In Depth News Feature: Eee PC supertest: which sub-notebook is best?

The Feedster

Regular Member
Joined
Jun 26, 2007
Messages
26,190
Reaction score
6
Points
0
Age
59
IMG_1280-200-200.jpg
Call them sub-notebooks, netbooks, Mobile Internet Devices (if you're Intel); call them what you want.

What you simply must do though, is see these wonderful compact, yet versatile devices in action - they're incredible. Don't worry if you're feeling a little left behind though - the second wave of ultra-affordable machines is on its way.

Asus is no longer the sole purveyor of these ultra-portable marvels, and with the likes of Acer, MSI and HP wading into these bountiful waters, you can expect things to liven up pretty quickly here.

Take the Acer Aspire One for instance, a machine that boasts the same core specification of the latest Eee PC, the 901, but at the same price tag as the original 701.

Meanwhile HP has entered the fray with its 2133 Mini-Note, a stylish machine that boasts a quality specification. MSI's Wind meanwhile offers a bigger screen than its rivals, and a tad more space for the keyboard too.

Core to this latest slew of machines is Intel's recently released Atom processor - a price- and power-conscious CPU that has been built with these very machines in mind.

How do these devices stack up against each other and to the original Eee PC? It's time to find out...

.

There are plenty of ways to use these machines, and it could well be that your primary intention is to only ever take your sub-notebook of choice for a tour round your home.

Even there though, battery life is important, as you're not always going to want to be anchored to a power point.

And of course the value of battery life increases the further you plan on travelling with it, peaking at those long journeys where you demand entertainment en-route.

The core specification for each of these machines is defined by power efficiency, but this is offset by the space available for the batteries. This is why so many of the base models boast a relatively modest 2200mAh 3 cell battery pack as standard.

A 6 cell pack is worth investing in as you buy though, and will extend the usefulness of the machines linearly - they'll last twice as long.

In real terms, how much you get out of each machine is defined by what you are actually doing with it. Playing videos while typing the odd note will net a little over an hour and a half out of the MSI's, HP's and Acer's 3 cell battery but whole lot more from the Eee PC 901.

This is because Asus has supplied our test machine with a 6600mAh battery pack, which clocked in five hours of continued use.

More realistic use, with screen brightness turned down, and simple typing and sporadic surfing, will more than double these times.

If you're looking for a commuting companion though, it's hard to knock the Eee PC 901's raw off the shelf stamina.

.


Operating Systems

As an advertisement for Linux, this latest slew of sub-notebooks has done a sterling job, proving that genuinely useful and usable applications can be squeezed into a tiny space and don't need a huge corporate behind them to make sure that they work.

At the same time though, these machines do highlight some failings of Linux, such as their ability to competently handle NTFS drives (as used in Windows XP and Vista among others) and how difficult it can be install new applications.

MSI's decision to release its Windows XP machine first is a brave one, but makes sense given the inclusion of a large hard drive (as opposed to a SSD).

The familiarity of Windows is welcome too, and makes for a much smoother experience than we feared.

Asus has a slight lead on the other linux machines here thanks to being first to market, and have a strong installed user base that has already sorted out a lot of the problems and annoyances.

Xandros, the operating system on the Eee PC, is competent, easy to navigate, and covers all the major bases without too much hassle. Asus has also provided a lot of tools to help users install other operating systems, including Windows XP.

Acer has commissioned a customised build of Linpus for the Acer one, which is well designed, easy to use and covers the majority of needs.

HP's decision to use SUSE Linux is potentially the most useful though, as plenty of applications are available precompiled for this distribution, although in practice, installing new utilities in Linux is tricky.

Overall, we'd suggest buying Windows pre-installed if you want to do anything beyond the basics with these machines.

.


Screen

Fundamental to the success of the original Eee, and undoubtedly to the genre as a whole, is the size of these machines.

Ultra-portables have one major advantage over their oft-bloated siblings, and that is that you don't need to go to the gym every day if you fancy taking your laptop out with you.

As the original Eee PC proved, you do need a decent screen when on the move, and while the seven-inch display of the original was dinky, it did make some tasks tricky.

Luckily each of these second-generation devices boast bigger screens - 10-inch for the MSI, and 8.9-inch for the rest. That extra inch makes a notable difference, and the MSI's bright and clear screen makes working or watching videos that much more pleasant an experience.
The new Asus is a bit easier on the eye compared to the original Eee, but when compared to the other machines it still doesn't look quite as serious a device as it actually is. The screen is bright and clear though.

HP has managed to squeeze 1,280x768 pixels into its widescreen display, although the screen finish does make it is more difficult to read outside, so this isn't quite the winner it could have been.

Acer knows a thing or two about screens though, and the Aspire One clearly benefits from this, with its bright crisp image. Each machine also boasts a VGA output, so you can connect them to an external monitor as needed.

.

Price

If you look at these machines objectively, there's little that actually defines them as a new genre. They're tiny, lightweight, and cleverly pieced together, but ultra-portables have been around for years, and they tick all the same boxes.

The original seven-inch Eee PC may have had its faults, but it got the price almost spot on - we would have preferred an RRP under £200, but it wasn't far off.

Asus has listened to the needs of its users, and refined the machine to a new level of usability, but in doing it has undermined the very reason that the Eee PC was a hit in the first place: the price. £320 is simply too much to ask for what is fundamentally the same machine with a few nips and tucks.

HP meanwhile finds itself in a similarly unsettling position with the 2133 Mini-Note, as builds start at £299 for the 3 cell Linux version, but escalate up to £389 for the Vista and 6-cell battery rendition.

The Wind U100 is a bit of an odd one here, thanks to an OEM deal to supply PC World with the same machines branded using its Advent brand.

So while the MSI revision doesn't offer particularly stunning value, the fact that you can pick up the same machine for £280 (albeit in a black and silver colour scheme) makes it much better value.

Meanwhile, Acer has got the money spot on for its base specification: £230 makes this the clear Eee PC beater, and the only machine here that keeps the original sub-notebook dream alive. It's not quite a throwaway price, but it's not too far off.

.


Performance

With a few exceptions, the modern desktop and laptop PC is about power. Not so with these little machines. They're adequate, just powerful enough. They're designed for surfing, word processing and a little work.

Already though, our needs are increasing for these mini-marvels, and technology is just about keeping pace - the release Intel's Atom is perfectly timed for these second-generation systems.
If you fancy pumping 720p HD video out to a larger screen from a sub-notebook, then either the Acer, MSI or Asus will happily provide (as long as its plugged in). The Wind U100 has plenty of room for your videos too.

The Asus and MSI models have twice the RAM as Acer's, but essentially this isn't too much of a factor - they all perform just as well as each other here.

HP meanwhile has elected to side with VIA and the 1.2GHz C7 processor, which is fine for most simple tasks, but struggles at video playback (and we're not talking HD here). This is a shame though, as the Mini-Note has enough storage space to act as a media centre straight out of the box, but can't really do that much with it.

About the only thing you can't really do on these machines is play 3D games, as the integrated chipsets are too limited, and there's no incentive to go down the discrete route just yet. Gamers will need to lug desktop-replacements round for some time yet then.

.


Keyboard and mouse

There is a fairly obvious downside to such lilliputian dimensions. And that is that prolonged typing will result in the nagging doubt that this isn't the best way of treating your hands.

There clearly isn't room for a full-sized keyboard on any of these machines, and a whole-scale reduction in size is needed, the devil as ever is in the details though, or in this case, in the actual layout.

Much of typing is defined by muscle memory and the not-unreasonable expectation that keys will be where they usually are.

None of the machines are too bad here, although the extra space of the MSI did give it a slight edge.

Touchpad input is something of a problem too - conspiracy theorists will be convinced that system builders are in cahoots with mouse manufacturers, as using any of these machines without one is tantamount to self harm.

Both the HP Mini-Note and the Acer Aspire One attempt to make up for the lack of vertical spacing by placing the left and right mouse buttons either side of the touchpad instead of below it. A horrible practice, that is only partially assuaged by being able to left-click by firmly tapping anywhere on the touchpad.

The Asus meanwhile may not suffer from such a problem, but it fails on the surface treatment for the touchpad itself, which resists vertical movement to such an extent as to make a mouse a mandatory purchase. The MSI benefits from the larger chassis once again, although it's still not perfect. That'll be a mouse for all four machines in other words.

.


Conclusion

The sub-notebook is here to stay. Of that there is little doubt. However, the current direction that manufacturers are pushing these machines in is questionable.

Money needs to be made of course, but its the entry level that separates these machine from those high-street £400 laptops. And only Acer seems to be focusing correctly right now, and it manages this while producing a well rounded machine in the Acer Aspire One.

It's not a perfect system yet, but it's the most compelling one we've seen since the launch of the original Eee PC 701.

Asus meanwhile has worked hard producing the Eee PC 901, but it just doesn't capture the magic of the original, or do enough to warrant the high price tag. It works well though, and the expertise of the existing user base is reassuring if the idea of moving to a Linux OS scares you. The large SSD makes installing Windows on this machine a tempting option too.

The HP 2133 Mini-Note on the other hand doesn't quite perform as well its looks may have you believe. The main problems we have with this machine are the relatively high price, and the choice of processor.

VIA shows promise with its up and coming Nano, and maybe HP is currying favour now in order to secure a deal later on, but the current C7 doesn't do this machine any favours.

Which brings us to the Wind. This is the best Windows sub-note we've seen to date, especially in its temptingly priced Advent 4211 livery. It's larger than the other machines, but not to the point of being unwieldy. And the combination of large hard drive and familiar OS makes for a well-rounded experience.

Final results:

mf.gif





More...
 
Top