Friday, October 10, 2008

E90 vs Asus EEE PC

The EEE PC portable computer range has received a lot of coverage over the past year partly due to its low price but also partly due to its small size. How does Asus' minilaptop compare to Nokia's microlaptop, the E90 Communicator? All About Symbian is about to find out...

Nokia E90 vs Asus EEE PC 900 - The Microlaptop and the Minilaptop

The Nokia E90 Communicator and Asus EEE PC 900 are in many ways very different beasts: the E90 is intended as the device-of-choice for business folk, while the EEE PC 900 is meant as a low-cost laptop for the mainstream consumer. However, in actual functionality there's a lot of overlap, and they both represent an attempt to replace the traditional laptop with something much smaller. We're going to compare the two and see how they measure up in various key areas.

Round One: Physical Size

Size is probably the most important feature on a sub-laptop device, because almost by definition it's the only real advantage that these kinds of devices have over normal laptops.

Obviously both the E90 and the EEE PC 900 are significantly smaller than standard laptops, but there is still a huge size difference between these two devices. The E90 really is small enough to fit into a pocket or handbag, whereas the EEE PC will not fit in any pocket and would be far too large for most handbags (the EEE PC 900 is also much heavier at around 1 kg while the E90 is just above 200 g).

This size and weight difference gives the E90 the clear edge as a device you would carry with you everywhere. While the E90 is rather large by modern phone standards, it's physically not much different to a standard mobile from five or six years ago. Very few people would want to take their EEE PC with them literally everywhere, it just isn't a practical proposition despite the hype from some quarters.

However, the flipside of this is that the EEE PC 900 is (just about!) big enough to allow large amounts of comfortable typing, and it's perfectly plausible that you might write an essay or report of several thousand words on the Asus. The E90 by contrast has a tiny keyboard with unsatisfying key action, and is only really useful for messaging, brief notes and editing of existing texts. It's very unlikely that anyone would want to use an E90 for writing long texts from scratch, you really wouldn't want to write more than 1000 words on an E90 in a single session.

Screen size is also significant, as the EEE PC 900 has a nine inch display (with a resolution of 1024 x 600) which makes text easier to read, and adds to the sense of a true laptop replacement. The E90 has an impressive resolution for a device of its size (800 x 352 pixels) but its small physical size means that text at its smallest is barely readable.

Winner: Neither wins, as both have their advantages. The E90 is pocket-sized and can be taken everywhere, but the EEE PC 900 manages to maintain enough keyboard and screen space to allow for long typing sessions. This more than anything highlights the different uses that the two devices are intended for.

Round Two: As Communications Devices

Portable computers are no longer just for note taking or PIM, they also have to be connected nowadays. Many people may use a portable device primarily for communication, and indeed it's the mobile phone that is driving the spread of portable computing throughout the world.

The E90 is of course a phone, and the ability to make calls via the conventional network gives it an immediate and huge advantage as a communications device. Its built-in 3.5G HSDPA and Wi-Fi support mean it can reach broadband speeds on the move through the phone network and through hotspots, and be used at home on a personal wireless network. The E90's form factor means it can be used while closed just like a normal phone, as it has a normal phone screen and keypad stuck to the outside. This is great, because it lets you talk on the phone normally without looking like a nerdy prat.

The EEE PC 900 can connect to the internet through Wi-Fi or through a physical ethernet cable, but it needs to have an HSDPA dongle or phone added if it is to connect through the phone network. You can read All About Symbian's tutorial on connecting an EEE PC to the internet with S60 devices by clicking here.

Both devices have webcams for video calls (though the EEE PC 900 cannot do phone network video calls), and both devices have VOIP compatibility through various services from network operators and third party companies. However, the EEE PC 900 scores more highly by including an official Skype client built-in which works just like the PC version.

Both devices support web-based e-mail through their browsers, and POP/IMAP through on-board e-mail clients (the E90 through Messaging and the EEE PC through Thunderbird). The E90 also has connectivity with corporate e-mail systems, including Blackberry, Intellisync, Mail For Exchange and others. As mentioned above, the EEE PC 900 is more pleasant to write long messages with, but for checking incoming e-mail or firing off quick mails both devices are perfectly adequate, and of course the E90's superior portability and connectivity makes it far better for those who absolutely have to see a mail the moment it comes in.

Winner: The Nokia E90, which is officially the "E90 Communicator", lives up to its name and wins hands down. You can communicate in far more places and in far more ways with the E90, especially if you install third party apps to access various internet messaging services (you can even install IRC for example). The E90 also has the huge plus that you can hold it and speak into it like a normal phone. The EEE PC 900 gets points for having a proper Skype app built-in though, which is especially important for the mainstream market as it's the one VOIP service everyone's heard of and everyone knows how to use. The EEE PC 900 is also perhaps more practical for typing longer e-mails or holding long IM conversations.

Round Three: The Interface

Portable computing devices face the daunting task of compressing an ever-increasing number of functions into an easy-to-understand interface which has to be readable on a relatively small screen.

The E90 uses the familiar icon-based S60 interface, with a specially stretched standby screen and far more icons on-screen than on other S60 devices. Operating it is identical to operating any other S60 device, though the E90 has the benefit of several shortcut buttons above the keyboard which lead straight to the most important applications (and they make task switching a doddle too). The launching of apps on the E90 is relatively speedy. The options menus on apps are accessed through a pair of soft keys on the right side of the main screen, which are rather frustrating as it's difficult to operate them when you're holding the phone horizontally in both hands. They interrupt the natural flow built up by the other more keyboard-centric controls, and it's a shame Nokia didn't integrate the soft keys into the keyboard somehow (perhaps either side in the top corners?).

The EEE PC 900's interface is surprisingly similar to S60, consisting of large icons that lead straight to applications when clicked on. For some reason the EEE PC is noticeably slower at launching apps though, taking two or three seconds to react to clicks instead of responding instantly. A few tasks can be agonisingly slow, for example trying to open a modem settings window can take 20 seconds or more, and you'll sometimes wonder if the EEE PC has crashed even though it hasn't (in fact crashes are rather rare). Most apps have familiar Windows-style menus and icons in the bar at the top, and anyone who has used Windows will have no problems at all using EEE PC apps.

Winner: Difficult to say. The EEE PC interface is easier to navigate with its icons going straight to key functions, but there's far less to see, for example you can't even change the language (which is very odd as the langauge packs for dozens of languages are present in the firmware). The E90 can be more confusing, especially if you're hacking your way through the Settings jungle, but at least the options are there. The E90 also lets you create your own folders and sub-folders and move icons around as you see fit, whereas this isn't officially possible on the EEE PC.

Round Four: Bundled Software

Virtually all portable devices now are expected to come with a suite of software as standard.

The E90 is part of Nokia's business-oriented Eseries line, and as such comes bundled with a number of business applications including a word processor and spreadsheet editor. There's also the usual range of S60 apps including a web browser, e-mail client (through Messaging), music player, video player, games, calculator etc. These all share a common look and feel, as (with the exception of a few third party items like QuickOffice) they have been created by Nokia specifically for their phones and tweaked to suit every model they're bundled on. For example the E90's calendar is laid out to suit the wide internal screen.

The EEE PC is a bit more of a hodge-podge, with most icons either opening websites or open source apps from third parties. As far as this writer could tell there aren't really any apps written specifically for the EEE PC, and some services which you might expect to be apps are actually websites that open in the Firefox browser (for example clicking on "Internet Radio" takes you to a website that lists links to popular radio streams). On the one hand it feels a bit cheap that Asus have taken this approach, but on the other hand these are perfectly good apps (OpenOffice is an excellent office suite, Firefox is an excellent browser etc). The extremely low price of the EEE PC is partly due to this embracing of existing open source software rather than expensive in-house development, so perhaps this is a necessary drawback if we want cheap mini-laptops.

Winner: Firefox and OpenOffice are excellent and work really well, but apart from that the EEE PC is rather weak when it comes to bundled apps (especially that so many of the "apps" are actually links to third party websites). The Nokia E90 is a much better overall package, especially for businesspeople.

Round Five: Add-On Software

If you find the bundled apps too boring or restricted, you may want to install programs onto your device yourself.

The E90 is actually pretty good for add-on software. As many readers will already know, the E90 is compatible with Symbian S60 3rd Edition native applications as well as Java J2ME and Flash Lite apps too. Most S60 3rd apps should work fine, though some may have trouble with the large non-standard internal screen, but even these will probably work on the smaller standard-sized external screen.

There's a built-in app shop (Download!) which lets you buy software straight onto the E90, and software can also be purchased from many third party sites such as Handango and ClickGamer/ClickApps. Nokia also has its own separate Software Market site which sells apps for its phones. Apps can be installed directly onto the phone through the web browser, or downloaded onto a Windows PC and installed on the E90 using Nokia's PC Suite. In total there are thousands of commercial and freeware titles available for the E90, and as such its functionality can be greatly expanded beyond what was bundled with it.

The EEE PC 900 is somewhat worse.

A lot of people including this writer have long complained about S60's Download! service. However, those problems pale into insignificance when compared to the EEE PC's app download service. Asus' service is so shockingly bad that it calls into question Asus' commitment to their customers, first of all because they would even allow something like this to be released, and secondly because they would then allow it to stay released and uncorrected.

The EEE PC is based on the Xandros distribution of the Linux operating system, and as such it ought to have access to an extremely wide range of open source applications free of charge. But it doesn't have access to any of them, at least not through Asus or any built-in utility.

By default there's an "Add Software" icon on the EEE PC's main interface, but there's nothing in there except updates to the firmware or bundled applications, and it's clearly not intended as an app distribution service.

What IS intended as an app distribution service is the "EEE PC Download" icon on the desktop. Clicking on this icon opens up a very exciting Asus EEE PC-branded download site, featuring literally thousands of free apps and games ready to be installed. Unfortunately it doesn't work at all, as Asus forgot to create any kind of app installation program to go with the link, so there's absolutely no official way to get these available apps onto your machine. If you click on the "Install" link next to an app it brings up a file of an unknown type which you can open in a text editor if you like, but it won't install the app. And it's been like this for several months now.

It's the equivalent of building a house and forgetting to put any doors or windows in it, and it must surely be the worst example of quality control ever seen in the portable computing world. It's as if Asus literally didn't bother to test the service at all before they launched it.

Winner: Virtually by default, the winner is the Nokia E90 because it has lots of easy-to-use public channels for obtaining more software such as Download! and third party retailers, and it also has easy-to-use methods for installing the apps, including direct installation through the browser or indirect installation through PC Suite. The EEE PC 900 has missed a huge opportunity here, it could have potentially thousands of apps available for it free of charge, but that isn't going to happen because Asus can't be bothered to write an installation program. Shame.

Round Six: Add-on Hardware

The device on its own may not always be capable of certain tasks, and may require a peripheral.

The E90 is compatible with a range of official and unofficial Bluetooth accessories including headphones, headsets and keyboards. Although Bluetooth accessories are still more expensive than their USB counterparts, they are much cheaper than they used to be thanks to third party manufacturers offering lots of choice and generating lots of competition. The E90 has a microSD memory card slot for up to 4 gigabytes of additional storage space, and 128 megabytes of on-board storage.

The EEE PC 900 has no Bluetooth connection (though some more expensive EEE PC models do). However, it takes a more cable-based approach by having three standard-size USB ports into which you can plug PC USB keyboards, CD/DVD drives, flash memory sticks, and even certain printer models too. There's 16 gigabytes of on-board storage space on the EEE PC 900, and an SDHC memory card slot for up to 16 gigabytes of extra storage space.

The EEE PC also has a VGA port which allows it to be connected to an external monitor, so if the 9 inch screen is physically too small you can attach it to a larger one. The E90 sadly has no such feature, it doesn't even have TV Out, which is a shame as the high screen resolution would look pretty good on a television-size screen.

Winner: This writer is going to plump for the EEE PC, as USB accessories are so much cheaper and more plentiful. There are also far more types of USB accessories, for example external DVD drives aren't Bluetooth-compatible. The SD-sized card slot on the EEE PC 900 also means it's compatible with a wider range of memory card sizes including SD, miniSD and microSD, and the icing on the cake is the EEE PC's external monitor connectivity.

Round Seven: As Web Browsers

More and more apps and services are becoming web based, so connected devices increasingly need a good browser which can access these services.

The E90 features the by now very familiar S60 browser, based on the same WebKit rendering engine as Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome. It's more or less the same as on normal S60 phones, but the E90's spectacular widescreen internal display makes it much more fun to use as there is a lot less sideways scrolling (and on some sites there's no sideways scrolling at all). The S60 browser has Flash support, though not all sites will render Flash content as reliably or as smoothly as on a PC. The E90 is also compatible with AJAX sites, though many prominent examples such as Gmail tend to default to a mobile non-AJAX version because they assume the E90 is a smaller-screened phone. The E90 has no pointing device or touchscreen so the on-screen arrow has to be moved around with the direction pad, which is okay most of the time but not the best solution for websites that were designed with mice in mind.

The EEE PC 900 uses the Firefox browser, and is to all intents and purposes identical to what you would see on a Windows or Linux PC. It renders pages just like a PC, and displays Flash content smoothly and reliably including Flash video. AJAX sites display and work correctly too. The EEE PC's touchpad makes a very good substitute for a mouse, and is practically equivalent to the touchpad on a full-size laptop.

Winner: The EEE PC really comes into its own when being used as a web browser, it works absolutely perfectly and replicates the experience of using a much more expensive home PC. The touchpad lets you select links quickly and easily, while the large keyboard makes typing addresses and forum posts painless. Firefox is a very good browser, and if you have it installed on your home computer too it makes the transition from home PC to EEE PC much easier.

Round Eight: As Multimedia Devices

The E90 has the usual S60 music and video players as well as a photo gallery, which are unspectacular but relatively easy to operate and browse through. All these file types can be attached to e-mails or multimedia messages, or uploaded to file sharing sites such as Ovi, Flickr etc. Nokia's free PC Suite application lets you easily convert and add multimedia to the E90 including music and videos.

The EEE PC 900 takes a more file manager style approach, with icons for various media types simply opening the file manager in the appropriate directory. Clicking on a file opens it in the relevant viewer, and that's about it. As with the E90 these files can be attached to e-mails.

Winner: Both devices are somewhat underwhelming when it comes to multimedia and clearly weren't designed for the purpose. The E90 is more plausible as a music player due to its pocket size and compatibility with Bluetooth stereo headphones (so you don't need to remove it from your pocket or bag), but the EEE PC is better when it comes to viewing photos and PDF files thanks to its large screen.


It's a bit of a predictable conclusion, but it has to be said: the E90 and EEE PC 900 are not really meant for the same purpose. They both provide physically smaller alternatives to a laptop featuring many of the same functions, but they do so in very different ways: the E90 acts as a carry-everywhere device for frequent use in short bursts (for example keeping tabs on your e-mail), while the EEE PC is meant for more occasional use with longer sessions (for example writing a long essay while away from home).

The EEE PC 900 looks, works and feels almost exactly like a larger more expensive laptop. However the E90 really does fit in a pocket or handbag and doesn't require any external equipment to connect to the internet, so it's far more portable. The E90 also has some very impressive built-in hardware features including a GPS receiver for satellite navigation and a high quality 3.2 megapixel autofocus camera (with a VGA 30 fps camcorder too).

Price is also bound to be a huge factor if you're the one paying for the device: the unlocked SIM-free E90 currently costs approximately 800 euros including taxes, while the EEE PC 900 costs about 300 euros including taxes. Despite its faults, the EEE PC 900 is extremely good value and the cheaper 701 model (which has a smaller 7 inch screen) is even better value at about 200 euros including taxes. But the E90 arguably has more raw hardware, as you're getting a microlaptop, mobile phone, decent camera, ultra-small camcorder and GPS navigator all in one.

Which device you choose depends on which functions you use, how long your user sessions are, where you want to use the device, and how much money you have to play with.

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