For years I’ve envied the tiny subnotebook PCs that are popular in Japan but usually unavailable elsewhere. Every traveling Japanese businessman seems to have one of these little critters. They run desktop apps, but they’re small enough to toss into a carry-on bag—unlike most other notebooks, whose carrying cases and accessories make them a separate piece of luggage.
Now a Taiwanese company has scored an unexpected hit with an affordable subnotebook computer that was introduced late last year. Despite humble specifications, the Asus Eee PC is selling faster than beer at a NASCAR race. It’s about the size and weight of a small book, costs $300 to $400, and has a “solid-state storage drive” (2GB to 4GB of flash memory) instead of a hard disk. The flash drive is preloaded with Linux and desktop apps, including OpenOffice and Mozilla Firefox. A custom GUI hides the Linux command line. In addition, the Eee PC has wireless networking (Wi-Fi 802.11b/g), a memory-card slot, USB ports, Ethernet, a 7-inch LCD, and a cramped but usable QWERTY keyboard.
Ironically, the Eee PC ignores the much-hyped ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) specification. Since 2006, Intel and Microsoft have led a lavish marketing campaign to promote UMPCs, which are tablet computers with touch screens and (usually) a tweaked version of Windows XP or Vista. Although some people like UMPCs, they’re much costlier than the Eee PC and aren’t generating the same buzz among users.
Frankly, for the money, the Eee PC isn’t impressive. Its 800x480-pixel screen makes web browsing clumsy. Its 900MHz Celeron-M processor is underclocked to 630MHz. And because Asus downsized the battery to save weight, the Eee PC runs for only a few hours on a charge—no better than other notebooks. For about the same price, you can buy a conventional notebook with a faster processor, roomier hard drive, more RAM, bigger screen, and better keyboard.
So why is the Eee PC so popular? It’s smaller, lighter, and customizable. It inspires tinkering and has spawned online communities of hardware and software modders. Encouraged by the Eee PC’s early success, Asus plans to introduce several new models, including some with larger screens and Windows instead of Linux. Asus is clearly onto something here. I expect other companies will soon join the bandwagon with their own teeny-weeny PCs.
Tom Halfhill was formerly a senior editor for Byte magazine and is now an analyst for Microprocessor Report.