Life on the EEEdge: Daily life with Asus' tiny laptop

6 annoying things (and 3 great ones) about Asus' ultraportable

Standby-mode performance was even less impressive. We expect smaller electronic gadgets (for instance, mobile phones) to last for days when we put them in standby or sleep mode. In standby, my Eee goes fully charged to fully drained in one night. That's no better than a regular laptop -- though in practice, the Eee's instant-on/off feature mostly mitigates the need for standby mode.

The Eee uses a white 100-240-volt AC adaptor that is the size of a mobile phone charger, rather than the black bricks of most laptops. While petite, its output -- 9.5 volts and 2.3 amps, or about 22 watts -- is also nonstandard. Trying to use your phone or other laptop charger as an ad hoc replacement could be risky to your Eee's health, though some Eee users say they've successfully substituted a charger from a portable DVD player. A universal car charger might be the better solution for owners in urgent need, but don't expect to walk into your average big-box retailer if you need a fast replacement.

3) The screen is too small. The Eee's 7-in. horizontally stretched (I hesitate to call any screen this small a "widescreen") 800-by-480-pixel screen boasts more than double the pixels of the old Mac Plus. But users now are accustomed to much larger real estate -- and most Web pages are coded so as to display properly only on monitors of 1,024-by-768 resolution or greater. For the Eee, that means the viewing experience isn't just nostalgic; it's cramped.

Surfing in particular was frustrating, since every time I downloaded a new Web page in Firefox, I had to click on the bottom toolbar to re-center the screen if I wanted to see the right-hand text and/or links. Shrinking the text size in Firefox -- which otherwise works great on the Eee -- doesn't help, because the column grids don't shrink correspondingly.

4) The webcam and internal microphone are weak. Going again by the 80/20 rule (repeat: 80% of the time you use only 20% of the machine's capabilities), things like the Eee's built-in webcam and internal microphone -- the latter of which can be used for Skype-powered Internet telephony -- are simply nice bonuses as long as they work properly.

Unfortunately, that's an open question. The webcam's maximum resolution is just 640 by 480 pixels, about one-quarter of state-of-the-art models from Logitech. And while Asus claims the webcam can grab up to 30 frames per second, don't expect anything approaching that in real life unless you're hooked up to a Verizon FiOS connection or you have access to the same industrial-strength lighting they use on Hollywood sets.

The hum of the Eee's fan motor drowns out the sound or voices you might hope to capture via the internal microphone, a not-uncommon problem with these smaller devices. In contrast, the Eee's stereo speakers, mounted to each side of the screen, sound pretty good. Still, for Skype or any other audio-input application, a USB headset or external microphone is advisable.

5) The Eee is, for now, underpowered. For the most part, the Eee's use of components that stopped being state of the art around the time the dot-com bubble burst hasn't hurt its nimbleness. Many familiar applications -- such as Firefox, Adobe Acrobat Reader and OpenOffice -- loaded and ran much faster than they do on a Windows XP PC.

The Eee runs so well that I wasn't even jonesing to replace the 512MB So-DIMM memory chip with something more capacious. (The original Eee 701, a.k.a. the 4G, can be easily upgraded to a 1GB PC2-5300 by opening a slot at the bottom of the machine, but other models may use RAM that is soldered on, making it harder to remove.)

Unwilling to miss the key Christmas season, Asus was forced to ship the Eee with an incomplete BIOS, and it's got several problems: The USB ports don't run at full USB 2.0 speed; Skype videoconferencing doesn't work, and the BIOS doesn't support the motherboard's 100-MHz front-side bus. That effectively restricts the 900-MHz Intel Celeron processor to running at just 600 MHz.

Asus has released a BIOS update that supposedly fixes those problems. But early testers say the update also causes the Eee to freeze and crash. As of early December, the new BIOS remains unfixed and unreleased.

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Eric Lai

Computerworld
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