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The Asus EeeTop: A Nettop in Search of a Mission

By Jack M. Germain
Jun 11, 2009 4:00 AM PT

The Asus EeeTop ET1602 is an interesting computer with some potential for home and business use. However, it will surely cause considerable discussion over what users might really do with it.

The Asus EeeTop: A Nettop in Search of a Mission

The ET1602 is essentially a netbook-like computer with a 14-inch by 8-inch LCD touchscreen wrapped around it. With an overall unit measurement of 16 X 11.5 inches, it's in some ways a fully functional computer, and in others it's more reminiscent of a wireless PDA from yesteryear.

 Asus EeeTop ET1602

Sure, you can attach the included 12.5-by-5.5-inch keyboard (sans keypad) and mouse to it and have a nifty portable computer sporting a non-clamshell design. Or you can move it around from room to room with its built-in handle attached to the back. Leave the mouse and keyboard behind, and use your finger and a virtual on-screen keyboard for input instead -- but what else can you do with it?

Heck, my several-year-old HP widescreen laptop has the same-sized LCD screen and a bigger keyboard. Plus, it has a built-in optical drive (the ET1602 does not come with an external drive) and a more spacious hard drive. So what is to gain? The new Atom N270 + 945 GSE processor in the Asus pales in performance to the aging AMD Turion64 mobile processor in my laptop.

Still, the Top conveniently plays audio and video selections on any tabletop or wall, and serves nicely as a digital photo presenter. The EeeTop also can be a nifty way to provide presentations at meetings. Just wherever you put it, make sure a power supply is nearby, as Asus does not consider the EeeTop to be a fully portable computer -- it lacks a built-in battery.

Failed OS Flexibility

Perhaps the EeeTop is a device that paves the way for the future of computing. This device is easy to lug around at barely 10 lbs., and it is convenient to reach over and enter notes and quick emails and perform other computing tasks just by touching the screen.

If Asus can upgrade the Windows XP operating system (OS) to run Windows Vista or even Windows 7, the EeeTop might have some staying power. Windows XP's days are numbered as Microsoft shuts down its long-term support. Few alternatives to running an out-of-date OS on this unit may exist.

My hopes for running Linux on the Top were dashed. When I used an external DVD drive to run a Ubuntu Linux Live CD session on the EeeTop, the effort failed. The video system just would not work beyond producing a black screen and a badly disconfigured rainbow array when I tried to jump-start the configuration using Generic settings.

The Top also failed to handle Linux via booting a session of Puppy Linux from the CD and USB drives. Except for two very old and underpowered vintage laptops, I have never not been able to get Puppy Linux to run on any computer.

Netbook Alternative?

I suppose the concept behind the all-in-one EeeTop computer is to solve the shortcomings of tiny netbooks with their puny keyboards and eye-straining screens. Once I disconnected the EeeTop's keyboard and mouse and truly got into touchscreen computing, I recognized the novelty of the computer and wished the virtual keyboard and SoftStylus features came with my netbook.

Typing on the virtual keyboard and scratching letters in the SoftStylus writing window was actually fun. The letters from the SoftStylus pad instantly appeared on the document page. Fun as they were, however, the acts of typing on the virtual keyboard and trying to write legibly on the SoftStylus pad were both also awkward. It takes practice to do either productively. Obviously, any large data-entry jobs will still require the physical keyboard.

Using my finger, I often smudged the screen and pressed two adjacent keys. The letter-recognition software is much more accurate than the earlier versions of this technology that I once used on a PDA. Still, my sloppy penmanship was my nemesis here, as it always has been in writing script.

I resorted to using a stylus from an out-of-use PDA. For some reason, Asus does not include a stylus with the EeeTop. The company does, however, include a spot to store one on the back of the unit.

The Configuration

The Atom processor is augmented with 1 GB DDR2 memory (nonuppgradable) and the Intel GMA 950 graphics system. Internal storage is provided by a SATAII 5400 rpm hard drive partitioned into 40 GB for the OS and 104 GB for data storage.

Also built in is a 1.3 megapixel webcam and a microphone. Located on the center of the lower front panel, the speakers approach the quality of a high-end monitor with built-in speakers rather than the hollow sounds coming from most laptop computers and netbooks.

The back of the unit sports four USB ports, an Ethernet jack, a DCIM port and audio in/out jacks, as well as DC power input and a lock slot. Two more USB ports and the card reader on the left side. The card reader handles MMC, SD, Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro storage media, but not the XD cards my digital camera uses.

Wireless 802.11n support is built in. Volume and brightness controls are easy to reach on the lower left side under the screen. That is also where the indicator lights for wireless connection and CPU activity are located.

Using It

Much like some netbook installations, the EeeTop has an Easy Mode along with the standard Windows XP interface. Easy Mode displays four large category icons for Communication, Fun, Work and Tools in a menu bar at the top of the screen. Touching or clicking each icon opens rows of icons that fill the screen for program choices to run.

The bottom of the screen shows the typical Windows XP start menu. Touch anywhere on the screen to have the Eee Bar icon appear. Tap it to see it extend across the screen just above the Windows menu bar. Here is where you find one-touch access to the special program features that drive the EeeTop.

A house icon at the far right of the menu bar that sits at the top of the screen minimizes the menu bar to the Windows system bar at the bottom of the screen. I like this arrangement. It allows both novice and experienced computer users to switch seamlessly between both views on the same desktop.

Performance Factors

The Top is definitely not a computer to buy for high-performance or high-end gaming. The Intel GMA 950 just does not cut it enough to play many of the videos I clicked on while surfing the Web. However, this is the same fault I find with the Atom processor in other netbook products running both Windows XP and Linux operating systems.

It is whisper quiet -- I'm still not sure there a fan inside. Overall, the touch-optimized software applications work exceedingly well.

I discovered that the more I played with the Asus EeeTop, the more comfortable I became using it. No doubt this model would be a nice diversion from my other more traditional boxes, but I doubt it could ever become my first choice for consistent work tasks.

One of the EeeTop's neatest apps is the virtual notepad. Users can write messages and reminder notes with their fingers and post them right on the desktop like a traditional sticky-note.

The EeeTop's price range of US$480 to $519 makes it the same kind of tempting choice as deciding whether to buy a netbook over a more costly desktop or notebook computer.

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