eeePC 900HA mini-review

I've been eyeing off netbooks since the original 7 inch eeePC was released, but until now none of them really fitted my needs. Those needs are, roughly:

  • good battery life (4hrs+)
  • at least 1GB RAM
  • decent enough processor (but nothing spectacular)
  • good sized hard drive (80Gb+)
  • atleast 1024x600 resolution
  • very small form factor (around the 9" mark)
  • under AU$600
That's quite a list. Up until recently the HP mininote came in closest, but was too big and too expensive. However with the netbook market expanding there are some models now available that come very close.

For once I decided I couldn't be bothered doing any online research, and instead hit the streets to see what I could find. The Acer Aspire AOA150 was the first thing I came across, and I nearly bought it on the spot. Except for two things: the store only had it in blue or white (ugh), and much more importantly, I couldn't type on the damn thing. There's something funny about the positioning of the backspace key, which, I'll be honest, is probably my most used key after the space bar. Even more so on a less than full size keyboard. The store price was also pushing up against my $600 price limit.

The next store had a much wider range of netbooks, including quite a few from the eeePC range. Once upon a time I knew the difference between all the models, but with Asus pumping them out at a bizzare rate I was reduced to looking at specs in the store. And I was really pleasently suprised to come across a model I hadn't heard of before - the 900HA.

From what little sense I can make of the Asus naming scheme, that means it's a 8.9 inch screen (900) with an Atom processor (A) and a hard drive (H). Of couse that naming scheme doesn't always hold up - the 900A (at least the one in store) didn't have an Atom processor. Not to be confused with the earlier generation 900, which had 512MB RAM and a Celeron processor. Arg.

Anyway, the price ($542) was right, they had black in stock, and I could type without feeling like a monkey, so I bought it.  And I must say, it's the best gadget purchase I've made in a long time. 

To start with, it meets or exceeds all of my requirements. 1.6ghz Atom, 1GB RAM, 160GB HDD, 1024x600 screen, 5hrs battery life, all in a nice little 9" package. It misses out on some of the extras that the 1000-series gets, like bluetooth and Wireless N, but they're not features I need.

The keyboard is surprisingly usable - I'm writing this entry with it as a matter of fact. The only time I have any problems is when I come directly from doing a fair amount of typing on my 12.1" work Dell, or my 15.4" personal Dell. And to be fair, I have the same problem going from the 15.4 to the 12.1.

I've been pleasently surprised by a few things that have ended up making the 900HA much more usable that I'd expected.

Firstly, the size is nowhere near as painful as I thought it would be.  Browsing most sites I barely notice the differece, and although it's a bit of a pain my photo processing apps are also usable (Picasa, RawTherapee, GIMP). I can touch-type in the dark with barely more mistakes than usual - the main issue being accidentally hitting the caps lock key. The keyboard itself feels quite nice - nicer than the 701s I've played with. That may be because I didn't have time to get used to the 701 though.

Secondly, it's just so small and portable - ever more so than I imagined. I can chuck it in my backpack and not notice it's there. It's less than half the size and weight of my Inspiron 1525 and even makes my Latitude D410 look big and bulky. Especially as the D410 only manages 1024x768 on a much larger screen. 

Thirdly, performance. It's sure no powerhouse - in fact it's spec'd very similarly to the 2+ year old Inspiron 1501 that the 1525 replaced. But it is decidedly usable for almost everything I've tried. XP is responsive, HD DivXs play without a hitch, even minor photo editing in the GIMP is fine (although cramped). 

And lastly, a complete suprise is the quality of the audio output. I haven't had a chance to test it thoroughly, but the headphone out has no background noise on  my Ultimate Ears SuperFi3s which are quite  sensitive. The UEs pick up a significant amount of noise from my 6th gen iPod classic, and tremendous amounts from the two Dells, so I was astonished that there is absolute silence from the 900HA. There's also some funky Asus software that detects that something's been plugged into the jack and asks if it's headphones, line out, line in, or a microphone. I can't wait to get home and test it out with some lossless audio files, an amp and the MS Pros.

Other random nice things include easy access to the RAM and HDD, and a multi-touch touchpad which is great to use. Two-finger scrolling is fantastic, and I've just discovered that you two-finger and three-finger tap for middle and right mouse clicks respectively. 

It's not all positive though - the screen seems fairly sub-par in terms of colour reproduction, even though I only have the 1525 to compare it to (the D410 is so woeful in this area it's not even worth mentioning). The glossy finish on the cover is a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but to be honest I still think it looks better than the matte finish of the 701. The touchpad keys are quite annoying to use as they require a lot of force. Thankfully the fantastic touchpad itself means that you rarely if ever need to use them. 

Overall, I'm incredibly happy with the purchase. Although I have the 1525 with me now too, I find myself grabbing the 900HA in preference almost all of the time. It's size, weight, battery life and touchpad more than make up for the smaller keyboard and lower resolution screen. Combined with my also new USB 3G modem, it's a fantastic, productive and remarkably friendly peice of technology that I can take almost anywhere with me.

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