Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Apple vs. Asus - a traveller's tale

I had the rare opportunity last month to travel to Geneva for two film shoots, one week apart. The flights in and out (same day) were exactly the same, the location the same, the venue the same. No, I didn’t screw up the first shoot. We had to film two different people.

I took the opportunity to run a little geek experiment. For one trip, I took my Asus Eee 901. For the other, I took my 15” MacBook Pro. Which one would win for business travel? The diminutive-but-almost-impossible-to-type-on Asus, or the glows-red-hot-when-you-open-Word Apple?

TRIP ONE: Asus Eee 901

Travelling in and out of a country in a day for business means hand luggage only, which also means a dislocated shoulder, radial bruising and severe shoulder strap burns. Not today. My Eee rattles around in my rucksack, alongside a notebook – made of paper – and my travel docs. I can barely feel it, and my bag is so light I start to panic that I’ve forgotten something.

Even when I stop off at City Airport’s airside WHSmith and cram my rucksack full of crisps, chocolate and expensive, lifestyle-enhancing bottled water so I don’t get poisoned by the in-flight cuisine, my back barely registers an ache.

Waiting at the gate, I quickly review a document in OpenOffice’s Word-like thingy. This is easy as I’m now almost used to the two-finger typing that the Eee’s tiny keyboard requires. The document renders well and I dial up some 3 Broadband and send it back to the office. So far, so awesome.

On the plane, the little Eee fits nicely on the fold-down tray, even when accompanied by a cup of hot brown water, two exploding milks and The Driest Cheese Sandwich Ever Made. Again, typing is passable – my special Eee typing style also requires tucked-in elbows and odd, bird-like wrists (think ‘pecking’) so there is no chance of bashing arms with a neighbouring traveller and becoming just another air rage statistic.

The little screen does mean I have to hunch forward to see it, though. Thinking about it, that’s probably a good thing as it means nobody else can see it either. The bundled Linux OS ‘Xandros’ (forced to remain forever in Fisher Price ‘Easy Mode’) looks far too One-Laptop-Per-Child. It’s embarrassing.

At the location, the Eee does its thing and attracts the normal amount of ‘ooohs’ from a surrounding throng of technology fans. Then, when I try and connect to some local wifi, it throws what I can only describe as a ‘fit’ – the screen flickers and strobes and the speakers emit a high-pitched beeping. The thong disperses in shock.

In the afternoon we’re done so we head into Geneva in search of Large Hadron Colliders. We don’t know where one might be so pop into Starbucks, surf their wifi (without any fits this time), neck a latte and cinnamon swirl, and find CERN on Google Maps. (We got there – here’s proof.)

The way back to London is much the same – a bit of typing, some emails and no bother. I feel good about my Eee. And d’you know what? The battery indicator shows that I’d only used half a charge on the whole trip. Now that's frugal.

TRIP TWO: Apple MacBook Pro 15”

Compared to my first laptop ever, the MacBook Pro is light, thin, portable and impossibly powerful. But when placed alongside the Asus it’s a giant slab of hot, noisy, indestructible metal. It’s heavy too – not when compared to what it does, but when you’re carting it around City Airport you certainly notice it. To avoid neck injury I had to put the rucksack on both shoulders and risk looking… European.

On the plane, typing is a breeze on the full-size, softly-sprung keyboard and the big bright screen means I can sit back as I work. The MacBook does, however, overhang the tray table so much that a) it keeps sliding off it into my lap and b) I have to commandeer the table next to me to store Air France’s foul facsimile of a breakfast.

And then it runs out of power.

I’ve got a battery that isn’t even three months old. I had wireless turned off, energy saving mode on and the screen dimmed. And yet, not two hours into my voyage, I’m dead.

At the location, some bartering with the locals eventually turns up a Swiss adapter (warning to travellers - it's like nothing else on Earth) to wake things back up. I leave it to charge while we get on with filming. Once that’s done, I hook up with that local wifi – seamlessly this time – and catch up on some email over a croque monsieur. I’m back up to full power, and so is the MacBook, for now.

On the way back to Blighty I clear out my inbox (from over 6,000 messages to under 1,000 – still some way to go until inbox victory) and write a 600-word article on open source vs proprietary software. On the MacBook, writing is a pleasure.

In contrast, writing things on the Asus is still a chore. I couldn’t imagine rattling off 600 words without a nervous breakdown. The 1,000th time I hit the wrong letter and go for the delete key, which I then miss and hit something else like a plus or a backslash, I'd turn insane and hurl it out of the nearest window. Not a good idea at 10,000ft.

Once home, I let the MacBook warm my legs (one positive thing from its tendency to run hot – no need for central heating) as I finish off some final emails and check over a few final documents that have come in during the day. I glance longingly at the Asus in the corner, and wish is was as usable as the larger, better-endowed MacBook.

Which then runs out of power.

Verdict: Next time I go, I’m taking the Asus. Far less hassle, way more usable, despite the ridiculous keyboard. With an OS actually designed for adults and some tweaks to email and wireless to make them work better, it’ll be great. I still love you MacBook, but you're too thirsty to travel well.