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Archive for June, 2008

A Tale of Two Eees

Update:

Well, a few months after this article, it would seem there are others who agree that the Eee is one smart computer.

“ASUS’ Multiple Award-winning and Bestselling Netbook Chosen for Its Innovation and Market Disruption

ASUS’ Eee PC™ has been named Forbes Asia’s Product of the Year for 2008, right after being crowned Stuff Magazine’s Gadget of the Year and Computer of the Year. In justifying its selection, Forbes hailed the Eee PC™ for “its innovation and disruption”, and added that the “ultraportable” netbook had “changed the global PC industry”. This new addition to the Eee PC’s™ mantle joins numerous other awards chalked up in the media, design and industry circles over the past year, most notably NBC.com’s Best Travel Gadget and the prestigious G-Mark Award.”

I have never really loved Windows. Having used the very first Apple computers (they didn’t call them Macs then), I always thought that Windows is a poor man’s copycat version of the slick Apple operating system. And I still think this way even with the release of Windows’ latest incarnation, Vista. Still copycats.

Windows on a PC just takes too long to start and too long to shut down. Viewing videos is also a hassle, necessitating, at times, that you become a codec expert just to get the damn video to play. Plug and Play on Windows should actually be Plug, Figure Out, then only maybe can Play. And don’t even get me started on the virus thing.

Macs are better in some ways. They start fast, and shut down even faster. They behave very intelligently (compared to Windows), enabling you to perform routine tasks with ease, minus the stupid warnings Windows takes pride in issuing. But Macs have today become too slick. Slick designs and slicker advertising have made Apple big headed and they now think they have the God-given right to sell their products at premium prices.

So I had a little problem when I went shopping for a small, light computer that I can easily carry into the training classroom without straining my arms or hurting my back. Small and light in today’s computer world equals expensive. Sony, for example, sell their UX series UMPCs (ultra mobile PC) at ridiculously high prices. When I had the chance a year ago to buy a used Sony UX180P (it had the most unusable keyboard), I was quite shocked to learn that it was selling new for RM7000-8000! And the other small and light PC brands were no cheaper either.

On the Mac side of the pond, there was no problem because you had no choice – all the Macs were heavy buggers. That was until they introduced the Mac Air, touted to be the world’s slimmest notebook. Again, slick branding pushed the price to over RM6000 for the cheapest model. And for that money, you did not even get a DVD drive. Even worse, the battery was screwed on and you couldn’t remove it even if you did not want to use it – of course, in Apple’s advertising, they say that you get an integrated battery. Integrated my foot, its screwed on and only Apple can remove it.

Still, I use a Mac at home. I went from Apple to PCs and back to a Mac when they started using Intel processors. In the training classroom, I used a PC notebook because whether you like it or not, 99% of the training world over here use PCs and its just easier to go with the flow from a compatibility point-of-view. But since I did not want to buy a small and light notebook that costs a bomb, I started to look at a machine that would soon become a worldwide bestseller.

Asus’s Eee PC 701 (http://eeepc.asus.com/global/) caught my attention because, for the first time ever, a company has produced a small and light, extremely capable computer that is going to sell for less than RM1300 and weighs less than 1kg (0.89kg)! At that price, one would be forgiven if the word “toy computer” comes to mind. The cynics will surely question how good a UMPC can be when it costs only RM1299 (for the Eee Pc 701) and RM1199 (for the Surf model without a webcam). To keep it sweet and short, the Eee PC 701 is very good, and kg-for-kg, ringgit-for-ringgit, it is the best value in computerland. Not only has Asus created a compelling value-for-money superlight notebook, they have thrown in more than a few goodies in their lightweight wonder. The 701 uses flash memory (and many will grumble about its meagre 4gb memory) which means no spinning hard disks, which means your saved info will be safely retained in your computer for a long time. An external memory/card reader slot enables extra memory space through cheap SD cards. If you have an obsession for large memory space, you can always hook the 701 to an external hard disk.

So what is so good about the Eee? Since mine came with Linux (a version called Xandros customized for the Eee), the 701 starts quickly without fuss and shuts down in a jiffy. Also, Asus has pre-loaded some 40 programs into the 701, including the open source Open Office that will open and edit all your Microsoft Office files. Games and learning programs for kids, PIM software, an instant messaging client and even Skype are included. Sorry, no Photoshop or iTunes will run on this machine with the Linux OS. And by the way, I am hoping that free, open software like Open Office (even Linux) will one day kill off Windows and all those pay-through-your-nose so-called original software. The wi-fi (the Eee does not have bluetooth) on the 701 is extremely efficient – quickly locating any wi-fi source within seconds and enabling instant web browsing through the included Firefox browser. And the 701 comes with three usb ports, compared to the two I have on my RM5000+ Mac!

Downsides? There are a few. There is the 7 inch screen, similar to a few other UMPCs like the twice-the-price Kohjinsha (http://www.kohjinsha.com.sg/). Some web pages won’t display in full. To some, the Linux operating system may be too unfamiliar but there’s good news – Windows XP runs on the 701 without problems. Maybe the lack of bluetooth will also be a minus for some but you can always get a bluetooth dongle. And for heavy Powerpoint users, you will need a little re-learning when you meet Impress, the Open Office version of Powerpoint (everything good except for its embarrassing lack of templates.)

When all is said and done, the advantages simply outweigh the negatives and simply put, there isn’t much the little Eee can’t do. I found web browsing a breeze and I am particularly impressed with the 701’s ability to play every video I threw at it – no asking for some missing codec or similar rubbish.

I was so impressed with the Eee that I purchased the Eee PC 900, the follow-up to the 701. With its 8.9 inch screen, bigger flash memory, smarter keypad and yet retaining a low weight of 0.99 kg, it is now perfect. Until of course the launch of the all new Eee PC 901, 1000 and 1000(H) (with faster Atom processor, 7 hours of battery life!).

There is a real danger, however, that the Eee will soon become a much less attractive proposition. Asus, while trying to meet the already growing competition head-on, is producing more Eees with bigger screens and bigger memory – and bigger prices. When this happens (the 900 is already RM500 more expensive than the 701), it places the trend-starting Eee in direct competition with “normal” notebooks with 40-80gb harddisks and bigger screens, at the same price level. This will surely spell the end of the tiny Eee’s wonderful journey into the hearts and minds of thousands of computer users the world over.

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I am going to steer away from golf in my next article, and talk about something that has always fascinated me – electronics. Or technology, as they like to call it nowadays. As a kid, one of my greatest thrills was to take apart a radio (those old SW/MW radios), and put it back together again – and finding that it still works! Of course, technology has since marched on (raced on would be a more appropriate word), and today, things we only dreamed about has become realty. Case in point – the GPS. How on earth (pun intended) can a battery-driven, hand-held device, no bigger than your palm, connect to a couple of satellites somewhere up there in a matter of minutes – and thereafter showing you the way to a place you have never been to before with unbelievable accuracy? Isn’t technology cool?

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“There is no such thing in America as an independent press.. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares write his honest opinions, and if you did you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid… for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper … others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things… any of you who would be so foolish as to write his honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job… We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, possibilities, and lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.” John Swinton

I was a banker, not a guy who wrote for a local newspaper, magazine or any other sort of publication. In other words, I had zero media experience. The only thing I used to write were boring bank reports. Despite this apparent disadvantage, I was given my own column in the magazine I wrote for after only 3 months on the job (and I wrote a cover story after only two months at the magazine). A few months after my column, Randolph’s World first appeared, a competitor golf magazine also created (copied is a better word) a column for one of their writers. I guess imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

I did enjoy writing about golf in the slightly more than three years I was at the magazine (on part-time basis). The enjoyment had a lot to do with the freedom given to me to write about most anything. And such editorial freedom can only come about when you have a publisher and a managing editor who are brave enough to face any fallout that can result from tough writing. And there were some fallouts.

Its a “you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours” situation in the local golf media. Let me put this in perspective by asking a few questions. How many times have you read a (golf) equipment review in a magazine or newspaper that said this driver’s no good or that putter sucks? Never. How many times have you read a golf course review that criticized its shoddy maintenance or lousy layout design? Never. And how many times has a golf writer hit out at a golf club’s arrogance or its overpriced food and beverage? Never.

And here’s the reason why. Equipment manufacturers, golf courses and golf clubs advertise in the magazines and newspapers (golf supplements). How can you write something negative about someone who is paying you thousands of dollars in the form of advertisements? I once wrote that S-Yard, a Japanese brand, was overpriced. Before you can even shout “fore!” the local retailer of this overpriced brand stopped advertising in the magazine. Did I write the truth? Of course. Would you call a set of irons that cost RM6000 cheap? Or a driver that would empty your pocket of RM5000 reasonably priced? No, you would say that it is expensive. So did I. It was, and still is the truth. See – its always you scratch my back and I will scratch yours. Except that in this article, I chose not to scratch this arrogant retailer’s back.

Golf writers also receive generous goody bags filled with free golf shirts, golf caps, golf balls and more when they are invited to free media golf games or product launches. They get free overseas trips too. Now, would you write something bad about someone who just gave you some freebies? I don’t have to answer this one.

As keepers of the public trust, no editor or writer should feel they must tow a party line or ruling elite’s agenda, avoid taboo subjects, or protect ownership’s interests out of fear for their job and professional status. Is this expecting too much?

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