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Asus Eee PC

Every so often I go travelling - and when I do, I like to stay connected. I'm sad like that. I like to be able to check my e-mail, keep in touch with the world and do a bit of web-browsing. It's my daily equivalent of reading the papers and keeping up with the gossip. We all have our quirks.

Up until recently, I used to use a Psion 5 to keep my journals and do e-mail. The keyboard was pretty good, allowing you to type with a reasonable degree of accuracy once it softened up a bit, but the act of using the infra-red to connect and use a mobile phone as a modem was getting a bit awkward, particularly on a bouncy train - resulting in a rather large mobile bill. A replacement option had to be found. I'm (hopefully) off to Japan in May this year and as technology has moved on, I was hoping for a better solution to keeping in contact. I hardly want to be sat in Shibuya attempting to make an expensive international data call home - I'd probably be bankrupted by my mobile operator.

I'd considered taking my laptop with me. My Powerbook G4 is a wonderful machine. It's my workhorse and is very good at what it does. Whilst it's been superseded by newer and swankier models, it's reasonably powerful, has good connectivity and mobility still make it a damn good machine, but I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure it would stand up to the abuse of baggage handlers, who are frequently renowned to laugh in the face of the word, "fragile".

Ultimately, what I was after was something that could take a few knocks, was ultra-mobile and wouldn't cost the earth to replace if damaged. What caught my eye at the end of last year was something that appeared to fit just that bill - the Asus EeePc.

I can't remember what all the e's stand for, but to be honest it doesn't really matter. All you need to know is that the machine is a very small (and quite functional) laptop. It has a 7-inch screen (with speakers at the side), a solid-state hard-disk (available in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB), web-cam, wifi, SSD/MMC card slot, three USB ports, external video socket and an ethernet connection point. It's also about the size of a hardback book. There's images aplenty here (plus a really detailed review) - or alternatively you can look at this comparison shot I made between my G4 and the device. As you can see, it's significantly smaller.

Ain't it small?
Comparison: The machine and a random A5-ish size hardback book.

When I specified the hard-disc sizes, you probably balked at the notion of something so puny and small. After all, 60GB+ hard-discs are pretty much run-of-the-mill now - but does it matter? You can get a reasonable installation of your OS of choice on there (we'll forget Vista), have a bit of space left over and if you do what I did, chuck another 4GB of storage in SSD format in there for just £15. Sorted. Plenty of space. Bear in mind that the machine isn't designed for power-computing, probably jut a bit of web-browsing, e-mail and word-processing, but don't underestimate it - I've had more intensive stuff like Google Earth running quite happily.

For an ultra-small PC, you're usually required to pay a significant amount of a cash - such is the price for heavy miniaturisation. Luckily in this circumstance, that's not the case. The 4GB version I've got is just £219, with half a gig of RAM. It only costs about a tenner to upgrade the memory to 1GB - but that's another matter. See my note below.

With such a small price-tag, don't expect an installation of Windows on the machine. You'll have to get used to Linux (Xandros). That doesn't mean to say that you can't install something else instead, but you'll need to copy the image to a memory stick and install it from there, because the machine doesn't have a CD/DVD drive. The bonus is that the machine will happily boot up from an external drive, memory stick or SSD/MMC card, so that's not a problem. Asus provide the necessary drivers.

Asus have done the usual "pretty colours" thing (black, white, pink, blue and green) for those that like their colour co-ordination. A neoprene case, power supply and disc'o'stuff is in the box. As you can see, I'm initially impressed by the machine. Battery life is around the 3 - 4 hour mark. Of course, only time will tell if the unit is built to last, but on the face of it, it appears to do the job well. If you're thinking of buying one, a tip for you - don't go to PC World (I didn't need to tell you that, did I?) or any other online suppliers. Funnily enough, Toys R Us are selling them - and they're probably as cheap (or cheaper) than most of the stockists I found.

My online gripe is that there's a "warranty void if removed" sticker over the RAM upgrade slot - that's a bit dumb, isn't it?

Update (14/1/08): A few days after getting the machine, I zapped the disc and installed a different version of Linux (Xubuntu). Things appear to be running quite sweetly. If you're interested in the distribution, look here.
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