Asus EEE PC

ASUS Eee PC 4G - Pearl White Intel processor 7
One of the more surprising products to come down the pike of late has been the Asus EEE PC. Here are the basic specs:

  • Intel Celeron M ULV 900 MHz processor
  • Storage: 4 GB of flash-based storage (solid state)
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Screen: 7 inches, 800×480, with speakers on both sides
  • Ports: 3 USB, 1 VGA out, headphone/mic, SD card reader, Ethernet
  • Extras: 0.3 MP webcam, 802.11 b/g wireless

Thats’s almost a perfect distillation of the most-used hardware features. Note that there’s no hard drive, just a 4GB SSD disk. That cuts down on power and weight, at the obvious expense of storage capacity (but 4GB is plenty for basic office documents and such. You can’t expect to drop your Picasa or iTunes folders on here).

The software stack is also strong – Asus worked with Xandros for a customized distribution and window interface, that comes preloaded with a very well-thought out list of preloaded apps, grouped into tabbed categories: Internet, Work, Learn, and Play (and Settings). The apps include Skype, Firefox, a universal Messenger client, Open Office, a media player, and shortcuts to Wikipedia and Youtube. If this isn’t enough, Asus does plan to introduce a Windows version in 2008 (presumably at a higher price point).

The review at Notebook Review was gushing:

In the end, the Eee PC is the single most impressive notebook we’ve seen priced below $400. The technical specs might look sub par, but the usability and overall performance of the Eee PC rivals notebooks costing several thousand dollars more. Granted, you can’t install Photoshop on this little notebook and you can forget about playing Bioshock on this thing, but the Eee PC can do just about everything you “need” to do with a notebook while on the go.
[…]
As it stands now, the Eee PC is a truly impressive ultraportable with a value much higher than the sale price suggests. The Eee PC can’t replace a full-featured desktop or notebook, but it makes the perfect choice if you are in the market for an ultraportable notebook for school, work, or vacation.

Note however that with three USB ports (more than I have on my Thinkpad T42, note) you can basically extend the machine’s capability in true flex computing fashion. In fact it makes sense for the PC to be as”light” as possible in a flex computing environment; just add a external graphics card, disk drive, DVD player, and a few other bells and whistles and you’ve got a complete workstation.

tiny asus eeeThe bottom line is that this little PC pretty much suffices for the vast majority of casual users who need a PC for travel, wireless internet access, basic office work, and managing media. And it’s tiny (2lbs) and cheap: $399 retail at Best Buy or online at New Egg.

no snarl

Shamus has a familiar lament, the tangled nest of power cables, USB, and other assorted cables lurking beneath the average GeekDesk. He names it the Snarl, an apt name indeed. However, I recently managed to defeat the Snarl. I am now Snarl-free – behold:

I haven’t solved the miracle of wireless electricity. The secret to beating the Snarl is simple: cable management. Here’s a peek beneath the “hood”:

That’s the SIGNUM cable guide from Ikea that was designed to work with my JERKER model desk. Even if you don’t have that specific combo, you can achieve much the same thing with generic cable guides available from Radio Shack or Fry’s, or roll your own solution. I got the idea from Lifehacker, though I dispensed with the zip ties. It’s worked like a charm.

Of course there are people who take this sort of thing to another level entirely. But my ambition is far less; for my next act I’ll settle for adding a 4ft power strip to simplify things a bit more (inspiration from Gina). I’ve also got two more Snarls lurking behind the file cabinet on the left to tackle, but for now, out of sight, out of mind…

It’s worth noting that the Snarl is bad enough with a desktop environment, but it can only get worse with flex computing (ie, using a laptop as your main PC and externalizing everything). As the number of peripherals multiplies, the Snarl will become more powerful. However, in addition to physical cable management there are also technological solutions, like Bluetooth and Wireless USB that you can leverage.

A closeup and my gadget inventory below the fold: Continue reading “no snarl”

flex computing

I’ve been sounding on a theme for a while about how I believe laptop computers are displacing desktops for the majority of personal (and business) applications. My view is that desktops will eventually be relegated solely to the workstation, server, and the high-end gamer markets, with some variation of laptops or “thin” desktops based on a laptop platform accounting for everything else. The key to this is using USB hubs and bluetooth to externalize the major computing components, including external graphics cards, storage, DVD. audio hubs, etc. When wireless USB goes mainstream this process will be even more accelerated. When going mobile however, you leave all that behind and run off the integrated graphics, sound, etc in a minimalist, lightweight configuration. Hence one box gives you the best of both worlds.

Along these lines there are some new technology developments worth mentioning. First, new external audio cards by ASUS, the Xonar U1, which

uses high-quality digital to analog convertors for crisp and clear music, games and movies. Gamers will like the fact that it supports EAX and DirectSound HW acceleration for gaming in Windows Vista and XP.

A headphone amplifier is built-in and other system specs include 96dB SNR and a frequency response of 20~20KHz at 32 ohms. ASUS claims the device can convert stereo audio to 5.1 virtual surround sound to give gamers positional audio cues. This sort of thing has been claimed before, but is rarely pulled off well.

An array microphone is bundled with the Xonar U1 and those wanting real surround sound will appreciate the SPDIF output with Dolby Digital Encoding.

xonar u1

Meanwhile, ATI has launched a new external TV card, the TV Wonder 650, which:

acts as a DVR tuner in order to record high-definition, digital, and analog content. Users can then use ATI’s Catalyst Media Center software to record television shows “for viewing on portable media devices such as the Apple iPhone, iPod, Microsoft Zune, Palm Treo, and Sony PSP,” an AMD spokesperson told Ars.

Features include support for Windows XP and Vista, as well as inputs for analog TV, FM radio, S-video, ATSC or ClearQAM F-type Coax for HDTV, stereo, and composite video.

ATI TV wonder 650

So, now video editing and media center functionality can be added to the home station. Of course, that requires more storage, so it’s also worth mentioning that recent advances in hard drive technology – for which a Nobel Prize was recently awarded – mean we will be looking at 1TB hard drives for laptops in the very near future.

The intriguing thing is that the trend is already in full swing; notebooks are already outselling desktops and have been for some time. I think that the change ahead is in how people use their computers, not what type they buy. It’s still very hard to predict what the typical consumer’s computing model will look like in 5 years’ time, especially with WiMax on the horizon. The ability to reconfigure your computing space, coupled with immediate and universal broadband access, is going to lead to a flexibility that we’ve simply never had before.

external graphics cards

This has intriguing potential ramifications for computer design downstream:

A new PCI Express standard has been approved that will allow for the development of and operation of external PCIe graphics cards. Dubbed the PCI Express External Cabling specification and approved by the PCI Special Interest Group (PCI-SIG), version 1.0 extends PCIe outside of the case.

The most obvious application for the new standard is external enclosures for graphics cards. Once you get past the price tag, the biggest barriers for many who would want to deploy a dual SLI or Crossfire system are heat, power, and space. Newer GeForce and Radeon graphics cards can emit a lot of heat while demanding a significant amount of power under high load. In addition, the need for large heat sinks and fans often means that you lose a second slot to a single PCIe graphics card.

Now imagine sticking a pair of graphics cards into an external enclosure with its own power supply and fan, hooking your monitor to that, and connecting it to your PC or even a laptop. Those are the kinds of possibilities opened up by the External Cable specification.

The advantages are well-summarized above, but take the idea further. We already have external bulk storage and external sound cards for laptops. Now imagine that via Bluetooth you also divorce the keyboard and mouse. External optical drives are also easier to deal with than internal bays. What’s left? Just a core that contains your essential apps and your critical data. You could conceivably just carry a small brick around, that is your computing core, and have it seamlessly adapt to your pre-defined computing environments. One might have an ultralight notebook chassis with a 14inch screen for travel; a beefed up desktop unit for the office and a silent SFF PC for the home. Your core is what contains your user profile and OS and authentication; biometrics keep it secure from anyone else’s use but yours. The bulk of your data remains accessible securely over the internet, by hooking up your master data store to a router with fixed IP and using strong encryption and VPN connections.

I’m sure this isn’t an original thought. Still, bears thinking about the advantages over the modern era. At the very least you’d only need to buy one copy of Windows 🙂

waiting for Santa Rosa

Anandtech has a comparison of the Yonah and Merom processors from Intel – known more popularly as Core Duo and Core Duo 2 – and concludes:

Overall, Merom may not be as big of an upgrade to Yonah as Conroe was to NetBurst, but the bottom line is that you get equal or better performance in every test without increasing cost or decreasing battery life. Owners of Core Duo laptops really have no reason to worry about upgrading for now, and waiting for the Santa Rosa platform before your next laptop upgrade seems reasonable. Those looking to purchase a new notebook on the other hand have no reason to avoid Core 2 Duo models, assuming pricing is consistent with what Intel is promising. There will be a delay of at least a few more weeks as we await availability, and testing and validation by laptop manufacturers may delay things a bit more, but within the next month or so you should be able to get a Core 2 laptop.

I bought my T42 Thinkpad with a Dothan chip (ie, Yonah’s predescessor, the Pentium M). I have no regrets; I bought the T42 in December and have used it heavily. As Anand points out, the Santa Rosa platform will really give Merom it’s full potential – primarily the counterintuitive impact that increasing the front-side bus speed will have for lengthening battery life:

With Santa Rosa, clock speeds will go up slightly but more importantly we’ll get access to a faster FSB. Unfortunately a side-effect of keeping Core 2 Duo fed with a faster FSB is that while performance may go up, battery life may go down. It’ll be interesting to see what Intel can pull off with the new platform; one of the funny things about performance and battery life is that if you can complete a task quickly enough thus returning your CPU to an idle state faster, battery life will grow even though instantaneous power consumption may be higher.

Note that the other big selling point for Santa Rosa is 802.11n wireless, which promises much improved range and bandwidth. However, the 11n standard got delayed again, so the impact on Santa Rosa’s rollout is unclear. I think we won’t really see Santa Rosa until midyear 2008, which is really fine by me.

Another reason it’s worth waiting is because of storage technology. A big technological advance is perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR), which promises higher data density (and thus, more GB for the buck). Seagate has already introduced a 200GB notebook drive using PMR technology, though it only runs at 4200 rpm. Presently, you can find notebook drives up to 160GB running at 7200 rpm, so I imagine that by the start of 2008 we should see PMR drives sized 200GB and above at 7200 rpm as standard.

But more important than PMR is the new hybrid drive technology. Hybrid drives use a flash-based disk in addition to the rotating platters as a kind of super-cache. This technology is being developed jointly by Samsung and Microsoft, and Windows Vista will be heavily optimized for hybrid drives, for both performance boost and longer battery life.

Overall, notebooks in 2008 are going to have a lot of these “incremental” seeming changes under the hood. But the net effect should be pretty dramatic gains in usability. The ultimate goal: a laptop that you can take anywhere, all day. We aren’t there yet but we will be a lot closer in 2008.