Eee PC laptops: Like Apple’s Air for a lot less money

NEW YORK — When Taiwan’s Asustek Computer Inc. brought out the Eee PC last year, it created a whole new category of tiny, cheap laptop computers. Despite its success, the computer had one confounding element: Its keyboard was really small — good for kids, maybe, but not for adults.

Now, Asus has expanded its line with laptops that are just big enough for a full-size touch-typist, and at least one of the models hits a sweet spot, keeping weight and price low while providing great features and battery life. It compares well with laptops that are three or four times the price.

I tested two models with 10-inch screens, the $550 Eee PC 1000H and the $700 Eee PC 1000. The first Eee PC models had 7-inch screens and went for $400, now down to $300.

While these new models are substantially bigger and more like “real” laptops, they’re still terrifically portable, weighing in at 3 pounds. That’s the same weight as the vaunted MacBook Air, which Apple Inc. calls the thinnest laptop ever. While the Air has a bigger, 13-inch screen, the new Eee PCs blow the Air away in couple of other dimensions, beginning with price, since the Air starts at $1,799.

Each of Asus’ “little PCs that could” also has a built-in slot for SD memory cards, commonly used in digital cameras, a monitor output jack and an Ethernet port. The Air requires add-on dongles for all of those functions. An Eee PC has three USB ports, while the Air has one. It’s the price of being thin.

Like bigger laptops, the Eee PCs have built-in Webcams and microphones, for on-the-fly Internet videoconferencing. The Wi-Fi chip is the latest and greatest “draft-n” variety, for maximum speed. There’s also a Bluetooth chip for wireless peripherals like mice, or for transferring pictures from cell phones.

The Eee PCs have really impressive battery life too, even if it will be tough to stretch it to Asus’ goal of whole-day computing and nearly 8 hours of working time. The 1000 model lasted 5 hours and 15 minutes while playing a movie with the speaker muted and the screen set to medium brightness.

The cheaper 1000H lasted half an hour less, perhaps because it has a traditional, spinning hard drive, while the 1000 has a solid-state disk of flash memory, or an SSD. These SSDs are the latest thing for laptops, and they promise increased durability, but I hardly think they’re worth the price. The 1000’s 40-gigabyte hard drive is half the capacity of the 1000H’s, yet it accounts for the unit’s higher price. Still, if you want an SSD, the 1000 is a good deal. A Lenovo X300 with a 64-gigabyte SSD costs $2,268.

The other difference between the models is that the less-expensive 1000H runs Windows XP, while the 1000 runs Linux, the free operating system that the original Eee PCs also used. It looks like Asus figured it had to keep the price of the 1000 below $700, and the best way to do that was to scratch the license fee to Microsoft Corp.

The Linux version comes loaded with software that does all the basics, such Web surfing, e-mail, Skype, word processing, but to extend its capabilities with new software, you’ll need to mess with typing commands to the operating system. There’s a Linux version of my favorite free strategy game, “Battle for Wesnoth,” but I couldn’t figure out how to install it.

The Linux PC also exhibited some sluggish behavior that I didn’t see on the XP version. Both models are among the very first products to use Intel’s new ant-sized Atom processor, specifically designed for this sort of application. Performance otherwise seemed snappy, but video editing and the latest 3-D games are probably outside the processor’s competence.

Linux is appropriate for smaller Eee PCs that are mostly used for Web surfing, but for a 10-incher that’s almost as capable as a full-sized laptop, I think Windows is the better choice. You can install XP on the 1000 if you hook it up to an external CD drive. Users even report installing the more demanding Windows Vista with good results.

Otherwise, the only thing to complain about these computers is the quality of the finish, and some of the design decisions. The glossy outside shell is easily scratched and shows every fingerprint. When opened, the unit looks cheap, and the touch pad feels unresponsive at times. The fan is surprisingly loud for such a small PC. There’s no slot for wireless broadband cards.

For the price, these flaws are easily overlooked. These Eee PCs are a good choice for students, mobile professionals and anyone with normal-sized hands who uses a laptop outside the home.

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