I have become a big fan of "netbook" computers. These laptop computers are about the size of a VHS videotape, typically weighing two pounds or less. They have screens as small as seven inches although the fancier and more expensive ones may have ten or eleven-inch screens. The keyboards typically are less than full size as well. Almost all of them include built-in wi-fi wireless networking, and most include web cams. Best of all, most of them sell for $250 to $400 – a steal, in my opinion.
I bought my first netbook computer about a year and a half ago and have since carried it to New Zealand, England, and all over the U.S. as well as on two cruise ships. That little Asus Eee computer has served me well. I don't use it much when at home, but it became my favorite computer to take traveling. I now leave the 6.5-pound Windows laptop at home. I have connected to the Internet from hotel rooms, airport lounges, and cruise ships. While traveling, I have sent and received e-mail, surfed the web, written newsletter articles, posted those articles, and made a number of international phone calls via Skype. When in New Zealand, I called home free of charge most every day, using Skype on that tiny netbook computer. Not bad for a computer that slips into an overcoat pocket!
On the downside, the lowest-priced Asus Eee that I first purchased runs Linux, and installing a genealogy program on it is not easy. You can install the GRAMPS genealogy program for Linux on the Asus Linux netbook, but I would suggest you first become a Linux expert before attempting that. The pre-installed Linux operating system works well as long as you use the pre-installed applications: a web browser, an e-mail program, Skype telephony software, a word processor that can read and write .DOC files that are compatible with Microsoft Word, a spreadsheet program that can read and write .XLS files that are compatible with Microsoft Excel, and other included applications.
The Asus Eee is also available with Windows pre-installed for a higher price.
I wrote about the Asus Eee netbook with the seven-inch screen and the Linux operating system at the time I purchased it. I am republishing that Plus Edition article below this one. Plus Edition subscribers read the original article when this hot technology first hit the market. Now Standard Edition subscribers can see what they missed, along with some update information that everyone might find helpful.
I fell in love with my first netbook so much that I later replaced it with a slightly more powerful netbook with a larger screen. The newer system is slightly more than two pounds, and the larger screen means that it doesn't quite slip into an overcoat pocket. I still take the original Asus Eee with me on shorter trips.
History repeats itself
Prices of computers have been dropping for years, and netbooks are no exception. The Asus Eee that cost $399 when I wrote the original article has now dropped in price. The local Target department store near me is now selling the same computer for $249. Now I see that Geeks.com is selling refurbished Asus Eee netbooks with a larger screen and a 90-day warranty for $219.99. Not bad!
Keep in mind that this netbook isn't even close to top-of-the-line. It has 512 megabytes of RAM memory, a 4-gigabyte solid state disk drive, an 8.9” screen (bigger than the one I purchased for $399), and a 900-Mhz processor. That's just fine for word-processing and Internet browsing, which are the two primary uses of a netbook.
For more information, look at http://www.geeks.com/details.asp?invtid=EEEPC900A-WFBB01-R&cat=NBB.
I see that Geeks.com also sells even cheaper netbooks: the Everex CloudBook CE1200V VIA C7-M is selling for only $129.99, which is the lowest price I have ever seen for a complete computer. Just turn it on and start using it. The Everex CloudBook even includes a webcam and built-in wi-fi wireless networking. However, I have no experience with the Everex CloudBook CE1200V VIA C7-M and am not able to make any recommendations concerning it.
I did notice in the listing that the Everex CloudBook uses the newer DVI-I video connector for an external monitor, not the more common VGA connector. This might be a consideration if you ever plan to connect an LCD projector.
The Everex unit has a 30-gigabyte hard drive, which is much larger than I would have expected. Not bad for $129.99!
You can find the $129.99 Everex CloudBook CE1200V at http://www.geeks.com/details.asp?invtid=CE1200V-FB-R&cat=NBB.
Note: Geeks.com deals in closeout lots and may not have many of these units available. I wouldn't be surprised to see these offers disappear at any time. At these prices, I suspect these won't last long.
The following is a Plus Edition article that I published in the December 2, 2007, newsletter. While the basic product description is still valid – albeit no longer “news” – you will find several update notes that reflect product changes since this article appeared:
- (+) The Latest Practical (?) Gadget: A Two-Pound Laptop
This week I have been using a new laptop computer that is about the size of a VHS videotape. In fact, I can carry this laptop in my overcoat pocket. This tiny computer weighs about two pounds (0.92 kilograms). It is an ideal system for use when traveling since it is so portable. This laptop’s keyboard is a bit smaller than standard computers, but one of my touch typist friends was able to use it easily after about five minutes’ practice.
This coat-pocket sized computer even includes more than 40 built-in applications, including a rather powerful word processor (similar to Microsoft Word), a spreadsheet program (similar to Excel), a presentation program (similar to PowerPoint), the Firefox web browser, the Thunderbird e-mail program, Adobe Acrobat to read PDF files, a complete dictionary on the hard drive, an instant messaging program that is compatible with the most popular IM services, Skype for making free telephone calls, and even two-way video conferencing, an MP3 music player, a video player, a paintbrush program, and a lot more. It also includes a microphone and "voice command" software, a feature that allows you to control the PC by just speaking to it. (This isn't a true "voice recognition" system; it can only "launch" or start certain programs for you. You still need to use the touchpad and keyboard to interact with programs.) This tiny powerhouse also includes Solitaire and a few other simple games. All the included programs are open source and available free of charge. If I had to purchase similar, commercially-produced programs, I probably would have to pay more than $500 for software functionality to match what is already included in this tiny laptop.
The list of included hardware is equally impressive: both wired and wireless (Wi-Fi) networking, a built-in video camera, an Atom processor (compatible with Pentium processors), a half gigabyte of memory, and more. In short, this tiny powerhouse has most of the functionality of any modern laptop.
Now comes the best part: the retail price is $399 U.S. dollars, a fraction of the price of competitive machines. It also includes a 24-month warranty, longer than most other laptops.
Update made July 12, 2009: The above price is now obsolete.
I was surprised at how easy this tiny computer is to use. In fact, I am writing this article on the new Asus Eee PC 4G tiny laptop PC.
The system is usually called the Asus Eee. “Eee” is pronounced “E.” Asus says that Eee stands for “Easy to learn, Easy to work, Easy to play.”
I have already fallen in love with this new computer. Not everything is a positive, however. First of all, the Asus Eee runs a version of the Linux operating system, not Microsoft Windows. To be sure, the operating system is well hidden. I could hand this computer to most anyone, and they could start using it immediately, even if they have never seen Linux before. They probably will not know what operating system it uses unless I tell them.
NOTE: The manufacturer says that the hard drive can be reformatted and Windows XP can be installed. I do not plan on doing that, however.
Despite the different operating system, there are almost no data compatibility issues. The included word processor reads and writes files in Microsoft Word format, the spreadsheet program reads and writes Excel files, and the presentation program defaults to PowerPoint's .PPT files. In short, files I create on this Linux system are fully compatible with Windows files, and most are compatible with Macintosh systems as well. Most Macintosh programs can handle the same formats. The Asus Eee owner can easily copy or e-mail files back and forth amongst the three operating systems.
The customized version of Xandros Linux used on the Asus Eee laptop is actually easier to use than a Macintosh and much, much easier to use than a typical Windows system. One reason is that the user simply clicks on icons to make things happen, similar to Windows or Macintosh, only with fewer choices.
Everything on this computer has been designed for the computer novice. Each icon is clearly labeled with its function, not the program name. For instance, the icon for the word processor simply says “Documents.” The icon for the web browsers is labeled “Web” and the e-mail program’s icon is labeled “Mail.” A computer novice will become productive on the Asus Eee faster than he or she would with a Mac or a Windows computer. The reason is the user interface on this two-pound system is the simplest I have ever seen on any full-featured computer. Experienced Windows or Linux users will also be able to use this within minutes after opening the box, and computer novices will not require much more time.
Updating the operating system and all of the included applications is a snap. Click on “Add/Remove Software” and then click on “Update.” That's it! Installing new programs not included at the factory is rather complex, however. I'll write more on that in a moment.
The second “downside” of this coat-pocket-sized computer is its tiny 7-inch screen. To be sure, the user interface has been designed to work with this hardware. All the icons are large and easy to see, even on the small screen. The default screen fonts seem reasonable to my aging eyes (I wear glasses that correct my vision to 20/20). I do not have much difficulty reading what is on the 7-inch screen. However, this certainly is not a computer for anyone with vision problems. It is impossible to squeeze a lot of information onto a seven-inch screen; so, trade-offs are apparent in the size and amount of information displayed at a time.
Update made July 12, 2009: The Asus Eee netbook now being sold by Geeks.com includes an 8.9-inch screen, not the 7-inch screen of the device I purchased.
The Asus Eee has a VGA video connector for connecting a standard external monitor or video projector. I suspect I will use this system often at genealogy conferences when I need to project PowerPoint slides onto a room-sized screen.
The Asus Eee's hard drive is a mix of good and less so. On the down side, it only stores four gigabytes of data, which sounds rather small by today's standards. However, it is a solid-state drive, meaning it has no moving parts. It is also very rugged, and the manufacturer says that the computer will survive drop tests. (I haven't tested that claim just yet.)
The solid-state drive is also blindingly fast; the system boots up in a very few seconds, much faster than any laptop that uses a normal hard drive. Reading and writing files is also much faster than a normal laptop. It is fascinating to see this two-pound computer run much faster than my 6 ½ pound Windows laptop with the 3.2-gigahertz Pentium 4 processor! The speed is the result of the fast hard drive, not the processor.
The small storage space does not seem to be as much of an issue. The Linux operating system requires much less disk space than does Windows. Even with all the included applications, the newly-unpacked system still has 1.3 gigabytes of data storage space available, enough for several thousand pages of documents or a smaller number of pictures or MP3 music files.
Additional storage is available in the form of Secure Digital (SD) memory cards, USB “jump drives,” external USB drives and whatever other devices are available these days. You can slide a small Secure Digital card into this computer and leave it there. The cards slide inside the computer and do not protrude. These are the same cards that are popular in cell phones and in some digital cameras. I picked up a two-gigabyte Secure Digital card at a local Staples store for $24.95 and now have room to store several thousand more documents than before.
Update made July 12, 2009: I later replaced the two-gigabyte Secure Digital card with a sixteen-gigabyte Secure Digital card. I now have lots of storage space!
The Asus Eee has three USB ports, so you can also plug in external jump drives, USB hard drives, a USB mouse, or other devices. However, those external devices obviously are not as convenient as the internal Secure Digital slot where the card slides inside the computer and remains there, hidden from view.
I am impressed with the speed and power of this tiny computer. The Eee PC did a nice job handling MPEG-4 videos captured by a 720p Sanyo Xacti camcorder and stored on a Secure Digital card. The video looked very smooth on the seven-inch display
Connecting to a Wi-Fi network was simple. I clicked on the “Internet” icon, then clicked on “Wireless Networks,” and a list of Wi-Fi networks soon appeared on the screen. Several of my neighbors have Wi-Fi systems that are easily detected from my house. I scrolled down the list of networks and clicked on the one installed in my home. A pop-up window appeared and said, “Please enter your encryption key.” I did so, and about ten seconds later another pop-up simply said, “Connected.” I was online and able to use the Internet. The same process will work at any Wi-Fi equipped coffee shop, hotel, or airport waiting area. I also found I could store the encryption key on the laptop so that I do not have to enter it again to re-connect to my wireless network.
While the Asus Eee has both wired and wireless networking, it does not include a dial-up modem. There is a cutout for a modem connector on the side of the computer and enough space behind it to install a modem. It certainly looks like a modem should be available as an option. However, Asus has not yet announced such a device.
The final “downside” is that there is no genealogy program included, and Linux novices will find it tricky to add one. Luckily, there is one rather good Linux genealogy program that is available free of charge. I did manage to install GRAMPS, but I wouldn’t recommend that Linux newcomers attempt the installation without assistance.
Experienced Linux experts will recognize the Asus Eee's desktop as a simplified version of KDE. The operating system itself is a modified version of Xandros Linux, a Debian variant.
Those already comfortable with Linux can open the command line interface if they wish. However, the command to do so is well hidden; there is no icon for terminal access. If you purchase an Asus Eee computer and want to try old-fashioned Linux, simultaneously press the Control, Alt, and T keys. You will then be in the Linux command line interface. I would suggest that you next type: Konqueror. That will launch the well-known KDE file manager.
Experienced computer users will be interested in watching a YouTube video that shows even more advanced applications on the Asus Eee. Take a look at http://www.downloadsquad.com/2007/11/02/up-close-with-the-eee-pc-part-2-installing-unsupported-progra/.
The same video also provides additional information about several other things not mentioned in the Asus Eee's user manual. I followed the instructions given in the video and found that this laptop has many, many more programs installed than what is shown in the menus. To see all the programs, simultaneously press Control-Alt-T and then type: Konqueror. You may be surprised at all the programs available on this tiny system. I have no idea why Asus hides so many of them by not placing them on the main menus.
Those experienced in Linux will also find that additional programs can be installed by using the apt-get command, similar to any other Debian-based distribution. The YouTube video describes this in some detail. I used apt-get to install the GRAMPS genealogy program written for Linux systems. However, I first had to specify a Debian distribution server as described in the YouTube video. I have not yet found a way to add a GRAMPS icon to the standard menus.
NOTE: You can read my earlier review of GRAMPS for Linux at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/03/gramps_for_linu.html with a follow-up article at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/05/gramps_200_for_.html.
Novice users can ignore the above information. You do not need this knowledge to use the programs shown on the menus. The above is aimed at anyone who is already familiar with Linux and wishes to “push the envelope” a bit.
So what is it like to use an undersized computer that weighs two pounds? Is it really practical? I would say, “Yes, but with some significant limitations.”
In fact, reading and writing e-mail, surfing the web, writing newsletter articles or other documents, calculating spreadsheets, chatting with friends in instant messaging, or other common tasks are all very simple. The Asus Eee performs these functions in almost the same manner as most any other laptop computer, regardless of operating system. Keep in mind that the screen is much smaller than normal, and the keyboard is a bit smaller as well. However, most everything else is very close to performing the same tasks on a normal Windows laptop.
If your eyesight is less than normal, if your fingers are larger than normal, or if you wish to install new programs not included with the original computer, you will find the Asus Eee to be more difficult to use than other computers.
The Asus Eee is great at surfing the web, reading and writing e-mail, and writing various documents. It is not so good at other, more specialized tasks. If you want to install your favorite genealogy program or QuickBooks or some other special-purpose program, the Asus Eee might not be the right choice for you.
This would also make a great gift for a child or grandchild who has a need for a very portable computer: it is cheaper and more rugged than most other laptops. Even younger children can handle this icon-based user interface.
I plan to use my new Asus Eee often, especially when traveling. I expect that many more EOGN newsletter articles will be written on and uploaded from this tiny Asus Eee computer that I carry in my coat pocket. The Asus Eee PC's combination of power, extreme portability and rugged build makes it an ideal portable computing solution.
For more information about the Asus Eee, look at http://eeepc.asus.com/en/.