Heavy hitters such as Acer, Dell, and Lenovo are entering the mini-notebook space in droves, but a lightbulb manufacturer? Sylvania, manufacturer of electrical equipment, has ambitiously slapped its brand on an 8.9-inch mini-notebook (also known as the Amtek Elego) made by a company called Digital Gadgets. The tiny keyboard on the $399 Sylvania g Netbook Meso will be a dealbreaker for some, but solid performance from its Intel Atom processor and revamped Ubuntu Netbook Remix operating system somewhat redeem it.
Small, Flavorless Design
The soft pink Sylvania g Netbook Meso (also available in black, white, and yellow) looks good from afar, but up close it might have been just slapped together. Sporting a boxy look and plastic chassis, the g Meso resembles a portable DVD player more than it does a notebook. Also, some of the system’s parts don’t match: The light gray keyboard on our pink unit didn’t match the rest of the matte white interior; the black-on-black keyboard and deck for the black system looked better. Nevertheless, the build quality felt solid overall.
The size and weight of the g Meso is standard fare for an 8.9-inch system. At 9.2 x 6.9 x 1.3 inches and just 2.6 pounds, it weighs the same as the Eee PC 901 and is similar in size to the HP Mini-Note 2133. It is, however, a bit thicker and heavier than the Acer Aspire one. With a travel weight of 3 pounds with its AC adapter, the system felt almost nonexistent when we tossed it into a shoulder bag.
The g Meso is well equipped with ports; three USB ports and VGA, Ethernet, headphone, and microphone jacks surround the system. An SD Card reader is on the right side.
Decent Screen, Tinny Audio
The 8.9-inch, 1024 x 600-pixel resolution matte screen provides enough space to fit windows to size and looked sharp from a variety of angles when we watched an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on Hulu.com, but colors were still somewhat muted. Horizontal viewing angles were better than those on the Aspire one, and vertically tilting the screen caused only a bit of glare. Above the display is a 0.3-megapixel webcam that served up disappointingly muted images when videoconferencing with a friend over Skype. Video quality improved significantly when we tilted the screen down, away from the light.
Unlike most other netbooks, the g Meso’s speakers are positioned below the screen on the bottom bezel. Though this placement is better than burying the speakers on the bottom of the system, they add significant height to the system’s lid when it’s open. The speakers were loud but produced predictably tinny audio.
Cramped Keyboard, Loud Mouse Buttons
The keyboard on the g Meso is disappointing and similar to that of the original ASUS Eee PC 701 or the Everex CloudBook. Actually, it’s worse. The layout is not meant for touch typists (for those, we recommend the Acer Aspire one and the HP 2133 Mini-Note); our hands were cramped, and we frequently made typos, especially because the system lacks a right Shift key. Additionally, the system has an unnecessary row of Function keys, which if removed would have allowed for larger keys. On the plus side, the keys provided decent feedback with little flex.
The touchpad is decently sized and offered a nice, textured feel as we navigated around the desktop. Unlike the rock-hard buttons on the Eee PC 1000 and 901, the two mouse buttons, located below the touchpad, were easy to click but annoyingly loud.
Similar to ASUS’ Xandros Linux and Acer’s Linpus Linux Lite, the Sylvania’s netbook sports Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix, a customized Linux operating system that makes navigation easy for open-source newbies. Compared with the other customized Linux offerings, the Netbook Remix is more aesthetically pleasing, with modern-looking icons and translucent windows.
The heart of the Remix is the customized Ubuntu Mobile Edition Launcher, which replaces the standard Ubuntu desktop and provides easy access to applications and other important system controls. A series of application categories–including Favorites, Accessories, Games, Graphics, Internet, Office, and Sound/Video—are displayed on the left side of the launcher, and each category provides access to a set of applications. For example, the Internet tab includes preloaded applications, such as Evolution Mail, Firefox 3, Pidgin Internet Messenger, and Skype. The Office tab holds shortcuts to the complete OpenOffice Suite and Adobe Reader 8. Productivity is balanced with several preloaded games, including Chess, Solitaire, and Sudoku.
Ubuntu Remix makes multitasking a cinch. Each open window has a tabbed icon in the switcher bar on the top right corner of the screen, and the active window is highlighted. Not only is the operating system better looking than both Xandros and Linpus Lite, but Ubuntu makes switching to the advanced desktop mode and adding programs easy. Sylvania will also make the g Meso available with Windows XP by mid-September. Though the company would not yet release the price for this model, a Sylvania rep said it would be “competitive and comparable to other price points.”
Sylvania g Netbook Meso Performance
The g Meso uses the same 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor as the Eee PC 901, but it comes with a relatively small 512MB of RAM compared with the Eee PC’s 1GB. The company will soon offer a system with 1GB of RAM as well (available for preorder at both J&R and Amazon.com for $449). Nevertheless, programs loaded relatively quickly even when we had several others running in the background. We were able to listen to streaming music over Pandora, surf the Web in Firefox 3, and write a document in OpenOffice Writer at the same time with no hang-ups. Even a Skype video call didn’t tax the system enough to slow down other programs’ response times.
The g Meso packs an 80GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive, which booted the system in 1 minute and 4 seconds. This is disappointingly slow for a mini-notebook running a Linux OS; the Acer Aspire one running Linpus Linux Lite takes half that time to boot.
During testing, the underside of the unit heated up, measuring about 99 degrees Fahrenheit. The rest of the system, including the keyboard and touchpad, were not noticeably warm.
Decent Endurance, Good Wi-Fi
With its Intel Atom processor and a four-cell battery, we were impressed with the g Meso’s battery life. We managed to squeeze out 3 hours and 2 minutes with Wi-Fi on. This runtime falls between the Eee PC 901, whose six-cell battery lasted 4 hours and 38 minutes, and the Aspire one, whose three-cell battery lasted 1 hour and 58 minutes.
The 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi radio connected easily to our WPA-protected access point. It never dipped below 86 percent signal strength in a 50-foot radius, and we experienced no dropped connections. Web pages loaded quickly on our home network; NYTimes.com loaded in 5 seconds, and Laptopmag.com in 8 seconds. We also had no problem streaming video from Hulu.com; an episode of House had minimal video pauses and audio skips.
The $399 Sylvania g Netbook Meso has some features we like: Its Atom processor offers strong performance with decent battery life, and its Ubuntu Netbook Remix OS is the best iteration of Linux we’ve seen in a mini-notebook. However, Sylvania should have paid more attention to its design. In the realm of 8.9-inch mini-notebooks we continue to prefer the Acer Aspire one. Although you’ll need to fork over an extra $129 to get the six-cell battery and you get only 8GB of storage space in the Linux version, we prefer Acer’s mini-notebook because of its sleeker build, roomier keyboard, and its slightly cheaper $379 price.