Small Computing

Asus Eee PC 1000HE Netbook Review

I take a different approach to doing reviews and prefer to look at real-world use, so let’s look at the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook with that idea in mind. Aside from actual user impressions, I’m going to include what it’s like to use this netbook with Windows 7, OS X, and possibly linux (but I don’t promise). I’m not going to bother with running all of the benchmarks and getting the numbers, however, so if that’s what you’re looking for, please read any of the other excellent reviews that are out there. (Here’s a spoiler: it performs as well as 95% the netbooks out there.) However, if you’re looking to find out what it’s like to actually use and work on, keep reading.

I was pretty thorough with my review of the Acer Aspire One (AOA110-1172) netbook, but I’m going to try to keep this one a little shorter than that. So, let’s look at this netbook and see what’s good and what’s bad, because there’s certainly both.

Design

The Asus design team hasn’t hit a grand slam with the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook, but it’s still pretty good. It certainly doesn’t look like a sub-$400 computer or feel like one, but it is bulky and weighted at the back end because of the massive battery, and the keyboard does have some issues that we’ll get into later. For now, however, it’s slightly chunky and certainly won’t pass for an Apple, even if you do install OS X on it.

The left side of the netbook features the standard array of things: laptop lock, Ethernet jack, USB 2.0 port, vent, audio out/mic in. The right side has the other half of the equation with an SDHC reader, two more USB 2.0 ports, VGA, and power. A nice touch are the metal caps on the hinges, and they look sharp next to the otherwise glossy black exterior.

Once you open the lid you see that Asus has opted for a chiclet keyboard, and it’s mostly good. The keyboard goes rather close to the edge and doesn’t waste much space. There’s also a series of shortcut keys along the top that are horribly marked and confusing, and frankly, useless once you dump Windows XP (which you should do).

The LCD is matte and looks sharp and has a very usable viewing angle. No worries here about having to constantly readjust the LCD depending on lighting conditions and where it’s placed (I’m looking at you, MacBook). It also opens a very respectable 160 degrees or thereabouts, certainly farther than most people should need.

And of course, as mentioned, it has a very sizable battery in the back that sticks out a bit (on the bottom, not the back, and it’s slight) that is so dense and heavy that the entire netbook is balanced toward the back. However, the additional bulk on the bottom does slightly elevate the netbook, which gives the added benefit of better airflow and slightly better typing ergonomics.

Graphics and audio

The standard awful “video card” is present and continues to hold this and damn near every other netbook back as something that can used as a cheap HTPC solution. The Intel GMA950 is the bane of my existence (along with several other things) but many people are likely familiar with its performance and I need not elaborate too much. However, for those who aren’t, this is old technology and very underpowered, so you won’t be playing any new games. Diablo, StarCraft? Yes. Crysis? No. Oblivion? No. Well, technically those may run, but it won’t be a good experience (but that’s also because of the CPU). However, for the standard day-to-day tasks of email, web browsing, watching videos (so long as they’re 720p or lower resolution), writing, etc., it’s perfectly suited to the netbook and completely satisfactory.

Because the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook has a 10″ LCD, the maximum resolution on the display is 1024*600, which results in a very nice experience. A slightly higher resolution might be more usable, but this is sufficient for most webpages to fit in a maximized window. Office documents and other programs also play nicely with the width, while you’ll occasionally run into a program that needs a little more height, but on the whole, everything fits just nicely with the resolution.

The speakers look to be on the bottom of the machine and are much louder than the Acer Aspire One. It’s actually quite possible to hear what it’s playing from several feet away. It’s not uncommon for me to turn on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook in the morning, fire up a stream of an LA-based radio station and listen to it from 7-10 feet away without any trouble and the volume at 63%. The sound quality is also much better, with a fuller, warmer sound than the tinny experience other netbooks have given me. However, it’s still a netbook and they’re still small speakers, so don’t except anything other than a mediocre-acceptable experience at best.

Performance

Once again we get into an area that I think many people will be familiar with, so I won’t spend a lot of time here. Even though the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook uses the newest version of the the Atom, the Intel Atom N280 that runs at 1.66ghz, it’s a minor change from the N270. The slight increase in FSB is also more or less negligible when you’re dealing with a low powered CPU, so if you’re familiar with how the N270 runs, you’re familiar with the N280.

However, for those who aren’t, performance is surprisingly good for an ULV processor. Windows 7 boots reasonably quickly (while OS X takes a while) and programs are responsive and open within several seconds. I constantly use OpenOffice on the machine and don’t ever reboot unless I have to, and everything is fine. Having a few tabs open with Firefox is a satisfactory experience and the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook remains responsive, so long as you don’t have Flash running somewhere. Let’s be clear about this since I think a lot of other reviews gloss over this: Flash performance is terrible.

Again, Flash sucks. It’s not just my personal bias against Flash, but it’s a complete CPU hog and the Atom struggles. You’ll be able to watch YouTube at standard resolution, but kicking up the resolution or going full-screen results in frames being dropped. Flash + Atom == bad. I know people say Flash is fine and that they can watch YouTube or Hulu or whatever it is just fine, but I’m yet to personally witness that on a netbook (I can’t be the only one who notices that the framerate gets cut down, can I?). That’s not to say it’s a bad experience, but it’s not anything near great, especially at fullscreen.

However, if you’re playing video that isn’t stuffed in a Flash wrapper, playback is smooth until you go past 720p resolution. Once again, I can’t stress enough that this is not a hardcore gaming machine and that you won’t be doing major video editing, but if you’re looking for a netbook to throw into a bag to do work, this is going to be a good choice.

Keyboard and trackpad

Let’s get to what I find to be one of the most important parts of netbooks: the keyboard. While the Acer Aspire One was a mostly positive experience, I got to the point that I just hated the keyboard. This is, mostly, a different experience.

Asus opted for the chiclet keyboard and they’ve managed to stuff a 92% size keyboard into the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook which makes for a very non-netbook experience while typing. The keys, while not quite full-sized and still slightly closer together than a standard keyboard, are just big enough that one is able to type without feeling like they’re using a small keyboard and have to constantly adjust their muscle memory. The keyboard has a little flex, but not too much, and the keys have a pretty short travel that aids fast typists. I’m certainly not the fastest typist out there, but I find that I’m usually able to type just fine on the netbook and generally forget that I’m using such a small portable.

“Usually” is the keyword, however, as it’s not all golden. I’m not sure if it’s my specific unit or a larger problem, but my keyboard likes to double press. I may be typing “the” and it’ll come out as “tthe” or “thhe” or “thee” because it insists on throwing another letter in. Think it may be me? I’ve turned down the keyboard repeat rate and it still happens. This also never happens on any of the other keyboards I use (for instance, this Apple Aluminum keyboard I’m using on my MacBook Pro) and it also happens in every OS I run on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook. Turning down the keyboard repeat rate did help, but it hasn’t cured the problem, even at the lowest and slowest rates. In the end, this is going to be a deal breaker. I can already see that.

The trackpad is a better experience compared to that found on the 9″ Acer Aspire One. It’s still terrible, it’s just less terrible. Let’s be honest people: trackpads on anything less than a 12″ or 13″ laptop are almost always too small, and because they’re so near the keyboard, end up being way too sensitive and cause problems. In Windows, one can install the Elantech drivers and disable the “touch while typing” option to help correct accidental palm presses while you’re in the middle of working, but it’s not perfect. You could also disable the touch to tap option, but it doesn’t do anything to solve the trackpad being too small.

However, that said, it’s still a decent (if terrible) trackpad. The buttons, however, are trash as it has a large, split bar (it’s a stretch to call it a bar, but because they’re integrated to look like the frame that surrounds the trackpad, they’re not strictly just buttons sitting there either) that’s clicky and somewhat difficult to press. It just doesn’t feel natural, especially if you’re used to the old-style MacBook Pro’s long bar (which is smooth and easy to press in comparison) or any other laptop with a normal trackpad and buttons that are more responsive. This is the best trackpad I’ve used on a netbook, but being best of the worst is a somewhat dubious honor.

Battery

I’m going to admit this right now: I have not used the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook from full charge to dead in a single sitting and have no intention of doing so. Why? The battery lasts too damn long! I could run some battery killing test or another, but I’m far more interested in a real-world experience than a synthetic benchmark. I’ve read other reviews that claim around 6-7 hours doing normal work, and I’d be willing to agree with that number. Readers have also provided numbers of anywhere from 5-8 hours in OS X, but more on that later.

However, if “normal work” leaves out using wireless, I think you’re looking at 8 hours if you have the LCD at half brightness. I constantly see a ridiculous amount of battery life remaining when I’m writing, and I don’t even blink when it’s at 10% because that means I still have an hour of battery life left. However, streaming internet radio (that uses WMV) is particularly demanding and results in roughly 4 hours of battery life. This is about what you could expect from running video constantly, maybe a little less, but still admirable.

On the whole, I’m very impressed with what Asus has done with the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook and battery life. This is a game changer and the long, and excellent, battery life may be enough to sway buyers who can’t stand swapping batteries (me) or having to constantly charge their battery (also me).

Overall user experience

This is a somewhat difficult category to quantify, but I’ll try by saying that, aside from the keyboard issues and disliking the trackpad, I’m finding that using this netbook every day is a pleasant experience. I do somewhere between 1-1.5 hours of writing on it every day and I really enjoy using the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook. I also use it in the morning for surfing and streaming, so I’m putting a good 2.5-3 hours of use into the netbook Monday-Friday, and have been for some time now. Obviously, once I’m home I’m going to use my desktop or my MacBook Pro, but the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook is very easy to pick up and just start using. I could easily take it with me and get everything done that I need to get done if I were away on a business trip for a week, and without having to worry about my MacBook Pro that cost 4x the 1000HE.

Asus has done just about everything they could to make it easy and fun to use, and for that they should be congratulated. This unit is going to sell millions if it hasn’t already, so even though it’s been out a month, expect to hear about it for a while.

Conclusion

I think it should be pretty clear that I really like the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook. Aside from a couple of limitations (graphics, keyboard, trackpad), it’s a damn good system. Adding an additional gig of memory will only help performance, and if you’re really looking to eek out every last bit, you could easily swap the hard drive with a faster one and see the immediate benefit of faster booting and program loading, however, I think it’s completely unnecessary. Asus has struck an excellent balance of performance and battery life, and that’s something that’s very difficult for most manufacturers to do.

Here it is, plain and simple: if you want something smaller than your 15″ or 17″ laptop to carry around and don’t want to have to worry about it every other second, this is one of the best choices you have available to you right now. If, however, you’re looking for small and powerful, you’re going to be disappointed. However, I think most users looking at a netbook know what they’re getting into, and this is a positive experience. Parents looking for a cheap notebook to give to their child for school should definitely consider the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook.

Pros:

LCD (both size and display)

Battery life (amazing!)

Keyboard

Cons:

Keyboard

Trackpad


Ok, I promised at the beginning I’d have some impressions of the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook with Windows 7 and OS X, so if that’s what you’re looking for, here you go.

Windows 7 on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook

I hate Windows XP on laptops that are being used as laptops. Windows XP is perfectly suited to being a desktop OS, but I can’t stand how annoying and needy it is on a laptop, so I dumped XP within an hour of getting the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook. I installed OS X first, but it’s Windows 7 that I’ve stuck with.

I don’t want to turn this into a Windows 7 preview/review, but it’s been a very pleasant experience, and far, far superior to the Windows XP experience that comes with the netbook. Windows 7 has been redesigned (this isn’t just Vista with lipstick) and runs very, very well on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook. In fact, that’s what the review is based on. I use Windows 7 on the 1000HE every day and have no issues with it.

Everything aside from the Elantech trackpad drivers, which I was able to manually install from the included CD, all of the hardware was supported out of the box by Windows 7. I was able to connect to my wireless network with minimal problems; the display had the correct (and maximum) resolution; audio out works fine (and I assume mic in does as well, but I admit I haven’t tested it); and it hibernates and wakes without any issues. Even better, Windows 7 shows a percentage and time remaining on the battery indicator, and it just plain gets good battery life.

Asus includes a program that one can use to manually set the CPU speed (power saver, standard, overdrive) in Windows XP, but it doesn’t work in Windows 7. I was able to install it, but it wouldn’t even open. However, SpeedStep works just fine and this program is redundant. If you’re overclocking your Atom, you and I don’t quite have the same opinion of what the CPU is designed for.

Windows 7 is also far less needy and has the vastly improved start button/menu that shipped with Vista. Windows 7 doesn’t constantly harass you with popups and messages that you have to click and pay attention to, and it allows sufficient customization to hide/display icons in the system tray (and it remembers, unlike XP). Also, the task bar has been redesigned to show only a large icon instead of the icon and program name, and this works to the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook’s favor because of the somewhat limited resolution. Even with several program open, it’s very quick and easy to look at the tray and know what’s open (and of course you can still alt-tab or windows-tab to scroll through them).

I would recommend one try Windows 7 without any reservations. It’s not as good an experience as using OS X on an Apple, but it’s by far the best Microsoft experience I’ve had on a portable, hands down. Excellent job, Microsoft. You have a winner with this one.

OS X on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook

So while Windows 7 is nothing but a good experience, OS X is something of a mixed bag. I’m not even sure how much I can really say about it because it’s such a collection of good, bad, and awful things that I’m very disinclined to use it. Let’s talk about the good, first.

Once you go through the process of installing OS X on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook (be it following the guide I’ve stitched together or any other) and get everything (mostly) working, OS X is surprisingly responsive and usable. I’d heard it before that OS X scaled well and ran just fine on netbooks, but I was skeptical. However, I’m convinced: aside from a slow boot time (due to EFI emulation, I believe), it’s just fine. Another gig of ram would only make it better because OS X loves RAM.

So while OS X runs just fine, it goes downhill from there. One can get usable ethernet working now apparently thanks to someone hacking together a functional driver, but lots of things still don’t work properly: no stock wifi, keyboard shortcuts are iffy, battery life seems to fluctuate more, and it just plain doesn’t feel like an Apple experience. You can’t change any trackpad settings (but two-finger scrolling still works) because there’s no drivers, so you’re left with the small and obnoxiously sensitive trackpad getting in the way of typing. Setting the dock to auto-hide (which I normally do anyway) helps to reclaim some of the limited vertical space, but there’s just not a lot you can do to make it a great experience.

This is something that may be difficult to understand if you’ve not used a recent Apple (I’m not counting the MacBook Air, for the most part, if that’s your only Apple experience), but OS X on an Apple product is a very slick experience that’s very, very different from using Windows. I know this sounds fanboyish, and it probably is, but as someone who is OS agnostic, I feel completely qualified to make this statement.

Using OS X on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook is nothing like using OS X on an Apple. That’s not to say it’s unusable, but unless you’re planning on doing some hacking and swapping hardware, I think you’re always going to be missing something or be left wondering why people are so fanatic about running OS X.

Leo Laporte installed OS X on an MSI Wind some time ago, and then he said he took it off because it just didn’t feel right. At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant, but now that I’ve done it, I do and completely agree with the sentiment. I think if everything worked in OS X, it’d be far better and I might even be able to use it regularly, but for now, it’s taking a back seat to Windows 7. It just plain requires too many programs and things to make it do what an Apple running OS X should do that it takes OS X from a seamless, enjoyable experience to one that’s kind of clumsy and the antithesis of what Apple strives to achieve with their user experience.

So, to be really, really clear: OS X using the stock hardware is a mixed bag, but OS X if you swap wifi cards is better, but still not quite there. This is not an Apple netbook once you have OS X installed in any way, shape, or form. It can be good, but it’s still a computer designed for Windows running a patched together version of OS X.

Eeebuntu on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook

I have the least experience with running Eeebuntu (a custom designed version of Ubuntu specifically for Eee PCs) on the Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook, but it’s a pretty decent experience. I opted to install the standard version and most things run just fine out of the box, but I did have some issues with the wireless card not wanting to automatically connect when the netbook was in range of my network even though it appeared to be configured that way.

Also, you’ll need to change a few settings to make the netbook more usable, such as to tell Eeebuntu to hibernate or sleep when you close the lid instead of turn the display off but keep running. Also, a lack of drivers means you run into the same trackpad problem you do with OS X: no way to make it less obnoxious and sensitive.

The rest of the experience is more or less acceptable. Everything else seems to work and Ubuntu (and Eeebuntu, of course) is such a well-designed distribution that it makes for an OS that anyone should be able to use, even if they’re only familiar with Windows. Some things may still be a little confusing, but on the whole, I would rather run Eeebuntu than XP if it came down to it, but I think I’ll stick with Windows 7 for the time being, but keep Eeebuntu around because I do like it.

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