It has oft been said that Asus aren't scared to try a few things - just look at their Bamboo notebooks, the original Eee PC and now the Eee Top. Ok we've seen the HP TouchSmart and the Sony VAIO all-in-one, as well as the iMac of course, but the Eee Top really pushes the envelope, firstly by offering a touch interface, and secondly, by coming in at under £500. But is this a touch PC you should consider?
Starting with the hardware, you get an all-in-one format PC, which essentially gives you a monitor with all the workings within the same unit. The Eee Top has been carefully styled, coming in either black or white models, and a 15.6-inch (13.5-inch visible), 1366 x 768 full touch panel. Under this panel are some convenient controls for power, volume and brightness, as well as a button to turn off the screen. Blue LEDs are used as backlighting for the status lights as well as casting down onto the clear plastic stand, giving off a welcoming glow against the surface in which it stands.
Around the back, to keep the Top upright there is a metal stand that allows you to adjust the angle of the screen to a certain degree. The top of the metal stand doubles as a carrying handles, as well as a convenient place to store the keyboard, tucked out of harm's reach.
Our review model was the black version and the slick lines make this an impressive PC to look at - certainly it draws admiring looks whilst sat alongside your Gaggia coffee machine and Smeg fridge. It is also a PC that looks good from all angles: the metal stand at the back is a work of art and whilst the supplied keyboard and mouse are wired, their USB plugs have been slimmed down. There is a touch of Mac magic here, giving the impression that design has taken the lead: it is a shame then that the USB plugs don't quite get down to the compact dimensions that Apple use. The keyboard has individual separated keys, also sported by Macs and Sony's Vaio range, which always bring the Sinclair ZX Spectrum to mind.
The keyboard is fairly compact, after all, you don't want a hulking great keyboard littering your worktop, but for those used to working on a notebook, the keyboard is a good size, the keys are well spaced and very satisfactory, with a distinct clean typing action. The keyboard borrows the sort of Fn shortcuts you'd find on a notebook, so you can change the volume, mute, adjust the brightness and so on. Noteable shortcuts include the ability to change the brightness of the blue downlight (including turning it off) and the ability to alter the power settings, using Asus' Super Hybrid Engine.
The keyboard also hides a pen stylus and an additional USB 2.0 slot on the side. The mouse, by contrast, is nothing to get excited about and with only 70cm of cable, it’s difficult to use - the best bet it to get a wireless mouse, such as the Logitech V450 Nano, which would discreetly slot onto the back when not needed.
Across the back of the Eee Top you get Gigabit Ethernet, four USB 2.0 slots, as well three 3.5mm audio ports for surround sound, and the important DC power in. Along the left-hand side you get a further two USB 2.0 slots and a SD/SDHC/MMC/MS Pro card reader, so there is no shortage of connection options for peripherals. You also get draft n Wi-Fi built-in, but there is no Bluetooth. Built-in to the bezel you'll find a mic as well as a 1.3MP camera. Across the bottom of the screen is also housed the 4W SRS Premium Sound System, which is better than your average notebook speaker set, but still lacks any sort of bass.
The Eee logo gives away what is lurking underneath and it is no surprise to find that this is actually a netbook slapped onto a screen - so you'll find an Intel Atom N270 processor running at 1.6GHz, backed by 1GB of RAM. You also get a 160GB SATA drive and graphics are provided by an onboard Intel chipset. It is perhaps not a surprise, therefore, to find that the Eee Top runs Windows XP. It also runs very quietly, without much fan noise.
So what is it actually like to use? Asus have included an Easy Mode software umbrella to make navigation easier. Easy Mode presents you with large icons which you can simply tap on the screen to access the application you want. Split into four main areas: Communication, Fun, Work and Tools, things are logically laid out, looking more like a Linux netbook interface. Lurking in communication you'll find Skype preinstalled, which ties in well with the webcam, and we soon found ourselves Skyping whilst cooking. The Eee Notes application is a great little manifestation of what you expect from touch and a home PC. You can use Eee Notes either as a clock, with a slick swipe to change from analogue to digital display, but enter the notes section and you can pull coloured Post-it notes down and write on them using the pen and then leave them sitting for when the wife comes home. It’s a shame you can't just dump them on the desktop.
Under the Fun tab you get access to the webcam, running Cyberlink's Youcam, and the normal host of Windows games, but also Eee Cinema, which does use nice big icons to make navigation relatively easy, but also misses the point - the Movies section asks you to insert a DVD, although there is no drive, the music section only offered access to My Music, and the "search" option is a text search rather than finding music on the network. Photos seems to be a little more flexible, viewing files on an inserted USB stick, but again there was no option to get to the network and it wouldn't see our connected SD card. Once into photos you don't get a swipe finger navigation or any of the other funky interactive features you might want - it’s a straight-up slideshow, which leaves you feeling rather disappointed in what is a pretty key area for this type of PC.
The Work tab basically provides large icon shortcuts to the bundled StarSuite software, Wordpad and Adobe Reader. None of these applications can practically be used without the keyboard so these are really in place so you have regular PC features available to you.
Tools then gives you access to Opera and Internet Explorer, Motorola's SoftStylus application, which will give you an onscreen QWERTY keyboard, so you can easily fill in URLs and the like without having to resort to the keyboard. At first we weren't taken with it, but after a while it grows on you. Opera seems to work the best with touch - we also tried Google's Chrome because if its better use of screen space, but the touch scrolling didn't seem to work as reliably as Opera.
I've not been a big fan of touch interfaces in the past, and only recently I put my neck on the line to say that a touchscreen PC was not something I'd be interested in. Has the Eee Top changed that? Well it has and it hasn't. Sitting in my kitchen, picking out a recipe online to help with the cooking, Skyping Mum to clarify some of the details, all whilst keeping an eye on the collapsing soufflé in the oven, is certainly an experience. The Eee Top's small footprint makes the domestic PC more of a reality, much more useful than a laptop or even netbook, which still take up a lot of worktop space.
But do Asus present the perfect solution here? Well, we think a trick has been missed on the software front. It is almost there, but the media interfaces just don't seem to work with touch. There is no fun to be had with photos, no swiping or rotating on the screen. This is Windows XP with touch and it soon starts to feel like it.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing, because when it comes down to it, you can sit down with the Eee Top and carry out all the normal tasks you would want to on a PC - your office functions, doing homework, even photo editing. But if you go too far you start to notice the lack of real power, especially compared to a similar (screen) sized notebook computer - too many open windows and things really slow down.
You also have to consider the screen resolution, which is fine with big chunky icons, but on the whole is not the greatest and there is little flexibility to change this, so things look pretty unexciting overall.
So who should be looking at the Eee Top? We'd be tempted to leave the working functions aside and use the Eee Top only as an internet portal and entertainment unit in a room that doesn't have a computer or TV. In the kitchen or a family room it is ideally suited: it doesn't take up too much space and there is plenty of flexibility as to how you interact with it. And it won't break the bank, which sets it ahead of some of its rivals.