Quick look: Asustek's Eee PC 901 and 1000

Taiwan's Asustek Computer Inc., the leader of the mini-notebook category thanks to its early launch of the Eee PC, unveiled two new models of the Eee family last month, the 901 and 1000. They are the first Eee PCs that use Intel Corp.'s Atom microprocessor.

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

For one thing, the company uses the speediest wireless Internet technology I've seen so far on a mini-notebook -- 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 was able to download Web sites much faster than rival mini-laptops with 802.11b/g. The only caveat here is that there are other variables to consider when it comes to Internet performance, 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 solid-state drives for storage and LED backlights for the screen. The company also added some of its own technology: its Super Hybrid Engine, which adjusts power consumption.

The result is that batteries in the Eee PC 901 and 1000 last around eight hours, according to Asustek. And that's about an hour longer than the batteries in most rival devices that use similar 6-cell lithium-ion batteries. But the Eee PC 1000H, which features an 80GB hard disk drive offers only around seven hours of battery life.

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

The Eee PC 1000H weighs 1.45kg and has a 10-inch screen. The 80GB hard drive might sound appealing if you need more storage, but overall a 40GB solid-state drive in the Eee PC 1000 is better for three reasons. First, solid-state drives use flash memory and have no moving parts, therefore they don't drain batteries as much as hard drives. Second, solid-state drives are more shock-resistant than hard drives, so they don't break as easily if the laptop is dropped. Finally, machines with solid-state drives boot up, load and run software faster than those with hard drives.

Another nice aspect of the new Eee PCs is that they boast high-definition audio and are equipped with stereo speakers, as well as Dolby Sound Room technology for versions that run Windows XP. That turns an Eee PC into a portable stereo, and 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 Linux in order to boost performance, but the trade-off is that those machines cost as about as much as similar Eee PCs with licensed copies of Windows XP.

In the line of Eee PC 1000s with 10-inch screens, the Linux model has a 40GB solid-state drive, while the Windows XP-based 1000H has a 80GB hard drive. There is only a small price difference. The Eee PC with the solid-state drive costs $19,988 New Taiwan ($658 U.S.) in Taiwan -- prices differ slightly depending on the market and components -- while the one with a hard drive costs $18,988 New Taiwan ($625 U.S.).

The Linux-based 901 series Eee PCs with 8.9-inch screens are an even better deal. The 901 model with Windows XP has a 12GB solid-state drive, while the Linux version has a 20GB solid-state drive, but they both cost the same: $16,988 New Taiwan ($562 U.S.).

Pricing for the new Eee PCs is also a concern. Most of the other mini-notebook makers have worked to keep models with 8.9-inch screens at $399 to $499 (U.S.) and models with 10-inch screens at $499 to $599. Asustek's prices are slightly higher, but the components on board may justify that, especially the speedier Wi-Fi and solid-state drives.

Overall, I still think the new Eee PCs offer more than competing products thanks to Asustek's experience in this product niche.

One area where Asustek has not listened to user feedback is regarding the keypad. I won't be the first to complain that the keypad is small and that 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 so that they look nice. That makes it easy to miss-hit keys or just miss them altogether.

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

Asustek took more care than other makers of mini-notebooks when it came to choosing software to install on the devices. In some meetings with laptop makers, I've heard engineers say, "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 among mini-notebook users, since most of these devices have SD ports instead of DVD players.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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