Tuesday, December 09, 2008

My First Netbook!

(Studying Con Law at Cosi in Arlington on Saturday, after my visit to the White House.)

I mentioned a few days ago that I joined the netbook revolution and promised more details. Last Friday, I bought a used Asus Eee 901 -- a small 6.9"x8.9" netbook that weighs less that 2-1/2 pounds. I couldn't be more pleased with it so far.

As I was writing about using a netbook as an e-book reader a week ago, I talked myself into thinking that the Asus Eee 901 would be best for this purpose -- a combination of tiny size, long battery life (6+ hours), and flash based memory (no moving hard drive) made me think it was the perfect device for reading PDF files. After writing that post, I checked on Craig's List and found one on sale for $285. I met the guy selling it in Manassas last Friday, talked him down $20, and sealed the deal. Turns out we graduated from the same high school.

What I got for $265 was a fantastic little computing companion. Here are some of my initial impressions so far:
  • The device is incredibly tiny. By far the smallest and lightest laptop I've ever owned.
  • The keyboard is correspondingly tiny -- the same size as on the original Asus Eee. I find I can touch-type on it, but have the same issue with the right shift key that many Eee owners have complained about. I probably type at somewhere in the neighborhood of 75% of my normal typing speed with it.
  • This thing goes into and out of standby in a flash. I'm talking like 2-3 seconds. Practically speaking, it's just as good as being instant-on.
  • With wi-fi on and brightness at a reasonable level, I'm getting ~ 5-6 hours out of this easy. I think I could get more if I turned off the wireless connectivity and believe Asus's claims of up to 7-8 hours of battery life.
  • Did I mention this runs full-blown Windows XP?
  • This has an odd combination of a 4 GB and 8 GB flash drive for a total of 12 GB. What's been a little frustrating is that the operating system is on the 4 GB partition (a faster performing solid-state drive), while the 8 GB is used more for data and program storage. Unfortunately, a lot of programs install default onto the C: drive (the 4 GB) and I'm quickly fighting it filling up. Once I get the hang of managing this a little better, I don't think it will be as much of an issue.
  • Because this is flash-based memory, it means it doesn't use virtual memory (the constant read-write would wear out the flash memory). This makes the unit fairly responsive, but it can only handle limited multi-tasking relative to my ThinkPad. I have to take better care than I'm used to about not running too many programs simultaneously (3 or 4 are usually fine) or having too many webpages open at once.
  • It's a great tool for blogging.
  • The small size, long battery life, and near instant-on make this usable in far more settings than a traditional laptop.
  • This thing feels solid. Unlike my Sony, I have little fear about the fragility of this device. The lack of hard drive makes this even more so. I can think of many trips I've made overseas where I wouldn't bring a normal laptop. I wouldn't think twice about bringing my Eee.
  • I loaded Picasa onto this and it turned it into a rapid photo viewing tool. It has a built-in SD card reader which means I can pop in a card from my digital camera and scan through my photos on the 8.9" screen faster than I would have thought possible. Next to a quality digital camera, a netbook should be a photographer's best friend.
  • This has a multi-touch trackpad, similar to the one found on the new MacBooks, but a little less sophisticated. I primarily like being able to use two fingers to scroll up and down on web pages, in documents, zooming in and out of photographs, etc. Other multi-touch features still need some refining. The multi-touch is still a fun feature to have and especially nice for zooming in and out of and cropping photos.
  • Much to my surprise, this can run my 1,900 x 1,200 pixel 24-inch monitor without any problems (after I downloaded the latest XP updates that is). It seems to slow down the system slightly, but is still very usable. (In contrast, my Sony VAIO will only support up to 1,600 x 1,200 resolution.)
  • This works fantastically well as a PDF viewer. I rotate the PDF file and hold it open like a book. The screen size is 8.9" diagonal with a resolution of 1,024 x 800 pixels. Text can get a little small, but it is highly readable. If I hold it so the screen is on the left and the trackpad buttons on the right, the buttons are correctly placed so that the bottom button advances a page in Acrobat Reader and the top button goes back a page.
  • I downloaded Eee Rotate which rotates the screen and the trackpad orientation by 90 degrees. This lets me read my RSS feeds in Google like this was a book too. I just hit the space bar to advance to the next entry.
  • The 6-cell battery makes this a bit back-heavy -- something I need to stay cognizant of if I balance it on something.
  • It is whisper quiet. I mean almost zero sound. I have to hold it up to my ear to even tell if the fan is on.
  • The Eee 901 has a built-in 1.3 megapixel webcam -- the first webcam I've ever owned. (Here's an online program that simulates Apple's PhotoBooth.)
  • I find myself feeling the need to carry my ThinkPad much less now that I have this. The battery life on this is so good, I also don't feel the need to bring the power adapter along.
  • This will probably do ~ 75% of what I want a computer to do. (And I consider myself to be a bit of a power user.) For most consumers, I'd expect that number to be closer to 90-95%.
  • Netbooks are far more capable machines than I realized and am more convinced than before that a netbook combined with an external mouse, keyboard, and monitor are all the computer most people need. If a netbook was your only system, I'd recommend one with a larger keyboard and built-in hard drive, such as the Samsung NC10 or Asus 1000HA. Both sell for $350-$500 new and come with 160 GB hard drives -- much larger than my ThinkPad's.
  • Several of my classmates have seen this and love the idea of carrying something small to take to class and type notes on. Particularly with the back-breaking size of many of our case books, this is a very welcome thought.
If you can't tell, I really love this thing so far. It's the best $265 I've spent in a long time. I'll continue to pass on my impressions as I get to use it a bit more. For now if I could, I'd give it 5.5 out of 5 stars.

Below is how the Eee 901 compares in size with my Lenovo ThinkPad X61 tablet and my Sony TX-750 (which is back in the shop -- again!). The yellow rectangle represents my Thinkpad, the blue my Sony, and the green the Eee 901. Like I said, it's tiny!

You can read reviews of the Eee 901 here, here, here, and here. Jkkmobile also has this comprehensive video review:

Here's another video review comparing the Eee 901 to several other netbooks.

If you're looking for a versatile laptop for school, travel, or just knocking about and don't need too much power, I'd suggest looking at a netbook of some sort. They're incredibly compact devices that can get a lot of battery life (if you get one with a 6-cell battery). They also keep dropping in price, with many people expecting to see new ones selling for ~ $200 sometime next year. Highly recommended!


Unknown said...

I got one recently, too. It really does make me irrationally enthusiastic :)

thinking said...

I totally agree w/ you...even though I don't have a netbook, I think a netbook w/ the peripherals you mention is pretty much all most people will need.

It's also pretty amazing that this netbook for a few hundred dollars is so much better than your Sony which cost, what, about $2000?