Review: Asus ET1602 Eee Top

All-in-one computers are yesteryear’s gas guzzling SUVs. Sure, they’re stylish and full-featured. But they’re also ridiculously extravagant for everyday tasks.

So, it was no surprise that the budget-minded maestros at Asus released the sensibly appointed Eee Top (or ET1602). The skinny on this countertop unit is pretty straightforward: It’s the touch-based kitchen computer that won’t put you out of house and home. Don’t go rushing out to cash in that 401K, though — despite a recession-friendly price, the Eee Top still feels a little light in the loafers.

The glossy white, semi-opaque keyboard and mouse looks stylish enough out of the box, but after extended handling their light, plastic-y build became annoying. Despite this pet peeve, we were impressed with the central unit. The slim chassis sat solid on our countertop, while the bright, 15.6-inch screen and the integrated speakerbar made up the majority of the Top’s sleek profile. Rounding out the device are six USB ports, a memory card reader, a 1.3-MP webcam, and integrated Wi-Fi. We can’t lie though — we were pretty bummed at the lack of an optical drive. Once we got everything fired up, it was clear that the Top’s designers channeled Cupertino (iMac anyone?), but we’ll take ‘derivative’ over ‘downright hideous’ any day.

The Top’s less-is-more exterior is only complemented by its interface. After a quick bootup we were presented with two options: Windows Mode, a touch-based version of XP, and Easy Mode, an icon-heavy task-based take on XP). Though there wasn’t a huge difference between the two, navigating through each using just our fingers was a breeze. Simple clicking and dragging was remarkably hassle-free, and even the on-screen response was consistently lightning fast across a number of applications. In fact, we found that the reliability and accuracy of the touch interface made up for other quibbles — like the awkward (but functional) on-screen keyboard, the lack of multitouch navigation and the cheap hunk of plastic subbing for a stylus.

Asus kept things lithe under the hood, too. We still have mixed feelings about our review unit, which shipped with Intel’s 1.6-GHz Atom processor, 1 GB of RAM, and an integrated GPU. On one hand, the choice of the plunky, mobile-centric processor was reasonable considering the price/size niche Asus was shooting for. And again, as far as operating comfortably within its casual computing skin, the Top performs well. Still, we felt like the Top’s potential was extremely limited by its lack of power. Although plain vanilla tasks like web surfing, e-mail and light word processing worked fine, when we broke out high-res video from Netflix and Hulu, the Top started to show cracks. Naturally, this raised the question: How important is video for a lifestyle device like a countertop computer? Around my fourth attempt at streaming an episode of “30 Minute Meals” (while in the kitchen, no less), the answer was clear. When it comes to the ever increasing prevalence of web-based video, the Eee is sorely underpowered.

Ideally, the Top was designed to address all of our casual computing needs. Asus definitely nailed the simplicity and accessibility parts. But we can only hope that some video chops are in the cards for next year’s model. We can handle the lack of an optical drive, but if we can’t solidly back that up with web content, we’ve got a problem. That said, the Top’s killer price and intuitive interface puts it miles ahead of its gas guzzling, all-in-one competitors.

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