Thursday, May 29, 2008

Could the EEE 900 be the School Computer of the Future?

My eee 900 test unit arrived on May 19th, exactly one week after the official release day. I literally ran down the stairs to the office when I saw that it had been "delivered" and the reaction from all the office ladies and parents was exactly what I had come to expect after reading about the little machine all over the net: intrigue, excitement, and enthusiasm. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited too, but I sobered up pretty quick. But let's start at the beginning.

The Plan
I've got several thousand dollars in a grant to provide the Middle School with a mobile lab. The idea of a $250 little laptop to get on Google Docs was pretty attractive and I almost pulled the trigger on an old eee 700 last month before reading about the 900's impending release and deciding that 9" is a lot bigger than 7", 1gb of RAM is a lot more than 512mb, and a 20 gig hard drive is a lot bigger than a 4 gig. (the verdict: $550 isn't $250 and 9" is still pretty stinking small).

A secondary experiment was to let some teachers try the machine out for a bit and evaluate its potential as a teacher machine. Obviously I knew the eee would be insufficient for 100% use and figured on an ideal situation of pairing up the eee with a 22" wide screen LCD, a full keyboard, mouse and printer all connected to a usb hub at work. Thus, with two simple plugs (1 from the USB hub and one VGA out) a teacher has a nice desktop setup.

The Machine
I've seen hundreds of pics of the thing online but I still wasn't prepared for exactly how small this thing is. I tried to convey its size with the picture to the right, but I think the best way to imagine it is to think of a DVD case, it really isn't much bigger than that. Tiny.

The responsiveness of the machine is pretty snappy. My student tester commented almost immediately about how fast it was. Of course she's used to P3's running Windows 2000 but I noticed it too. I did have to wait a few seconds for OpenOffice to get running (what else is new?) and there was a noticeable delay in getting the camera going, but otherwise it was faster than I expected. We're all (students and staff) on Google Apps over here so I was particularly pleased to see the impressive performance of Firefox 2. When Firefox 3 comes out it should be even better.

The user interface is pretty interesting, and while much has been made of the tabs at the top of the screen in lieu of a traditional desktop, what I found most interesting was the fact that Asus blatantly mimicked the Windows XP theme as far as buttons and menu bars (see pictures below). It's an interesting way to go, trying to lessen the Linux shock for newcomers by making things at least appear to be the same, but I suppose that's a topic for another time. In any case, I had a few people who needed help noticing the tabs at the top of the screen, but once they saw them nobody had any trouble finding what they needed. Seemed to be effective, if not exactly expected.

The multi-touch track pad is a nice feature when it works. Where it doesn't work is Firefox. I couldn't even get the track pad to scroll in Firefox, and even though my mom's HP laptop does the same thing it's a pretty egregious oversight given that Firefox is the default browser. In fact, the only program I got multi-touch to work in (not that I tried all the programs by any means) was OpenOffice. Multi-touch zoom makes a lot of sense given the small screen but it needs to work everywhere.

One annoyance was the eee's sleep function which seemed to take an abnormally long amount of time to wake up. More than once I closed the screen to move the thing and would bump into someone, go to show them the eee, press the power button to wake it up, and then wait for 10 or 15 seconds before anything even appeared on the screen. I figured for a SSD based machine that's centered around being ultra portable it would be a little faster waking up. Not sure what the problem is there but it's a pain.

Connectivity for me wasn't an issue as far as the Internet was concerned. I took the eee home for a night and it flawlessly connected not only to my wireless network (simple WPA protected Linksys Wireless G) but to my buddy's wireless as well. Connecting to a networked printer was a different story though. The process was a little more complicated than it probably should have been (and way more complicated than with Ubuntu) and then, after supposedly installing the drivers, would not print to a simple HP LaserJet 4050.

Peripheral support and drivers is always the Achilles heel of Linux distros and Xandros appears to be no different. This was a big strike for my plan because many teachers print not only to their locally connected printer, but to various networked laser printers and even directly to the Canon ImageRunner copiers we've got in the workroom. If the eee can't handle an HP 4050 there's little chance it's going to be able to manage all the other printers we've got around campus.

The Screen
9" does not seem too small at first. That seemed to be the general thought of almost everyone who saw the eee. I did notice, however, that after just a few minutes of use the 9" screen gets pretty tedious to use. Maybe I just got used to my new 22" wide screen but I think 9" is actually just really small. My student tester definitely commented on the size after playing around for just a few minutes. Definitely not the way to go if a lot of work needs to be done over a long period of time. Reading Internet articles may be fine for a while, I haven't tried it out yet.

The eee does have a VGA out on the side, but it does not auto detect an external monitor and requires the user to press "function+F4" to send the video signal. Pressing the combination again will enable video to both the eee and the external monitor as is generally customary with laptops. I was kind of hoping for auto detect, but it isn't a big deal.

1024 by 600 is the standard resolution of the 9" screen, but that can be changed on an external monitor to the more standard 1024 by 768. Unfortunately this must be done manually not only when the external monitor is connected, but also undone when it is disconnected. This is no small matter since, as you can see from the pictures above, in 1024 by 768 resolution the eee cuts off the bottom of the screen which not only eliminates significant parts of displayed content but also eliminates the lower panel with the clock and status bar and everything. It's too bad auto detect of external monitors wasn't figured out because that could have solved this issue as well.

That 1024 by 768 is the highest output resolution for the eee was a major strike against it in my book. To really take advantage of a 22" wide screen monitor, teachers would need a significantly higher resolution than that, and they certainly aren't going to want to be manually changing the settings every time the pick the thing up to take it across the room or something.

The Keyboard
Much has been made of the minute eee keyboard on the Internet, but in my experience this was the least concerning aspect of the machine. Nearly everyone who tried out the eee made a few errors off the bat, but within just a few minutes was typing almost as regularly as they would be on a normal keyboard. My experience was no different. It seems like Asus has basically just eliminated any part of the key that you don't normally touch, like the corners and the very top and bottom. It does make the margin for error much smaller, but in direct opposition to the 9" screen, the keyboard gets less irritating with time.

I certainly understand how it could be unusable for someone with huge hands, but you can see below how well it fits a sixth grade student's fingers versus an adults. Despite this, even my student tester had a little difficulty making the adjustment at first. This would indicate that keyboard size is an acquired preference rather than an innate one for most people. I don't think the keyboard could get any smaller, but in contrast to the 9" screen, I don't see a pressing need for Asus to go much bigger at this time.

Conclusions
Despite my own reservations about the eee 900, since I started loaning it out to teachers last week it's gotten nothing but positive results. Women especially seem to like it (maybe because they can see carrying it in a purse?) which is good since 80% of our staff is female. I think the reason for this is twofold: first, they really do like the small form factor offered by the eee. The EEE makes a lot of sense if a teacher is going to be carrying a computer around to IEP meetings in the morning, staff meetings after school, and home at night. Second, I think the teachers fail to understand the limitations they would have in trying to use the eee as their sole machine. Nobody is really using it as a replacement for their desktop yet (maybe that is the next step) which means that every dead end the come to whether it's printing or eye fatigue from working on a tiny screen can be solved by simply hopping on their trusty old Windows 2000 box.

As far as students are concerned I've all but ruled the eee out as a viable option for the mobile lab. The advantages that the eee presents to users (mainly those related to increased mobility) simply aren't applicable to students working in a classroom. When my student tester confessed that she'd rather be working on a full size laptop I didn't really need to hear anymore. At $250 it might be tempting enough to try, but with Lenovo and Dell regularly offering sub-$500 notebooks now, there just aren't enough reasons to go with the eee. Maybe the new Dell UMPC will fit the bill a little better. Cheers! -joe

1 comment:

Alfred said...

Nice review, but what about spending less money on the Shuttles at this URL? Admittedly less portable and you need to buy monitors as well, but in a non-portable lab, I think these could save you a lot of money.
But if you need to move them around, the Eee would be the right move...

http://us.shuttle.com/kpc/buy.html