02 February 2008

Very small computers: the design of the Asus Eee PC

I bought an XO-1 and I adore the ideals of the One Laptop Per Child project, but I have to say that I am very impressed with the Asus Eee PC.

This is merely the latest review that I've read of the Eee PC.

Just one year ago, everyone thought it was either not feasible or not lucrative to make an inexpensive subnotebook computer. The most popular subnotebook manufacturers were Sony and Fujitsu, whose products cost around $2000. Most casual users who are looking for a subnotebook are going to be hard-pressed to justify buying one of those now when they can get an Eee PC for $300. Asus pretty much came out of nowhere and is now proceeding to mop up this niche.

The Eee PC uses flash storage instead of a hard drive, which is a minus for capacity but a plus for reliability. This is a fine compromise since few people use a subnotebook as their primary computer anyway. In size and weight the Eee PC is pretty much up there with the best of them. It weighs less than a kilogram. It's the size of a paperback book. It boots up in 15 seconds. And it's hard to argue with $300. You can barely get a desktop computer for $300!

The Eee PC ships with a GNU/Linux-based operating system preinstalled. This is interesting for a couple of reasons:

At $300 (and Asus is aiming to hit $200), buying a Windows license, even at OEM prices, would be a huge chunk of the cost of the machine. It seems obvious now that the cheapest machines are where free software would appear pre-installed initially in mass-market computers.

Asus created its own operating system for this machine. This makes sense because the Eee PC has its own strengths and limitations when compared to a full-size notebook. Users are not going to use them for all the same things; however, historically, subnotebook manufacturers tried to dress up subnotebooks in the same manner as all their other notebooks. Since Asus is in control of the entire operating system and what ships with the computer, it also can ensure that the software works well with the hardware, which is still a worry for some adopters of GNU/Linux today (mostly with respect to graphics and wireless chipsets, many of which do not have free drivers). I think we'll see the quality of this integration (from all manufacturers) improve dramatically in the next couple of years as the flexibility of free software becomes more obvious.

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