Asustek's low-cost laptop coming to US, Europe

Asustek Computer's Linux-based Eee PC laptop will soon be on sale in North America and Europe.

Asustek Computer's Linux-based Eee PC laptop will soon be on sale in North America and Europe, and the company plans to offer a version running Windows XP by the end of the year.

The Eee PC is a low-cost laptop designed primarily for children and emerging markets such as India. It weighs less than a kilogram, has a 7-inch LCD (liquid crystal display) screen and can connect to the Internet wirelessly. The first version went on sale earlier this month in Asia, including in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where it's priced at about US$340.

On November 1 the Eee PC will go on sale at stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Vancouver and Toronto, and also through e-commerce Web sites in North America, Asustek officials said. It will then be rolled out gradually in Europe, starting in Germany on November 9. Major Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, will follow in mid-November.

The first Eee PCs run a Linux operating system from Xandros. By the end of the year, Asustek will also offer versions running Microsoft's Windows XP.

Pricing for the laptops in Europe and North America hasn't been announced. In Taiwan, the price difference between the XP and Linux versions will be about NT$1,000, Asustek said in a statement.

Asustek has shipped about 100,000 Eee PCs so far, and by the end of the year it's targeting 400,000, said Jerry Shen, Asustek's president, at an investor conference in Taiwan. Next year it expects to ship 3.8 million of the laptops.

"We're in talks with a few governments and we have already confirmed orders for 1 million units next year," said Sunny Han, global marketing director.

Asustek reaffirmed its commitment to push the price of the Linux-based Eee PC down to US$199, nearly the same price as the XO laptop developed by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project. OLPC is pricing the laptops at US$200, according to its Givemany and Laptopgiving donor programs.

One of the biggest costs for the Eee PC is taxes, Shen said. VAT (value added tax) and other taxes have a big impact on price. Governments interested in buying Eee PCs for education could get a better price by waiving such taxes, he said. An Eee PC sold to a government without taxes factored in would cost around US$199, while the price increases to about US$300 with taxes.

The configuration of the laptops also affects the price, with the amount of flash memory and DRAM (dynamic RAM), the camera and battery having the biggest influence, he said. The price of the kind of flash memory Asustek is using for data storage in the Eee PCs has gone up recently.

Earlier this month, Asustek announced four Eee PC laptop configurations it planned to sell in stores and online, all running Linux software.

The least expensive was the "Surf" with a 2G-byte flash memory drive and 256M bytes of DDR2 (double data rate, second generation) DRAM, to retail for around US$250 when it comes out around the end of November. Another version of the Surf included a 4G-byte flash drive and 512M bytes of DDR2 DRAM, and will cost about US$300 when it comes out in mid-November. Both laptops have an Intel microprocessor.

Two higher-priced Eee PCs were also launched. The US$350 version included a built-in camera and speakers, and can carry out simple voice commands such as "computer, access the Internet," or "computer, make a phone call." It contains a 900MHz Intel Celeron M processor, 512M bytes of DDR2 DRAM and a 4G-byte flash drive. The other laptop, at around US$430 and due out at the end of November, carries an 8G-byte flash drive and 1G byte of DDR2 DRAM in addition to features similar to the US$350 version.

At the launch ceremony, Asustek also showed off one Eee PC running Microsoft Windows XP Professional, version 2002, Service Pack 2. The hardware on board was the same as for the US$350 Linux-based Eee PC. The Windows XP-Eee PC included Office 2003 versions of Excel, PowerPoint and Word.

The Eee PC will hit Australian shores in December with a recommended retail price of AU$499.

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Dan Nystedt

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