Asus Eee PC 900 Linux Edition
Bigger screen, bigger disk... but bigger price
Review It's not even a year since Asus first demo'd the machine that would become the Eee PC 701 - aka the Eee PC 4G - and here we are reviewing the second version, the 900.
The 701 was first shown in June 2007 and was launched the following October. It quickly won plaudits for its compact, highly portable size and its low cost. We loved it, but like most Eee users we found the screen to be just too small. The sub-notebook's battery life also left much to be desired.
Asus' Eee PC 900: as elfin as ever
With the 900, Asus has taken this criticism on board and attempted to build a comparably sized machine without the limits of the previous model. Let's see if it's succeeded.
The main, most obvious change is the screen. The 701's 7in display wasn't physically too small, but its 800 x 480 resolution didn't pack in enough pixels. Even in Linux, where dialog boxes can generally be resized, you'd come across windows that were too tall for the display. That was even more common under Windows XP.
The 900's screen is larger in all respects: it's 8.9in across the diagonal and has a native resolution of 1024 x 600. Those extra pixels makes a big difference when it comes to viewing documents - web pages in particular - and the bigger physical area means you don't have to squint when you're aligning cursors in the likes of The Gimp, for example. Photoshopping is much less of a chore this time round.
It's not really that thin - Asus has airbrushed out the underside bulges
The screen's not touch-sensitive, but that's no bad thing in our book. Touch is good for tablet-style systems, but the 900's display doesn't swivel around that way, and we just prefer using a touchpad than reaching up for the screen. That said, the relative weighting of the laptop's screen and keyboard sections means that if Asus ever does implement a touchscreen, you'll be able to use it without fear of pushing your computer over.
As per the 701, the 900's screen hinges have plenty of friction to keep the display where you leave it, even if you pick it up by the screen. But while it's easy to close the 900 one-handed, it's impossible to open the machine the same way.
The webcam's upgraded to 1.3Mp
The 900's widescreen display sits beneath a 1.3-megapixel webcam. Nearby is the microphone, as before. Indeed, the 900's externals match its predecessor almost exactly. The design's identical, with the same VGA and two USB 2.0 ports, and SDHC card slot on the right-hand side. The left looks the same too, with one exception: the 701's modem port, which was never connected to the motherboard, is gone. But the 10/100Mb/s Ethernet, third USB 2.0 port, and audio sockets are present as before.
The front of the machine is home to the same On, Battery, Disk Activity and Wi-Fi LEDs as the 701 sported. But the touchpad, its buttons and the keyboard are larger this time round.
The 900 is barely bigger than the 701, despite the larger display, but it feels more chunky. The 900's about 7mm longer front-to-back than the 701, but the other dimensions match. However, the 900 is less svelte - the two machines match at the edges, but where the 701's case slopes, the 900 bulges. Still, there's not much to choose, weight-wise: a smidgeon over 900g for the 701 and 1kg for the 900, according to our kitchen scales.
Same ports as the 701
The keyboard remains as cramped as ever, even though it's fractionally larger than the 701 version. It's well suited to the youngsters the Eee family is really aimed at, and while it's usable if you have large, adult fingers, typing is never entirely comfortable. But that's a trade-off you make with any machine as small as the Eee, and it's stil a nicer keyboard to use that some of the spongy ones fitted to more expensive, executive-oriented sub-notebooks like the Toshiba Portégé R500 - reviewed here.
The 900's keys have good movement and there's a solid foundation beneath them so the keyboard doesn't bend in the middle the way it does on so many laptops these days. Extra marks to Asus for this.
The keyboard's larger but just as good
They 900's keyboard may be no larger than the one on the 701, but its touchpad is. And it's now equipped with MacBook Air-style gesture input too. The size - 63 x 36mm to the 701's 45 x 30mm - is the crucial improvement: we found we were no longer constantly reaching for a mouse as we did with the 701. The implementation of two-finger scrolling is very welcome - it's much more practical than the scroll area on the 701's touchpad.
The other gesture uses two fingers brought together or moved apart to zoom in and out of images. It only works with a few apps, such as Adobe Reader and Image Viewer, and it's not very successful. In Image Viewer, magnification goes through large, fixed steps, so lacks precision - you may as well use the regular Magnifying Glass tool. We did - it was quicker.
It was no better in Adobe Reader. The zooming process works, but it's slow and jerky. Again, you're better off using the app's regular magnification tools.
At last, a bigger toucpad
Inside the 900, we now have 1GB of DDR 2 memory fitted rather than 512MB, but it's the same Intel Celeron M CPU as the 701. This time round, it's clocked to 900MHz rather than 630MHz, but Intel's SpeedStep technology means these are just maxima: the clock speed will fall to meet the needs of the CPU's workload at any given time, to help conserve battery power.
The 701's CPU is more than ready for most tasks a machine of this size will be put to, handling even processor-intensive tasks like H.264 video decoding with aplomb. So is the 900. Tax the CPU and the fan will kick in, but less so than we've seen on other UMPCs and sub-notebooks, like the Belinea s.book - reviewed here. The fan's not silent, but we didn't find it intrusive.
According to the bundled Diagnostic Tools utility, the 900 comes with just 4GB of storage, partitioned into 2.3GB and 1.5GB spaces, allowing for the formatting overhead. Fortunately, the Disk Utility app reveals the missing 16GB out of the 20GB the Linux-installed 900 comes with. We'd have preferred a single, flat storage space, or at least two partitions rather than three, and we suspect most computer and/or Linux novices will too.
Now with 20GB of solid-state storage
There are two SSDs in the 900: the 4GB unit in the same place it's to be found in the 701. The 16GB unit is to be found in the expansion bay, accessed through the hatch in the base of the Eee. So if you're looking forward to Asus' promised 3G modem add-in, it's not going to fit into the 900's Mini PC slot unless you remove the 16GB SSD first.
And why not? Do we really need all that space? Saying so makes us feel like Bill Gates stating that 640KB is all the memory a PC will ever need, but the Eee ethos isn't about carrying vast quantities of data around with you. Heck, the 4GB model has room for Windows, Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, Fox Reader (a PDF viewer) and the IM app Pidgin, maybe with an SDHC card for data.
Still, it does mean there's more room for the files you do want to have with you at all times and frees up the memory card slot. There's now room for a heap of snaps if you're a photographer using the Eee to log pictures on a shoot. Buyers worried about Flash storage write longevity now have plenty of extra cells to take the strain when others fail. Not that this is really an issue with Flash any longer.
It's not all wall-to-wall improvements. Asus missed an opportunity to improve the 900's Linux GUI. There are plenty of customisation tools now available for tweaking the user interface, and Asus should have included at least one of them. Not everyone wants to pop into the command line and hack configuration files manually.
However, the Linux bundle remains solid, with all the key communications, productivity and media tools you need. A more recent version Skype is included, with webcam support. As before, if you need Windows apps - not all hardware add-ons are supported by Linux - you can install Windows XP easily. Or just buy the 900 Windows Edition.
Back to Linux: why does the 900's battery readout still not show how much charge is present when you're on mains? We like to know where the charging process has got to without having to yank the power cable.
And so on to the battery itself. We get around three-and-a-bit hours out of the 701's 5200mAh battery, and with the 900's higher-clocked CPU we were worried about the new machine's runtime. Then we looked at the power pack that came with the 900 and found it was only rated at 4400mAh - 15 per cent less than the capacity of the 701's battery.
Battery life was our only serious disappointment with the 701, and it remains the 900's chief fault. We ran our usual test: loop a standard-definition H.264 video until the battery dies. The volume was set to 50 per cent, the LED backlight brightness to 100 per cent and the wireless on and associated with an access point.
The 900 ran for just under two-and-a-quarter hours, enough for a full-length movie, but not a long plane journey. We estimate you'll get around three hours or so out of the 900 for general use, depending on your workload. That's no improvement on the 701, and not as poor as we'd expected considering the lower-capacity battery and the higher-clock CPU.
Battery Life Results
Laptop runtime in minutes
Longer bars are better
Incidentally, the 900 comes with a small brick-style AC adaptor - a step back, we feel, from the 701's similarly sized but more convenient phone-charger style power unit. The new adaptor weighs a little less than the 701 charger's 110g, but add the power plug and its cable, and overall the 900's mains link is the heavier of the two. Even if it wasn't, we'd still prefer the 701's adaptor.
Lastly, we come to price. What will the 900's bigger display, higher storage capacity and large-but-gimmicky touchpad cost you? The standard price is £329 - £110 more than Asus' asking price for the 701. That takes the 900, just out of the 'it's so cheap, why the heck not' band and past £299 into the 'maybe I should get a bigger, cheap laptop instead' zone.
Of course, the 900 isn't competing with dirt-cheap 15in notebooks - different horses, different courses - but a lot of consumers will compare the two. The decision's easy: do you want power for your 300-odd quid or a high degree of portability? You can't, for now, have both, so make your choice according to your computing needs.
We'd would be happy to pay £329 for the 900's portability and storage capacity were it the only Eee available. But the 701's £220 price tag is irresistible, and we've grown accustomed to its small screen size. It has sufficient horsepower for this kind of machine.
Then there's Atom. Asus has promised an Atom-based Eee for late June. All other things being equal, it should at least give the Eee more performance and a longer battery life. For that, we'll wait.
The Eee PC 900 is all about ease of use and portability, so it's churlish to grumble about specifications. The little laptop ticks all the right boxes when it comes to features and performance. It's probably not going to replace your 15in workhouse notebook, but it might well become a favoured second laptop to take with you on your travels.
There's the extra storage space, of course, but the real benefit here is the bigger screen. It's both easier to read than the 701's and, because of the higher resolution, able to show more. The 900 isn't the revolution the 701 was - or, thanks to the higher price, as compelling. But with this model Asus got the form-factor down pat.