (Source: DailyTech. Chris Peredun)

Taking a picture of the Eee taking a picture of the camera taking a picture of the Eee -- Now you're thinking with Portals.  (Source: DailyTech. Chris Peredun)

Quake III Arena running on the Eee PC under Windows  (Source: DailyTech. Chris Peredun)
Impressions of the ultra-light, ultra-portable laptop, from people who can't leave well enough alone

There has been no shortage of coverage on DailyTech about ASUS's Eee PC, but only recently has the super-hyped device reached general public. Over the weekend we ran our Eee through the gamut of Linux and Windows XP stress tests, with suprise and delight at almost every corner.

The Eee's 80-key keyboard is downright microscopic in scale. While it manages to squeeze in most of the important keys, we quickly found four that we badly missed: PgUp, PgDn, Home and End, which are now a Fn-combination with the arrow keys. Sacrifices do have to be made, and you can't really fault the Eee for being small -- but it's just something to consider if you're shopping for one.

In terms of connectivity, the Eee is hard to fault. The network connections both worked flawlessly, USB ports were functioning at full speed, the VGA port had no problem outputting its full 1600x1200 resolution, and the SD slot recognized an 8GB SDHC card without complaint. The only networking caveat is that the Eee needs to be completely off before connecting an external monitor, or it won't be able to auto-configure it correctly.

Unfortunately, the Eee's hardware is let down by the software included. While the underpinnings itself are solid -- not one crash since we've had the device -- the Eee is a first-run product with a few wrinkles yet to iron out.

After a quick glance at the jumbo-GUI, a reboot and F2 key sent us into the BIOS to enable the built-in webcam. Certainly not something you would expect the smiling children on the EeePC micro-site to be aware of. A quick launch back into the OS, and the camera was up and running.

Next up was another visit to the F2 key, this time combined with the Fn (function) key to get the wireless activated. To be fair, this was covered inthe quick-start guide -- but what wasn't covered is the fact that the Eee doesn't automatically reconnect to a wireless profile after a reboot. Changing this requires a visit to the wireless tray icon, and changing the connection start mode to "On boot" from "Manual."

Multiple attempts to find the advertised "Advanced Mode" proved futile, and we could only surmise that it has been somehow removed from the shipping software.

The Linux version of SuperPi churned out a rather mediocre result of 108 seconds to calculate Pi to 1 million decimal places, and hdparm gave a buffered read rate of 16.94MB/sec from the SSD. The Linux demo of Quake 3 Arena flat-out refused to install due to various dependency failures in KDE.

MP3 playback was flawless, as could be expected, and video worked excellently. However, when playing video over the wireless network connection, certain video streams seemed to hitch and stutter a bit, almost as if the Eee wasn't buffering enough. This didn't happen when playing from the wired connection, or from any local source. If you plan on using the Eee as a portable video player, invest in a large SD card or stick to lower bitrates.

While the Eee ships with Linux, it also ships with a support DVD containing Windows XP drivers. Be forewarned: If you don’t have a USB-connected DVD or CD drive, you’re in for a fight.

The Eee’s manual gives many helpful tips on the basic installation of Windows XP and post-install tweaks, the best piece of advice we can give is this: use nLite. After stripping out unwanted components and installing all the necessary drivers, DailyTech’s nLite-tweaked OS consumed only 750MB of space on the Eee’s 4GB drive. All of the devices worked properly, from the function keys to the webcam.

Running SuperPi on the Eee under XP resulted in a result of 128 seconds -– a good bit worse than the Linux results, but the SSD fared much better, turning in a read rate of 33.4MB/sec. The problem experienced with video over the wireless didn’t present itself under Windows XP, and 3DMark2001SE turned in a result of 1536 at the Eee’s native resolution of 800x480.

With the synthetic benchmarks out of the way, it was time to take a shot at the games again. Quake III Arena installed flawlessly from the DVD drive. With the resolution and aspect ratio adjusted to 800x480 and the details cranked as high as they would go, we plugged in a USB mouse, connected to a public server, and were pleasantly surprised by very playable framerates. Running the standard demo001 test (an eight-player recorded deathmatch) yielded an average of 41.5fps.

While the Eee will be perfectly capable at handling older games, we found that anything newer tended to fall flat on its face for several reasons. First and foremost is the Intel GMA900 graphics chip -– second is the fact that the Eee’s processor is actually running at 630MHz instead of the alleged 900MHz that has been such a popular number until this point.

The Eee’s shipping BIOS –- and the recently updated version -– both lock the front-side bus to only 70MHz, bringing the processor and memory clocks down with it. There is a “leaked” BIOS floating around from ASUS's international site, but it caused the Eee to become unstable to the point where tests would not reliably complete.

The Eee PC has potential, but it success will be hindered by unpolished software and firmware. Thankfully, this can be fixed in future units, and in all honesty, it's likely that the entire first shipment has gone to those who won't be miffed in the slightest by the fact that they'll need to get their hands a little dirty to get what they want from the hardware.

If you're an early adopter who loves technology and likes a challenge -- buy it. But hold off on giving it as a gift until some of the bugs are worked out. Thankfully, with the full source to the Xandros OS freely downloadable from the ASUS website, and the force of the open-source community behind it, that shouldn't take too long.

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RE: Durability?
By masher2 on 11/6/2007 4:37:49 PM , Rating: 2
> "I am planning to purchase one of these to test as a field computer for construction inspectors."

I think you're going to be disappointed. If your budget allows, there are quite a few ruggedized PCs on the market that are as small or smaller than the Eee, and yet substantially more powerful than a PDA. They are, though, more expensive as well...prices usually start around $1000 and go up from there.

RE: Durability?
By mkrech on 11/6/2007 5:20:02 PM , Rating: 2
If you don't mind, please post a link. I'd love to compare. The best possible alternatives will help me justify this idea to my supervisors if in fact it is my best option.

I am considering this model to be disposable after one season at this price. Any additional use is bonus. Also, I will not need to buy any software licenses or upgrades. A $1000 model will need to endure a rugged environment over 2 times as long.

My thought is to simply buy a new one if one breaks. Since I am not intending to install any applications beyond what are already on this device I can simply pull out the SD card and put it in a new device.

This was my thought with our most recent attempt to get computers in the inspectors hands. The plan was to re-issue old laptops retired from less rugged lives. Unfortunately, these were to bulky and problematic for this type of field use. Also, licensing fees for security and office software and other costs like batteries made us look for alternatives.

One other thing I need to mention is that budgets have limits. If this device will not meet our needs, there is no option to spend more. Possibly give a few inspectors ruggedized laptops but I would prefer to keep out field process consistent among the inspectors.

RE: Durability?
By jak3676 on 11/6/2007 7:03:24 PM , Rating: 2
I'll bet someone comes up with some sort of rubber/plastic case for these things. If they don't I may have to try myself. If they become popular enough for elementary school kids, they'll probably need a little more protection. Being as low power as they are, you can probably seal the thing to be water/air tight. Just find someway to pop the bottom off to access the ports and card reader.

I can speak from an Army field expierence. We used to get those cheap plastic coverings for all of our laptops, but they didn't really help - just annoyed the users, and they still jammed up with dust and water. We went to panasonic toughbooks and have been real happy.

I still have my old Panasonic CF-48 PIII 733 with 20GB drive and 256MB RAM (upgraded from 128). The thing is a tank, and that's only a "semi-rugged" model. I'll bet it weighs 10 lbs though. It's been through Iraq (twice) and a host of other 3rd world countries. It generally sits in the corner collecting dust now, but I'm happy to let my 4 year old pound on it when he wants to. I don't even have to worry about my 14 month old spilling on it, standing on it, or carrying it around and dropping it frequently. The battery doesn't hold up for more than about an hour anymore, but this thing is over 7 years old.

A well protected Eee could prove to be a good entry to the field site computing scene. The disposability factor would be nice. One problem that you may find is that LCD screens wash out pretty bad in the sunlight. Even with a high brightness, high contrast option its never 100%.

If you find that you need more computing power or something more rugged, I'd suggest looking at panasonic toughbooks (although they aren't cheap) or Dell has a new "rugged" notebook as well (sorry, I have no experience with the Dells).

RE: Durability?
By ziggo on 11/6/2007 10:20:27 PM , Rating: 2

If the useage enviroment is in question I second the Panasonic Toughbooks. We throw them in all sorts of equipment.

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