Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

A Tiny Touch Screen for Less

Asus has made a name for itself as the hot manufacturer of netbooks, the increasingly popular, tiny laptops that cost around $300. But the company isn’t stopping there.

This week, I tested Asus’s (usa.asus.com) first entry into the all-in-one PC category: the Eee Top. All-in-one computers like Apple Inc.’s iMac save space by building in a computer’s guts, speakers and disk drive directly behind the monitor, and they’re typically more expensive than separate computer towers and monitors. But Asus’s Eee Top costs $600, half the cost of the least expensive iMac or Hewlett-Packard‘s all-in-one HP TouchSmart.

Like the TouchSmart, the Eee Top has a touch screen and runs its own software to make its touch features more usable, like large icons and menus that get pulled onto the screen with swiping gestures. But it’s a lot smaller than the $1,200 HP TouchSmart — about a third of the HP’s size.

Tiny Screen
Users can navigate around the Eee Top using a finger for almost everything.

This computer would fit well in many kitchens and its small footprint — 1.67 inches deep — means it won’t take up valuable counter space and could easily be stored out of the way. But its touch-friendly software lacks tools for scheduling and isn’t customizable; instead, it uses preloaded icons that can’t be changed. And some of the Taiwanese company’s Asian influence shines through in menu titles that seem to have been lost in translation. Who knew you could find music and photos in a category called “Eee Cinema”? Still, as a secondary PC for the kitchen or a kid’s room, this all-in-one fits the bill.

Floating on Air

The Eee Top is head turner. Its 15.6-inch, resistive touch LCD screen, though small, appears to be hovering on the countertop thanks to a clear, plastic stand. It comes in black or white and has a wired mouse and keyboard. The keyboard tucks snugly into a holder behind the screen when not in use, and I kept it there for most of my time with it. A handle on the back of the Eee Top makes it easy to carry this 9.5-pound PC from room to room.

It has one gigabyte of memory and a 160-gigabyte hard disk. Also included are built-in Wi-Fi (802.11n), a memory-card reader and six USB ports, including one that stands alone for those annoyingly large plug-in devices (ahem, Flip camcorders). Two speakers below the screen pipe out surround sound that quickly fills up a room, and a built-in 1.3-megapixel Webcam captures videos and still photos.

As is the case with Asus’s low-priced netbooks, the bargain Eee Top has its tradeoffs. For starters, it runs Windows XP and uses Intel’s Atom N270 processor, which is used for most Asus netbooks. This processor consumes less power, but can give the PC a sometimes sluggish feeling. More than once, my Eee Top crashed when I had several programs opened at once.

The Eee Top’s touch software, called Easy Mode, lacks a calendar and an address book, two tools that are of utmost importance for families who will use this PC in their kitchen.

Another missing element in this all-in-one is a DVD drive, but thanks to downloadable software, music and videos, I don’t think most people will miss it. If so, Asus is selling $64 external drives that plug into the Eee Top via a USB cable.

I navigated around the Eee Top using my finger for almost everything and never used the optical mouse. A stylus that pops out from the side of the keyboard can be used to pinpoint hard-to-tap icons in Windows, but everything in Easy Mode is large enough to touch or swipe with a finger.

Easy Mode is divided into four categories that are labeled with tabs at the top of the screen: Communication, Fun, Work and Tools. Communication includes Skype, Email, Eee Memo (virtual Post-Its) and Internet, which opens 12 preset links to URLs that Asus chose. This last section could be filled with personalized favorites for sites like a school’s daily lunch menu or WSJ.com, but Asus really blew it by prohibiting changes here.

A Virtual Keyboard

When it’s time to enter text in Easy Mode, a virtual keyboard saves you from pulling out the physical keyboard. This virtual keyboard is surprisingly easy to type on because it can be resized to fit your fingers by dragging one corner. It was adequately comfortable for quick tasks like entering URLs and labeling photos, but vertical typing wasn’t conducive to lengthier tasks, like emails, so I used the physical keyboard instead.

But the virtual keyboard doesn’t automatically appear when you need it; instead, you must open it. And when you’re done typing, say after you’ve entered a URL, the keyboard isn’t smart enough to automatically disappear, and this gets frustrating.

Handwritten Text

A handwriting-recognition option can be used to enter text with either the stylus or a finger. Though this worked well, it was slower to use compared with the virtual and physical keyboards, and I opted not to use it.

I switched back and forth between the Easy Mode layer and regular Windows XP by hitting a house icon from either mode. Opera is the default browser in Easy Mode, and it has a slightly different setup than most people are used to in more popular browsers. But Internet Explorer is a click away, and opening it automatically returns users to the Windows XP side of things.

A useful pop-out menu In Easy Mode called the Eee Bar is accessible from any program. This thin, horizontal menu holds links to all programs in Easy Mode and is the only menu that can be customized by deleting or adding programs. But I think people will forget about this bar since it’s hidden most of the time.

Projects like documents, spreadsheets and slideshow presentations can be made on the Eee Top using Sun’s preloaded StarOffice/StarSuite rather than Microsoft Office. These programs are similar enough for newcomers to use StarOffice without too much trouble.

The Eee Top is a great-looking computer that brings the fun and accessibility of a touch-screen computer to people who might not otherwise afford it. If you can accept its shortcomings and sometimes slow speed, it could work well in your home as a secondary PC.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

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