06 January 2009

The Box - More great stuff from Asus

On a happier note, blog readers with long memories may remember that this time last year I was singing the praises of the Asus Eee mini-laptop - a £200 marvel which packed a 7" screen, 4 Gb of flash memory storage and a Linux operating system into a tiny footprint.

One year later and the mini-laptop market is the biggest boom area in computing and the original Eee has been joined by several newer models, some of which have crossed over into the low-end 'big' laptop market.

Asus's plan for world domination of the low-end PC market continues with the Eee Box desktop PC - which is aiming to do for the low-end PC market what the Eee laptop did for the mini-netbook market. For several years now in my idler moments I'd been thinking about building a really small computer - perhaps based around one of the VIA processors that don't require fans as their power consumption is so low - to use as a media PC by the TV: for watching iPlayer, playing MP3s, etc. A couple of things stopped me: (1) the components seemed very expensive for such a low-powered machine, and (2) I wasn't sure the machine would actually be powerful enough to do the job - particularly the onboard video chips. 

And now, along comes the Eee Box, answering both those concerns and then some. 

This thing is minute - measuring 22 x 18 x 3 cm. That's smaller than my Freeview box, ferchrissakes. It's built around an Intel Atom processor, which is the new ultra-low powered Intel chip, and total power consumption of the machine running flat out is about 25 watts.

In terms of spec, you get 1 GB RAM, a 160 GB hard disk, USB ports, ethernet and wireless, and an SDHC card reader. In operation, this is the quietest PC I've ever used. It's quieter than our DVD player. 

Video playback from iPlayer seems fine both in Window and fullscreen on a 1280 x 1024 display (I haven't tested with bigger displays yet). The audio output is on analogue mini-jack or S-PDIF (useful for AV amplifiers).

In short, for £200 this is a superb low-power media PC.

Some of the reviews on the net - this one, for example - have highlighted shortcomings, in particular: 

  • mediocre performance - the Atom is a low-power processor and it ain't gonna be sorting you out for video editing, for example;
  • no monitor;
  • no optical drive;
  • it can't play high-definition video. 

This is all fair comment but to me, it's missing the point. Web-surfing, listening to internet radio, playing MP3s and Divx files and iPlayer are not rocket-science applications - anything from Pentium 3 upwards should be able to cut it. Criticism along these lines is like saying that a Smart car isn't any good at Le Mans - it's horses for courses. 

Having no monitor is actually very good when you think about what most new LCD televisions have, which is... a VGA input. Why the hell would I want a monitor in the living room when I've already got one? Absence of an optical drive doesn't matter to me as I've got an external DVD-writer which I just connect whenever I want to install software (as with the Eee laptop). And I don't care about HD video as my TV, despite being labelled 'HD ready' and having an HDMI input, can't play 1080i without downscaling anyway. 

Also, think about the positives in a living room situation:
  • it's almost noiseless;
  • it's tiny;
  • it's (fairly) cheap.

In fact, it's so good, we've just bought another one - my wife's computer (my old PC) just died 7 years into its life and all she really does is use Word, send email and surf the web, and she's got a good monitor, so the Eee Box seemed perfect.

Congratulations, Asus, on another winner. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket but we can console ourselves that increasingly small, cheap and low-power-consumption boxes are coming our way...

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