I'm a contractor. This means I've moved around a lot working in different offices, and I've often lamented the lack of a means of checking my email and searching for jobs without using the client's Internet facilities (which would probably be barred anyway).
Anyone who's tried to do serious browsing or emailing on a mobile phone will probably relate to how bloody frustrating it is, so I decided that a small laptop was needed. One I could bring into work and connect to mobile roadband with. I needed something light, with a proper keyboard, reasonably sized screen, but small enough to be innocuous and not arouse corporate suspicion that I may be writing this review rather than designing service management processes. I didn't want to spend a lot, and there isn't a lot available under the £400 mark that I was prepared to live with or spend the money on. Most options were compromises between price, weight, and functionality.
Except for the ASUS Eee PC. A small sub-notebook running a customized Linux build and coming pre-loaded with Openoffice, Skype, and several other tools. The manufacturers have done a good job of providing you with just about everything you'd need day to day. You can create documents, spreadsheets, and databases. You can watch movies (DivX supported out the box), play a few games, listen to MP3s and connect to the net through the built in wireless, modem or RJ45 network port (or external USB 3g modem but more on this in a moment) and talk to people on Skype and Pidgin instant Messenger which supports major chat networks (MSN,AIM,YIM,AOL, and ICQ plus others). Handily, and curiously, the manufacturers have provided application icons which are links to Google Docs and Wikipedia – giving these the impression of being applications rather than mere web addresses.
The 7" screen is small but usable, and the battery life is quoted as being 3.5 hours (depending on use). The Eee has a QWERTY keyboard which, though smaller than a full size keyboard, still allows fairly rapid typing with few mistakes once you get used to it. The Eee has 3 USB 2.0 ports, and external VGA connector as well as headphone & microphone jacks plus a smart card expansion slot.
In the box, as well as the Eee, mains charger, manual, quick start guide, warranty card and restore CD come a support CD with Windows XP drivers and an instruction guide detailing how to install XP. Having even having been a Windows user for years, I'm actually very happy with the standard Linux OS and applications and installing Windows is something I've not needed to consider.
The Eee PC comes in several variants, there's the 2GB version and the 4GB versions available at launch, and recently an 8Gb version has been released also. Both the 2Gb and 4Gb can come either with or without a built in webcam – the Surf model deontes that the unit doesn't have one. There doesn't appear to be a 'Surf' version of the 8Gb yet, although with ASUS having recently announced at the CeBIT show that a whole new version was being launched (with a 9" screen and more storage amongst other changes) it's possible they may not want to put more effort in developing variants of the existing range.
I mentioned 3g mobile broadband. Extensive reviews of Internet forums and other reviews indicates that a few 3g USB modems are supported out the box by the Eee. One of these is the Huawei E220 which, handily, is provided by ThreeUK on their mobile broadband package and which, if you sign up for a 12 month contract, costs £10/month for 1Gb transfer and will cost you £50 up front for the modem (it's free on 18 month contracts).
Mobile browsing is impressively fast on HSDPA (3.5g) and on 3g networks. The Eee performs well although is slightly slower at loading sites such as Facebook. Overall, browsing is a pleasant experience.
If you turn off wireless, dim the screen, turn off sound and don't connect to the net, then I can realistically use the Eee for about 3 hours before getting low battery warnings. With the external 3g modem connected or wireless turned on, this drops to roughly 90 minutes in total, (slightly less if I split this into several sessions throughout the day with multiple power ups and shut downs). There's still enough juice to turn it on, check my mail and surf for 10 mins and shut it down again about 4 or 5 times during the day as well as play the frozen bubble game for a while! So for my usage, the battery life is just about sufficient.
Overall I'm very very happy with my purchase. It does what I need it to, and more. For the money this is awesome value when you consider what it does. However there is one huge downside. When I use it in the office, everyone comes over and wants to have a play, which is a nightmare when I'm trying to poke people on Facebook. But then again I should probably be doing work anyway…