Asus eeePC 900HA Review

I've had my Asus 900HA for about six weeks now. My original motivation for buying it was to have a small, super portable notebook for surfing on the couch, at Starbucks, or at the library so that I could get some work or studying done on the go.

I chose the Asus 900HA for a couple of reasons. Chief among these was the build quality: The eeePCs all have a very sturdy feel to them, and the hinges used do not feel cheap or flimsy. The eeePCs are also among the few netbooks to use an anti-glare screen coating, which is a big plus when you're working under any direct lighting source. I can easily read PDFs on my eeePC while in the car, which is a nearly impossible task on glossy screens. The final major reason for the purchase was that the eeePCs have a very good Windows installation, with no bloatware. Despite its low CPU speed, XP is very snappy on the 900HA.

900HA Specs

  • Screen: 8.9" Antiglare LCD, 1024x600 pixels
  • Weight: 2.5 lbs
  • Dimensions: 8.9 x 6.7 x 1.33 inches
  • Battery: 5200mAh 4-cell Lithium Ion, rated at up to 5hrs
  • CPU: Intel Atom N270, 1.6ghz, 533Mhz FSB, 512k L2 Cache
  • Memory: 1GB DDR2 (2GB max)
  • HDD: 160gb Seagate Momentus
  • Optical Drive: None
  • Graphics: Integrated Intel GMA 950
  • External Ports: 3x USB, VGA, Ethernet, Headphone, Mic
  • Memory Card Reader: MMC/SD(SDHC)
  • Audio: High Definition
  • Web Cam: 0.3 mega pixel
  • Wireless: 802.11 b/g built-in
  • Accessories: AC Adapter, Slip Case, Wiping Cloth
  • Software: MS Works (Star Office advertised, but mine did not have it installed)
  • Extras: 10gb Web Storage with Eee Storage, Kensington lock slot
  • Warranty: 1 year

Unboxing the 900HA

I'll cut to the chase and say that the unboxing experience was very much the same as the video linked below: the packing job was good. Inside the box, I found the netbook itself, a handy black slip case, the power adapter, a cloth to wipe the screen and case, a set of recovery CDs, and a thin manual.

My first impressions on handling my shiny new eeePC were that it was, indeed, shiny, and it was tiny. The glossy black plastic on the lid is a huge finger print magnet, so the wipe cloth was appreciated -- and used almost immediately. The 900HA is tiny, and fits perfectly inside the roomy inner pocket of my Columbia coat. The 900HA is without a doubt the smallest, lightest notebook I've ever held, making it perfect for hauling around when I want to travel light. Another plus for the size is that if I get up from my seat at a Starbucks, for example, I can just palm the thing and not worry about securing it.

Installing the battery was a simple matter of sliding it in to its slot and making sure the two slide releases were latched. One of these is spring-loaded, while the other requires you to push it manually. I'm not sure why this is, but it does make it easier to deal with the batter with one hand, as you only have to hold one spring-loaded catch back to remove the battery.

After I plugged in the supplied power adapter, I opened the clamshell up to boot up. The hinge quality that impressed me on my wife's 1000HA was present here. I generally dislike notebooks without latches to keep the lid shut, because there's always that gap between the screen and keyboard. Now, properly packed in a slip case or its own compartment in a notebook bag, that's not a problem, but it still bugs me. No worries here. The Asus hinge holds the screen solidly in any position, including closed.

Initial boot up was surprisingly fast (faster than my three year old desktop, an A64 3200 running XP), and the setup was painless. After setting up, I was presented with a very clean Windows XP installation. The icons were set to HUGE, but that's easily solved. I left them alone. I'm trying to keep my desktop uncluttered, so I only have about four or five icons on it at any given time. One thing I noticed is that the Star Office advertised on Newegg's spec sheet was not present. I don't know why that is. For most word processing tasks, the included Works word processor is fine. For MS Office compatibility, it was easy enough to install Open Office.

The Human Interface

The screen is very easy on the eyes. It's a sharp 1024x600 display with plenty of real estate for viewing most web sites (I've found none that won't work on a 1024 wide screen so far), if a little height challenged. (See our Netbook Tips page.) It's not the brightest screen available for a netbook, but it is an anti-glare screen. As I mentioned above, I'll err on the side of anti-glare. One of the Amazon reviewers suggested a program to brighten the screen on an eeePC, but I haven't tried that and don't know how safe or not it is. For me, the default brightness is fine. A too-bright screen will cause eyestrain, so no great loss.

The keyboard is predictably small. I believe it's 83% of full-sized. The keys have a good feel to them, and the keyboard has very little flex. The function keys across the top provide for volume control, screen brightness, wifi on/off, and sleep mode. These are not, however, hardware controls; you must be in Windows to use them.

The biggest gripe with the keyboard is the position of the right Shift key, which is on the far side of the arrow keys. As the key is also small, this makes for an awkward reach. Typing on the small keyboard takes some getting used to, but the feel of the keys is good, and after three or so days of regular use, I was able to train my medium-sized fingers to type fairly well on it. I wouldn't type anything long on it, but for making notes, typing e-mails, and entering web addresses, it's very usable. My most common errors are hitting the Caps Lock key (next to the A) and the Enter key (next to the apostrophe/quotation mark) on accident. I also used to hit the number row quite a bit on accident, due to the shorter height of the keys, but I'm mostly over that now.

The Elantech touch pad is a nice size and has good responsiveness. The right and left click buttons are placed in the traditional spot at the bottom of the pad and have a positive click that takes some effort so as to prevent accidental clicks. A nice feature is that the touch pad takes gesture input. For example, if you use two fingers and stroke downward or upward, the window will scroll. If you tap with two fingers, you get a middle-click and if you tap with three fingers, you get a right click. It also has an iPhone-like gesture for zooming in and out, but this doesn't work with all apps. Updating the drivers for the touchpad is a good idea, to make sure the gesture features work with all software, as out of the box scrolling was a bit jerky with Firefox.

What I've Done with My 900HA

I don't run benchmarking software. For one thing, although I am a computer technician, I am more interested in reviewing things from the point of view of an end user. I think it's more important to discuss how the performance relates to a human eye and brain than to benchmarking software which is more sensitive than either. Benchmarks can be rather abstract. Sure, the bigger bar (or shorter) on the graph may be better, but by how much? Most modern computers are seriously into overkill power levels for everyday use anyway, so would you notice the difference? That said, let's take a look at what I've done so far with my 900HA, and how well it did it.

The first thing I did was update drivers and install XP updates. Both of these went painlessly over my wireless connection. Overall, I've found the wireless performance to be solid. The range that the b/g wireless can pull in a signal from isn't as great as a wireless N would be, but where I use the netbook, mainly at home or in a facility with wireless, this hasn't been an issue.

Next, I loaded up Firefox and an antivirus software. I chose the personal edition of Avira AntiVir antivirus for its small footprint and good performance, that outranks several paid options. So far, this has proven to be a good choice of antivirus. I haven't installed any anti-spyware yet, as I didn't want to load up too many system tray apps until I upgrade my RAM. (Speaking of which, upgrading the RAM is as easy here, as on the 1000HA, as there is a similar access panel.)

I spent the first few days of life with my eeePC using it to surf and do instant messaging. The 600 pixel height of the display can be frustrating when you run into poorly-designed sites that use fixed pixel-size pop ups for things such as images, but overall the experience is good. The built-in WiFi has performed well from day one.

Of course, I wanted to test out some web-based multimedia on the netbook, so I checked out some of my favorite sites. Flash apps can be huge processor hogs, so not all of these performed that well. YouTube and Crunchy Roll worked well as long as I didn't load up an HD video. Hulu did not work well when the CPU was clocked to full speed with Super Hybrid Engine, but was watchable (but a little jerky). I also played back some Netflix downloads, which worked flawlessly. Netflix uses Windows Media player, and pre-buffers the file before starting playback, and is good at adjusting for your connection speed.

When my online class started up, a couple days after buying the eeePC, I used it for doing some school work. Coincidentally, I threw my back out at the same time, so having a super light notebook I could use on the couch or in bed in a variety of odd positions turned out to be a good thing. My basic tasks included logging in to the school web site to access forums and downloads, reading PDFs and Word documents, and writing forum posts and papers. Aside from the last task, it handled all of these well. Open Office and Adobe Reader both run well on the 900HA, and the screen is more than adequate for navigating the somewhat busy (poorly-designed, multiple frame using) school web site. The light weight and small size were a life-saver.

Next up was some fun stuff. I installed several graphics software packages, including Art Rage, Sketchpad Pro, and Comic Life (which is not really a graphics software per se, more along the lines resource-wise of a photo album app), and set up my Cintiq 12WX on it. This was rather amusing, as the Cintiq's wires and control box are about as massive as the 900HA. It ran everything flawlessly. These natural media drawing apps are a bit less resource intensive than Photoshop, but if you want to draw on your netbook, I say go for it. I'd rather have a table for the job, sure, but if you want to set up on the couch or the bed to do some drawing with the Cintiq in your lap, you can do it. When I was drawing, I had three or four Firefox tabs open, my messenger program, Pidgin, open, and a drawing app open at the same time. Performace was fine running all this stuff, and impressive for such a small package.

Finally, what good would a netbook be if I didn't take it out for a spin around town? Portability is a huge selling point with these things, and the 8.9" 900HA did not disappoint. The WiFi, as noted, was more than adequate for stops at Starbucks or trips to the local library, and had no connection issues. Battery life is NOT the advertised five hours if you're using it for normal tasks, such as surfing and email. To get that level of battery life, you need to turn off the WiFi (which you should to extend your battery life any time when you aren't able to access a WiFi connection) and lower the screen brightness to a (for me) unusable level. In normal use, at full screen brightness, I get about 3 hrs and 45 minutes of use. The battery gauge is pretty accurate in predicting this if you're doing the same type of activity (surfing/office software, multimedia playback, etc.). Manually setting the Super Hybrid Engine to full CPU speed doesn't seem to have a huge impact on battery life, and may be necessary for some multimedia chores done on battery.

The Super Hybrid Engine has been mentioned a couple of times here, and deserves some explanation. Basically, what it does is set your CPU clock to slightly underclocked (1.2 ghz) when on battery to save energy. By default, when on battery power, the CPU gets set to the power saving 1.2ghz speed, and when plugged in runs at its rated 1.6ghz. The final setting can be engaged manually, and slightly overclocks the CPU to 1.7ghz. If you prefer to run at full CPU power while unplugged, you can turn off the auto adjustment and set the Engine to full performance mode. It's a very nice feature that helps with battery life.

Conclusion

At the current pricing of $299 (ok, three hundred bucks), the Asus 900HA is probably one of the best deals going if you're looking for a super portable netbook. If you want a nine inch model, then this may be a good choice. Asus will not be making more 8.9" netbooks in 2009. I think this is a shame, as this is a great size factor if you want portability and the Asus features such as the anti-glare screen and Super Hybrid Engine really shine in this size netbook. The only minor drawback is the keyboard, and any keyboard this size is going to compromise something in its layout.

On the other hand, if you want to wait for the upcoming nVidia ION platform netbooks, you may be better off saving your money. In my opinion, netbooks are priced low enough that replacing one within a year's timeframe (or, rather, adding another one to the home), is not a deal-breaker. For those who want just ONE netbook, then waiting is a good option, as the category will be maturing in a big way this year.

Check out the videos and the off site reviews that I've rouned up for you below.

Asus 900 HA on Youtube

Here are some Youtube videos of the 900HA in action: an unboxing video, a review, and a video showing the 900HA running a beta of Windows 7. Below the videos, you'll find links to some more reviews.