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Tuesday, 04 December 2007 09:04

Eee PC - eerily popular

Australian retailers are wondering if they might have another Blackberry phenomenon on their hands, with the rapid sell-out of the first shipments of Asus’ diminutive $A499 Eee PC (pronounced simply “the E PC”).

The Myer department store chain, which had an exclusive deal for the product launch, put its first shipment on sale in Sdney on Saturday and elsewhere on Sunday, and sold out immediately, although there may be a handful available in non-metropolitan stores. In the capitals, pre-orders also took care of the second shipment – due to arrive on Thursday.

Myer has stopped taking orders, and can’t say when it will be able to fill the demand. According to one mildly bewildered sales person, “We had a lot more interest than anybody anticipated.”

The sell-out – neither Asus nor Myer has as yet revealed the volumes involved - echoes the fever that surrounded the release of the Eee PC in the US, Europe and Asia a few months ago. At the Taipei launch, Asus predicted sales of 200,000 this quarter, and 3 million next year. That looks unnecessarily pessimistic. The .92kg Eee PC, with its 7-inch screen and remarkably usable keyboard has become America’s most-wanted Christmas present, according to Amazon.com and CNet, and has already attracted a zealous user community ... and a certain amount of misinformation.

Even journalists for mainstream publications fail to understand the phenomenon, and have upset Eee PC enthusiasts with a couple of inaccuracies. When one Fairfax blogger reported that Australia was getting only the low-end Surf model, without webcam and soldered RAM which is not upgradable, he was swiftly forced to post a correction, the ability to upgrade being one of the factors which has attracted hobbyists to the platform.
In fact Australians get the 701 4G, with 512Kb (make that 512MB) of RAM and 4GB SSD storage. Like the higher-end 701 8G (1GB of RAM and 8GB SSD), it has WiFi and Ethernet, three USB slots, high-definition audio, stereo mic and built-in webcam.

A review in the Sydney Morning Herald failed to observe that although the Eee PC ships with Linux (controversially , the Xandros distribution, jazzed up to look remarkably like the Windows XP Start screen), Asus says it is Windows XP compatible, and Microsoft has announced a 30 per cent discount for Linux switchers.

As it happens, users have already installed the Microsoft OS without much difficulty. For that matter, it's even been successfully fitted out with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. CONTINUED

It's easy to upgrade the memory with 2GB of DDR-2 667 RAM. Asus denies widespread rumours that tinkering with the RAM voids the warranty.

A potentially more serious limitation could be a missing mini-PCIe (PCI Express Mini Card) expansion connector, which could bar some users from an anticipated 32GB SSD upgrade. Some users say There are two versions of the 701 4G: an A version and a B version, one of which could have only one, rather than two of the connectors. Myer computer sales staff we talked to didn't have a clue about that. Asustek's PR firm were also none the wiser, and with the Asus product managers in Taiwan for a sales conference, illumination may be some time arriving.

And the world at large is still yet to learn whether the Eee PC is a mere blip on the radar screen, or a strategic inflection point that could change the way we do things.

There is no doubt that it is particularly attractive to the education community. One Melbourne teacher who has been evaluating one of the units commented on one blog that he was "mightily impressed".

"We can get two of these for each 'normal'laptop, and for a school, that's important - as is storage. I can put a class set of these in a milk crate rather than the ridiculous trolleys needed to lug around the current laptops. The Eee PC will do 50% of what kids need, so instead of buying say 12 laptops, I would buy six laptops and 12 Eee PC's." And, he reported,"The kids who have taken it for a test drive love it!"

My opinion is that it will have much wider appeal than that. I see it as a important pointer to the emerging ShrinkAge culture.

The Eee PC will be a great tool for the mobile workforce, for those of us who want to read e-books on a better screen, who want to keep journals (it's not much bigger than a Filofax), process the email Inbox, and indeed all those other computer tasks that we might have been doing with notebook PCs - even ultra-portable ones - were they not just that touch too awkward to access. Maybe they should be calling it the PPP PC. It's Personal. Practical. Petite. And possibly even Pretty.

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