Slashdot It! Asus now offers Eee PC buyers a choice between Linux and Windows. So just how good (or how bad) is the little laptop when it comes pre-loaded with XP?
Asus has big plans for its little laptop and to the dismay of purists and Penguinistas, those plans centre on Windows. The company expects to sell five million Eee PCs this year, and Asus CEO Jerry Shen predicts that “about 60 percent of these” will run XP rather than the Xandros OS with which the mini-note debuted.
Of course, Eeenthusiasts have been installing XP and assorted Linux versions (most commonly Ubuntu, for which there’s now a bespoke version known as eeeXubuntu) even since this pint-sized portable was released. But that’s not a path for the mainstream, many of whom are attracted by the Eee PC’s price, weight and form factor but wary of the fact that it doesn’t have that familiar face of Windows, and nor can it run the same software they already use day to day.
Above: Great expectations -- Asus CEO Jerry Shen predicts that more than half of the Eee PCs sold this year will run XP instead of Linux
The XP edition of the Eee PC swiftly kicks that objection to the curb. Apart from having Windows XP Home Edition and Asus’ own hardware drivers preloaded onto the drive, and an extra $80 added to the price tag (most of which is Microsoft’s licensing fee) it’s identical to the standard Eee PC, also known as the 701 and 701-4G. You get the same 900MHz processor, 512MB of RAM and 4GB solid state drive. These all present challenges for Windows, of course. Yet running XP on the Eee PC didn’t turn out to the awful experience we’d half-expected.
As mentioned above, Asus chose the most basic Home edition of Windows XP for the Eee PC, and that makes sense for a device like this: you simply don’t need the added extras of XP Professional. It’s the latest SP2 image, but on our review unit the OS was completely unaltered in any way – it was exactly the same that you’d find on any XP Home SP2 desktop or laptop.
Disappointingly, the OS image hasn’t even been updated with the latest versions of Windows Media Player, Windows Live Messenger and so on. This makes for a massive update session the first time the user goes online, and that’s not a good way to start the relationship. Supplied CDs include the XP Home OEM install disc and Asus’ support DVD containing the necessary XP drivers and a recovery utility.
However, it’s worth noting that Asus is prepping a special edition Eee PC that will be preloaded with a cut-down version of XP which is expected to be available within the next eight weeks. Emmanuele Silanesu, National Retail Manager for ASUSTeK Australia, told apcmag “we’ve been working with Microsoft on a special condensed version of XP which has just passed the R&D tests this week”. The pared-back image, which includes the Microsoft Works suite and will be based on Windows XP Home with SP3, “will be approximately 1.5-1.8GB in total depending on Windows updates” Silanesu says.
Above: make room, make room -- the 2GB footprint of XP Home occupies more than half of the Eee PC’s 4GB solid state drive, and there’s still third-party software to install
Out of the box, bang on 2GB of the 4GB drive (which has an actual capacity of 3.71GB) was accounted for by the preinstalled software, which is XP Home plus a couple of Asus utilities – happily, there was no crapware in sight. This made us do a double-take: the footprint of the Xandros-powered Eee PC is a slightly 2.2GB.
Ah, but of course the original Eee PC also comes preloaded with scores of applications ranging from OpenOffice, Adobe Reader and Skype to a PIM (Kontact), photo manager, anti-virus plus a handful of games and education programs (including a pretty swanky virtual planetarium).
The bare bones XP install contains no equivalents to these, so the remaining 1.71GB would be gobbled up pretty quickly once you start loading up the apps. No doubt in recognition of that, Asus tosses in a 4GB SD card – not that you’d run software from this, but it’s a good place to store large data files such as video clips that you may use only once or twice before ditching.
XP proved only slightly slower to boot than the native Xandros-powered Eee PC – we clocked it at 25 seconds, compared to 20 seconds for Xandros. However, it dropped into standby in a mere three seconds and awoke from its slumber just as fast, whereas the Xandros system needed almost ten seconds for each cycle. This is no doubt due to the extensive development done over many years to make Windows a good OS for mobile computing.
Above: tight fit -- XP’s fat and fleshy Start menu disappears off the top of the Eee PC’s tiny screen while also taking up half of the screen’s width
But if XP is a good fit for a laptop even as small as this, it’s a poor fit for the screen size – or rather, the resolution. The 6.9in screen runs at a maximum 800x600 (SVGA), and in that mode you simply can’t see all of the Windows environment without scrolling up and down – or panning up and down, to be more accurate, because no scroll bars appear on the screen. It’s as if the Eee PC’s display is a small cut-out window onto a desktop which is slightly taller. You nudge the mouse cursor to the top or bottom of the screen and the display pans up or down accordingly.
Above: stealthy ninja buttons -- on dialog boxes and other screen elements which can’t be resized, the Eee PC’s limited screen resolution means you can barely see the OK or Cancel buttons
Not only did portions of several dialog boxes and windows disappear off the screen, but even the Start menu couldn’t be seen in a single glance – we had to pan up to see items listed near the top, including icons in the program groups, and then pan down to get to items nestled near the bottom of the menu. That you’re using the default XP theme, with its big fat borders and cough lolly Start button, doesn’t help things.
There’s no way to resize the screen in Windows because 800x600 is as high as the Eee PC’s graphics adaptor can go. There are ‘hacked’ third-party drivers which can run the Eee PC up to 1024x768 XGA (for which you’d also want to increase the DPI size of the screen fonts) but they’ve been reported as unstable so we didn’t push our luck. But we’ve no doubt the kinks will be ironed out once the XP edition of the Eee PC becomes widespread, and if not then Asus’ own almost-XGA drivers slated for the larger screen of the forthcoming Eee PC 900 series will surely surface for the 701.
Above: switching screen sizes -- this handy utility lets you change the screen resolution on the fly in order to see more of the XP environment using the oddball 800x480 size
But all is not lost: an Asus utility parked in the Eee PC’s system tray lets switch on the fly between 800x600 and an oddball 800x480, the later of which rescales the Windows environment so that it mostly fits on the screen. The Start menu still runs right to the top of the screen, but not off the screen. This mode also reinstated the scroll bars in some applications and windows, but certain OS elements – some dialog boxes, as well as Control Panel applets like System – are not designed to be resized, so they simply can’t fit on the screen all at once. The problem here is that in 800x480 mode you can’t pan the screen down to reach the OK, Apply or Cancel buttons at the bottom of such windows. So you end up dragging the dialog box up in order to see the controls at the bottom, or you briefly flick back to 800x600, do the pan-and-point-and-click routine, then switch back to 800x480. We quickly got jack of both methods.
As for performance: well, there’s only so much that you can do with 512MB of RAM. That’s enough to get XP of the blocks but things start to chug along when you run decent-sized applications like Office. Fortunately the Eee PC simply isn’t the sort of device on which you’d seriously multi-task. You’re more likely to do only one or two things at a time. But even a necessary baseline such as security software, and a handful of always-on background apps like instant messaging, will take their toll.
Above: faster, brighter, cooler: The free eeectl utility lets you adjust the CPU speed back up to its native 900MHz (and beyond, if you’re game) as well as adjust the fan and screen brightness
The weakest link, however, is the processor. Not only did Asus choose a Celeron Mobile chip from Intel’s ultra-low voltage range, but they wound the clock speed back from 900MHz to 630MHz in order to extend the Eee PC’s battery life. Fortunately the freeware utility eeectl (from www.cpp.in/dev/eeectl) lets you push the clock speed back up, along with tweaking the FSB speed, fan control and even boosting screen brightness, all depending on which BIOS version the Eee PC is running.
Overall, we were pleasantly surprised at the initial fit of XP onto the Eee PC. There’s obviously work to be done, and the best Eee PC for XP will likely be the new 900 series.
These will sport a larger (9 inch) screen running at 1024x600 resolution, with RAM and solid state drives both doubled (to 1GB and 8GB respectively, in the Windows XP edition). Parked under the hood will be the much more powerful Intel Atom processor. That will turn the Lilliputian laptop into a far superior notebook on its own terms as well as a more suitable platform for Windows.
ASUSTeK Australia’s Emmanuele Silanesu says “the launch date (for the 900 series) is looking like Q3”with the price “around about $599” for the Linux version, which will have either a 12GB or 20GB solid state drive. “We’re not sure at this stage what the final config will be”, says Silanesu.
(Because we’re curious geeks, we carried out a little judicious tweaking on our XP-equipped Eee PC by slapping down some of the dumb defaults: click here to see what we did and what differences it made.)Get Daily Updates via Email Protect your computer with Windows Onecare Get paid $7.50 for reviewing my post