Review for the Always Innovating Touchbook
Hello Phoronix people and whoever stumbles over this piece of text
This is my review (about 22nd of Feb 2010) for the Always Innovating Touchbook.
I bought it mainly for writing on remote places and having a long battery runtime.
Remember this is an opinion plus some facts and I am not a professional HW tester.
Furthermore there are no PTS benchmarks (not sure if PTS an the depending libs are already ported to ARM). It may look unsorted and prolly is, and I am not a native English speaker so excuse me for not using a fine cut English as Shakespeare would do.
So I ordered it at the end of Aug/beginning of Sep 2009. It was delivered in Jan 2010. Well, what bothers me here is that I had a financial planning which was okay on Aug/Sep but that wouldn't fit in January. After Xmas and NewYear most people lack money. And the suddenly it would be shipped and my credit card would be billed. Meh.
So if you plan on buying one be prepared for some severe waiting time. Maybe their backlog is lesser now. (I heard that it might be about 2 months now)
There are two things that bothered me even more. The stupid customs (Germany wich had a change in law at the turn of the year so I had far higher customs to pay. Including shipment in the sum and after all summation of all portions the 19% of our beloved tax “Mehrwertsteuer”). At the end it was about 75 E taxes and fees (that might be well >100 $)
And the fact that it was about 3 weeks later delivered with 512 M RAM (instead of the 256M) for the same price. Though once they proposed the HW would be final. Grr.
These additional 256M would've been rather fitting.
PS: lol, I checked and obviously they alredy put in the 512 M (minus some RAM dedicated for GPU usage). htop and free -m show me 4xx close to 512. Neat!
opening the box
So there I finally had my AI touchbook. Well wrapped but without unneccessary material waste. Good. The contents weren't that much: The Touchbook itself (screen and keyboard part), a touchpen for handling the touchscreen (though it also works with the fingers, but then you may have fingerprints on it), the PSU und a folded paper with the most basic instructions (and a warning that the software is still considered beta) and 3 magnets. God, these are STRONG.
Note that the AI TB is sold either as the tablet part alone (so only the computer and touchscreen itself) or with the keyboard part which serves as keyboard and extra battery.
Of course the tablet part has a virtual keyboard so you can use it standing alone.
Well. One of my primary concerns.
If you take out that bluetooth and WLAN stuff ... I dind't test it too thoroughly but atm of writing I am close to maybe 7 hours and it says still 47% left. Huzzah!
Okay, brightness is turned down to max (or min in this case), and I keep from using the disc (the SD data carrier), writing or reading seems to cost energy (of course it does but I think it was “visibly” esp. when I also had the two USB connection sticks in).
So if you can do without WLAN and Bluetooth feature you might really have 10h or more. Awesome.
But no warning by default when it goes low. Then suddenly it's black screen and off. (I'd say it was about 11 h in two sessions of about 6 h with a week inbetween being shut down and off).
By the way: You can also exchange batteries. (lol @ Apple)
PSU is a neat thing til today. I had to buy a physical shape adapter from US to European (German) plugs (5 Euro) but otherwise the PSU doesn't need anything, it will work with 220V also out of the box. So it should fit international use.
Sucks big time. Okay it has a WLAN. Yeah. Might be okay and today's standard in mobile devices, as well as the Bluetooth it has. Fine so far, though they suck energy, might be still a software problem to put them to deeper sleep. But: There is no LAN connector. Absolutely nasty for WLAN despisers like me.
Furthermore here in that country we do not have a lot of WLAN hotspots. Well, and then they are encrypted, closed, there are no public hotspots so surfing just in town... you can forget it.
So it's rather useless for me with all the WLAN unless I build a WLAN at home.
By the way I used the opportunity to check for spots and it showed me after some searching some points (don't know how far remote they were, of course all encrypted) so I guess it is doing okay.
They come irregularly in form of complete images.
So soon I was going to set up the most recent image release of the software. Here is another issue, I have a fairly good connection hat home and an insane one at University but their servers delivered at 75k/s to max of 200 best times. Normally it was 75 k/s and that would take me about 5 hrs.
I should suggest them to ask some hosters, universities or even sf to have some mirrors. Took horribly long to get the image file(s).
They offer different modes for various OSs to bring the software to the SD card. Well, their Windows updater didn't recognize my card (strange since I could read it (the vfat partition only of course)) so I just rebooted into Gentoo and used the proposed cat dd combination with an init 0 and went to lunch. Worked like a charm. Of course you have to backup all user files e.g. /home.
Next boot looked much more smooth and provides you with a selection of 3 OS, the AI linux, Ubuntu netbook remix and Android.
Didn't try the others yet. And of course Gentoo will also work here but I didn't have any time for this yet. Not sure if the Gentoo on AI Touchbook (and pandora or other beagleboards) project compiles on the target or uses more crosscompiling.
So it is really an open box for everyone. Thumbs up.
I don't know if they have a packet manager, didn't try much on the console yet. Til now updates come by images and I did not see a GUI for updates (like I saw in e.g. *buntus or SuSE).
It runs on a 2.6.29 kernel, prolly with some backports by now and customizations.
It lacked /usr/src/linux Kernel sources (you can get em from the website) preinstalled, that would have been interesting for me. Well but they provided /proc/config.gz so I could check out a few things about the configuration. Didn't check for compilers etc. yet.
Htop was missing. Yes, this may seem not noteworthy for people but I noticed since I like to use htop. It's comfy.
Well it woud take me some time to look at all of it but there are word processors and the whole OpenOffice suite (on ARM!) (dunno if it is based on the plain OOo or go-oo), there are browsers (FF and else), some games, system software and other stuff.
The GUI is provided by X and xfce. Oh, well. I admit that I'm a KDE user and though I have used xfce4 in the past I wasn't always happy with it since I had some severe problems (crashes) with it. (Gentoo on amd64 as well as a VIA C7 so it shouldn't have been the cflags, mkay) So I was not too fond to see it here but after all it just does the job. Nothing to cheer about but it works for most parts.
But since we're talking free software / Linux here it may just be a matter of time until a full featured KDE (or Gnome) comes here.
And: There is a big label on the accompanying paper: The software is still beta.
So nothing here is final. As if it ever was in free software, which is a constant stream of development, updates, features (and sometimes regressions).
Hardware in general:
Lightweight, not using too much space. Quite handy though it won't fit in your trouser's pockets.
Can't judge really that much since I'm not experienced in ARM arch.
Basically it's a beagleboard (also used in the pandora), you can get the infos here:
The internal storage is an exchangeable 8 GB SD-Card (plus 256 internal flash). (see storage extra section), there are now 512M RAM inside.
The measures can be taken from their website. Well, it may be a little bit thick if you have both parts but hey, thus you can open the device easily and screw around with the internals.
The mentioned 3 magnets can be put inside the touchscreen part and so you could stick it to your fridge as Gregoire demonstrated in a video (search youtube for this). Didn't try that yet but they ARE STRONG (watch your fingers! I had this on pen and Paper RPG sessions with me for typing a campaign diary and the Gamemaster played all the time with the magnets with his fingers - he's a physician so maybe he has a natural interest in magnets - and bam! his fingers got a hurt).
One possibly nasty thing that must be mentioned: The GPU is by imgtec/PowerVR. These are the poulsbo criminals! Afair the chip is some successor to the one that was used for "intel's" poulsbo. I guess most users will know what that means. I severly hope that we will see some specs and a free driver instead of a binary blob in the future.
So basically if imgtec looses interest in that chip they will not support the driver anymore and you can then throw away your whole netbook. Or stay with the 2.6.29 kernel forever.
The chip may have nice HW features (low power consumption, HD 720 or whatever and openVG, OpenGL embedded and stuff) but as long as it has a binary only driver it is a dangerous situation!
Keyboard & Touchpad
The keyboard is (imo) an essential part of every computer device. Keyboard, screen and maybe mouse (or something that emulates a mouse) are the core I/O for normal computers.
I'm not the biggest fan of touchpads but I understand the lack of mouses on laptops.
So in short terms:
(end of part1)
AI TB review pt2
- end and shift swapped (keys work 180° reverse as their label says)
- could have used more space in the vertical direction, the touchpad seems quite large
- layout very meh, cursor keys and rshift way too close
so if you work a lot with the cursorkeys it's not that good and you'll often mishit.
- pgup/dn only via Fn+CursorUp/Dn (grrr!)
- mouse pad has choppy movement of cursor sometimes / doesn't react or reacts with delay
(might be a software issue)
- keys are too small. I don't have the fingers or a hard worker or farmer but they barely fit my fingers.
- detaching and re-attaching the keyboard does not always register/acknowledge the kbd right away that is nasty if you want to type again after detaching the screen
- seems to forget kbd software layout after poweroff.
o there are "windows keys". Of course they don't carry that stupid MS logo but normally I hate these keys. In Windows they did nothing useful in most cases and rather blocked space and were between Ctrl and Alt (wich I use often and then mishit and get the stupid menu open or something). So here you'll have to get used to them (since I don't dare to just break them out of keyboard like I normally do)
o it is US layout, okay since this is a small enterprise I understand that they don't provide localized keyboards. For doing linux bash it's somethimes even better that the German layout but well, if you just want to type a lot (in e.g. German)... But then you can switch the internal (software) layout and use it. (It just seems to forget the keyboard settings after poweroff!) So if you are a "blind" typer you use it soon after like your native one, just some keys are completely switched due to the cramped layout.
+ two ctrl keys which is really nice
+ fn combinations work, of course they have to since it was designed for Linux but compared to any other notebook this is good since often some of these special keys will not work
+ feels okay when typing, of course it's not a legacy IBM or the best of Cherry's kbds but it's fair for a notebook.
+ there is a screen virtual keyboard on the touchscreen (okay this is a must if you sell it without the kbd part), you can pop it up by menu or by a hotkey on the screen's side. Sometimes it pops up by itself (seems when you get some input mask it will automatically pop up) but this is not a too sure thing, might also pop when you don't need it. But that's prolly a matter of software.
Well and at the end you could put your own localized style USB keyboard which might might fit you personal needs better.
As somebody else on linuxjournal noted: it would've been an interesting option to have that kbd have the bluetooth function so you could put the screen there and have the kdb here and then still being able to type.
On the touchpad: it might be that the (whole) device is entering some kinds of sleep states so the delays might be caused by wakeups. I don't know how far you can compare ARM arch with x86 stuff here.
usb ports int/ext, interfaces
Well, normally I like to complain about the lack of interfaces esp. serial PS2 etc. but this one is smaller than most laptops and at least it offers some USBs. External and internal, one of the internals being micro USB and two by default already blocked with WLAN/Buetooth.
(Still my reference is the ECS G320, ultracheapo at its time but a serial, even a parallel, PS/2 key/mouse, VGA out and 4 USBs plus the usual audio.)
As with so many ARM boards there is no further storage interface like SATA or classic IDE, but then there would be no space for this and the controllers would also waster energy for nothing.
(Still for small NAS and the like it would be interesting to have more ARM based things with SATA controllers.)
As in the specs, now they sell it with 512M RAM instead of 256 (okay RAM ain't e real storage).
Storage speed is of course no solid state disc, it's just an everyday (but quick) SD card but that is fully ok (officially it is 6MB/s writing). (By the way: lol @ ipad. Shame on you; proprietary, nothing exchangeable thing.) So if one would like something different you can put your own SD card or a USB memory solution in one of the internal or external USB slots.
So it works okay, unless you do kernel image extracting/compressing or video file writing all day long.
I don't know if that thing has a HW clock but as far as I see after each switch off the clock seems to stop at the last position so it is still January on my device. So basically you can forget the clock.
I mean... the last time I had something like this was either when an internal mainboard battery broke down or in the PC XT (8086) where you had to add your own clock card into an ISA slot.
So either it is not meant to be shut down/switched off or whatever but I rather like to do so. I always switch off my boxes. But the clock then stopping ... phew.
Big minus for me since I orientate myself very often to that clock. ARM or not, a battery buffered clock would've been nice. atm it seems only to remember the last clock state after going off.
Well, it is 1024x600. Okay, that is probably quite ok for such a small device and it allows watching DVD (needs an external DVD drive or playing a rip) without clipping or downscaling. Brightness is okay, didn't test it in full sunlight. It is a touchscreen and works as such, it is detachable. So basically the computer an everything is in the screen part and the keyboard is just a keyboard with a big battery. What is nice is that is has these accelerators so software will detect the angle you hold it and rotate the screen 90° which is fine for reading text. They even have this tank game (ported from one of the for-iphone games?) where you maneuver the tank by holding and turning the screen (there should be a youtube video for this).
Furthermore and what is MOST important to me: It doesn't really mirror much. Aaaaawwwweeesome!
So you can actually work with it.
Don't ask me for actual touching the screen, I did a few times but I a m far from being a touchscreen enthusiast so I do not know about gestures, multitouch and whatsnot. I'm plain and oldschool.
Sound & Video
I do know nothing about these Owolff speakers but since they name it explicitely they might be good quality. Didn't do much with sound yet so I can't judge but the few sounds I head sounded quite good. So for the size the speakers are fair (Can't compete with my Sennheiser headphones tough). Sound chip is something on the beagelboard, I'd have to move it out and check the chip labels if something sounds familiar to me (like VT or RTL) but could just be something self invented by TI. (found: TPS65950)
PS: So I checked some sounds.
ogg, wav, mp3, mod, mid. Didn't have/despise wma or DRM-stuff so I didn't test. Also did not have a flac at hand but it probably can do flac.
So there is a "Gnome Mplayer". No VLC or else but we'll see.
I did not configure anything so this is a pure out-of-the-box experience!
MP3: played. search ok.
MOD and MID: recognized them as music files in the file manager but the associations were broken anyway. And: Did not play. Neither mod nor midi. Software problem.
Probably it will also do FLAC.
(lol @ Apple again. Afaik these Apple things can't even play OGG or FLAC while even my little Cowon portable player can do so.)
mp4, xvid-avi, mov/qt, flv
Okay. When it comes to video codecs one must see if there is
a) proprietary sh*t that is not ported anywhere else but W32 on x86_32. So no fault of AI if that would not play.
b) free codecs and stuff but maybe CPU dependent, using a lot of x86/amd64 specific things. So porting to ARM won't be easy in such a case.
xvid (in avi): did fine, though a good 40% CPU usage (don't ask me for the resolutions please, I took just some random files from my HDD)
mp4: okay, search was slow, and CPU usage slightly above 50%.
mov/qt: surprisingly it worked (there is a libquicktime installed I guess) but CPU usage went up to 70% and above (according to top)
flv: holy cow, it played. Didn't try to search since that never really worked anywhere before.
I do NOT know about flash in browsers. Since we all know that Adobe sucks big time and has a shoddy support for Linux und anything else from x86 (and maybe in past times ppc) there is afaik no ARM port. Still there is Gnash which is supposed to work on ARM, just feature/codec-wise behind the "official" flash solution. Sadly some webpages use flash for navigation so it would be either mandatory to have it or to kick the webmasters backside.
Video-wise with HTML5 it might work better (free codecs horray). Hello Michael from Phoronix Media, do you read me?
Did neither have an external DVD drive nor a mpeg2 file at hand so I did not test that. So I cannot tell if there is HW acceleration or some kind of decss solution. (damn drm anyway)
So in conclusion audio files do well, some need software portation/updates to play all kinds of audio/video but that is solvable (for most cases). Video depends on codec and the GPU. And it does not seem that the GPU does so much of work. Or that binary blob doesn't want to. Who knows.
-> so dear people kick imgtec for a decent free as in freedom driver and specs
(end of part2)
AI TB review pt3
It has no built in microphone (or I didn't find one), well, not sure if that is a nasty thing, but you can connect anything through the audio ports. If you like to do video conferencing / webcam chats you'll have to plug a V4L2 compatible in one into a USB.
Not a miss for me but I wanted to note that.
What is missing for me is a VGA out. So I'll have to do that by USB2VGA, they'll support it kernelsides agap. so it should be possible. Because for me that would be a fine device for beamer presentations (e.g. at university).
overall HW finish
Designed in California, assembled in China. Well that tells something.
The device tends to falls over when you put in on your knees and open the lid to a greater angle than about 110° (design flaw or flaw by principle to have all computer stuff in the screen part). But then you can do some stunts with it and turn the screen 180° and then kbd part nearly back to back, have it sit like a desk calendar or photo on your table for watching movies or whatever.
The rubber feet on the downside... I had it just 2 weeks and 2 of them already came off. Meh.
Backlid. Well while it is nice that you can open the device and handle all kinds of things inside it is much harder to close it. It feels loose and doesn't close really well. So when you press your fingers on the backside you'll quickly get a "clack" sound as if you just pressed something back in holding fixture - but after a few minutes it might be the same. Okay maybe it is my fault and I'm just too stupid to close it correctly.
Some light is constantly flashing behind the backlid when the device is on, god that sucks. What is that good for? It's a waste of energy even if that is just an LED. And it gets on my nerves with that flashing.
Everything else seems fair til now. The feeling pressing the buttons is not compareable to old pre-ATX times (think of old AT power switches, my old Escom machine, or just the buckling spring IBM legendary keyboard *sigh*), but then it feels like every nowadays laptop else out there.
Well. Considering that about everybody has their note/netbooks assembled somewhere in Asia it might seem fair to do so, too. But quality may vary from manufracturer to manufracturer, yes even inbetween the charges. Somtimes personnel just changes and then you may have the rookies at it again (chinese wandering workers for example). Furthermore, yes, it is cheap to produce in Asia but then who will have the money to buy it here when nobody "here" has work anymore? (with "here" I mean esp. Europe and nothern America and maybe Australia and Japan) But this is getting philosophical, political and whatsnot.
Okay so the HW finish is partially fine but partially a bit "rattling".
I didn't have to use it often, most of my communication was before I bought it. Most questions were answered fairly (okay you can't expect from the service team to know about proprietary drivers or free drivers in an instant) and more or less quickly. Sometimes they needed more time but it seems they had a general overload at that time (2009 late summer/autumn).
Well they're quite a small group full of ideas, going new ways with ARM and of course using Linux. I like that. They may not have the perfection of e.g. old IBM laptops or the legendary IBM keyboards but they can still grow and improve.
What I also like is that the chef Gregoire Gentil does the ads by himself. (great french accent by the way)
Now it is not easy to form a short conclusion from these datails above, that didn't even cover all things. It still would need more testing and working with it. But at all I am quite happy with it. There are some drawbacks, but a lot of them can be solved with additional plug into USB hardware or by software updates. And I basically got what I was looking for:
A mobile, electronic note-book (as in note-book) with a high battery runtime not having any stupid microsoft fees upon it. By now we have alreay a good bunch of Linux kernel based OS running on it (yes, of course it runs NetBSD, I'm sure) and a good batch of userland. More time, more porting of packages to ARM arch.
It is also affordable (unless you count it the stupid taxes and customs), lightweight and has many fancy features I did not use yet (any maybe also won't in the future, but others might be happy with it).
So my thumb isn't a straight 12 o'clock but at least 10:30.
The software is still not complete but if you can live with that...
Furthermore: You will have the CHOICE (free software, y'know) between different OSs. And when you do love Larry the Cow (Gentoo) then you'll see even more choice. So if I ever find the time I'll be happy to put Gentoo on it. But atm. having Gentoo on 4 or 5 boxes is quite a lot and I'd need to get myself into ARM arch and probably also cross compiling on the big AMD box.
The review is probably far from being complete and I didn't look into all corners of the device.
And I wonder how anybody on this world would still buy Apple products.
Cheers and thanks for reading
And sorry for mocking apple but I am just fed up seeing all these dumb sheep buying the cheapo white plastics sold for horrible prices which doesn't comply with any standards and is full of nasty digital restriction management. And basically Apple is the same like MS just smaller and with better optics.
battery runtime: + (WLAN/bluetooth) / ++ (no WLAN/bluetooth)
delivery time: --
(will improve with time I guess)
(some things better others less)
(+ for such a small device and compared to most others)
(o/+ for US users probably, and keep in mind that I'm strict about keyboards since I have been with the IBM buckling spring and old Cherry/Escoms.)
nasty clock issue
(many software related things here and the GPU driver is a problem here on videos)
(+ if you like WLAN)
order process: +
software updates: o
(could be easily improved by mirrors and maybe incremental updates)
software itself: n/a
depends, and since it is still beta officially I won't give it a mark
(internal mem plus the exchangeable 8 GB SD card, speed = okay)
(prolly some hacking on the software would improve here)
not judging since I lack comparison and experience but +/++ for not being a mirror (I mean that should be normal but in these times...)
Not sure if you're still on Adarion but I wanted to ask more on the software.
How is Fennec (the 3-d firefox browser)? Does it make your experience any better?
Your review really does help give a good overview.
Well, due to the lack of WLAN I didn't really use any browser there yet. I use it mainly for typing (in remote places). If I find the time an a WLAN I'll surely plug back the WLAN internal stick and test browsing and updating online.
The thing with the RTC is a flaw by design on the beagleboard but there is a workaround in the project's wiki. (Buy your own RTC chip and solder it along with a standard battery and a condensator (iirc) to the board, reconfigure the kernel for support of the chip and you'll have a working clock.)
Typing in bright sunlight isn't pleasurable, but with cloudy sky it's quite ok.