Asus Eee Box B206 Inverness
Asus Eee Box B206
Asus' newest Eee Box is the first to partner an Intel Atom processor with a low-power discrete GPU, to produce what you might call a "media centre nettop". It's essentially the same formula as Nvidia's Ion platform, which has shown impressive first fruit in the form of the Acer Aspire Revo R3600. The big difference is that Asus has eschewed the Nvidia route in favour of an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3450 chip.
Read the full review of the Acer Aspire Revo R3600
First impressions are positive: the Eee Box B206's compact, regular frame looks quite elegant. You can choose either a black or white case, but neither should look out of place in your living room. If you really want to hide it away, you can clamp it to the back of your screen using a supplied bracket.
In the box you'll also find a remote control and an IR receiver, confirming the Eee Box's media centre aspirations. It's a thoughtful touch: you don't get a remote with the Revo. And if you're planning to keep the B206 permanently on, you'll appreciate its tiny power draw of 19W while idle - rising to just 24W under full load.
Alas, as soon as you start to set up the Eee Box B206 you'll run into frustrations. Video output is HDMI only, so if you want to use a standard monitor you'll need an adaptor (which isn't included). Audio output is merely stereo, and the tower-shaped IR receiver is maddeningly easy to knock over.
To get up and running you'll also need to find your own desktop keyboard and mouse set. We understand why Asus doesn't provide one, but we rather wish it had: the remote control won't cut it for the odd bits of configuration and maintenance you'll inevitably need to perform from time to time.
The deal is sweetened by a built-in Bluetooth 2.0 transceiver, which makes life easier if you happen to own Bluetooth peripherals. Besides that, though, the B206's only peripheral interfaces are four USB ports - a slightly mean allocation when you reflect that the Revo has six, plus eSATA. A four-in-one card reader and a Gigabit Ethernet port complete the B206's physical connections to the outside world.
When at last it's time to boot up the Eee Box B206 you'll find yourself staring at Windows XP Home. We can't help feeling that's the wrong choice for this particular system, since it doesn't include the Windows Media Centre application; you'll have to make do with Asus' own Eee Cinema front-end, a simple but usable media chooser.
The argument for using XP on systems like this is that it makes more efficient use of limited resources than Vista, but in our benchmarks the Eee Box scored just 0.30 - a score effectively identical to that of the Vista-equipped Revo. Predictably, given Asus' choice of a single-core Atom N270 CPU, its weakest suit was multitasking, with a score of 0.27.
Of course, in a media PC, graphics performance counts for more than raw number-crunching ability. And though the ATI graphics hardware is only up to basic gaming, it's more than equal to decoding high-definition video.
Yet in practice the experience wasn't as smooth as we'd hoped. Eee Cinema happily played our test files in various formats (including WMV and DivX at resolutions right up to 1080p, though not MKV); but though CPU usage only hovered at around 60%, we kept noticing small jerks and momentary slowdowns, suggesting a bottleneck somewhere between the hard disk and the GPU. When we brought up the on-screen playback menu, the video stalled entirely.
And when we stepped outside of Eee Cinema, into the world of standard desktop applications, things got even worse. Windows Media Player turned our 1080p sample video into a slideshow, while standard definition YouTube videos were unacceptably jerky. High definition YouTube streams were wholly unwatchable, as was BBC iPlayer content.
None of this recommends the Eee Box. Yes, if you disable all background services and hold your breath, you may be able to get Eee Cinema to play a video all the way through without hiccupping. But it's hardly a versatile system, and the element of uncertainty is anathema to the front-room role the B206 so clearly aims for. It's not helped either by the lack of a DVD drive (though that's common with nettops) - and, as a bonus disappointment, the Eee Cinema software lacks any sort of support for watching or recording TV.
If you then consider that the B206 somehow manages to come in at £50 more than the Acer Aspire Revo R3600, the conclusion is depressingly clear. As Acer has showed, the media-capable nettop is an idea with real potential. But though the Eee Box B206 offers an attractive design and some neat and unusual features, fundamentally it's just not quite there.
1.6GHz Intel Atom N270; 1 GB DDR2 RAM; 160GB hard disk; ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3450; HDMI; 4 x USB; Bluetooth; 802.11bg + draft-n; Gigabit Ethernet; SD/SDHC/MMC/MS/MS Pro card reader; Windows XP Home SP3; 2yr RTB warranty; 26.9 x 222 x 178mm (WDH); 1.2kg
A neat little box, but its all-important media capabilities are a disappointment.
Author: Darien Graham-Smith