Asus Eee Top PC ET1602
Price: $550 (MSRP) (Dropping to $499 May 1, 2009)
Pros: compact and stylish; touch-screen LCD display; integrated Wi-Fi, Webcam, and (good sounding) speakers
Cons: modest performance; no optical drive, includes wired keyboard and mouse
For about a year or so now, the compact and inexpensive systems known as netbooks have been a bright spot in an otherwise moribund PC industry. Netbooks (most of which have price tags between $300 and $500) have been selling in droves to those who need basic functionality and for whom portability and price trump performance.
Asus’ Eee PC was one of the first netbooks to hit the market, and the company is now early out of the gate with the Eee Top–a related class of system known as the all-in-one “nettop”—which is designed to be an alternative to a traditional desktop PC.
The Asus Eee Top PC ET1602 ($550 MSRP, but often under $500 online) is a compact and integrated system with such features as a built-in Webcam, draft 802.11n Wi-Fi, and a touch-enabled LCD display. The Eee Top comes with Windows XP, and has internals that are pretty much standard-issue netbook–a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU, 1 GB of DDR2 RAM, and a 160 GB 5400 RPM SATA hard drive. Graphics chores are handled by the system’s Intel 945 Express chipset, which drives the Eee Top’s 15.6-inch widescreen LCD display at a resolution of 1366 x 768. Unfortunately, there is no optical drive.
Svelte and stylish
When you unbox the Eee Top it’s hard not to be struck by how sleek and stylish the system is. It’s clad mostly in glossy black plastic (white is also available) with a transparent base that reflects a strip of glowing blue light whenever the unit is powered on. The system measures about 16 inches wide by 13 1/2 inches high by 2 inches deep; depending on how steeply you angle its tilting stand, the Eee Top can consume a swath of desk space anywhere from 6 to 12 inches deep.
Given that it weighs around 9 1/2 pounds without its external power supply and accoutrements, the Eee Top isn’t portable in the strict netbook/notebook sense. It is, on the other hand, small and light enough to transport between rooms if desired. A sturdy built-in handle lets you do this without difficulty, and also provides a way to precisely adjust the Eee Top’s display angle for optimal visibility. Compared to a typical desktop PC, the Eee Top runs quiet and cool–you’ll barely hear a peep out of the system, and it doesn’t spew forth a lot of heat (the power supply is an external brick and a relatively small one at that).
The 1.3 megapixel camera sits perched above the Eee Top’s LCD display next to twin microphone inputs, and below the LCD are pushbutton brightness and volume controls along with the power button and another that will turn the LCD off (the aforementioned blue light stays on, however, which might prove bothersome in a bedroom at night). The built-in speakers support SRS simulated surround sound, and unlike most display-integrated speakers they produce decent and distortion-free volume and don’t sound especially “tinny” or hollow.You get a plethora of ports with the Eee Top, starting with a side-mounted SD/MS/MMC card slot and pair of USB ports. Around back, there’s Gigabit Ethernet, audio jacks for headphone, microphone, and line in, and four more USB ports. You’ll need one of those USB ports to plug in the Eee Top’s keyboard and mouse (the latter can plug into yet another USB port on the keyboard). The space-saving keyboard is considerably narrower than the PC–it omits a numeric keypad–and key travel is shallow, but the keys are decently sized and spaced and offer enough feedback to make typing comfortable. The Eee Top really needs a wireless keyboard/mouse combo, though, as the wires get in the way and spoil the system’s otherwise clean look. Asus says wireless input devices are under consideration for future versions.
A nice touch
To simplify touch interaction with the Eee Top, Asus includes a couple of custom interface elements. One is Easy Mode, a full-screen, multiple-tabbed desktop with oversized icons you can use to launch many Windows programs, as well as the Eee Top’s bundled applications and utilities. The other is the Eee Bar, which hides off-screen when not in use, and when summoned (by touching/clicking a stub on the lower left edge of the screen), provides quick access buttons for frequently-used programs.
Unfortunately, the ability to customize the Asus interface utilities is nil to non-existent. You can modify the Eee Bar, but since there are only eight buttons provided and they’re all used, you must delete one to add another of your own. You can’t add or delete programs from Easy Mode at all.
To keep the Eee Top’s screen fingerprint-free, the Eee Top includes a stylus which stows away in a hidey-hole within the keyboard. (Holding either your finger or the stylus in place for about two seconds lets you perform the equivalent of a mouse right-click.)
Asus is to be commended for not loading up the Eee Top with a ton of junkware. Most of the bundled software is actually useful, and although much is available for free (things like Adobe’s Acrobat Reader, Skype, and the Opera Web browser) it at least saves you the trouble of having to download those items yourself. Asus also bundles Sun’s StarOffice productivity suite, which is a $35 derivative of the free and open source OpenOffice.org software.
The Eee Top includes a handful of custom utilities, as well. A particularly handy one is Eee Memo, which lets you leave handwritten post-it style notes for other members of your household, and another is an on-screen keyboard (larger and more useful than the standard XP one) for times you’d rather tap keys than type. There’s also a Webcam utility and Windows Media Center-like tool for audio, video, and photo viewing.
With its modest processor and meager amount of RAM, the Eee Top isn’t cut out for heavy-duty computing–forget about gaming or editing your home movies on it. That said, it’s more than up to the task for basic connectivity and Internet-centric chores. We had no trouble with things like Web browsing, e-mail, IM, voice calls via Skype, or even placeshifting the living room TV by streaming standard-def video from a Slingbox. When we tried video calls with Skype, everything looked and sounded good on our end, but those we communicated with often complained of a low frame rate when viewing our video feed.
Overall, the Eee Top feels quick and responsive provided you’re not trying to run more than a couple of programs at a time, otherwise the Eee Top’s processor and memory ceilings become quickly apparent. (RAM isn’t expandable.)
Eee Top or desktop?
For the same $500 or so it will cost you take home an Eee Top, you can admittedly buy a low-end desktop and monitor equipped with a dual-core CPU, more RAM, a larger hard drive, and a DVD drive to boot. That PC will undoubtedly perform better than the Eee Top, but it will also be noisier and more power-hungry, take up a lot more space, and it won’t include your niceties like a touch-screen or integrated Wi-Fi. Deciding between the Eee Top and $500 worth of full-size laptop is a tougher call, but the latter still won’t give you the touch screen or the aesthetics that the Eee Top delivers. Like the netbooks from which it spawned, the Eee Top comes with its share of compromises, and isn’t suitable as a primary PC. But if you need wireless Web connectivity and basic computing capability in a tight space–a kitchen, a bedroom—and value cool looks and touch-screen convenience, the Eee Top PC ET 1602 should be on your shopping list.
Joseph Moran is a veteran technology journalist and regular reviewer of laptops and other mobile devices and hardware for Wi-Fi Planet.