Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Publication Date: 05/1/2008
Archive >  May 2008 Issue >  Tech Watch > 
This 2-Pound Computer Does it All (Almost)

In last month's editorial on the Tech Op-Ed page, I waxed nostalgic about a long-lost, simple, pocket-size computer that used flash memory, but didn't have enough capability to sustain market interest. I absolutely loved that H-P Omnibook 300, but it has gone the way of the dinosaurs. But it can move over, now; I've got a new love affair going.

I am writing this on an incredibly tiny but fully-functional Windows computer called the ASUS EEE PCXP, that unlike the Omnibook 300, is selling at a very affordable price. This little baby has no hard drive, and in fact has no moving parts at all, unless you count the motion of the keys. It uses a totally solid-state memory, some 4GB of flash, wired into its tiny innards.

The screen takes some getting used to; it measures 6 x 3-1/2-in. or 7-in., diagonally. The type is tiny, naturally. I just finished editing the Management feature using its minuscule keyboard, but to write this piece, I elected to plug in my full-size Scorpius 35 keyboard with its clickety-clack Cherry keyboard and built-in trackball.It works just fine because this little computer is long on I/O ports.

3 USB Ports
It has 3 USB ports, one on the left and two on the right, widely enough spaced so you can use all 3 at the same time. There's also an SD (MMC) card slot, an external video monitor port, a networking port, and an RJ-47 phone line jack. There are also jacks for a microphone and stereo headphones.

It has a touch pad for mouse control, but responds equally well to an external mouse plugged into a USB port. It has one other "hole" in the case: a receptacle for a Kensington® locking device — as if anyone would want to steal such a tiny computer!

I first became aware of these computers when I spotted an earlier machine about a month ago on sale at B.J.'s Wholesale Club. I asked the floor manager about the computer, but she was clueless. There were two units in stock, in sealed white boxes, and the box provided zero information. So I got on the Internet and did some investigative reporting. The one on sale at B.J.'s was similar to this one, but with just a 2GB Flash Drive C. It came loaded with Linux, and was selling for $299.

The PCXP model has a 4GB Flash Drive C, is loaded with an abbreviated version of Windows® XP, and still has about 1.7GB of free space. Using a 4GB SD/MMC card will certainly take the load off the main drive, but some software is really C-drive-specific. Also on that C drive (I hesitate to call it an HDD) is Microsoft Works: Word Processor, Spreadsheet, Dictionary, PowerPoint Viewer.

WiFi Built In
Under the hood is a very sensitive WiFi card — ready and able. What the computer doesn't have is an Express card slot for my Verizon air card. So I bought a Novatel Express Card-to-USB port adapter which should solve the problem, once I can get the software installed.

And there's the rub: software typically comes on CDs, and there's no CD drive on this computer. The user manual suggests using an external CD/DVD drive plugged into a USB port because the computer's recovery software is on a DVD.

What's especially nice about this computer is that it will work very well without all that stuff — most of the time. An external pocket-size USB HDD costs peanuts these days. Western Digital 150GB drives are going for $99 at CostCo.

Getting back to that DVD recovery disc: I plan to copy it to a nice little 4GB SD card and run it from there. According to the company, it will work from the SD card, or a USB dongle.

The computer measures just 8-7/8 x 6-1/2 x 1-1/2-in. and weighs slightly less than 2 pounds. Did I mention the price? Best Buy is selling them now for $399, and I don't think they're going to be able to keep them on the shelf for long.

The Maxtor 250GB external HDD that I tried with the ASUS has two USB connectors to provide it with more electrical power, but it ran just fine using only a single connector. I found the same to be true of the two USB connectors on the Novatel Express Card adapter. One works. If you need to use two, then you're going to run out of USB ports, so you'll need to use a powered USB hub. The non-powered hubs won't cut the mustard. USB devices do draw current.

Battery Life
The Lithium-ion battery is supposed to provide 2 plus hours of computer time. That's something I have yet to test, since I only received the machine a few hours before sitting down to write this. I still have a lot of testing to do, but my overall first impression is "Wow!"

The screen is bright and clean with good definition. Sure, the type is small, but what do you expect on a 7-in. screen? I remember my first CP/M computer was an Osborne with a 5-inch screen. Now that was tiny! And somehow I managed to write and edit articles and books on it. I was just so happy I didn't have to retype my revisions. Just turned on the very slow Daisy-Wheel printer and let it run while I went to dinner with the family. After dinner, the print job was done; but the pages had to be burst and peeled.

One cautionary note: be careful with this computer around your kids. They'll want to play with it, but they may lose interest when they find out it won't play their DVDs. It sure looks like a DVD player — it's that small.

I'll be reporting more on this hardly-a-handful of computer next month, after I've had a chance to load some of my most useful software, and try it out online. It's definitely not a gutsy gaming machine, but it wasn't very long ago when a 4GB HDD was considered to be the upper echelon of storage. Times do change very quickly in this business.  

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