Pros: Inexpensive, lightweight. Solid state main storage. Linux. Built-in VGA port.
Cons: OS defaults hide most functionality. Short battery life.
When it comes to gadgets, I'm a late adopter. I never owned a pager, owned but never really used several PDAs (including the Sharp Zaurus), held off on purchasing a cellular phone until 2007, and until very recently did without a laptop, notebook, or other portable computer, instead carrying a flash "thumb drive" to conferences and using public terminals to check my e-mail when travelling. Back in high school I was the kid who did with matrix algebra, on paper, what others did very slowly on their fancy graphics calculators, although I eventually purchased one due to the demands of homework and a desire to not program a textbook full of basic numerics in QBasic. It isn't that I'm "technologically challenged", but rather that I'm a creature of habit and one who doesn't see staying up to date as being worth the money.
But recently, with a journal deadline nearly coinciding with my return from travels to see family, I needed something that would allow me to LaTeX up a paper, code, and run some reasonably serious numerical simulations on the road--too serious for a TI-86 or 89 or HP-49 or my dust-collecting Sharp Zaurus PDA, but nothing like molecular dynamics or DFT calculations. Looking to the near future, I also needed to bring a computer that runs OpenOffice Presenter to an upcoming conference and to postdoc talks, as furnishing a computer for speakers is going the way of furnishing a slide projector.
Full sized laptops were nearly out of the question on a grad-student budget, especially since I didn't need something to replace my home or office desktop. I'd have purchased one out of necessity, but this subnotebook, ultraportable, or "netbook" fit my needs quite nicely, and for less than $300.
Asus sells several models of the Eee PC 900; this one, EEPC900-W047 includes a 16 GB solid state drive and 1 GB RAM, a custom version of Xandros Linux, and an outer case in that pearlescent white made fashionable by Apple. A matching white power brick about the size of a cellular phone and a foam rubber cover--great for preventing scratches and scuffs while being carried in a bag--round out the package. The Eee PC 900 is also sold in different colors, with different sized main storage or even two solid state drives--the second one soldered to the motherboard--or with a downgrade to Windows XP. Both the increased storage and the OS downgrade cost more money and are denoted by different letters and numerals after the hyphen in the product number. To give the OS and software "breathing space" I upgraded immediately to 2 GB RAM, before even installing the battery. A built-in SD card port allows for storage expansion, too, but I have yet to need it.
I was reluctant at first to buy anything with a Celeron, remembering that line of chips being introduced to complement Intel's "Intel Inside" FUD campaign against AMD. When introduced, the Celeron was less powerful than a K6 and sold at a higher price; the second-generation Celerons were price-competitive with Athlons but, as Athlons were better than Pentium IIIs at the time and the second-gen Celeron was a stripped down Pentium III, it was a joke. I'd rather Asus had used a Pentium M instead of a Celeron M here despite the power drain, but the chip does perform respectably, completing the standard MATLAB benchmark in what (by The Mathworks's reckoning) is six times longer than a Barton-core K7 desktop. Not bad at all for a chip designed for economy (of both power consumption and manufacture), not performance.
The default Xandros distribution hides most functionality from the user. Bringing up a terminal and changing a few settings puts one into a sort of "expert mode", but I didn't want the trouble and, moreover, thought it best to use a distribution with a broader userbase. I considered Mandriva, which I run on the desktop, but settled on Ubuntu Eee (recently renamed "Easy Peasy" to avoid two possible trademark infringements), as its defaults include certain optimizations for the Eee platform. This broke the hibernation feature, but left everything else working. OS security and bug-fix updates are frequent and minor, and nearly everything I've wanted to run is available as a .deb package, albeit built for the 386 platform. (This is Ubuntu's persistent obnoxious quirk.) The kernel and glibc are built with Pentium optimizations; it would probably be worth my while to rebuild Mozilla and X11 as well, as web browsing and windowing in general are not as crisp as I'd like.
Both Xandros and Easy Peasy come with the latest version of OpenOffice and thus a full featured word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program, all of which can open their Microsoft competitors' file formats and dozens of others. Were OpenOffice more similar to WordPerfect I'd like it better--"reveal codes" makes the user experience so much easier--but those comfortable and familiar with Word (everyone but me) will find that all the keystrokes work and nearly everything is in the same place. An equation editor is available but not part of the default installation; it's much more difficult to use than either MS Office's or WordPerfect's as its menus are less intuitive and it makes use of poorly documented text commands. The third-party LaTeX plugin is much better, albeit a bit trickier to install, and I recommend it instead.
Most of this review was written in an airport on the Eee PC 900 a few weeks before publication. The keyboard is small, certainly, but is reasonably comfortable for work, allowing for all-digit touch-typing albeit at a somewhat slower pace than on a full-size Qwerty keyboard. The keys have a short but manually reassuring travel; not enough for comfort but enough to know when something has been depressed and to avoid building too much tension. I wish a Dvorak layout were available, but Dvorak laptops are rare. (I could always just change the keymap, as I touch-type on a Dvorak keyboard at home, but the visual information on the key labels overrides whatever instincts I have for the layout.) The touch-pad mouse works, and two-touch middle-clicks and scrolling are an improvement over older single-touch pads, but when not traveling I prefer a USB mouse and keyboard.
Most of my last paper and all of its calculations were done on the Eee PC, as well. I've used it to give several presentations; it connects to projectors and resets screen resolution without hassle. It's also been dropped once, falling in its soft case out of a poorly zipped backpack onto a tile floor; everything was working well afterwards, although one end of the keyboard was a little loose feeling for the first few hundred keypresses. My only complaint concerns the Eee PC's battery life; three hours is rather short. I would rather ASUS made the Eee PC 900 a pound heavier and doubled or tripled the battery life, but lightness sells. More aggravating is that the battery drains even while the machine is powered down; expect it to lose ten to twenty percent of battery power every day it's left off and unplugged.
This late adopter doesn't regret his purchase. Netbooks have come of age. The Eee PC 900 boasts considerable functionality and durability, at a very low price. It comes with a few hassles, too, mainly due to battery life but also due to choice of Linux distribution. These hassles are absent from many more recent netbooks, but at the time of writing, the ASUS Eee PC 900 is still something bargain-hunters should seriously consider.