The Asus Eee Top isn’t a netbook. But this all-in-one desktop computer shares many of the design elements of one. It has a low power, 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU; it lacks an optical disc drive; and with a price between $500 and $600, it’s far cheaper than most other all-in-one desktops with touchscreen displays (not that there’s a ton of competition in this space yet). But do those design choices make sense for a desktop computer as they do for an ultraportable device like a netbook?
Yes and no.
You can certainly buy a desktop computer that’s both cheaper and more powerful. But there aren’t many that offer a touchscreen display and an all-in-one design, with the monitor, motherboard, and other components all in one package. I’ve been using the Eee Top ET1602 as my primary work computer for the past week, and 90% of the time it does everything I need it to do. But every now and then it chokes up when I forget it’s a low powered computer and not a hard core multimedia machine. The Eee Top is certainly going to appeal to some people. But it’s not for everybody.
The Asus Eee Top ET1602 I’m reviewing has a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a 160GB hard drive. It has a 16.5 inch widescreeen 1366 x 768 pixel resistive touchscreen display. There’s an ethernet jack and built in 802.11b/g/n WiFi. There are a total of 6 USB ports on the computer itself, plus an extra USB port on the keyboard. There are mic, headphone, and line input jacks, as well as an Ethernet port. The computer has a built in 1.3MP webcam, microphone, and speakers.
The Eee Top is an all-in-one computer. That means it looks like a slightly chunky LCD monitor, but tucked away behind the display are all the components of a computer including the hard drive, mainboard, CPU, and so on. The result is a computer that takes up far less space on your desk than a traditional desktop tower + monitor combo.
This particular all-in-one comes with a USB keyboard and mouse, but it also has a touchscreen that you can use to interact with the computer. It’s a resistive touchscreen display, which means that it will register only one contact at a time. You can’t use multi-touch gestures like pinching your fingers to zoom in and out of photos. But you can tap the screen to register a click, press and hold to register a right-click, and drag and drop your way throughout various programs.
The Eee Top comes in black or white, and has a clear plastic stand that gives the computer a glossy, glass-like look. On the back of the unit is an adjustable stand which you can use to adjust the angle of the display. You can also replace the handle with a wall-mount if you want to hang the computer on a wall.
The webcam and mic are located above the display and are well positioned for making video or audio calls. At the bottom of the display are two speakers that are louder and cleaner sounding than those found on most laptops. But audio purists might still want to invest in a pricier set of external speakers that will provide richer sound.
There are a handful of buttons below the LCD, allowing you to adjust the screen brightness and volume. Next to the power button is a button that you can hit to turn off the monitor without shutting down the PC.
And at the base of the unit is a blue LED which provides ambient lighting. You can adjust the brightness of the LED or shut it off using the Eee Manager application which I’ll discuss in further detail in the software portion of this review.
Overall, the Eee Top has a very attractive look and feel. While it’s made of plastic and more plastic, it has a glassy look. The screen is nice and roomy, and the 1366 x 768 display resolution allows you to fit a lot more content on the screen than you can with most netbooks saddled with 1024 x 600 pixel or lower resolution displays. While the Eee Top doesn’t have a battery and isn’t portable like a netbook, it is easy to unplug and carry from room to room using the built in handle since the computer is reasonably light and comes in one piece (plus peripherals like the power cord, keyboard and mouse).
The Eee Top runs Windows XP SP3 Home Edition. This is not the tablet version of Windows XP, but Asus does include a number of applications to help you make use of the touchscreen including an on-screen keyboard, handwriting recognition software, a program launcher, and a touch-friendly media player.
You also get a few old standbys like the Asus Super Hybrid Engine, which lets you overclock and underclock the Intel Atom N270 CPU to run at 1.2GHz, 1.6GHz. or 1.7GHz. Because there’s no battery in the Eee Top, the default speed is “Super Performance” mode or 1.7GHz. The only reason to underclock the machine is to save a few pennies a month on your electric bill. Even at full blast, the Eee Top uses less than 40 watts of power.
But what really makes the Eee Top stand out are the custom apps designed for touchscreen users. First and foremost, this is the first product in the Asus Eee family that runs Windows and comes with an “Easy Mode” application.
The Easy Mode utility looks like the custom program launcher that Asus uses on its netbooks running Xandros Linux. At the top of the display are tabs labeled Communication, Fun, Work, and Tools. When you click on a tab you’ll find icons for programs in each category. In Communication you have internet apps like a web browser. In Fun there are games, multimedia apps, and a Webcam utility. Work has links to OpenOffice.org for editing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. And Tools gives you access to system settings, and for some reason to Internet Explorer and the Opera Web browser.
Speaking of Opera, at first I was wondering why Asus preloaded this browser. Don’t get me wrong, Opera has proved to be an innovator in the web browser space, and regularly adopts new features that later find their way into other more popular browsers like Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer. But it seemed like an odd choice — until I realized that the version of Opera that comes preloaded on the Eee Top is optimized for touch. You can scroll through web pages by clicking and dragging anywhere on the screen, not just on the thin scrollbars on the side and bottom of your browser window.
You can also adjust the look and feel of the Easy Mode program launcher by changing the background. Adding and remove program shortcuts isn’t as easy.
When you first launch the Eee Top, the Easy Mode application will run. But you can disable and interact with your Windows desktop the old fashioned way. Another program that runs at startup is the Eee Bar, which is yet another program launcher that provides easy access to frequently used programs and settings. Unlike Easy Mode, it is easy to customize the items that appear in the Eee Bar. But it has an annoying habit of taking up too much space on your display, when it’s supposed to be collapsed and hovering near the side of your screen. So I typically disbale the Eee Bar as well.
The Eee Manager utility, on the other hand, is quite handy — largely because it doesn’t try to take over your desktop. You can launch it when you need it and make it go away when you don’t want it with ease.
This utility provides quick access to some of the most frequently used settings. You can use it to adjust your screen settings or LED level, choose your Super Hybrid Engine speed settings, and add or remove programs to and from the Eee Bar.
While we’re on the subject of screen settings, Asus has also included a utility for adjusting the display settings including the screen resolution and font sizes. You can certainly find all of these settings using built in Windows utilities, but the screen settings app makes it much easier to adjust your Eee Top’s display to make it easy to read from close up if you’re using the computer in your office, or far away if you have the PC in the kitchen or living room.
The Eee Top isn’t really powerful enough to be a hard core gaming or multimedia machine. But Asus does throw on a few utilities designed for fun, including some touch-friendly games and the Eee Cinema application for playing music, videos, or navigating through photos.
Eee Cinema also has a DVD setting, but the Eee Top lacks an optical disc drive which makes the application feel a bit out of place. I believe the Eee Cinema app also runs on the Asus Eee PC 1004DN netbook, which does have an optical disc drive, but it would have been smart for Asus to disable this feature. I honestly spent a few minutes looking over the computer to make sure it really didn’t have a DVD drive when I saw the DVD menu.
The included touch-friendly games are stunningly boring. But they do utilize the touchscreen. Another utility that’s designed to take advantage of the touchscreen display is Eee Memo.
This program lets you jot down notes using a stylus or your fingertip. Notes can be arranged by color/category. And you can toss out old notes by dragging them to a waste bin. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it does work. And the program features some nice animations when you drag the screen left and right to toggle between a big clock and the memo window.
Eee Cam is a utility for taking snapshots or recording short videos using the webcam. It also includes a couple of cheesy effects that let you do things like add frames and other effects to your videos.
Finally, Asus threw in an adjustable on-screen keyboard and a handwriting recognition app. They both work reasonably well, but you need to activate them any time you want to enter text without a keyboard. It would be nice if SoftStylus text entry tools would appear whenever you click a text area on the screen with your finger or a stylus.
Overall, Asus did a nice job of adding software to make the Eee Top user experience enjoyable whether you’re using the touchscreen or a mouse and keyboard. If you don’t like some of the applications, such as the Easy Mode software or Eee Cam with its silly effects, you can uninstall them. The inclusion of the touch-friendly Opera web browser was a nice touch, but I do wish the handwriting recognition and virtual keyboard were more tightly integrated into the operating system.
Here’s where the Eee Top hits its first, and perhaps only major roadbump. While the Intel Atom CPU offers decent performance at a low price, it’s just not as powerful as the processors found in most modern desktop computers. I found that it offered decent multitasking performance. I had no problems running two different web browsers with multiple tabs open, Skype, a music player, and an image editing app all at the same time. Incidentally, dialing phone numbers on Skype using a touchscreen display just feels right.
But when it came to doing things like playing web video from Hulu in full screen mode, the Eee Top wasn’t up to the task. While most Intel Atom powered netbooks with smaller, 1024 x 600 pixel displays can handle full screen Hulu video, the Eee Top has a higher resolution 1366 x 768 pixel display. And it takes more power than the Eee Top’s processor can pump out to play Flash video smoothly at that resolution. I tried several different videos, and each time the playback was choppy. Web videos look fine if you don’t play them in fullscreen.
I tried playing a few videos from the hard drive and over a home network using Windows Media Player and VLC, and had no problems. The Eee Top was even able to handle 720p WMV video playback smoothly (although it choked up on 1080p videos). So the issue seems to be Flash performance.
Another area where the CPU failed was in multimedia-centric software. While downloaded videos played well enough in Windows Media Player, my dreams of turning the Eee Top into a true living room PC were dashed when I tried installing and running Media Portal, an open source media center application that’s similar to Windows Media Center. The program was sluggish to respond, and crashed on me several times when I tried indexing folders on a shared network drive with a few hundred video and music files. I had similar results with Zinc, a media center application for web and desktop video built around Firefox.
While the Eee Top looks like a computer that would be perfect in the living room in place of a TV, the Intel Atom CPU and 945GSE chipset just isn’t up to the task. The lack of an optical disc drive doesn’t help things. And while the 16.5 inch display is large by notebook standards, it’s still kind of small for a TV. So I see this machine finding a place in a kitchen, bedroom, or home office, but it’s not really designed to be an entertainment PC for the living room. Yet. Who knows what could happen if Intel puts out a future model with the NVIDIA ION chipset, a dual core Atom CPU, or an even more powerful processor? At that point it might not be fair to call the machine a nettop or even a distant cousin to a netbook. But it could become a much more useful computer.
The Eee Top is an interesting machine. It looks like an iMac, but runs like a netbook — with a touchscreen display. I think it’s plenty powerful enough for day to day use if you spend most of your time on a computer using web browsers, editing office documents, making Skype calls, and other light weight tasks. If you need a machine that can play video games, handle high definition video, or even full screen web video playback, the Eee Top might not be for you.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure who the Eee top is for. With a price tag of over $500, you could certainly find a cheaper desktop computer with more powerful components. You might even have enough money left over to buy a monitor, although you probably wouldn’t find one with a touchscreen. I think the Eee Top, like most Eee PC netbooks, is probably designed to reach budget conscious shoppers who always wanted a really cool looking computer. A few years ago if you wanted a 10 inch or smaller laptop, you’d have had to spend $1500 or more. Now you can get one for $300. And if you wanted an all-in-one desktop, you’d have had to spend at least as much money. Now you can get one for between $500 and $600.
But while “good enough” computing on a netbook means providing you with a decent screen, keyboard, and processor capable of performing a few light weight tasks at a time, customers who buy an Eee Top might reasonably expect a desktop computer to do a bit better. This computer doesn’t have an optical disc drive, so it can’t rip CDs or DVDs without an external drive. But if it could, it would be pretty slow. It can’t handle modern video games very well, and it can’t handle HD video. In short, it’s good enough for some tasks, but like a netbook, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying it as your only computer if you need a PC that’s capable of handling those more CPU-intensive tasks.
On the other hand, if you already have a more powerful computer in the house that can handle the heavier lifting, the Eee Top certainly makes a nice second or third machine. It wide screen makes it excellent for editing documents, surfing the web, or doing both at the same time. If you don’t need a pretty interface like Windows Media Center, Media Portal, or Zinc, the Eee Top can also stream media stored on other computers on a home network just fine. And the touchscreen display and vertical stand make the Eee Top a decent cooking companion if you’re looking for a machine that you can use to find recipes, read the news, or listen to musc while you’re in the kitchen.
The Eee Top also shows that Asus has a good handle on how to develop software for touchscreen displays — even on operating systems that weren’t designed for touchscreens. And this bodes well for other upcoming touchscreen devices from Asus, including the Eee PC T91 and T101H convertible tablet style netbooks.
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