You don't need a computer industry divining rod to sense a change in the air. Business users and consumers alike are turning to mobile computing in droves, on the way to relegating the once-dominant desktop computer platform to also-ran status. But these mobile computers aren't just traditional notebooks: They're also Tablet PCs, Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs), smart phones, iPhones, and other connected devices. They're the PC equivalent of crossover vehicles, multifunction devices that can handle a surprising array of functionality with aplomb.

Most interesting about many of these devices, at least to me, is that they typically eschew Windows for open source alternatives based on Linux. The first two machines I'll be looking at in this series--the Asus Eee PC that's the subject of this review, and the OLPC XO notebook, which I'll look at in the coming weeks--both use Linux by default, though it's worth noting that the Asus officially supports installing Windows XP, and OLPC expects Microsoft to deliver XP support by the end of 2008. While many open source-friendly pundits have been predicting the advent of the "year of desktop Linux" for, well, years now, it's never really happened. But these machines are Linux's best bet yet. I think they're going to change a lot of people's attitudes about Linux.

A tiny laptop from Asus

Our first contender, the too-cutely-named-for-its-own-good Asus Eee PC, comes from a company that few PC users are likely aware of. Asus has been in the hardware business for years, typically making motherboards for companies like Apple and Sony, but they also make and market their own lines of mobile computers. In the Microsoft-centric view of the world, Asus first came to prominence in the years leading up to Vista's release. Asus was the only company really showing off Sideshow-equipped laptops for a while there. I've always sort of viewed them as an ODM of sorts, a company that makes the machines that other companies rebrand and sell.

Anyway. It turns out that Asus does indeed make and sell PCs of their own. And one of them--the Eee PC--is setting the world on fire. Asus claims that the Eee PC was America's most wanted Christmas gift of 2007 (no politically correct "holiday season" for them, thank you very much), citing evidence from online shopping destinations like CNET and Amazon.com. Given the success of products like the Nintendo Wii and Apple iPhone, I'm not sure what to make of that claim. But I do know this much: Not only is the Eee PC a phenomenal success, it deserves to be one as well.

The Eee PC is a truly tiny notebook computer. It's available in several configurations, which we'll examine in a moment, but they all share a number of characteristics: A 7-inch widescreen display running at 800 x 480 resolution; a full-featured if small keyboard; an ultra-low-voltage Intel microprocessor and supporting chipset; wireless and wired networking capabilities; 2 to 8 GB of solid-state disk (SSD) storage in lieu of a traditional hard drive, along with SD-based expansion capabilities; stereo sound; and, best of all, a travel weight of less than 2.5 pounds. That's about a third the weight of the laptop I typically lug around. Be still my heart.

Asus sells a number of Eee PC models. At the low end is the version I'm testing, the Eee PC 2G Surf, which comes with 512 MB of RAM and 2 GB of SSD storage. (In the default Linux install that comes on the system, a paltry 391 MB of storage space is available so expanding via SD is advisable.) Asus also sells a 4 GB version of the Surf, as well as an Eee PC 4G product that adds an integrated Web camera. The highest-end Eee PC product, the Eee PC 8G, features 1 GB of RAM and 8 GB of SSD, plus the Webcam.

One final note about the configurations: All of the non-Surf models have upgradeable RAM. So if you want to upgrade to 2 GB of RAM on an Eee PC, you can do so. This isn't possible with the Surf unit I purchased, but 512 MB of RAM is OK as a bare bones minimum for Linux or XP. Just don't expect any heavy multitasking.

Looking at the device itself, a number of things become obvious immediately. First, the Eee PC is absolutely tiny: It makes my other laptops look like Escalade-class SUVs by comparison. It's even tiny compared to the OLPC XO, which isn't exactly an enormous machine. This is one small computer.

The Eee PC is also surprisingly full-featured. It has three USB ports, an SD slot, VGA out, Ethernet networking, and microphone and headphone ports on its sides. It's small keyboard, while too tiny for my gorilla fingers, is ideal for children and more normally proportioned adults, and the trackpad has both left and right mouse button functionality (via a single button) as well as scrolling capabilities. If the controls are too small, no problem: Any USB-based keyboard or mouse will work just fine, even in Linux. Very interesting.

Open up the Eee PC and turn it on, and you'll be struck by some other obvious facts: It boots incredibly quickly--in about 20-30 seconds--and then eschews the standard menu/desktop set up used by most operating systems for a simpler, tabbed-based UI that's more suited for the small screen and low resolution. There are tabs for Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings, and Favorites, each with huge, single-clickable icons. The resulting windows, amusingly, are visually identical to the silver XP theme, so there's that little bit of familiarity for Windows users at least.

Many of the applications that are preloaded on the Eee PC will be immediately familiar. There's Mozilla Firefox 2 (hidden under the "Web" icon in Internet and other places), Skype, OpenOffice.org (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations), and Adobe Reader. And for those not familiar with Linux, there are a few unfamiliar applications as well. For instant messaging, we're given the Pidgin applications, which works with AIM, Google Talk, MSN, Yahoo, and other networks, the Linux stalwart Tux Racer (here called PlanetPenguin Racer), and an electronic dictionary from Pearson Longman.

At a superficial level, the Eee PC does a nice job of hiding the complexities and unfamiliarity of Linux beneath its friendly looking UI. But you don't have to dig deep to see Linux rear its ugly head. From the byzantine Linux file system that pops up in OpenOffice.org Open/Save dialogs to the oddly complex wireless networking setup dialogs to the inconsistent look and feel of the various applications and applets that populate the system, you'll be occasionally reminded that you're in the Wild West, baby. This isn't daddy's Windows OS any more.

And you know what? That's just fine. The Eee PC relies heavily on open source and Web-based solutions that, quite frankly, are pretty comfortable. Aside from a few issues--I never did get my network-attached printers working, for example--most of what's available in the Eee PC is, if not actually familiar, at least familiar enough. I mean, no one's going to replace a full-featured Windows PC with this little tchotchke. It's a mobile companion, not a desktop replacement.

From a performance standpoint, the Eee PC is solid if not spectacular. OpenOffice.org is as slow as ever to load, but runs acceptably once it's up and running. More problematic is the tiny 800 x 480 screen: Some applications, even some dialogs, just expect more screen real estate. Fortunately, most of what ships with the Eee PC seems to be tailored for this low resolution. The odd dialog sticks below the bottom of the screen, but that's about it. Power management is seamless: Close the lid, it goes to sleep; open it up, you're back up and running almost immediately.

It seems great, but two questions remain. The first is: What exactly is the target audience for this device? I only have a partial answer to this. So far, both my wife and son have expressed interest in the Eee PC, and though my wife doesn't think she'll ever want to get serious writing done on the device, she says it would be ideal for email and Web browsing. My son's "needs" are less pragmatic: He just thinks it's cool looking. And he's right, it is. So the Eee PC will likely appeal mostly to students and those who want a highly mobile computing/wireless Internet device but find the iPhone or other smart phones too constraining.

The second question concerns Windows XP. Though Asus doesn't include the OS with the machine, it does include a handy Windows XP Installation Guide explaining exactly how to make it work. I have everything needed to make this happen--the XP SP2 install disk and a USB-based DVD drive--but I don't really see this as a huge need. Frankly, the inclusion of Linux on the machine (and a watered down, friendlier version of Linux at that) sets the mood accordingly when you're using the device: This is a machine that's designed to do less, and on a budget. And I think that just makes sense. Putting XP on there would just amplify the Eee PC's shortcomings because you'd expect it to work as well as your other Windows PCs. (Maybe. I'll probably install XP on there just to test it; Asus also includes a Linux recovery CD in case you get too adventurous and want to go back.)

Final thoughts

The Eee PC is too small, too underpowered, and is completely incompatible with the Windows applications I need to use every day. And yet, despite all this, I find myself curiously drawn to this cute little computer. It's like a 3/4 scale notebook computer, precious and colorful, friendly and open where other notebooks are just cool calculating machines designed solely for work. I won't ever be able to effectively use this PC personally as it's just too small. But my goodness, it's cheap and it really does work. For much of the world, this would be an ideal computing companion, better than devices like the iPhone for Web browsing and email, certainly, and much more portable than any other true computer. It's cute, and I like it quite a bit. I think you will too. Highly recommended.