As you read this I am probably somewhere in Europe, "between jobs", trying to put on weight by sampling every cuisine I encounter. While this has its attractions, it can make contacting loved ones a little challenging. Phone cards now make phoning home an incredibly cheap exercise (once you choose a card from the thousands available - try http://www.cloncom.com/), but I need more. So I took a long hard look at the Asus eee PC (http://eeepc.asus.com), which is a $500 laptop that weighs 0.95 kg, uses memory cards instead of a hard disc, and has built in ethernet and wireless networking, microphone, stereo speakers and video camera. You'll find reviews of this thing all over the Internet, but here's my take:
Provided you have an employer and can salary sacrifice it you will pay for it in pre-tax dollars, making it pretty cheap (I paid AUD$250 post-tax). It has lots of applications installed, including an office suite, Skype, instant messaging, links to Gmail, Hotmail and others, Firefox web browser, Thunderbird email and so on. It also has what I need to copy files up to my web site. One final bit of preparation was to purchase Skype Out credits (http://skype.com). Skype Out lets me use the Skype application on the laptop to ring any phone number in the world from anywhere that I'm on the Internet. It costs 1.7 euro cents per minute to call Australian landlines. One can just use the built-in microphone and speakers, or plug in a $5 headset.
I can now wander into one of the many free (or paid) wireless hotspots in Europe, and call Australia for an hour and pay AUD$1.60. The quality is the same as a normal phone. Of course, while I'm there I can send and receive emails, use instant messenger, write the April edition of this column in Google Docs (http://docs.google.com) and read the newspaper. I can also carry a tiny USB 80 GB hard disc with me that just plugs into the laptop. That is useful for a few reasons: I can store PDFs of all my travel docs, purchased videos and music to entertain, and other important information. In addition, because the laptop has a memory card reader that uses the same cards as my camera I can back up my photos to the hard disc as well as view and cull them on the road.
Finally, because I can easily record video with audio, I can create video "emails" of me and the surrounds which can be either emailed, or uploaded to YouTube (http://youtube.com) or my web site and just the links emailed to friends and family, who I trust will be pleased to hear my voice and see my smiling face.
Any downsides? If you remember what this laptop is all about then there are very few. No CD or DVD drive, small screen (800 x 480), small keyboard (fat fingers need not apply), but what did you expect? It's the size of a paperback book. Not that you could easily tell, but it runs Linux (Xandros to be specific) although you can install Windows XP if you insist, but you'll need to upgrade the RAM from 512 MB to 1 GB (easy to do). It has a nice simple interface that sits over Xandros making it easy for anyone to use. The office suite is OpenOffice (http://openoffice.org), which produces files compatible with Microsoft Office. You can't run Outlook, but there are good options to replace it and even connect to an Exchange server. In effect, it's the answer for someone who travels and needs web-based email (if your organisation uses Exchange, the Outlook Web Access pages work really well) and wordprocessing without carrying around a smart phone or a normal laptop. Your children will want one too.