Asus has exported its expanding 'Eee' brand to videophones, putting on sale a standalone device that lets Skype users videoconference without the need for a PC or webcam.
The 'new' news is that the device is actually on sale in ordinary places such as the UK. Announced late last year in Taiwan and widely trailed as the 'AiGuru SV1', but now apparently renamed as the 'Eee PC videophone', the imposing 1.6 kilogram device sports a 7 inch colour LCD screen, an integrated 0.3 megapixel webcam, a 10/100 Ethernet connection and 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi.
The unit plugs into the mains, but also comes with a rechargeable battery which gives it enough power to be carried from room to room for around 20 minutes talk at a time, or 30 minutes on standby.
As with Skype on a computer, the videophone allows access to all Skype's usual calling and video features by way of automated login. This enables Asus to keep the number of front panel buttons to an absolute minimum, while also minimising software complexity. The OS that holds all this up is an embedded version of Linux.
"The Eee Videophone is Skype's first foray with a partner into the videophone category," said Skype's Manrique Brenes, which co-developed the product with Asus.
"With more than 25 percent of Skype-to-Skype calls including video, we know that video calling is an easy, accessible and relevant way for people to communicate. The videophone offers the benefits of video calling to a much wider audience, allowing friends and families to share their worlds face-to-face without being tied to a computer."
The videophone has two possible flaws, starting with the ambitious £219 ($322) price tag, $299 in the US, and 270 euros in Europe. Even at street discounts, this is pretty much the same cost in real terms as the non-Internet videophones that have appeared every now and again in the last 15 years, and none of those went anywhere in market terms. Skype and Asus will have to hope that the low cost of the service's calls is compensation enough.
The video resolution is also stuck on 0.3 megapixels, serviceable for Skype Internet video, but below the best mass-market webcams, which now manage 1.3 megapixels. To put the device into perspective, Skype users willing to turn on their PCs to setup a video link could get the same video resolution and features from a $15 webcam.
Asus does claim that the CMOS video sensor works well under the sort of low-light conditions found in the average living room under artificial light, although the same can be said for webcams.
Asus might have success pitching the product at the SME buyer, an unexplored market for slightly expensive videoconferencing gadgets. BT's unremarkable Videophone 2000 - which uses a conventional phone connection - can be bought for much the same price. One disadvantage of these devices is that they need a device at either end, not an issue with the Eee PC.
More information on the Asus/Skype Videophone can be found on Skype's website.