Like many gearheads, I've owned a lot of portable computers over the years -- and I've wanted to replace every last one with a smaller, sleeker upgrade, from the "luggable" Apple IIc onward. But most of those upgrades have left me disappointed: with the lack of software; with cheap, hard-to-use interfaces; and with "optional" add-ons that were in fact very much necessary to make the machine useful.
And then the Asus Eee came around, leaving a trail of effusive reviews and eager buyers. I started to feel the same old hope: Could the Eee be the Mini-Me of PCs that I've been searching for all these years?
After spending the past month with the Eee, the answer for me is still no. For sure, the Linux-based, 2-lb. Eee is an all-in-one wonder that I enjoy using as much or more than most of the notebooks I've owned in the past. It has exceeded my expectations in many areas. And who doesn't get a little thrill from carrying a full-fledged computer that's half the size of a hardback Jonathan Franzen novel and costs just US$400 -- or the US$350 I paid for mine on a recent trip to Taiwan?
But I believe in the 80/20 rule: 80% of your time on a computer is spent using 20% of its capabilities. As applied to the Eee, that means users will spend most of their time doing e-mail, working with short documents and surfing the Web. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, the Eee may be the best computer I've ever used. But some of the compromises Asus made to meet Eee's size and price targets were just too costly for that 80%. I have a list of six more-or-less-critical system flaws.
1) Typing is diffocu difficvultr !!!#$!@# very hard. I use perhaps the worst BlackBerry sold in the past three years: the 7290. So it's not hard for me to declare the Eee a huge upgrade typing-wise over my BlackBerry and similar phone/e-mail devices (the SideKick, Treo, etc.).
But the Eee's 8¼-in. x 3-in. keyboard is only ¾ the size of my ThinkPad T42's keyboard. It's also significantly smaller than the keyboards of subnotebooks I've owned in the past, such as the HP Omnibook 300 and the IBM ThinkPad 535 (which both weighed just 3 lb.), as well as modern ultraportables such as the Dell Latitude X1, the Sony Vaio TZ or the many models available from Averatec Inc.
The problem is that Asus made significant compromises in the miniaturization process. For instance, in order to fit four arrow keys on the lower right-hand side, Asus made the right Shift key smaller than the left one. Most users will need to retrain themselves to use the left Shift key lest they risk constantly hitting the arrow keys by mistake (though one Eee user has posted a software fix that actually turns the right Shift key into the Up Arrow key).
The touchpad is sensitive and sturdy, but I had to really mash the touchpad button down to get it to click, especially when I was typing with the laptop in my lap. Also, because a single touchpad surface acts as both the left and the right "mouse" button -- without a break, visible line or other demarcation in the middle -- it was sometimes hard to tell whether the Eee didn't respond because I didn't press hard enough or because my finger was too close to the middle.
When Asus conceived the Eee, it may have sincerely believed that cute-obsessed young women and children -- both demographics whose fingers tend toward the Slim Jim rather than the kielbasa end of the continuum -- were the one true market for the Eee. That was a misread of the market. With projected sales of 350,000 Eees by year's end and between 3 to 5 million in 2008, the mainstream is eyeing the Eee. (One sign the Eee has lost the stigma of being "too cute": The salesman in the Taipei computer mall who sold me the Eee said that most of his buyers were young salesmen who wanted a way to carry their contacts and presentations to sales meetings.)
2) The Eee's battery life is mediocre. PC makers exaggerate many things, but on battery life, they pull out the stops and lie like rugs. Asus is no exception, claiming that the Eee can go for up to 3.5 hours on the 5,200 mAH (milliamp-hour) lithium-ion battery. Apart from one outlier session in which I logged 2:45, my Eee mostly wound down around the 2:15 mark. By comparison, my old HP Omnibook could run 5 hours on one charge, and that could be extended using four AA batteries.
I'm chalking much of that up to cooling. The Eee runs pretty hot, and the fan kicks in a lot, especially if it's in my lap. (Perhaps Asus overestimated how much cooler the Eee's 4GB solid-state drive would be versus a conventional, spinning hard disk drive?)
Two-plus hours wouldn't be so objectionable if we were talking about one of those supersized desktop replacement laptops with a 20-in. screen, speakers worthy of a small home theater and a shoulder-sagging 15- to 19-lb. weight, but it negates much of the Eee's portability promise.