Now that we’ve spent some quality time with the mBook, including a live blogging field trip, let’s go over the pro and cons of using one of the smallest PCs out there. First, I would like to share the context: during a discussion with Intel, we were asked how we would use this MID and what kind of problem we could put it to work for. We thought that it would be useful to have a tiny computer during an expo so that we can go from booth to booth and post immediately. Intel loaned the mBook to us and we set out to try posting live from their Search Day and see how the mBook performs. The computer was subsequently returned to Intel.
As you can imagine, using such a tiny computer isn’t without challenges, that’s why the Mobile Internet Device (MID) category is still in “soul search” mode. The bottom-line is: it worked well for us, but we had to adapt our workflow to it.
- 1.3Ghz Z520 Atom CPU, 512MB of RAM
- 8GB SSD Drive
- 1024×600 Touch Display
- 158 x 94.1 x 18.6mm, 315g
With mBook, computing went from 4.5lbs down to 0.74lbs
Doing a decent job with live blogging requires more preparation than usual: you need to make sure that there’s an Internet connection (or bring your own) and that you can take good photos. Plus, you have to be able to post as close to real-time as possible to make it more, well… lively. Lugging around 6-8lbs of gears (DSLR+Notebook+Misc) is pretty common, but what if we could cut this down by a few pounds?
Our typical setup includes connecting a DSLR camera to the computer via USB to retrieve photos, then post via WiFi or 3G. This time around we opted for WIFI as it was available. Our mBook does not have an integrated 3G connection (but there’s a SIM-enabled version). We would have used a MIFI device, but it seemed like a hassle this time around. Because the mBook runs a “normal” Windows XP, every software that we usually run on our laptops have been installed without any problems (Firefox+plug-ins, Filezilla, etc…).
Pros: The size
The mBook is so small and light that once I had it attached to my backpack, it felt like it wasn’t even there. I have been able to walk around for a few hours and post stuff relatively quickly, much more so than running back and forth from the show floor to a press room, for sure. That said, I could also walk around with a laptop that is “always on”. For reference, here’s the weight of the mBook relative to my camera: DSLR+lens = 3lbs, mBook=0.74lbs. Now my laptop weighs 4.5lbs.
Cons: The Size
With the USB Adapter, that’s how I need to type
Typing and clicking on such a small device is difficult. This is clearly a keyboard designed for thumb typing, but once I had the USB adapter plugged in, the typing speed was compromised. Fortunately, the mBook is very light, so holding it with the left hand was not an issue, but I can’t “hold” and “type” at the same time. To give you a ballpark, I would say that I was typing 60% slower when compared to what I would have done with a BlackBerry 8900, and I’m pretty good with that one. I would have done much better without the USB Adaptor plugged on the right side, but… I needed it.
Try reaching this with your fingers
I have written down a number of things that are harder to perform on the mBook, when using the bare fingers (it has an integrated stylus).
- Closing a window with the touch screen
- Alt+F4 becomes ALT+FN+F4
- Clicking a radio button/checkbox
To be fair, the mBook has been designed to be used with a stylus, but I think that most people would agree that stylus are annoying and that using the fingers whenever possible is the way to go.
The webcam works well with Skype
While I was on the go, I also tried Skype and it worked great. You have to activate the webcam (FN+B) each time you enter a new Windows session, but the video streaming and audio were smooth. Skype’s video chat was totally usable.
Web browsing capabilites are excellent. I installed Firefox and everything just works as you would expect on a desktop machine. The browsing speed was fairly good, and mostly depending on the connection speed, not the device’s speed.
mBook setup and interaction
I spent a good chunk of time installing apps and testing tings on the mBook. This is clearly not a machine that you would use on a desk for a long time. To read a document comfortably, I hold the mBook at 5-6″ from my eyes (I have 20/20 on both eyes). Connecting a mouse will spare you the use of the stylus, but the best workaround is to simply use a remote desktop application. Unfortunately, the mBook comes with Windows XP Home and that means “no Remote Desktop”. Too bad, but fortunately, TightVNC works and I was able to do everything comfortably from my desktop PC.
A few things that would help
We think that a chicklet keyboard design would help
There are a few low-hanging fruits that UMID can do to improve the mBook. For example, adding a “left-click” button would save a lot of time and would avoid using the stylus often. Using a chicklet keyboard design would reduce the number of typos by adding more space between the keys. The stylus is well placed for left-handed users, but it’s not so great for the right-handed ones. I don’t mean to be selfish, but I think that we’re the majority :)
This varies greatly depending on usage and power savings setup, but for a light usage and with a low brightness, we could have gone for about 3.5 or 4 hours with the unit turned ON at all times. Note that the display was set to go off after 1mn if the keyboard/mouse was not in use, so it was OFF most of the time. The sleep mode was disabled to avoid long wakeup times.
We’re running a full-blown Windows XP
The huge reduction in size comes with some serious changes in the way computers are being used. Here, we spent much time writing about what could be better, but the pros should not be understated: the mBook runs a full-blown OS like a normal (albeit slow) computer”, which is amazing.
Is that small enough for you?
Being a miniature computer is both a blessing and a curse for the mBook: on one hand, its greatest strength is to run any Windows Software compatible with its specifications. On the other hand, none of these applications have been designed to run in such a small touch screen display.
From my point of view, MIDs currently have a potential to be great special purpose devices that would replace laptops in things like inventory, field
data-entry or other professional tasks. I don’t think that the average consumer should expect a “laptop experience” out of them.
In the end, this is mainly a user-interface problem (Windows…). If your application is suitable to run on a small touch display, the mBook is a superb miniature computer.
This was an interesting experiment for us as we had to customize our publishing interface to make it finger-friendly. At the moment, we’ll stick with larger devices, mainly because the battery life is longer (6-8 hours), which is critical when we’re on site. Secondly, the typing was a bit slow for our needs. We’ll try again with another MID.
We shared our thoughts and feedback here, but if you want to learn more about the mBook, I recommend the following reads from other bloggers. You can also drop a comment down here and we’ll try to reply ASAP.