Review: First Impressions of the Eee PC 701

Eee PC 701 BlackOkay, I can be a little obsessive. (For example, see my recent posts about fountain pens, fountain pens, fountain pens, and ...erm... fountain pens.) Unfortunately, combined with my persistent belief that my next productivity tool could be the non plus ultra, this can translate into drawers filled with unused gadgets, bookcases jammed with partially used planners and notebooks, and a selection of writing utensils that would shame any office supply store. And, although I am embarrassed to admit it, while I tend towards the intimacy of pen and paper, the tinker in me is certainly inclined towards items demonstrating an almost awkward complexity. But do those help me be more productive? Rarely.

I've mentioned not only my Macs in these pages, but my Palms, my Newtons, and various other attempts to find a perfect portable writing machine that also allows for efficient time management. The Newton eMate 300 (or alternatively, the Newton MessagePad 2100 with keyboard) was the closest thing thus far, as it offered me the ability to write without being tempted by the distractions of the web, use the amazing MoreInfo to structure my days, and have a smallish and rugged package that lasted up to 20 hours. But, as attractive as the Newtons were, I started yearning for the ability to look up online resources, draw small diagrams, send email, sync easily with my other computers, and so on, all of which are possible on the Newtons, but not easy nor intuitive. The thought of typing several dozen pages on a cramped smartphone thumb-board while the battery ticks down didn't seem to offer any respite. What I needed was a very small laptop... a subnotebook, and one that wouldn't cost a fortune. And then, I unexpectedly received one: an Asus Eee PC 701 4G Surf, currently going for an average retail value of roughly $350 USD ($400 for the non-Surf model, which means it has a webcam).

I eyed it suspiciously. Small, clunky, inexpensive, tiny-screened, Linuxy, and therefore decidedly un-Mac-like. Could it fit the bill?

After extracting it from its small box and laying it on my desk, I couldn't help but notice that the Eee PC (pronounced "eeeeeeee pee cee"?) was smaller and roughly the same weight as the mid-size hardback book lying next to it. It's a black model, as sexy as possible for such an inelegant and squarish creature, although one can find white, green, baby blue and pink versions if so inclined. Still, the plastic shell seems rather strong and well reinforced. It looks like it could withstand some rough treatment, and indeed it has. As I lifted the screen, I noted that the hinge was a little stiff, but seeing that there isn't a catch to secure it, this would prove necessary. I plugged the small and lightweight charger --about the size of a cell phone's-- into the wall and pressed the power switch.

In about 15-20 seconds, a modified Linux operating system appeared, sporting large tasteful icons within a tabbed interface. The icons were generic in nature -- instead of OpenOffice.org Writer, for example, the Work tab provided access to Documents, and instead of Amarok, there was a Music Manager. As the "Eee" in Eee PC stands for "Easy to learn, easy to work, easy to play", developed no doubt for a significant demographic of small children and grandparents, this made perfect sense.

First things first: that screen is small. At 7" and a resolution of 800x480, don't expect to do any high-end design work on this. Even viewing webpages designed for much larger monitors can be a little trying. Sitting next to my 17" MacBook Pro, the effect is almost comical, like toddler standing next to a Harlem Globetrotter. The screen size, more than anything else, would be the source of most issues on this machine.

The keyboard is small, too. I'm a very big boy with big hands, and at first it proved almost impossible to touch-type as I normally do (roughly 60-80 WPM on my regular Mac keyboards). I had the same problem at first with the eMate, but like its funkier predecessor, all it took was an hour or two of practice to get used to the spacing of the keys. I still occasionally miss the right shift key and hit the up arrow, royally screwing up my paragraph, but that's happening less and less now.

The trackpad is also tiny, but I don't find this a hassle at all. The sensitivity is fine for my uses, and one can slide a finger along its right side to scroll a page. A mouse, though, is still my preferred option on every computer, and I did get a nice tiny black mouse with a retractable cable. They make quite a cute combination. Not that I'm into cute. Except for my wife. Ahem.

This being a Linux box, it didn't take long for me to start diving under the hood, turning on the advanced desktop mode (a.k.a., KDE), setting up some repositories, and delving once more into my time-honoured UNIX geekiness. The base ("easy") system doesn't allow access to easily install the many thousands of free applications out there, but I'm sure the typical ten-year-old will figure it out very quickly. Since it uses a Debian-style apt-get system, if you're proficient, you can fetch and install anything within seconds, and you won't have to worry about virii, spyware, or endless software costs.

So, how do the rest of the machine's specifications measure up?

  • Processor: 900 MHz Celeron - surprisingly zippy with Linux!
  • Operating System: Linux (Xandros based), although it is possible to install WinXP and Vista on it -- from what I understand, the latter experience provides an excellent opportunity for masochists
  • Memory: 512 MB RAM, although it's possible to upgrade using regular non-proprietary laptop RAM sticks
  • Storage: 4 GB solid state (on the 4G, with other options being the 2G and the 8G), not a hard drive. This means that it's quite fast with data access, unlike several other UMPCs. About half of that 4 GB is taken up by the OS, which still leaves a lot of "working" room for documents. However, if you have a lot of music and video, I'd recommend using either a nice big thumb drive or the ...
  • Card reader: SD/MMC or SDHC -- a card fits flush inside, so you can install a roomy 4 GB or higher to hold big(ger) media files
  • Ports: Three USB 2.0 ports, a VGA out (capable of 1024x768, perfect for a projector), Kensington lock, mic in, audio out, and the aforementioned SD reader -- no Firewire, but no one is likely to use this rig for video editing
  • Webcam: only on certain (non-"Surf") models -- it isn't included on my 4G Surf
  • Battery: roughly three hours, depending on usage and settings -- surprisingly, I watched a 110 minute movie using VLC, and still had enough juice left for nearly an hour's browsing
  • Networking: built-in ethernet and wireless, both of worked without any hassle
  • Missing bits? - No internal CD or DVD optical drive, no expansion cards, no modem, no replaceable hard drive -- these, of course, aren't insurmountable, since the machine seems to have recognised every USB device I've thrown at it
  • Weight: less than 1 kg (roughly two pounds), which doesn't feel like much in a backpack or messenger bag
  • Bundled Software: OpenOffice.org (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, etc.), Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client, a handful of addictive games, several utilities, and a score of other small but useful applications that only become revealed in advanced desktop mode

So, is it a perfect fit with my writing and productivity cycles? Not quite, although it does have more going for it than not. I like the light weight and the compact size: I can haul it out on a moment's notice and start using it within five seconds or so. I love Linux and the horde of free software out there, but the temptation for me to get lost in tinkering is great, so that might ding my productivity a bit. ("Ooo! I can install the Beryl 3D desktop!") The keyboard and trackpad may be cramped, but most people will eventually get used to them. And the included software is a top-notch collection that allows me to do most day-to-day tasks I generally do on a computer.

Still, the screen size is the biggest issue. It's fine for basic word processing, but graphics work becomes difficult --the basic Gimp toolbars and panels take up half the screen. Video playback using VLC, on the other hand, displays a wide-screen DivX with sharp colours, good contrast, great sound (via earbuds), and no discernable skipping or artifacting.

Likewise, browsing certain websites becomes a chore in sliding scrollbars back and forth, although this can be mostly rectified by using Opera and its ability to scale everything on the screen to fit by width, especially in full-screen mode --a brilliant touch for mobile browsers! I attempted to use Google Docs, Google Calendar and Backpack for productivity purposes, and eventually tripped upon the idea of setting up Prisms for each of them that eliminated the need for toolbars and the like. (Or one could hit F11 in Firefox to jump into full-screen mode.) Those online apps work well (notwithstanding the nearly three weeks my co-op's net connection has been broken at home) and they allow me to access the same data from any net-connected computer. (Alas, just not at home, did I mention? Grrr.)

Obviously, between the tiny screen and the low specs, this isn't an ideal primary machine, but it makes a darned fine secondary laptop, one that you can toss in a small bag and forget about till you need it, something I've been doing quite a bit lately. I must admit that I really miss MoreInfo on the Newton, probably the single best time management tool I've ever used, but the Eee PC does signal a wave worth catching -- the ultra-cheap, ultra-mobile computing experience.

For more information, check out Amazon.com, the official ASUS Eee PC site, and the EeeUser wiki and blog. Note that a new 9" Eee PC model was just announced, but the price is starting to creep upwards into the cost of a full-fledged laptop; much more, I'd be sore tempted to get a MacBook 13" instead.

Next week, more about fountain pens....

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Looks like a lovely little

Looks like a lovely little machine. I'm big into the single all-in-one production vessel and opted for a 13" MacBook last Nov. since I'll be dabbling in photography and web design, but if not for those this would be an attractive option, though less so by the web browsing issues. This strikes me as a fantastic high schooler laptop. Enough oomph to take care of basic paper work and research, though not the excess one would need for more powerful work later on.

love it!

I just acquired my very own eeePC recently and I am absolutely in love with it. It is small enough for me to stash in my purse, and mobile enough for me to take it and use it just about anywhere. I had no trouble touch-typing out of the box thanks to my smaller girlie hands, and it is screaming along in Ubuntu thanks to the super quick, super easy RAM upgrade I did almost as soon as I received it. I plopped an 8GB SDHC card inside for more storage, I also got a Western Digital Passport hard drive that is not much bigger than a deck of cards but packs an additional 250GB inside.

I am using it for a lot of writing, surfing, chatting, Twittering, uploading images to Flickr, watching video, email and some work-related tasks (like notetaking). The screen is small, I will agree with you on that, but that may be the only slight complaint I have about it. It is not enough of a complaint, however, for me to replace it with the new 900 when it comes out. In addition to being more expensive, which kind of defeats the purpose, it is also larger and thicker than the 701--not by much, but by enough that it ALSO defeats the purpose.

I am more than thrilled with my purchase and glad to see it getting a pretty good review from you. Now to figure out how to best use it for PIM...it is the same size as my paper planner, after all! ;-)

i've been tempted

My current laptop is dying. And soon I'm moving and may not need a full - fledged laptop anymore. Seems like this could be as much as I really need.

But the make or break question is:
is there a way to play Civilization III on it?

-kmorris
off to conquer the world, errm build up civilizations that is

I WAS tempted, now an owner.

>is there a way to play Civilization III on it?

Yes, several different ways.

1) Install WinXP and run.
2) Add the "advanced mode" to the desktop under the Xandros/Linux OS and then install Cedega (which DOES cost a little money) and run under that.
3) Consider FreeCiv as a substitue - I was playing that last night on my EEE.

I will tell you though - I was USED to playing games like this on my 21" monitor - the EEE in this particular ap suffers from information overload/undersize a bit. Works, though!

I just picked the 4G surf

I just picked the 4G surf model up this past weekend for a business trip since I didn't want to bring my MacBook, so this was the perfect excuse to buy one. Your review summed my views on it up very well (but the scroll on the the trackpad isn't as responsive as I'd like). I need to try the Opera browser out on it because some pages on Firefox are a hassle.

I also wanted to add to the article by stating that the hardware is fully capable of running Windows XP if that is your preference, there is even a chapter in the instruction manual on how to do this (you'll need an external CD-ROM). I decided to boot a different linux distro off a USB key since I'm not a big Xandros fan which is working well, but I think later this week I'm going to invest in a 8GB SDHC card so that I can dual-boot between my preferred linux distro on the card and Windows XP on the SSD.

Also, there is an incredible modification community out there that has added things such as touchscreens, bluetooth, extra RAM, and many other things. Definitely an excellent tool for people that travel quite a bit (I also got quite a bit of people asking to check it out on my flights) and a fun platform for those tinkerers out there.

As I know, someone installed

As I know, someone installed WinXP and played WoW on EeePC. It is pretty handy for commuters. Once you have a monitor, an extra keyboard and mouse in your office and home, you can always plug it to EeePC to be transformed as a mini pc. There are a lot of accessories for EeePC, such as
a tiny mouse
http://shopping.pchome.com.tw/?mod=item&func=exhibit&IT_NO=A...
,
a protector bag http://shopping.pchome.com.tw/?mod=item&func=exhibit&IT_NO=A...
and
a tiny bluetooth dongle
http://shopping.pchome.com.tw/?mod=item&func=exhibit&IT_NO=A...

eeeuser.com

I think you missed the url for the eeeuser.com site.
LINK will get you there.

I ordered my wife's eeePC over the weekend, but will have to wait until my parents' arrival in April before we/she can play with it!

She's planning on making this her primary computer, believe it or not. since all she does with it is web, email and basic documents, I believe she might just be able to do it, though I'm fully prepared to buy her an external LCD monitor and keyboard to go with her mouse (black, too, btw).

She's quite rabid about learning how to fully exploit this thing--even learning about Linux, etc. I'm excited to see what she will do with this guy--and I'll be totally hands-off! (boo hoo)

-Jon

Then just buy another for yourself.

>:D
-----------------------------------
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

I really want one of those,

I really want one of those, but I'm waiting for the 9inch screen, which was announced officially yesterday and should be out in the next month or two. It's the exact same form factor, but with the larger screen and some other updates. I think it will be a great thing to have around, even though we have several laptops in our household and two desktops. I love the portability and I think it will be awesome for traveling. I can totally see myself taking it with me to starbucks after work and writing on it while waiting for my b/f to get off work across the street. I love that it can fit in my small messenger bag and that it's so lightweight.

I've recommended it for my mom too. She's not good with technology and I think the over-simplified linux distro would suit her fine, there isn't much she can get in trouble with.

It's not going to replace my laptop or desktop since I do a lot of image-intensive work and some gaming, but for surfing the web at night before bed, or trying to catch a wifi signal on the road, it will be great. And I love that I can sit with it at my teeny tiny kitchen table and still have room for my coffee and a notebook w/o shuffling everything around. The keyboard will take some time to get used to, but I used to use those terrible keyboard add-ons on my Palm and I managed.

I'm waiting

I'm pretty sure there is one of those in my future, but I'm waiting on a 9" screen and a more stable Hackintosh. Once those two conditions are fulfilled, it's going to be replacing whatever laptop I have. Though there might be a MacBook Air in my future instead. If so, the EeePC might have to wait some more.

"It's better to be a pirate than to join the Navy." -- Steve Jobs

Mine's in my backpack right now!

My G3 iBook is literally being held together with duct tape after I cracked the hinge, and it's missing the spacebar, the N key, and the backspace key. I wanted something that was portable, could connect to the Interwebs, and had a text editor (since I fancy myself something of an author).

I got the 2G model ($300) and shelled out another 20 for a 4G SD card and USB reader. The 2G comes with fewer games and applications and no webcam, but I don't miss them at all.

The one thing that people need to know is that the KEYBOARD IS TINY. I have very small hands, to the point where I wear children's gloves size medium, and even then it took a little bit of adjustment for me to get used to it. Same with the trackpad.

I haven't busted deeply into the LINUX yet, but I really haven't needed to. One day I'll probably want to download some games to an SD card, but right now I'm just so excited I can hike to the nearest coffee shop (across the street from my noisy house) and write!

Ah, the eMate...

I dearly loved my eMate. I took that little green laptop with me the Philippines in 2001 for 10 days to keep a travel journal, and the thing was amazing. The battery life was phenomenal, the word processor was fast and efficient, and I was able to export my text to my iMac via the IrDA port. Unfortunately, it broke a couple years later, and I couldn't find anyone to service it. I tried taking it apart to try myself, but then I couldn't put it back together.

Have you checked out the AlphaSmart Dana Wireless? That seems to be the next best thing. It even looks a bit like the eMate. But with wifi!

Want another eMate ?

I have a few spares yet.
-----------------------------------
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

You have a spare eMate?

How much?

sporter
"To fly, we must have resistance."

OOps! Wrong machine

Never mind. I was thinking of something else.

sporter
"To fly, we must have resistance."

AlphaSmart

or the AlphaSmart NEO

Love Mine

I got one in November and now I am not quite sure what I did without it.

It has become my primary machine since graphics and gaming are not a part of my agenda.

It fits in my purse, connects just about everywhere and is pretty darn cute!

The small keyboard is actually a bonus for me, but I can see how it annoys bigger people.

I am actually considering moving to digital solutions for planning for the first time, mostly since "eeeduardo" is always with me.

hmmm...

This likes a good laptop for my 14yo daughter. Her homework consists of writing essays and putting together the occasional Powerpoint presentation. And web surfing of course. She synchs her ipod to my new Macbook (after 20 years of pc's I looove it) so doesn't need huge music/movie storage space. Her 5yo Dell broke too easily when she left it on the edge of a chair against my warning that the cat would knock it off and break it and, lo and behold, the cat jumped up and knocked it down and broke it. Thank goodness dsis's fiancee is an IT guru and could fix it with just a few choice words. But, the Eee PC wouldn't have that same problem.

Obsession with FPs is OK...

I have it too and the only downsides have been keeping my purchases under the radar of my generally tolerant wife, and the struggle not to yield to temptation when another attractive vintage pen shows up for sale... :-)

They are so much fun to write with and are such beautiful works of art.

Looking forward to your next article.

Walter

-----------------------
"The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once." Albert Einstein and Buckaroo Banzai

eee pc is indeed great

I've had the eee pc since January and it's seldom far from my grasp now. Great for working on the move. Good for surfing and email. It's not bad for watching videos on either though maybe not a film.

I'm in the UK and unfortunately WiFi isn't as common as I think it is in the USA, but if I have to have a beer in order to sit in a wifi zone I can live with it. I'll certainly be bringing it to the states on my holidays to upload photos and surf on the move.

I'm a total paper notebook addict but the eee pc is really tempting me away, despite it's daft name!!!!

WiFi - common?

Not where I live. It's not as common in the U.S. as many people think. I live in a small city in the SE U.S. and there is one spot in town that has WiFi access but they have only 4 chairs with 2 tiny (2 ft. diam) tables and it is a lunch spot. There are more urban areas where it is more common but I travel quite a bit to larger cities for work and there are times when the only free wireless I can find is at my hotel.

Depends on the city.

I live in a college town in north-central Florida, and wi-fi is everywhere here. All the coffeeshops have it. The downtown area has blanket coverage thanks to a city initiative. All the county library branches have it. Even some restaurants in the student-heavy areas have it. And of course the very large university has it. (Weirdly, the community college does not have it yet. Surprising, considering they have an excellent IT program. I hear they're working on it though.)

--
Steff
[ blog | photos ]

Mobile Internet

... in the UK and unfortunately WiFi isn't as common ...

Major UK cities have WiFi networks but you'll have to pay for the access. Starbucks have a tie in to T-Mobile in most (all?) of their shops, for example. Business hotels provide it. If a student then many British universities now have WiFi networks installed. Alternatively there are now mobile broadband modems from T-Mobile and 3. Faster than my own wireless network, which is broadcasting from a router connected to my 100Mb network backbone. But the mobile broadband has traffic limiting; 3Gb/month is common. I hope it isn't 3G specific as I'm off on business to Cornwall next week and 3G coverage is pretty much non-existant there; I'll be miffed if it doesn't fallback to using the existing 2G network.

As the eee uses Linux it might be simple to use one of the broadband devices. Equally might be real difficult. But the Apple Mac stuff installed without problem here.

US Wireless

It's not free everywhere, but you can go to most any McDonald's, FedEx Kinko, Borders Bookstores,or Starbucks and get on T-Mobile for a reasonable fee per month--like $40. And most hotels and motels have it. Google T-Mobile Hotspot and you can find a listing of all their "Hotspots."

Your other solution would be

Your other solution would be to move to Montreal or Toronto, both city having ample free wireless, both inside and outside, the latter of the two havinf a municipal plan to provide free wireless to all residents.

Wifi

I need to clarify that I'm Scottish so of course I want free WiFi ;-)

I'm going to Austin, TX and I know I have free wifi in the hotel but hoping with it being a University town (and home of a few electronics manufacturers) there might be a few free wifi spots about. It'll only be in between kayaking and eating bbq anyway

In the UK I am fairly happy surfing in the pub! I'd be interested to know if there is 3g/mobile broadband connection in Cornwall. While camping last year we couldnt connect anywhere remotely in the country in England...

Free Austin WiFi...

It looks like there are lots of free WiFi spots in Austin. Look at the following link. But I don't know how up-to-date this listing is--haven't used it myself.

wififreespot DOT com/tex.html

And welcome to Texas, I hope you have a great time.

HTH!

Glenda

Eeepc after a month

(First -- Doug, your pen articles are absolutely first-rate.)

I've had my black Eeepc 4G Surf for about one month now and have little but praise for it. It is extraordinarily solid-feeling, more than any notebook computer I've had or used before. The keyboard does take getting used to but I can now type at about 60 of my usual 80-90 wpm with no trouble -- except for that pesky caps lock key that I invariably hit when wanting "a" at least once per email, etc. I've seldom in my 50-plus years of typing ever used a caps lock key. Like the "scroll lock" key I wonder why they even exist. (I also never use a right shift key. You'd have to see it to understand.)

It took many hours to get wireless home networking to work. That is in no way the fault of the Eeepc; it's because tutorials on the Web are confusing, contradictory, and sometimes downright wrong. When I finally got it going, it was ridiculously simple (by Linux standards). Only three little files to put on the server computer and I was all set.

The display is a marvel. I bought mine on reading many reviews that bragged about the clarity of the display. I didn't go wrong.

I found an excellent wireless mouse on eBay for about $10 and that gets around the tiny touchpad problem. Settings for the touchpad can make it a lot less troublesome to use, but I've never liked any touchpad a bit, and this is no exception.

For those worried (or concerned) about the supposedly relatively short life of solid-state "drives," I have done extensive reading about that, and it appears, subject to verification, that that is now a myth -- no need to worry about wearing it out, probably, in the lifetime of the machine, or possibly even mine. These are not like the very first solid-state memory devices.

All in all, the Eeepc is better than I hoped it would be -- by quite a bit. And I had high hopes else I wouldn't have ordered mine.

Eee PC

Love mine can use free wi-fi in my local bar while I wait for friends and most of our express buses have wi-fi too.
Great for on the move. Storage, I just use my cards and pen drives. It is a sweetie

...and after three more months...

Thought I'd update my original "after one month" comment to reflect my feelings about the EeePC here in the middle of July, a little over four months since I acquired it.

I still admire and appreciate its ultra-solid construction every time I open it (with some difficulty -- which is good, since it's virtually impossible for it to open on its own while it's under your arm in the espresso stand line, for example, or if you drop it -- in which case it will most likely emerge both still shut and undamaged, amazing).

The display continues to impress me with its clarity and ease on my eyes. I thought my desktop 19-inch Princeton monitor was easy to look at, but now I actually prefer using the EeePC when I don't need all that screen space.

I loathe the built-in touchpad, though, and pretty much refuse to use it. A wireless mouse I found on eBay for about two dollars (that's right, $2) is so wonderful I lack words to describe it. Problem solved. (The "dongle" that goes into the USB slot on the EeePC even stows in the back of the mouse, and turns it off at the same time, when you want to wrap things up and move on.)

I generally do all my work (mainly, I admit, email, a spreadsheet, and browsing and doing research on the Web; I'm retired) in the living room on the EeePC and rarely even visit my desktop machine anymore. If I can fire myself up to get involved heavily in photography again (I hit a slump when I resigned from Flickr), then I'll do all photo editing on the desktop machine.

I would rate my satisfaction with the 701 at 9 on a scale of ten. I would probably rate the larger machine even higher, but I don't have any plan to get one, at this time.

Resistance Crumbling

My daughter has used her eeePC now for an entire year of college and still loves it, while I've been resisting the urge to pick one up for myself.

She's had two hiccups. Firstly, her wireless setup was very difficult because her school uses an obscure protocol, which is apparently standard-ish amongst US colleges. She needed help from the tech support people at her school to figure it out, but they got it going and even managed wireless printing, which was an unexpected bonus.

The second hiccup happened when a software upgrade crashed in the middle of the update, rendering the wee beastie non-startable. By pressing F5 during the boot sequence, you get an option screen that can completely reset your machine to original condition for just such an occasion. Works great. Fortunately, she had current backups!!!

The eeePC can make an impression as well. She attended a conference in the Spring, doing multiple interviews for Summer jobs (she works in theater). She set up the eeePC to open directly to her online portfolio, which the interviewers could then see. She'd also hand them a one-page summary with her URL prominently displayed so they could go back and review it again later if they wanted. She got a lot of favorable comments on the setup, and more than one interviewer referred to her as "mini laptop girl" as a distinguishing characteristic.

I really want my own eeePC, but at this time it would be just to play with. That's a fair bit of money to spend on a toy, and the new model is more expensive, even overpriced, IMO.