Asus EEE PC
14 April 2008
Reviewed by Felix Grant
A few months ago I briefly discussed personal machines for data analytic work in the field. At around the same time, the Asus EEE PC came along and I was given a batch of five to try out. Designed for primary school use as a 'go anywhere' one-per-pupil device (it is one result of Intel’s 'classmate' specification) it has been made robust, inexpensive, connected, and surprisingly powerful – all of which appeals equally to the 'go anywhere' scientist. I review it here, in what is usually a software slot, not just as itself but as a representative of the new 'netbook' class of devices and a fingerpost pointing to the possible future shape of individual scientific computing.
The size of a thin paperback novel, but with a keyboard on which I can (just) touch type, wire free internet connection and Ethernet built in, weighing in at just under a kilo, it invites consideration not just for field applications, but anywhere that a conventional notebook is too big, too power hungry or too expensive, and a hand held device won't cut the mustard.
The robustness comes partly from the rigidity of small size, and partly from the lack of any moving parts beyond keyboard, touchpad buttons and cooling fan. There is no hard disk; inboard solid state devices are provided instead. Various configurations are available; the examples on loan came with two or four gigabytes and there is, among other specification options, an eight gigabyte version. Differences between the two and four gigabyte models are small, and I shall restrict myself here to descriptions of the latter – the extra storage being well worth the the small (about €30) difference in price.
Four gigabytes doesn't sound much, in these days of 100+ gigabyte notebook hard drives, but in practice such a machine will not be used as the primary repository for massive information stores and I've not run into any problems. There are various means of expansion, however.
Three USB ports are provided, two in the right hand edge and one in the left. A housed notebook drive plugged into one of those gave me access to 120Gb of cheap, light weight transferable storage, though since it takes power from the port there is a price to be paid in battery life. A pair of cheap 4Gb flash drive pens, strung on a single loop of cord and plugged into the two adjacent ports, make less demands and give more space than have yet found a use for. There's also an SD/MMC card slot, which provides a quick and easy way of adding anything up to 32Gb without any external show, though it's a pricey way to go - you can double the price of the machine, that way.
There are both Linux and Windows versions – the same machine, but with different installed OS. My test samples were Linux, but by way of experiment I wiped one and installed Windows XP without any problems and then restored the Linux with equal lack of stress. There is a hidden sector, by the way, which can be used to restore the machine to factory state in case of disaster; if you're feeling brave (I prefer caution, myself), deleting it and reinstalling the OS will free up some more internal storage.
Many programs work straight from the card or flash drives, further saving internal storage space – SysQuake, for example, the mathematics program from Calerga.com, runs just fine from the flash pen under Linux.
The processor is a 900MHz Intel Celeron M ULV 353, underclocked to save power and reduce heat, and onboard RAM is 512Mb. Like the storage these sound low at first hearing but they are not, in practice, a problem in any context where the machine is likely to be used. Also like the storage their upgrade is part of Asus’ an Intel’s declared future plans, so there is a clear expectation of logical upgrade path.
In the trial period, my review samples went on a dive boat (one as note taker, the others attached to a variety of data logging sensors, running analyses in R) to survive being spattered with salt water, tossed about, and having an aqualung bottle dropped on them. One of them, in an unplanned but impressive test incident, was trampled and kicked by nine year olds fighting over it on a muddy and rain sodden soccer pitch. All are still working perfectly. The parts vulnerable to physical damage are the keyboard and (bright, full colour) screen, both well protected (though not watertight) when the machine is closed. The USB and Ethernet ports, and the SD/MMC slot, can also accumulate blood sweat and tears so I learnt to keep them either plugged or covered in wet or dirty surroundings. No claims are made for this level of durability, but it's nice to know that it's there.
With the Linux come a KHD desktop and a clutch of preinstalled software. Open Office is installed, web and mail are catered for by Firefox and Thunderbird, and the built-in camera proved more than adequate for video conferencing, providing all the necessary tools for a Microsoft file compatible office on the road. Windows versions have Microsoft Works. The usual inventory of utilities is there also, from file manager to video manager,plus a collection of material intended to serve as a starter for education. Some of the latter may be useful to the adult science user (a good implementation of a pocket scientific calculator, for instance, or a 2D function plotter) while other items (like the fractions tutorial) will be destined for deletion.
As with a laptop, power comes from the mains or built-in rechargeable battery. The mains unit is small and convenient (like a larger than usual cellphone charger) and I got 3-4 hours out of the battery with wireless network and sound turned off and no connected peripherals, or 1½ -3 hours with occasional sparing WiFi and external hard disk use.
Sources: unusually, the supplier of the review samples doesn't want to be named – but Research Machines (http://www.rm.co.uk/) has a comprehensive range under its own badging, and the two and four Gb models are available in some consumer electronics outlets. Full information from http://www.asus.com/