The Asus Eee PC 900HA Netbook
Reviewed From a Blindness Perspective
By Michael Feir
Over the holidays, I've invested a considerable amount of my savings in making travelling around with portable computing ready to hand a lot more feasible. Formerly, I had a full-sized laptop with the requisite large carrying case stuffed with other things I deem to be essential. It wasn't super--heavy but weighed enough to pull me somewhat off course when I wore it over my shoulder. Combine that with a bag to carry clothing for a weekend away and I'm a fairly bulky traveller even more prone to bump things than my total blindness makes me. Now that I'm contemplating doing more travel on busses and with my fiance, I needed to become more ready to move while still packing some computing punch.
Netbooks, those ultra-small laptops taking the sighted world by storm, seemed the perfect answer to my problem. I had originally hoped that prices of ten-inch models would fall within my range. However this didn't pan out quite as expected. I ended up being able to take a trip to Futureshop where they sell the Acer Aspire 1. Checking out its keyboard, I was quite surprised at how comfortable it was to use. That was my major reason for not contemplating 9-inch netbooks originally. My laptop is used for work as well as entertainment while I'm away and a comfortable keyboard is an absolute must. Speaking in a forum frequented by blind users, I ran into a trio of netbook owners who had opted for the 9-inch netbooks. One of them used the Acer Aspire 1 while the other two had Asus 900HA models. Obviously, given the title of this review, I opted for the latter choice. It was two to one for the 900HA. Another key consideration was that I had done enough research to know that Asus netbooks come with shortcut keys and system tray utilities which allow easy control of various power-saving features. I would have hated to get one of these things only to find I was unable to take full control of power-saving performance mode, disabling wifi and web cam, etc. The 900HA also came with a 160 gb hard drive. I ordered mine online for around $420 Canadian when you factor in shipping and such.
***Initial Impressions and Setup:
Opening the box, I was astonished to feel just how small and light the 900HA was without its battery. It's absurdly light. The battery comes separate from the computer and you have to insert it. This was literally a snap. It clicks into place and is then locked securely via a couple of sliding round locks on the bottom rear of the unit. Replacing the battery is absolutely child's play and requires no sight at all. The best comparison I can make to give you some idea of the size of the 900HA is to compare it to a fair-sized relatively thick paperback print book. It weighs 2.5 pounds including the battery. You can easily fit it into a purse or small carrying bag. I bought a great small carry all bag at Mountain Equipment Co-op:
The 900HA comes with its own soft zippered protective sleeve as well as an additional case feeling like velvet with a leather Velcro closing flap. These cases serve to cushion the netbook but have no handles or anything and no room for other items besides the netbook. I prefer the zippered soft sleeve.
On the bottom of the netbook, there are four little rubber-bottomed stubs which keep it slightly off the surface you place it upon. This is essential since the vents are located along the bottom along with the speakers. The screen lifts up as if you were lifting the cover of a book whose spine faced directly away from you. Well-built hinges keep the screen at the angle you choose to open it to. The keyboard is very small and you may well have some initial trepidation when you feel it for the first time. There are small bumps on the F and J keys to help you get your bearings. I'll come back to the keyboard later on.
Exploring the rest of the netbook, I had no trouble finding the socket for connecting the cord from the power brick. Three USB ports were easy to locate. Two on the right side and one on the left. Also on the left side are an Ethernet port near the very rear of the unit, a small vent near the middle and two audio jacks for headphone and microphone right near the front. Besides the two USB ports, the right side also sports an SD card reader near the front and a Kensington security lock port plus a SVGA port for hooking up an external monitor. The power button for turning on the 900HA is along the inside of the spine which runs along where the screen and main body of the netbook come together. Feel near the right end of that spine and you'll find a small indentation. Other than the battery, there isn't anything on the back of the netbook. For that matter, there are no ports or other things on the front of it either.
Turning the computer on for the first time, I was blown away by how quietly this little machine runs. You can hardly hear it at all even when the fan goes. Sound began to play soon after my father and I had started the machine. However, to my disappointment, I couldn't get NVDA to run until after my father helped me choose the initial options for language and other settings. You'll need sighted help in order to get up and running. However, within ten to fifteen minutes, we had progressed to the point where I could plug in my flash drive with the portable version of NVDA on it and I was the eager owner of a talking computer. In short order, I had gotten Jaws version 9 installed by copying the installation file over from the flash drive. Once it was going, the next order of business was to disable the damned built-in mouse. Those things are incredibly annoying to blind people until you can put them out of action. Fortunately, this is quite easy to do via the system tray. Go into the Elantech TouchPad item and into the Elantech tab and use the "stop device" option. After that, the TouchPad will be safely dormant but easy to turn back on should you need sighted assistance. From this point onward, customizing things to your liking is pretty standard stuff.
And now, we come to the crux of things. Make no mistake about it. The keyboard is where the rubber hits the road. Purchasing a netbook of this small size means by definition that you're willing to make some sacrifices in the name of portability. The keyboard is about as small as you can get while still being reasonable to type on. It'll take a couple of weeks of regular use before the adjustments become second nature to you. I've had this computer around five days at the time of this writing and still have to pause and think in a few instances. The letters, punctuation and numbers are where they ought to be. However, the right shift key is a small key right above the right arrow beside the up-arrow. Slowly, this is becoming less annoying as I get used to positioning my hand being careful not to hit an arrow key while trying to shift a character on the left side of the keyboard. That's my only major gripe. Other than the right shift key, the other major change is the elimination of the six-pack of keys. Don't you just love it when a six-pack goes missing? The delete key is in the very top-right corner and the insert key is just to its left. The left and right arrow keys double as home and end when you simultaneously hold down the fn key. This is found to the right of the left control key and is to the left of the windows key. The up and down arrows double as page up and page down keys with the fn key held in. There's no number-pad but a group of keys can function as that either via holding the fn key while hitting them or once numlock is enabled.
That fn key is also your gateway to a method of easily controlling your netbook's power-saving functions among other things. For everyone's convenience, I've listed all of the defined functions making use of the fn key below:
fn+f1: places netbook in suspend mode.
fn+f2: toggles internal wireless lan on/off.
fn+f3: decreases screen brightness.
fn+f4: increases screen brightness.
fn+f5: lcd/monitor toggle.
fn+f6: task manager.
fn+f7: mute speakers. [DON'T!]
fn+f8: volume down.
fn+f9: volume up.
fn+f11: numlock on/off.
fn+f12: scroll lock.
fn+insert: print screen.
Using the fn+f3 key, I turned my display right off so that it isn't wasting power. Thankfully, the functions don't wrap around. You can hit fn+f3 a bunch of times and know that your screen will be off and then just hit fn+f4 should you need to increase brightness for sighted people. You'll likely have to hit the key more than once before it becomes bright enough for their comfort. Whatever you do, don't hit the fn+f7 key to mute speakers. It doesn't un mute them when you hit it a second time and there's no un mute key. I had to rescue myself by going into the volume settings via the start menu under programs/accessories/entertainment and then tab twice finally hitting the spacebar to uncheck the "mute all" checkbox. Fun city!
You'll get used to the keyboard eventually. It just takes a little practice. Actually, I'm far more comfortable typing with it than I thought I would be for quite a while. Your speed will certainly take a hit but not nearly as big a blow as I initially would have expected. I've spent a whole afternoon typing this review. I'm making the odd typing mistake but feel no finger fatigue at all. I had fears of what would happen when I switched between a full desktop keyboard and this one but that doesn't seem to be an issue. To test this, I had my email come in on my desktop so I would switch to that computer's keyboard to check that and then back again to keep writing the review. The keyboards are different enough that separate unconscious habits seem to be developing for the netbook. I'm by no means up to full speed but I'm clattering along at a pretty good clip. Actually, clicking along very quietly would be more accurate. You could type near a sleeping person and be in very little danger of rousing him or her. The only occasion where the keyboard gave me any real grief had to do with setting up global hotkeys for Winamp. I ended up finding it far more simple to track down the winamp.ini file and just copy it over. Instantly, I had my familiar global hotkeys which I set up on my desktop's full keyboard. Go Me!
***System Tray Power Control
There are a couple of utilities in the system tray which give blind people a good deal more flexibility than we're used to having with laptops. Using the super hybrid engine, you can switch between super performance, high performance, power-saving and auto modes. You just right-click on the super hybrid engine icon and then go down with the arrow key until you reach the desired mode. Hit the enter key or left-click on that and the new mode will take effect. Super performance mode runs everything at full power. I noticed the effect of this most of all when using SAPPI voices. They get particularly broken up in power-saving mode but behave well in high performance and super performance modes. If you're playing games, you'll want to use high performance mode at a minimum. Basic tasks like word processing and even listening to music work well even in power-saving mode. The more intense a task or tasks you do, the less constrictive you want the mode set for.
The other utility is the Eee PC tray utility. This works similar to the super hybrid engine but instead gives you control over screen resolution settings. It also lets you enable or disable your wifi and webcam. The webcam is built into the bezel on top of the monitor. Not bad at all.
For everything else, just use the standard Windows tools for controlling things. No other special features are present which I've yet been made aware of. People who are familiar with Windows XP Home Edition as well as whatever screen-reader they plan to use with their 900HA should be quite comfortable fairly quickly despite the keyboard.
Having initial expectations of possible sluggishness, I was very pleasantly surprised even before I introduced a memory upgrade which gave me two gigs of RAM instead of the included one gig. Booting up takes around forty seconds even with AVG version 8 and Jaws version 9 included. I haven't taken a look at optimizing that yet. The extra gig truly comes into its own when you're doing numerous things at once while AVG scans for viruses. I noticed a distinct reduction in the computer's tendency to freeze up when hard-pressed. An extra gig of RAM is a very good investment of around $30 or so. You have to undo four screws to access the memory slot. I wouldn't recommend upgrading without sighted help. It's not hard for even a relatively non-technical person to perform a memory upgrade as long as instructions are followed. They can be found on the Internet even including videos of an upgrade being performed. My father didn't find the diagram in the manual to be of much help at all. However, the process didn't take more than five minutes despite that hindrance.
The hard drive is quite good and things get done in speedy timely fashion. It runs very silently. You can feel a slight vibration if you rest your hand on the computer but I challenge anybody to actually hear the hard drive while sitting in front of the netbook. Holding it right up to your ear is cheating but you'll have a hard time even then. The fan is also very quiet. You can just hear a motor running assuming you're in a quiet room. Fortunately, there's enough of a vibration that you should be able to feel when the computer is on and busy. It would be quite easy to leave the computer on by mistake if you didn't take the time to feel it. If you close the lid, it will go into standby mode. I've set my power options such that you don't need a password to bring the machine out of standby. Until you set a password, hitting the enter key will do the trick for you.
The built-in wireless Internet connection works very well. I get a good connection to my router here at home even when I'm two floors down. I also detect several other networks in my vicinity. This is certainly an excellent machine for connecting to the Internet with. Listening to Internet Radio while checking email is trouble-free and smooth. I have absolutely no complaints on that score. It's too bad they didn't include N wifi connectivity and/or blue tooth. However, given the low cost of the 900HA, that's a very small quibble.
What would a blink be if he wasn't interested in audio performance? "Dead" would be my ready answer. The built-in speakers of the 900HA
don't win any awards from me. The descriptive audio track of Terminator II: Judgement Day sounded like an embarrassing cartoon farce. You won't be doing your favourite artist any favours playing songs through them for your friends. There's just no base whatsoever. The speakers are tiny little things you'll find on the bottom of the netbook. It'll do in a pinch when you want to do something quickly and don't feel like using headphones. I purchased a pair of Logitech V20 USB speakers from Ebay which work splendidly provided you have some hard space like a table to work on. The Logitech V20s have built-in foldable stands and are far less likely to be knocked over than the Altech Lancing XT1 speakers I used before. They're a bit heavier and wider but definitely make up for it with good performance and stability. Should you use these speakers, check out the "advanced" options in your normal Windows volume control. You'll find the standard base and treble sliders but will also discover automatic gain control and base boost options. Nice eh?
Headphones work very well. The sound comes through full and rich even on lower-end sets. According to Winamp, the Realtech HD Audio chip gives us 34 channels of sound assuming that Jaws takes up one channel. That's a tremendous improvement over the 12 free channels my older laptop had built-in. Even after adding my Altech Lancing XT1 speakers, I only had 17 free channels until I added in my Creative sound card. The audio hardware in the 900HA will certainly be more than adequate for the majority of users. Unless your a musician or have other special heavy-duty audio requirements, you ought to have plenty for what you need with 34 channels available. Plugging in headphones or a microphone brings up the audio manager which asks you what you just plugged in. Tabbing once gets you to a combo box where you can select whatever you connected. After that, go over to the "ok" button, hit the enter key and you're done.
Accessible games work quite well with the 900HA keeping in mind the keyboard changes. I was frankly expecting more trouble on that score. However, it turns out that the 900HA is a pretty nifty portable accessible gaming machine. Alien Outback played without any problems at all. So did Superdeakout, one of my personal favourites. Should you need to, you have three USB ports for connecting external speakers, keyboard or gamepad/joystick. Not too shabby at all. The Atom processor does a fine job and the audio has certainly proved more than a match for anything developed for the blind community so far.
Overall, I'm very pleased indeed with this little machine. Who would have thought that I could so affordably take care of my portable computing needs for the foreseeable future? I likely would have appreciated a larger keyboard. However, I think the Asus Eee PC 900HA is an excellent balance between extreme portability and comfortable usability. The keyboard is just different enough to let a clean separation exist in one's mind between its keyboard and a normal desktop keyboard. Given time, using the 900HA won't require a moment's pause for thought. It's a nice sturdy solidly built netbook. I wouldn't wack it with a hammer but won't cringe in mortal terror should I bump it against something while travelling with it. They aren't the delicate flimsy things people who have never felt one might expect. On the outside, all the needed features are present and accounted for. You can connect pretty much anything you'd want to via the USB ports and audio jacks. There's no external drive but you can certainly use SD cards or flash drives for that sort of thing. The 900HA has a nice smooth feel and heft. It can easily be carried like a book in hand or under the arm.
Under the hood, the 900HA certainly has it where it counts. The wireless connectivity is more than satisfactory. The Intel Atom processor keeps things running and saves energy. Throwing in two gigs of RAM up front wouldn't have hurt Asus's bottom line too much and certainly improves overall performance. In the audio department, the 900HA loses ground due to poor internal speakers but redeems itself by offering more built-in audio processing power than many full-size laptops. If you want good audio, use headphones or buy external USB speakers. You shouldn't need an external sound card.
Finally, in every way, the 900HA is very unobtrusive. It's small enough so people won't think you're moving in for a week when you're travelling with it. The battery it ships with is a four-cell which doesn't give as long life as the six-cell variety. However, particularly for blind people who don't make use of the screen, it should offer enough juice so that you won't always have to ask where a plug is. I haven't done a battery test yet but anticipate at least four hours and likely over five. You also won't have to worry about disturbing others around you with noise. This thing is impressively quiet. It can get warm after extended use but not uncomfortably so. All this adds up to a very positive user experience for blind people who already have screen-readers or who can make use of the free ones like NVDA and SA TO GO. Market forces have finally put truly portable computing within financial reach of many blind people including a very appreciative me. This netbook would be a tremendous asset to students already familiar with the Windows operating system. They would very quickly become proficient with the keyboard for use in class and could attach a normal USB keyboard plus USB speakers for use at home. For both work and play, the Asus Eee PC 900HA makes an excellent travelling companion. Overall, I give this netbook a 9 out of 10.