Saturday, February 9, 2008

The EEE PC.....what it is

Back in November I wrote about a new little device without having the experience of putting my hands on it. I had a pretty good grasp of what it seemed to be about, but again...that was all sight unseen.

As I work for a large ISP, our engineers (myself included) have laptops so that during our on-call rotation we can all log into the equipment from remote and fix issues. I convinced our IT manager to get one so that I could put it through the paces for use as a device for the on-call team since for the price of one of the nice shiny new laptops we have, you could get 3 - 5 of the eee pc.

Well, I now have one in my hands, and I'm writing this post from it. I've had it for two weeks and tried using it "in the field", at my desk and everywhere in the middle. I won't let you read my very opinionated views to hear that this devices is a great value. I would recommend it for anyone who thought it COULD be for them, I'm here to tell you that it IS for you.

Let's set the stage so that everyone can beat me up over it. I'm a professional geek and use linux/Mac exclusively at home now for 4 years and at work for 8 years. So a linux envrionment is very comfortable for me. Getting under the hood and doing the command line thing or adding "questionable" software is a non-issue for me. With that being said, here goes my review.

Before I get too carried away, please read my previous blog post on the eee pc. I have and I don't want to repeat myself too much, but almost 100% of what I said there does stand the test of actually having this in my hands. Please read it so you can understand some of the items I'll discuss here.

I have several points and would like to look at this from the "big picture" so I'll make my laundry list of good and bad points and then explain:

The Good:
  1. Price
  2. Size/Weight
  3. Screen
  4. Performance
  5. Flexibility to expand via USB
  6. Interface
The Bad:

  1. Non replaceable hard drive
  2. Hard drive space
  3. Screen
  4. Single user

For the good points. For the price it is outstanding. When I consider that the same money would buy me only a 8G iPod Touch, I can do a LOT more with the eee pc. I would like very much to get my wife a new Macbook Pro 17" to replace her Linux desktop, but for the price of the tricked out model, I could buy 8 or 9 eee pc's!!!!!!

In regards to size and weight, I have a backpack by Crumpler that is designed for carrying a 15" laptop and my Dell Latitude (also a great box) fits in that perfectly. Using the same pouch for the laptop body, I can put the eee pc, rubber keyboard, mouse, power supply and have room for a sandwich at 2/3 the weight (with all the accessories).

The screen is small but amazingly crisp. I have heard the rumors that they may produce the same machine with a larger monitor. I also know that would affect the overall size of the device. That could be a plus or a minus and remains to be seen. From the video reviews available on YouTube I was worried that the screen quality might be good enough for a geek to do his remote command line, but not for average computing. Totally wrong, this screen is remarkably clear, obviously limited by the physical dimensions of the screen. It is great for on the fly and really, in ambient sunlight, still viewable. It (as any other) screen looses out to direct sunlight.

Performance was another concern I had with a Intel Celeron 900mHz, just how fast could it be. It would seem that what it misses in raw processor power it makes up for in the SSD hard drive speed. I have only managed to tap the machine and see a performance issue as I launched the 5th application (which was Java - ouch). I could do everything with the eee pc as I could from the Dell with little to no degradation in performance.

The USB ports allow me to add to it any peripheral that I might need. Maybe too many. I find that my keyboard, mouse and external hard drive fill my 3 USB ports quickly. A minor investment in a powered USB hub quickly resolve those issues. I had recognition of the USB bluetooth dongle also. The addition of my external mouse and keyboard immediately remove any issues one might have with the included track pad and keyboard size.

The user interface that comes with the eee pc (Easy Mode) cannot earn enough praise. It takes what could easily be a daunting task of migrating a user from windows/mac to linux or even a completely new computer user and makes it easy to digest. For more advanced users, something more desktop like is only a few tweaks away. This is the best of both worlds. I've spoken with a friend who recalled stories of having to guide his father through a format and install of windows on more than one occasion due to the fact that the senior doesn't understand the impact of what software he is installing may have on his system. This interface doesn't make the addition of software impossible, but not likely and therefore prevents new user errors. Basically, they applied the mobile phone user interface attitude where one button does web and you don't question "with which program" just works and that's fine.

For the aspects of the device I find less desirable, let's begin with the point that the hard drive is solid state memory with a finite number (even though it's a lot) of write/rewrites to the drive. This portion of the box has a limited life span and knowing that I would be able to buy it's replacement and change it out would be nice. Not a show stopper since at this price, there should be a new and better one to get when this one dies.

Hard drive space is a premium, I am currently using the 4G model and really look forward to getting an 8G model when it's available in my area. Not that I have a problem with the space limitation for how I use the machine, but when I travel it would be nice to put some of my video or music content on without needed an external drive. Obviously with my previously mentioned USB solution or a card for the SD card reader, some of that problem just goes away. But would be nice :). I do NOT consider this point a show stopper for the reasons I mentioned in my previous eee pc blog post.

There are times, at more than arms length that the screen size is frustrating as words disappear into an ant trail of gibberish on the page. Again, for most things it's great, and when connected to an external monitor this is immediately a non-issue.

As a linux user, both at home and work, I'm quite used to having different accounts for different people. Not having a superuser switch to just turn that on is a little disappointing. I can understand trying to make linux easy for the masses, but this may not have been the best solution. My personal beef with this is that if someone wants to just give this thing a "test drive" that I cannot offer them a guest account, so in effect they are using MY firefox and MY skype. When a real linux distro or windows are installed, this is something you could do without issue. Again, not a show stopper since the single user can be protected with a password so that the system is not wide open at boot.

In conclusion, this is a fantastic little machine. It won't replace my desktop for heavy duty tasks like video editing, but could replace my office workstation with all the correct peripherals. The eee pc receives an A+ from me especially considering that the first generation of this machine is such a fine product. Expect to hear more about the glowing qualities of the eee pc here in my blog as I intend to infect my family with them. I probably won't go into advanced modifications to the OS or anything here, but you will probably see it mentioned in the future. The website eeeuser is a great place to get tips and howto's on things you might want to do with an eee pc if you should get one, they have a great community forum and wiki.


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