Asus Eee PC X101 MeeGo netbook review
Nearly four years ago Asus launched the first netbook: a 2 pound laptop with a 7 inch display and a $400 price tag. While it didn’t come close to the $200 price Asus had initially promised, the Eee PC 701 was the cheapest ultraportable laptop on the market… and over the past few years we’ve seen netbook specs get better and better while prices have fallen lower and lower.
That brings us to the Asus Eee PC X101. Released in September, 2011, this is the first netbook to launch for just $200.
In some ways the latest netbook from Asus is a throwback to the original Asus Eee PC 701. In order to keep the price low Asus loaded the X101 with cheap flash storage instead of a hard drive and installed an open-source Linux operating system instead of Windows. But unlike the original Eee PC netbooks, the Asus Eee PC X101 has a 10 inch display and an Intel Atom processor.
It’s impressive that a company like Asus can cram a fully functional computer into a 2 pound case and sell it for $200. But the company made some sacrifices to achieve that low price, and you can get a whole lot more computer for not much more money.
So is the Asus Eee PC X101 worth its very low price? Read on to find out.
Asus loaned me demo unit for review purposes. This is the version of the mini-laptop currently available in North America, and it features a 1.33 GHz Intel Atom N435 single core processor, a 10.1 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display, 1GB of RAM, and an 8GB solid state disk.
The computer features 802.11b/g/n WiFi but does not have Bluetooth or 3G. It has a 3 cell, 28Whr battery. It’s user replaceable, but Asus will not be producing a higher capacity 6 cell battery for this netbook model.
The netbook runs a version of MeeGo Linux based on Linpus Linux Lite. The operating system feels more like something you’d see on a touch-based smartphone or tablet than an OS designed for a keyboard and mouse.
Most applications run in full-screen mode. Instead of a desktop, start menu, and taskbar, there’s a home screen with access to frequently used programs and updates for your social networks.
You can bring up a toolbar that lets you switch to social networking, instant messaging, or media functions by moving your mouse cursor to the top of the screen. And there’s an app store based on the Intel AppUp Center.
The Eee PC X101 is the thinnest and lightest 10 inch netbook from Asus. It weighs 2 pounds and measures 10.3″ x 7.1″ x 0.7″ at the thicket point. If you removed the battery bump it would look even thinner since the laptop is much thinner at the front.
Around the sides you’ll find two USB ports, a microSD card slot, a headset jack, lock, power port and vent. That’s it.
There are no VGA or HDMI ports and you don’t get a full-sized SD card slot or separate jacks for a mic and headphones.
The laptop’s black plastic case is covered with a textured pattern that looks sort of like a tight-knit weave pattern. You find this texture on the lid, the bottom of the computer, and the areas above and below the keyboard. The finish does a pretty good job of preventing the notebook from showing fingerprints.
On the bottom of the laptop is a single access panel. You can open it up by removing a little piece of rubber with your finger and then taking out a single screw.
Once the access panel is open you can remove or replace the RAM, solid state drive, or wireless card. The netbook should be able to support up to 2GB of RAM, and if 8GB of storage space isn’t enough for you, it looks like it should be extraordinarily easy to upgrade — but you’ll either need to clone your disk t the new SSD or re-install MeeGo or another operating system if you choose to upgrade the storage.
The computer has a matte display which doesn’t reflect much glare. It can still be difficult to see outdoors, but it’s much easier to view in direct sunlight than a display with a glossy screen.
The one bit of glossy plastic on the netbook is the shiny black bezel surrounding the display. While the screen doesn’t reflect glare, the bezel does — you can almost use it as a tiny mirror.
Viewing angles are… not great. While I had no problem sitting to the left or right of the computer and reading black text on a white screen, the colors in pictures start to wash out as you move to the left or right of the screen or tilt the screen back too far. When you’re looking directly at the computer you probably won’t run into many problems, but I’m not confident that you can watch a video with a friend on this laptop easily.
Asus has been building netbooks with 10 inch displays for more than three years — and the company has generally done a pretty good job of using the small space available to provide a nearly-full-sized keyboard that’s easy to touch-type on.
For some baffling reason though, the Asus Eee PC X101 doesn’t have the same keyboard layout as other recent Asus netbooks. Instead it has a keyboard that’s virtually identical to the one on the new Asus Eee Pad Slider — a tablet with a tiny, cramped keyboard crammed onto a slide-out tray that hides behind the tablet screen while it’s not in use.
On a tablet, that space-saving design might make sense. I have no idea why Asus chose to use the same keyboard on the Eee PC X101 though, because it makes typing on this netbook a pain in the behind.
There’s no dedicated row of Fn keys, which means you need to hold the Fn button and press one of the number keys to maximize a browser window or perform other special functions. The center row of letter keys also serves double-duty as special keys for adjusting the volume or screen brightness or toggling the WiFi or touchpad.
The backspace and Del keys are both in the top row of the keyboard, right next to one another. I find I constantly have to hunt to find the correct key to delete characters.
The biggest problem I’ve had with this keyboard though, is that all of the key are a little smaller than on other Asus netbooks though. I often find myself hitting the wrong key — and sometimes I failed to hit a key at all. I’ve noticed while typing this review that punctuation marks regularly fail to appear on the screen when they’re supposed to — and I’m pretty sure it’s because my finger keeps falling between the keys instead of on the appropriate key.
In time, you can learn to get used to almost any keyboard layout. But I find this one particularly difficult to use. In a typing test, I scored about 72 words per minute with 91 percent accuracy. I’ve taken the same test using a number of other netbooks and I typically score between 90 and 100 words per minute with about 96 percent accuracy.
I’m also not exactly in love with the touchpad below the keyboard. It’s nice and large — but instead of separate left and right mouse buttons below the touch area, you simply click on the bottom left or right corners to register a click. You can also theoretically tap on the center of the touchpad instead of left-clicking, but I’ve found that the Eee PC X101 doesn’t recognize light taps. You have to press pretty hard.
Theoretically the touchpad supports multitouch gestures such as using two fingers to scroll up and down, but in most MeeGo apps I’ve found that this function simply didn’t work.
While the Eee PC X101 certainly wins points for its thin and light design and matte display, the poor keyboard and touchpad make the computer more difficult to use for text input than some other netbooks.
While the Asus Eee PC X101 isn’t the first Asus netbook to ship without Linux in order to shave a few bucks off the retail price, it is one of the first netbooks from any company to ship with MeeGo — a light weight Linux distribution designed especially for netbooks, tablets, and other mobile devices.
MeeGo is actually a user interface and a set of tools designed to run on top of another Linux-based operating system. The Eee PC X101 actually ships with Linpus Linux Lite with MeeGo 1.1. While the basic user interface is designed to be easy to navigate for people that don’t have a lot of experience with Linux, advanced users can also fire up a terminal, download and install software manually, and make other changes.
The basic MeeGo interface though, feels more like a smartphone or some sort of appliance than a Windows or Mac computer. There’s no desktop to speak of. And instead of a start menu there’s a home screen (called MyZone).
On the left you’ll see a customizable list of up to 9 applications, calendar appointments, tasks, and email notifications. You can go into the MeeGo settings panel to adjust what shows up in this sidebar if you don’t want your email accounts displayed on the MyZone page, for example.
In the center of the screen you’ll find social media panels for Facebook, Twitter, and other networks. To the right of these you’ll find large thumbnail icons for recently used media including photos and videos.
At the top of the screen there are tabs for switching to other pieces of the MeeGo puzzle. This toolbar will be minimized when you’re most applications, but you can bring it up from any screen by moving your mouse cursor to the top of the display.
The Zones tab shows thumbnail icons for currently running applications. You can bring up this menu to switch between apps — or you can press alt+tab on your keyboard for quick access to a basic application switcher.
Since most MeeGo applications are designed to run in full screen mode, these app switchers are pretty important because you won’t often see two apps running side by side on the same screen.
Next up there’s an “Internet” tab which you can use to search the web or view your favorite sites or currently open browser tabs. The version of MeeGo that ships with the Eee PC X101 comes with the Chromium web browser, which is the open source version of Google’s popular Chrome browser.
The Status tab shows recent updates from Twitter, Facebook, or Flickr. You’d think that this could also go in the “People” tab which is next on the list, but People is reserved for your instant messaging contacts.
The next stop on our tour is the Media Tab. From here you can view music or music stored on your device, or fire up the media players and search for online media.
The media player includes a few presets including links to the Amazon MP3 music store and access to the Internet Archive, where you can listen to thousands of recordings of concerts from taper-friendly artists.
The MeeGo media app can also handle video files… although thanks to the relatively sluggish processor in the Eee PC X101 you may have problems with files that have high resolutions or high bit-rates.
While you can access some applications form the MyZone page, the Apps tab is where you can find a complete list of programs installed on your device. There’s a search box where you can pull up apps by name. Or you can browse by category. Apps are sorted into Accessories, Games, Internet, Media, Office, and System Tools.
For some reason the Internet Tab is always open when I visit the Apps tab. I don’t know if there’s a way to change the default settings here, but if you don’t plan to launch the web browser, email app, or other internet utility every time you visit the list of apps, this can get a little annoying.
You can drag any application icon to the Favorites section on the left side of the screen to change the apps that are shown on your MyZone home screen.
Included apps include a file browser, text editor, a few games, a photo viewer and webcam app, Adobe Reader, a calendar, and OpenOffice.org.
There are also disk usage tools, a system update utility, and a Terminal applications.
In the Accessories section you’ll find the Asus app store, which is basically a rebranded version of the Intel AppUp Center.
The app store presents the easiest way to find, purchase, and install apps that support MeeGo. You can search for apps, browse by category, or look for new releases or staff picks.
Unfortunately, the selection of apps is pretty awful. There just aren’t many high quality apps available at the moment. You’ll probably have more luck installing apps by firing up the Terminal and using the command-line Zypper utility. For instance, in order to install the GIMP image editing application I typed “sudo zypper install gimp” without the quotation marks.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that once I installed GIMP it automatically showed up in the “Media” section of my Applications menu.
Your results may vary, depending on which applications are available in the default repositories. Advanced Linux users may be able to install additional repositories to access additional Linux applications… but I suspect advanced users might be more interested in wiping Linpus and MeeGo altogether and using a different operating system.
The final tab on our tour takes us to the Devices and Settings menu. From here you can adjust the volume or brightnes, view battery stats, or access various folders including your media folders, documents folders, and downloads folders.
If you plug in a microSD card or USB flash drive it will also show up in this area.
Most of the system settings available on this screen can also be accessed through keyboard shortcuts or by scrolling your mouse over the battery icon.
You can also bring up the “Networks’ menu to enable WiFi and connect to a network by hitting the little icon in the navigation bar that looks like two computers.
For the most part I’m kind of underwhelmed by the MeeGo experience. On the one hand, I suppose it makes sense for most apps to run in full screen and for the navigation bar to disappear when you’re using an app. On the other hand, the use of a tabs-based system instead of a more traditional start menu or app dock makes navigating through the netbook’s various functions feel more complicated rather than simpler.
You have to remember whether to click on Status or People to resume a chat session, for instance. And if you don’t plan to use the Facebook or Twitter integration on the MyZone page, there will be an awful lot of wasted space on your home screen.
MeeGo is an interesting project, and I suppose it’s designed to make it easy for anyone to pick up the computer and start using it without fear of accidentally tweaking some setting and ending up with a useless piece of plastic. I have to confess that when I first started playing around with Linux distributions such as Fedora and Ubuntu 7 or 8 years ago I often found myself reinstalling the OS from scratch because it seemed like the easiest way to fix some problem I had inflicted on myself by not really knowing what I was doing.
Many desktop Linux operating systems have gotten more user friendly over the past decade, but I get the feeling that part of MeeGo’s raison d’etre is to prevent users that don’t know what they’re doing from borking their computers.
Still, the operating system is limiting enough that it will likely frustrate power users. On the other hand, there’s another way to think of the Eee PC X101 and MeeGo. It’s kind of a low-cost alternative to a Google Chromebook. While most laptops running Chrome OS carry starting prices of $349, the Eee PC X101 is smaller, lighter, and cheaper. Oh yeah, and it runs Chromium.
If you don’t care much about native applications, you can use the X101 to fire up the web browser and surf the web or run web apps to your heart’s content for just $200. As an added bonus the mini-laptop boots more quickly than most Windows-based netbooks and it can run some third party native apps.
Unfortunately it’s a little sluggish when surfing the web with multiple browser tabs open, and it doesn’t handle resource-intensive web apps such as online video very well, but I’ll go into more detail in the performance section below.
MeeGo is a project that’s had the backing of some big names. Up until recently Nokia was one of the largest contributors to the project, and Intel is still backing MeeGo. And since MeeGo can run web apps just as easily as Tizen, the Eee PC X101′s software won’t necessarily be obsolete as soon as Tizen launches.
That said, it’s not clear how much support we’ll see for the operating system in terms of bug fixes or new features in the future.
Fortunately, the Eee PC X101 has fairly standard netbook components including an x86 processor, so if you don’t like MeeGo or are worried about its future you can always install Ubuntu, Windows, or another operating system.
Just bear in mind that if you install Windows 7 or Windows 8 you won’t have much free space left on the 8GB solid state disk. You might want to consider buying a larger SSD if you plan to go that route. Windows XP uses less space, and you can save even more room on your SSD if you use nLite or a similar tool to trim features that you don’t need before installing Windows.
Performance and Battery Life
It’s hard to compare the performance of a netbook running MeeGo Linux to one running Windows 7. Although you certainly can install Windows, it will eat up most of the computer’s 8GB of storage. Asus will also offer an Eee PC X101H model with a higher capacity hard drive and Windows 7, but that model will cost more than the $200 Eee PC X101 with MeeGo Linux.
Some folks have installed Windows, Ubuntu Linux, or other operating systems on the Eee PC X101. But since I’m working with a review unit which I need to return — and since most customers are probably unlikely to change operating systems, I decided to stick with MeeGo.
But while my usual raft of benchmarks may not apply, there are a few simple ways to compare the overall performance of the Eee PC X101 with MeeGo. I tested the battery life, attempted to watch online video using the web browser, and ran the SunSpider benchmark which tests browser performance.
All told, the Eee PC X101 is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand the user interface feels pretty zippy when you’re switching between running programs or navigating the MeeGo user interface. The computer also boots very quickly — taking about 20 to 25 seconds to go from completely off to a fully usable desktop.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that the computer feels slower than most other netbooks I’ve used over the past few years. It’s not entirely clear how much of that performance dip is due to the slower processor and how much (dis)credit should go do the operating system and web browser — the version of MeeGo that ships with the Eee PC X101 uses Chromium 11, an older, open source version of the Google Chrome web browser.
When surfing the web with more than 4 o 5 browser tabs open, I’ve noticed that the computer seems to slow down a bit.
While 480p videos from YouTube look decent when you click play in a browser window, the video playback gets very choppy if you try to blow up the video window to full-screen mode. In fact, the only way I could watch YouTube videos in full screen was to switch to 240p resolutions — at which point the videos looked horribly pixelated.
Online video site Hulu was pretty much unwatchable.
The computer’s speakers are reasonably clear, but not very loud. I sat and listened to music from the laptop for a couple of hours one day, and while I could certainly hear the audio in a reasonably quiet room there wasn’t much base and the volume wasn’t really high enough to watch a video or listen to music if the laptop is placed on the other side of the room.
Given the limited number of third party apps available specifically For MeeGo Linux, the web browser is probably the most important app on this netbook, since most casual users are more likely to use web apps than to dig through the tools available to install third party apps that aren’t available from the AppUp Center app store.
Fortunately the web browser can render most web content and act pretty much exactly like the Google Chrome web browser for Windows and Mac computers. Unfortunately it doesn’t do those things very quickly.
I ran two different battery tests on the Eee PC X101. In the first, I used the computer to surf the web, edit photos, and compose blog posts until the battery died. During this test, screen brightness was set to about 50 percent, “high performance” mode was enabled,” WiFi was on, and the screen was turned on for the whole test. The battery died after 3 hours and 10 minutes.
In the second test WiFi was on, screen brightness was set to 50 percent and the screen was left on — but I wasn’t actively surfing the web. Instead I just streamed music over the internet until the battery died 3 hours and 33 minutes later.
With a 6 cell battery this netbook could probably run for 6 to 7 hours… but Asus doesn’t make a 6 cell battery available. Hopefully a third party manufacturer will step up to the plate, because 3.5 hours is pretty disappointing for a 2 pound ultraportable computer.
It takes about two hours to fully charge the battery using the supplied power adapter.
Despite the low power processor and solid state disk, the the bottom of the Eee PC X101 does get rather warm when the computer is on for a half hour or longer, and the computer will blow hot air through the vent on the left side of the case. The fan isn’t particularly loud, but it is audible in a quiet room.
If Asus has released the Eee PC X101 back in 2007, it would have changed the way we think about computers, portability, and pricing. Instead, Asus released the Eee PC 701… which still did all of those things, even at $400.
But a lot has changed over the past two years, and while the Eee PC X101 is the only 10 inch netbook with an Intel Atom processor to launch for just $200, it’s actually not the only mini-laptop available today at that price. If you follow our Daily Deals section, you can regularly find refurbished (and sometimes new in box) netbooks for prices as low as $180.
These low prices are typically available models that have been around for at least six months. Some are a year or two old. But these cheap netbooks often have Windows 7 Starter Edition and 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processors that in my experience at least feel a little faster than the 1.33 GHz Atom N435 chip in the Eee PC X101.
While the under-$200 netbooks usually come with low capacity 3 cell batteries that provide 2-4 hours of run time, you can often find higher capacity batteries that will offer extra battery life if you need it.
Against that backdrop, it’s hard to recommend the Eee PC X101 when you can find a more powerful, more versatile netbook for a similar price — especially given its cramped keyboard and finicky touchpad.
That said, there are still a few reasons you might want to consider the Eee PC X101:
- At just about 2 pounds, it’s one of the lightest netbooks available.
- It’s also one of the thinnest, measuring just 0.7 inches thick.
- The solid state disk isn’t necessarily any faster than a hard drive, but it does offer sturdier storage. If you drop the netbook you’re not as likely to lose data.
- The access panel on the base of the laptop also makes RAM and SSD upgrades easy.
Also, while it’s technically possible to pick up a netbook running Windows for even less money than the Asus Eee PC X101, if you’re an open source enthusiast and you simply don’t want a Windows licensing fee to be included in the cost of the netbook, the Eee PC X101 is one of the few 10 inch netbooks that comes preloaded with a Linux-based operating system instead of Windows.
Asus will also offer an Eee PC X101H model in some regions with a hard drive instead of a solid state disk, as well as a Windows option. That version of the laptop will have the same basic design, but it will be a little thicker and heavier. Some models may also include faster processors.