I'm typing this on a netbook with no hard drive, not using a chip from Intel or AMD, and powered by AA batteries. Eight rechargeable AAs, to be precise, in a bank of cells right where a Li-Ion battery would sit in a conventional laptop. The batteries charge in place, too (regulation prevents overcharging) meaning that the power cord is a simple three-prong-to-cloverleaf cord, no wall-wart required. It's the EduBook from Xcore (see that page for some photos of the internals, too), and it's a cool concept. Despite some warts, it's one of the most interesting things I ran into on the CES show floor last month (Xcore's Michael Barnes kindly supplied the laptop, straight from the display case). Read on for my review.
Yes, it runs Linux.
Before diving in to anything else, note that this is a laptop built for running Linux; the one I'm using is running Ubuntu 9.4 (Jaunty), and others that I played with briefly on the show floor were running instead Barry Kauer's lightweight (around 100MB by default) Puppy Linux. Though Puppy's quite a nice OS, I stuck with Ubuntu on the EduBook, because that's what I'm most used to.
Why 9.4, now nearly a year out of date? Because a few bits of stock Ubuntu caused hiccups, which Barnes blames on packaging goofs by Ubuntu. Xcore has tweaked the default drivers to get working two important subsystems -- networking and sound. (Puppy Linux apparently works on these fronts just as supplied.) Until I know that an upgrade won't result in a disconnected and mute machine, I'm sticking with what works. (Other distributions, including Ubuntu derivative Linux Mint, are reported to work well, too.)
Purpose, Philosophy, and Ingredients
The EduBook is what you might get if you gave the OLPC team a simpler mandate in their quest to provide laptops suitable for educational use: it's small, cheap to produce (currently, the retail price for this 512MB RAM/8GB SD version is about $200, depending on order size), fairly sturdy, modular, and upgradable — after a fashion. And like the OLPC project's XO, it's intended as an educational tool, and for distribution in places around the world where computers have long been too expensive to be common. To that end, the company's shipped machines (besides "quite a few" to the US, Canada and Mexico), to South America, Asia, the Middle East, and six countries in Africa (Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Uganda).
Modularity means the EduBook can be readily assembled inside or outside of an importing country, which can make a huge difference in the local price of a computer because of the vagaries of import duties and other taxes. Some countries charge higher import duties for importing un-assembled computer parts, though often the opposite is true. According to Barnes, "Indonesia now allows people to import computers with no tax. Thailand does as well. However, in both countries, they will apply taxes on the components if you bring them in as components. Both countries have programs where you can build in tax free zones and export but if you import the parts to assemble and sell locally, it is cheaper to buy it already assembled."
The machine's guts are made for flexibility. Unlike the all-in-one approach of Intel's Centrino line (incorporating wireless as part of a motherboard+processor package), the EduBook uses a x586 system-on-chip core (block diagram) to provide processor, video and 512MB of main memory, but farms out wireless and storage; for wireless hardware, there's essentially a USB slot and a niche carved out of the motherboard. That way, the latest and greatest wireless interface (or the cheapest and most readily available) can be added at assembly time, keeping the three external USB ports free. Any USB wireless device small enough to fit will do -- it just has to work with the OS. (The company also runs a development and support site for working with the quirks of running a slightly offbeat processor.)
The EduBook is upgradeable, but not user upgradeable. Instead, the parts are modular enough that new chip generations, larger SD cards, or improved wireless modules can be readily swapped in by the maker (or by local manufacturers) while preserving all the user-facing parts (screen, keyboard, ports).
For storage, there's another (internal) slot for an SD card — an 8GB card in my sample — presented to the system as an IDE device. No conventional hard drive (though it is possible to order one in place of the SD card) means that the EduBook lags even typical low-end netbooks for raw storage capacity, and SD cards aren't the speed demons that SSDs are. But this isn't a machine built for carrying a road-warrior's movie collection or sticking into a data-center rack, and XCore86 have snipped out probably the most common failure point for laptops. (And SD cards are easier to source and simpler to replace than hard drives.) In practice, and considering that the system-on-a-chip processor is also aimed at frugality rather than speed, it's hard to fault.
The outside of the case is typical (but tough-seeming) netbook: the only port on the back is the AC inlet to power the laptop and charge the batteries; on the right side of the chassis are two USB ports; on the left, one more USB port, along with ethernet, a VGA out (which I didn't test), microphone and headphone jacks, and a 10/100 ethernet port.
Facing the user is a perfectly nice, perfectly standard, 1024x600 LED-backlit display. A Pixel Qi daylight-readable one would be nice; maybe one will show up in a future iteration.
Fit, finish, feel
The input devices on a laptop with 9" screen are small, of necessity — but for me, even a small keyboard beats a touchscreen or thumbboard. The keyboard is of the "nearly full size" variety. The touch-pad, also constrained by reality (about 2.5" x 1.5") is smooth and responsive — perhaps too responsive. My hands aren't big, but I've still had some curse-inducing frustration and backspacing at typing on this.
One problem I have with touchpads generally (and most laptops are saddled with them) is that an inadvertent tap of the thumb while typing can lead to an accidental cursor jump or text swipe -- and suddenly you're typing in the middle of the wrong paragraph or wiping out a chunk of what's already been written, and scrambling for Ctrl-Z. On the EduBook, this happens far more frequently than I'd like, though it's teaching me slowly to keep my thumbs hovering a bit higher. In use, and knowing that this is a machine built for other than high-end multimedia use, the twitchy keyboard and pointer are my biggest complaints. Another nitpick: the trackpad's buttons work, but they're chintzy, and ever-so-slightly misaligned, catching the skin on my thumb slightly when I move from left button to right.
The case seems strong — a little brick-like, even, at slightly more than an inch thick. The bottom of the case (not metal, but heavy-duty plastic) features two large areas of corrugation for an additional bit of rigidity. I am skeptical of Barnes's claim that it compares well with the durability of the OLPC XO, but that's a very high bar: the sturdy case and solid-state storage sure make it seem more drop-safe than my 10" Asus Eee or most other laptops I've owned over the last 18 years.
Going in, I knew this was a small laptop built for getting online and as a tool for school kids, rather than a high-end machine (in which case I'd have a different set of complaints). Taking the EduBook on its own terms, though, I'd like to see a few things:
- Better Battery life indicator. Though the reader can gather from an LED at the front edge of the case whether the machine is charged, charging, or drastically low on charge, it would be nice to have a better-integrated on-screen indicator for remaining battery life.
- An external SD card slot. After first dismissing such a slot as a novelty, owning two laptops with built-in SD slots has spoiled me for the convenience. And on a storage-lean device like the EduBook, its absence is notable. An external SD slot would make this machine a lot more flexible.
- An easier system to change the batteries. The bank of AAs lives behind a small door secured by a pair of small Phillips-head screws. It's a small thing, but one reason I like AA batteries as a power source is that if you really needed to, it would be cheap to buy a few hours' worth of power, or to keep a spare set of Eneloops or other charge-retaining rechargeables around. (No heavier than the wall-wart you don't have to carry.) On the other hand, the batteries aren't soldered in place, and carrying a mini-Phillips driver around is no great burden. And, since this is a device intended for schools and children, the company has no intention to make the batteries or other internals easier to get at. Having accidentally tried to recharge some alkaline batteries recently (in a wall-charger, not the EduBook), I concede this has some merit.
- Working Suspend/Resume. The great bugaboo of Linux laptops raises its head here, too; shutting the lid or selecting Suspend from the Gnome menu triggers the error message that "Suspend is not available on this computer." A shame, when power savings are part of the overall appeal.
Performance, and the Takeaway
The 2000ma batteries in my sample gave me between 3 and 3.5 hours unplugged; that's about an hour less than the best performance I get from my Eee laptop's 4-cell battery, but still a respectable netbook battery life (though falling behind the new generation of all-day machines). Charging (until the light on the case indicated a full charge) took between 4 and 6 hours.
Wireless performance was quite good at Seattle coffee shops and in hotel rooms in Las Vegas and Portland, but I've hit an odd hitch: it's finicky on the (Apple-based) network at my home — I can see a fairly strong signal, but sometimes can't connect. (Gremlins?) An ethernet port on the side means I'm not totally out of luck.
The practical outcome of using a processor that's proudly taking up the rear of the performance curve is that startup takes over a minute (I timed 1:05 from hitting the power button to the Ubuntu login prompt, and another 45 seconds to a Gnome desktop). The low-power chip means that it doesn't do Flash either (no Facebook Scrabble for you!), but using the EduBook for most Internet tasks, typing notes, creating scripts or other light programming, and even using The GIMP is acceptably, usably quick. But note: applications work fairly well once they've started, but that startup can be a bit painful; more than a minute for OpenOffice, for instance. A faster chip would be nice (and bumps to the processor speed are expected), but as a connection to the Internet with a real keyboard and a decent screen, capable of running standard versions of word processors, programming languages, graphics packages and more, it strikes me as less obviously innovative but more flexible than OLPC's machines. It's impressive to me that an x586 can run Ubuntu and Gnome as well as it does; though there are lots of promising developments in the world of non-X86 chips, too, right now X86 is still the target architecture for the bulk of Linux distros, including ones built for education.
All of this means that the EduBook is slow, but useful, not just in its intended classroom application, but as a knockabout netbook generally.