Jan 28, 2010

The Touch Book

I figured with all this hubbub about the iPad, I'll give my bit overdue comment about the Touch Book, which is a netbook/tablet from a small company called Always Innovating.

I've had this little gadget for a few weeks now, although I ordered it last June. Which is fine, because I haven't had a strong need for it until now (convenient the way things happen!) It's a pretty good deal, although for netbooks it's a bit on the steep range. It starts at $399 if you buy the complete deal, but you're going to end up paying about $460-470 after exchange rates, shipping and customs. Not a problem though, we'd be paying that much in taxes anyway if we went out to Future Shop or Best Buy.

What are the good aspects?
  • Tablet Mode - The screen comes off. Every part of the computer is actually inside the screen, the only parts inside the lower half are the keyboard, touch pad, and an extra battery (which means if you get the keyboard too, you'll have double the battery life). After the screen is off, it becomes a touch screen and you do everything you normally would with the machine - read an eBook, write notes, etc. It comes with software that is great for this thing; the program called "Note Taker" by default gives you a ruled piece of paper that you can draw on to your heart's content, and it even opens up PDFs for you to draw on - keep in mind it does not copy the PDF (which is a good thing, since it won't alter the PDF) so you can't delete the PDF.
    Anyway, when you're in tablet mode it will automatically pop up an onscreen keyboard for you to use
  • Battery Life - You can get about 7 hours of actually usage out of it before needing a recharge. Why/how? It uses an ARM CPU, which has a lower power consumption than Intel/AMD CPUs. This also means that you can't run anything x86 on it, so don't think about using Windows. You're limited to anything that runs on an ARM (the built-in Touch Book OS is pretty good, and Ubuntu has an ARM port so we don't really have a problem here!)
  • Solid State - the hard drive for this is actually an SD card, so there's no hard drive noise. Combine this with the fact that - as far as I can tell - there are no fans in this thing, so there isn't really any noise that comes from it.
  • Tinkerable - the back panel of the screen comes off, revealing the SD card slot and several internal USB ports. This means that if you have a USB drive that you want to keep in the computer for a while but don't want it poking out the side, you can just stick it inside and it is nice and out of the way.
  • It's a small company - as an economist-in-training, I naturally dislike monopolies and small oligopolies. It is good to see a small company marketing a product so that we don't always have to go with Apple or HP or whatever for a laptop.
Anyway there are still some drawbacks, and this wouldn't be a good review if I didn't go over them a bit.
  • Software - while I do like Linux, I've been a bit spoiled by how bug-free and smooth things go in Ubuntu. You can put Ubuntu onto this machine, although I think I'd rather keep the niftier features that come with the Touch Book OS. There are a few UI problems and other bugs, like for example when I double-click the title bar of a window, the window decorator seems to crash. All my windows are still there open, they just don't have title bars or borders (UPDATE: This bug has been fixed in the latest version, I will try and update). Another problem is that the only way to check free space (that I can find) is through the 'df' command line utility, since at the bottom of the file browser it says "check the Storage Control Panel", which unfortunately does not exist - or if it does, I can't find it. Finally, to upgrade the thing the upgrader that it comes with doesn't work, so you need to grab the image of the new OS off their website and copy it to the flash drive. I'm not sure how to do that yet (it will be my project for the next little while) but it definitely won't be happening on another computer since the only things in my house that can read an SD card other than this laptop are my printer and my camera.
  • A bit sluggish - I know that it is a netbook and it's not supposed to be blazing fast, but one of the main things I'd like to use this for is an eBook reader and when it takes 20-30 seconds to go to the next page of an 11MB PDF it interrupts the flow a bit (good thing I haven't tried Russell & Norvig yet, that thing clocks in at 36MB!).
  • Tablet UI - this is not in the special UI they have, but for the regular one in tablet mode. While the screen is quite precise when you're pressing in the centre of the screen, you can't quite reach the edge. This is really bad for scroll bars and close buttons, so when reading a PDF that doesn't fit on the page you can't actually read the bottom of the page, because you can't scroll down. It would be nice if when you dragged your finger along the screen it would scroll it, but the only app that really does that is Midori (the browser that comes with it) and the Note Taker - although now that I think about it I can probably just try opening the PDF in the Note Taker and just not writing on it...
  • A bit flimsy - one issue with the flap on the cover is that it doesn't fit back on perfectly and you can actually fit your fingernail underneath and lift it up without unlocking it. I think this is a disaster waiting to happen, a piece of paper slips in there or something gets caught and pulls up on the flap, etc. Another is that it doesn't quite stay closed after you close it, if you bump something the cover sorta bounces up and down. A simple fix would be to put some kind of latch there, although I'm not sure how that would fit in with the tablet idea so maybe it isn't a great fix.
  • Not quite as advertised - I think that the pictures and statements on the site aren't quite as accurate as they seem. As I mentioned before, the battery life is definitely not 10 hours, despite them plastering that on their site.
    Second, it is not always on, it turns on and off like a regular computer. You can put it into standby by pushing the power button and it will be instant-on/off, but that drains the battery life big-time. If you used this like a phone you would be recharging the battery on a daily basis.
    Third, although they say 7 USB ports, 2 of those are mini-USB ports, and while there are three internal regular USB ports two of them are already in use by what I am guessing to be the wireless adapter and the Bluetooth adapter. It's not a huge issue, I just think they're hiding a bit of the details from the front page.
    Fourth, the screen does not bend all the way back and around (or maybe it does and mine just made bad noises when I tried which scared me), instead you take the screen off, turn it around, and put it back on.
    Finally, I wish they'd say on the front page that it is still beta software - it might not be officially beta software, but it certainly feels like it.
So what is my general opinion of the Touch Book? It is very, very Linux. It is very customizable and has pretty cool gadgets, but the UI is a little weird and broken in places, and there are a few bugs. There is a small community around it who populate the IRC channel #touchbook and fill up the wiki, which is pretty cool, but it is mainly technical users. So while I am happy with the Touch Book, at the moment I don't think it is really ready for the prime-time.

1 comment:

Travelling Greg said...

Hey Guillaume Theoret linked me to your blog (small world).

The software is definitely in need of some work but I found a normal ubuntu image that supposedly has things working in it.

I am amazed that they include the Android release as its just frankly broken, it does not even work slightly. It could be promising in the future though.

A few things we noted last night playing with it. The screen is quite odd (in a good way). Its viewing angle (and viewing in sunlight) are extremely good.

I think at this point the device is best served running custom software to do some task as opposed to being a general purpose machine (software is just far from ready) and frankly it can't hold a candle to my atom based HP mini 1000 which can run a full install of ubuntu well and gets 6+ hours of battery.