Gear Picks: Eee PC 901

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I am in LOVE with the Eee PC 901. It's tiny, it's functional, it's fun, it's connectable, and it's got brilliant battery life.

Let's get some details out of the way first:

  • Operating System: Windows XP Home
  • Display: 8.9"
  • Wireless Data Network WLAN: 802.11 n
  • Bluetooth: YES
  • Memory: 1GB (DDR2)
  • Storage: 12GB Solid State Drive (a speedy 4GB for programs, and a separate, slower 8GB for files)
  • 20GB Eee Storage (a free online storage space that seems pretty handy, free for 18 months)
  • Web Camera: 1.3M Pixel
  • Digital Array Mic
  • Battery: 8 hrs (not really, but pretty close)
  • Weight: 1.1 kg
  • Dimensions: 9” wide x 7” deep x 1” high

(And that's the obligatory photo of the Eee PC and my hand, to illustrate the incredible tininess of computer, or possibly the bizarre giganticness of my hand...)

The Eee PC falls into a very new category of computer that they're calling "netbooks". Their prime function is to be very portable, and to connect easily to the internet. Screen sizes are between 7 and 10 inches (measured diagonally of course, in that cheater way they measure TVs and monitors and stuff). Storage space is limited and the keyboard size is cramped, but that's the trade off for such extreme portability. They also have built in wi-fi, an ethernet connection, a bevy of USB ports, and solid state drives, though some are now made with a conventional spinning hard drive for higher storage capacity.

My first experience with a netbook was the Asus Eee PC 2GB Surf - which astute GSRED readers may remember was a promotional freebie from the Royal Bank. (Note "Asus" is pronounced "Ah SOOS" as in "One Theodor Geisel".) I got that unit so I could test out the whole netbook concept, and to see if I liked the Linux operating system that many netbooks come equipped with. It was the most base model available, with a mere 2GB of drive space, 75% of which was used up by the operating system. As well, the 7" screen was a bit small for comfort when viewing web pages (side-to-side scrolling is just a pain), and the battery life was on par with my laptop - about 90 minutes.

Mostly though, I wanted to test drive the Linux OS and see if I could live and work with it. The big advantages of Linux are that it's small and light compared to Windows, and it's almost completely virus proof. It's also open source, which is a nice idea, and one I'm be happy to support when I can. I really wanted to like the Linux, but in the end I decided to go with Windows XP. Windows might be the devil, but at least it's the devil I know. I'm a person with just enough computer knowledge to want to make everything exactly how I want it, but not enough knowledge to be comfortable mucking around with the Linux (sorry Tim Shel!). There was some software I wanted that just didn't seem to be simple to deal with in Linux (like iTunes), and as a friend put it, I didn't want to have to make maintaining my computer a hobby on it's own.

So here are the big things I knew I wanted:
  1. Windows XP operating system
  2. The smallest form factor possible that still had a screen at least 1024 pixels wide (to eliminate side-to-side scrolling for most web pages)
  3. A solid state drive (for maximum hardiness in the face of being dropped of the back of, say, an elephant)
  4. Really really good battery life (Who knows how long I'll have to go between charges?)
I did a fair bit of research and eventually decided that the Asus Eee PC 901 (Windows version) was the best choice for me. It seemed to fall right in the sweet spot between size and battery life like no other choice out there. As I write this (on the Eee PC), the battery meter is showing 61% battery life left, which translates to 3 hours and 17 minutes. Compared to my laptop, which gets about 90 minutes at 100%, this is fantastic and incredibly liberating.

I was irked that the Windows version of the 901 comes with a mere 12GB of solid state storage, whereas the Linux version comes with 20GB, but decided that I'd put up with the smaller drive for the convenience of not having to wipe Linux off the 20GB one and install my own copy of Windows (which I'd have to buy). To partially alleviate the drive space issue I bought a 16GB flash card that will live in the card slot whenever I'm not downloading photos from my camera. I hope my iTunes library will live on the flash card, leaving a generous amount of space on the SSD (solid state drive) for other files. I also got an 8GB USB drive for Christmas that's already been really handy.

I was really pleased to find a "recertified" 901 advertised on TigerDirect.ca for about $500, and put in my order in a few weeks ago. The Eee PC arrived in time for me to have a week and a half to play around customizing it before my trip to Montreal, where I'd have a chance to put it to the test on the road. It even came bundled with a decent soft sleeve/case thingy.

Thanks (again) to Phonella, I was able to install some really good virus protection, and to jettison a lot of the useless crapware that comes bundled on Windows machines. The Eee actually came with a few decent applications preinstalled, including Skype and Star Office (a version of the open source suite Open Office that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database, publisher and Power Point thingy). To these I added the following:
  • Firefox (though I'm still considering Chrome)
  • iTunes (like it or not, I think it's the best software out there for catching and managing podcasts, though I am keeping an eye on Songbird)
  • Paint.net (a free image editor that I have no idea how to use)
  • Rocketdock (for a sexy desktop experience)
  • Taskbar Shuffler (because the buttons HAVE to be in the right order)
  • Flickr Uploader (for prepping photos to upload when I don't have an internet connection)
  • Foxit (a small and light replacement for the bloated and update-heavy Adobe Acrobat Reader)
  • doPDF (a free PDF creator)
  • CCCP the Combined Community Codec Pack (which has something to do with making the device play all kinds of different media files properly... the Asus support guy recommended it, and it worked, and that's all I know about it)
After clearing out the crapware and installing what I wanted, I've still got about 475MB of breathing room on the 4GB portion of the SSD dedicated to system and program storage. I also moved the "My Documents" folder off the 4GB drive, which helped a lot.

I've been enjoying watching video files on the device - when played full screen they look great, and the speakers are good enough that I could listen to the CBC radio morning show from Winnipeg while I was knocking around my hotel room in Montreal. I haven't tried the webcam yet (actually I haven't even figured out how to turn it on...). I also haven't tried the Skype yet either; the 901 comes with a built-in mic, but I suspect I'll want a real microphone of some kind to really get the most out of Skype.

A few caveats:
  • I had no trouble at all connecting to my wireless network at home, or to the networks at the hotel in Montreal, or my workplace in Montreal. However, I've had no luck at all connecting to the hidden networks at my regular job here in Winnipeg, which is frustrating and kind of worrying. I'm still working on how to fix this problem.
  • The battery that came with the original shipment from Asus was a dud. After the first charge (overnight) it only showed 56%, and when I ran it down and tried to charge it up again it only charged to 15%! Maybe this had something to do with it being a "recertified" device, though to all appearances it seemed brand new. Regardless, I called Asus service, and they sent me a new battery really quickly, and that's the one that's been giving me great life.
  • If you're not prepared to be smart and lean with what you install and store on the computer, then 12GB of drive space will fill up really fast. I'm finding it a bit cramped, but I think it'll end up being fine.
So really, this has just been a long-winded way of saying what I started out saying in the first place: I am in LOVE with the Eee PC 901. It's tiny, it's functional, it's fun, it's connectable, and it's got brilliant battery life.

And it's sooooo cute.

9 Comments:

Heather Moore said...

Does the network at work in Winnipeg require a password? Maybe that's why.

Pam said...

Heather - it does, but I've manually created the connection by inputting the SSID and the password and still no luck. At least it's unlikely I'll ever need to connect to hidden networks while on the road.

Phonella said...

Great post! I like all the details and accompanying links.

And I really enjoy your enthusiasm.

Mitch said...

Do you remember when you got your first computer that calculated memory in terms of gigs? I remember thinking "I'll never use up an entire GIG of space". Wow, times change quickly.

Do you find your fingers bumping into each other while typing? by your picture, I figure the footprint of your netbook is about the same as my (regular sized)mousepad.

Anyway, congrats on your new computer!

Pam said...

Mitch: The more I use the keyboard, the less cramped it feels. What screws me up is switching back and forth a lot - Eee, laptop, desktop - I get bunged up on the big keyboards after using the small one, and vice versa. Once it's my ONLY computer, I'll get used to it fast, and have no trouble, I'm sure.

JBJ said...

I still think we're missing something with the type of encryption we are using here at work..... was it just the one in the theatre, or did the upstairs router fail as well?

Pam said...

JB: I can't connect to any of the hidden networks - upstairs, downstairs, in my lady's chamber... (or did you not know about the "In My Lady's Chamber network?).

JBJ said...

We don't have access to "My Lady's Chamber Network".... only the "Hairy Rotund Hobo Nexus"....

Tim Shel said...

Brilliant choise Pam. I'm happy it's working smooth for you and you've got a good defense going on. I tried, but that was a pretty propriety version of Linux and it certainly wasn't up to prime time use.

That little box looks like fun.
Cheers! Ian

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