Ever since Psion pulled out of the PDA market I’ve been on the look-out for a device that gave me the calendar/diary functionality that I had with my Series 5, but allowed me to work on the move without having to lug a laptop around. With the PDA market heading in the direction of portrait orientation touch screens, although I’ve been able to get calendar and diary functionality, there has never been a keyboard equipped device that has really met my needs, such that my Series 5 periodically gets dusted off when I need something small on which to type.
The big issue with carrying on with just the Series 5 however has been the lack of communication options. It has neither Bluetooth or Wi-Fi functionality, so getting the kind of web and e-mail access I can get even from a device like an iPod Touch.
Just before Christmas, ASUS, a Tiwanese technology company better known for producing components rather than whole devices came out with a new sub-notebook called the eeePC – the name coming from their slogan that it is â€œEasy to learn, Easy to work and Easy to playâ€? with the device. In a slight bit of irony, some are classing the computer into a new category called Netbooks – one of the last Psion products was the Psion Netbook a sub-notebook of similar size to the eeePC that once again pre-empts many of the ideas that the wider market is now exploring many years before they became fashionable.
The eeePC is pretty limited by modern standards, coming with a relatively slow processor, limited RAM, and a solid-state drive that varies between 2Gb and 8Gb depending on the model. Operating system wise it ships with a version of Xandros Linux, but it does include full instructions and the relevant drivers to allow Windows XP to be installed. However the switch to Windows XP would bring a serious nose-dive in terms of the performance of the device. The other compromise in terms of design is the screen, which is a small 7â€œ screen that displays only 800×480 pixels.
The target market for the device is apparently education, certainly indicated by the choice of RM as a distributor in the UK. The units are very much built to a price, are intended to be robust – the only moving part is a small fan to keep it cool – but that doesn’t need to run often. Out of the box the suite of software includes a modern web browser in the form of Firefox, and also an install of OpenOffice an open source office application suite that can quite happily cope with the various standard document formats. Alongside this it has Skype support – including video on the webcam equipped models with the latest software updates – and can hook up to most IM networks. It even has a copy of Kontact to provide PIM functionality. There are a few educational applications, but it is targeted primarily as a small, easy to use device for producing documents and browsing the internet.
Having said that, they are also being sold to consumers, ASUS seeing that such a device might be popular outside education circles. With a retail price of Â£250 for the mid-range 4Gb model, they have been flying off the shelves, with resellers often warning that availability was difficult.
After the initial rush though, and with a new higher spec model about to appear, the demand has slowed somewhat, such that I could just walk into our local PCWorld in Reading yesterday and pick one up. They didn’t have the full range of colours however – although Expansys, RM and Clove list anything other than the black or white as delayed or unavailable – so I couldn’t get a black one. However when I asked they did have the blue and green units that seem to be like gold dust everywhere else. More than that when I enquired further, the assistant said that they had 26 of the blue, and similar numbers of the green. Certainly if you’re in the market for an eeePC, especially if you want a coloured model, it might be worth checking out your local PCWorld rather than going for one of the internet retailers.
So what’s it like in use? The keyboard is a little cramped, but has more space than my Series 5. Screen wise some of the websites don’t quite fit in, but generally it’s a nice little machine. I had no trouble hooking it up to my router either via a wire or wirelessly. It even quite happily read the memory card out of my camera in the built in reader. There are some more things to try however. It has an external VGA port, so can apparently drive a full size screen or projector. It also includes three USB ports so it will be interesting to try some USB devices (some of the 3G USB modems apparently do work). It’s nowhere near the size of the Series 5, however as a small, easily portable device for reading e-mails, writing documents and browsing the web on the go it is great, and an absolute bargain for Â£250.