Product review: Netbooks for business
Pint-sized, ultralight, and ultra-affordable, a new class of portables woos the mobile professional. We put an Asus Eee PC and HP Mini-Note to the testFollow @infoworld
The 2133's Windows Experience Index was a measly 1.7 (owing to the CPU), and Vista's tendency to maintain lots of background processes runs contrary to the netbook concept. HP is reportedly switching to the Atom CPU for future Mini-Note models, but unless it loses Vista I wouldn't expect much of a speed bump, based on the Eee PC 901's performance.
What you lose in performance with these devices, however, you gain in battery life. Despite weighing just 2.63 pounds, the HP 2133 gets a decent 2.5 hours of run time. Asus, on the other hand, claims a whopping 7.8 hours of battery for the 2.43-pound Eee PC 901, thanks to the extremely low power requirements of the Atom chip. That claim is exaggerated, but in real-world use I managed a very respectable 5.5 hours with Wi-Fi enabled.
The Eee PC's tiny keyboard is its biggest drawback. All of my test subjects struggled with its Chiclet-sized keys. Touch typing is extremely difficult. But my own, unorthodox hunt-and-peck method served me adequately, and before long I could maintain a rapid rate with few errors. If you can, definitely try it yourself before you buy (and note that some Eee PC models now come with larger keyboards).
I did like the Eee PC 901's hotkeys for applications and power-saving functions, and its iPhone-like multi-touch trackpad made zooming and scrolling easier -- though the trackpad functions weren't as responsive as they could be.
By comparison, the Mini-Note's keyboard raises no eyebrows. HP claims that it's 92 percent of standard size, and that feels about right. The silver keys are comfortable and have good travel, and most users should take to them without difficulty. The trade-off is that the Mini-Note's chassis is wider than the Eee PC's by more than an inch.
Tiny screens could also be a problem for some users. Of the two devices I tried, the HP 2133's screen had higher resolution, but that just made fonts harder to read. At the same 8.9-inch size, the Eee PC's screen seemed crisper, brighter, and more legible overall. I also appreciated the keyboard hotkey that flips the Eee PC's screen sideways for reading documents in portrait mode.
For presentations, however, the screens are a non-issue. Both devices also include standard audio jacks and a VGA port, making them practically ideal for PowerPoint.
The solid-state advantage?
The Eee PC's SSDs (solid-state drives) are one of its more intriguing features, but in practice I found them to be a mixed bag. Asus boasts of fast boot-up times, but the SSDs definitely write more slowly than traditional hard disks. When downloading large files, for example, drive I/O is the bottleneck, not network bandwidth.
What's more, the Eee PC 901 actually ships with its storage divided across two SSDs: a 4GB boot drive and a separate D: drive. Running Windows XP in 4GB without running out of space takes care and vigilance. If you're tasked with maintaining these devices, expect to devote a lot of time to freeing up megabytes that the OS has mysteriously swallowed.
My HP 2133 model used a standard hard disk (SSDs are optional), so it had storage space to spare. But compared to the Eee PC it booted slowly, and its internal fans were much noisier. Hard drives are also less rugged than SSDs; but then, neither of these machines is exactly built for combat. I haven't much faith that either machine could survive any major blows.