It often takes high-tech vendors three tries to get a product right. Microsoft Corp. is the best example of this rule of three. (Think of how buggy and insecureWindows XP was until Service Pack 2 came out.) Upstart mini-laptop maker Asustek Computer Inc., it turns out, is another.
But as piping-hot as the original Eee -- since renamed the Eee 701 4G -- was, the tiny notebook wasn't fully baked when it emerged from Asus' oven. The screen, keyboard and 4GB solid-state drive were frustratingly small for many Eee users, while the Wi-Fi was unpredictable.
And for a device meant for on-the-go use, the 701's battery life was too short, despite the vendor's attempt to extend it by slowing the Eee's CPU by a third without telling buyers.
Asus addressed some of these problems with its second series, the Eee 900/901, boosting battery life in the 901 by swapping out the Celeron-M processor for the new, power-saving Intel Atom, and expanding the screen and storage size in both models.
Now, with the new $700 Eee 1000, which started shipping around the middle of July, Asus has come tantalizingly close to delivering the ideal netbook. Nearly everything that troubled me about my Eee 701 has been improved in the Eee 1000, if not outright fixed, including the screen, keyboard, storage, battery life, Wi-Fi, webcam and more.
The chief improvement is in the design. The original Eee 701 weighed 2 lb. and sported a 7-in. screen with just 800-by-480-pixel resolution and a tiny keyboard for a cost of $400. It was cute as a bug, distracting users from the real reason Asus used such small components -- because they were cheaper.
The trade-off in usability was heavy, though. Surfing the Web on the Eee 701 requires users to drag the bottom tool bar left and right in order to view the entire width of a Web page. That move gets old very fast. So do the typos the Eee 701's minuscule keyboard tends to elicit from all but the most painstaking of typists.
The $700 Eee 1000 sports a 10-in., 1024-by-600 widescreen display that nicely accommodates the modern Web page. The screen is bright and fairly sharp, though colours aren't rich because of the video driver's 16-bit colour depth.
The Eee 1000's keyboard is also bigger. It's now 92 percent as large as an average laptop keyboard, up from the Eee 701's 75 percent. The keys themselves remain shallow. Still, touch typing, while not a dream, is no longer the nightmare it was with the Eee 701. There are also four new Instant Keys located above the keyboard. Two control the LCD backlight and its resolution, while the other two can be programmed by the user to launch applications such as Google Mail or Skype.
Naturally, the Eee 1000 is bigger and heavier than its predecessor. Whereas the 701 is the size of a fat quality paperback novel, the 1000 is equivalent to a stack of four issues of National Geographic Magazine. At an ounce under three pounds, the 1000 is nearly a pound heavier than the 701.
Purists might argue the 1000 treads dangerously close to the border between netbook and notebook, but I disagree. Typical laptops are still much bulkier and heavier. My ThinkPad T42 tips the scales at 6 lb. when including its bulky charger, which I include because of the ThinkPad's anemic 90-minute battery life.
Speaking of which, battery life is an area where the Eee 1000 shines. Asus claims that its six-cell battery will last between 4.2 and eight hours. In my real-world testing, I got about five hours of use. While that's on the lower-end of Asus' estimate, it's twice as long as my Eee 701. Five hours also means it can last the duration of a coast-to-coast U.S. flight.
Credit goes to the 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor under the Eee 1000's hood, which never uses more than 3 watts of power and runs cool. In my lap, the 1000 got warm, but never hot. And the fan, even at top speed, emitted nothing more than a low hum.
The Eee 1000's Wi-Fi is also much improved -- reliably fast to start up and boasting a signal-pulling strength nearly equal to my ThinkPad. (The Wi-Fi meter at the bottom of the screen was also a winner, rating reception on a percentile scale, rather than the more typical 1-5 metric.)
Xandros remains Asus' choice of Linux operating systems. Though unheralded compared with the more popular Ubuntu Linux, Xandro's interface is perfectly suited for netbooks, being easy to navigate by keyboard. The mix of installed open-source applications and links to Web apps remains mostly unchanged. The biggest addition is a link to 20GB of Web storage offered free to Eee owners.
What else do I like? The 1000's 40GB solid-state disk eases the storage crunch of earlier models (the $650 Eee 1000H is even more capacious, with an 80GB hard disk drive). The built-in webcam's resolution has been quadrupled to 1.3 megapixels, up from the 701's 0.3-megapixel webcam. Finally, I loved the mirrored black plastic shell of the 1000, what Asus calls "fine ebony," which felt sturdy and sleek. The material's propensity to show fingerprint smudges will encourage the obsessive-compulsive tendencies of its owners, though.
Readers at this point may wonder if I've become as brainwashed into the cult of Eee. But while it's true that I definitely dig the 1000, not everything is perfect in Eee land.
Take the touch-pad keys. They remain as stiff and hard to click as they are on the 701. And although the 1000's touch pad is bigger and includes trendy multi-touch capabilities, I found I couldn't really get the hang of it (apart from clicking and dragging two fingers up and down to move a Web page up and down). It made me feel old and self-conscious. Was some teenager secretly laughing at my clumsy finger manipulations the same way I once did at a co-worker who moved the mouse around in a herky-jerky death grip?
What else? The Intel Atom processor, while thrifty on the power, won't break any land-speed records. And the video driver, for now, can't support using the Eee 1000 screen and an external monitor as two independent displays.
The 1000's power supply, while far more petite than a typical laptop "power brick," takes two hours to fully charge. And the Eee 1000 remains incompatible with many hardware peripherals, such as printers and scanners, though this is more a fault of Linux.
Finally, when judged purely on "speeds and feeds" type of benchmarking, the Eee 1000 and its netbook brethren can't compare even with budget laptops.
The Eee 1000 is for the type of user for whom being able to drop four-plus pounds of gear while adding three hours of battery life is imperative. Which leads to where the Eee 1000 may be most vulnerable -- its relatively high price versus rival netbooks such as the HP 2133 Mini-Note, the MSI Wind or the Acer Aspire One.
Listing for $700, the 1000 is Asus' top-of-the-line Eee, costing twice as much as a 701 and $100 more than the Eee 901, which offers the same 1.6-GHz Intel Atom CPU but a smaller keyboard and screen.
So the Eee 1000 may not be the best deal out there in the fast-growing netbook market. That's OK, though. The third time is the charm for Asus, which has learned through experience just what compromises were acceptable to make in the Eee 1000. Until something else comes along that clearly bests the Eee 1000 in both price and performance, this should be the first model any consumer tempted by a netbook should take a look at.