Skip to main content

Pocket-Sized Notebooks Have Magic iPad Lacks

If the name of this semi-monthly column didn't give it away, I'll reveal a little something about myself here. I'm a huge computer geek! And part of being a computer geek, is loving not just any technology, but computer technology and the PC experience. Yes, I love my smart phone and I'm craving an Android tablet, but I couldn't disagree more with people who say the PC is dead. What's made Android devices so compelling is that they offer the most PC-like experience available on a phone or tablet.

For me, the ultimate mobile device is not a giant iPod Touch, but one which takes all the power and flexibility I get on my desktop or notebook and makes it as portable as possible. If I could, I would apply a shrink ray to my quad core desktop -- complete with its two high-res monitors and three hard drives -- and place it in a watch on my wrist. So I was jaw-droppingly impressed on Friday when I finally got my hands on the Viliv N5, a 4.8-inch, 1-pound notebook that's capable of running Windows 7 (and probably many flavors of Linux), but fits perfectly in a pants pocket.

The very concept of a 4.8-inch notebook is more amazing and "magical" than an iPad. If you're as old as I am, you can remember 1981, when IBM released its first PC, which weighed 21 pounds without a floppy drive (and 28 with two!), and 1982, when Compaq released the Compaq Portable suitcase PC . What a miracle of Moore's law that something with so much more processing power and functionality, but with the same PC legacy can fit in my pocket today.

Unfortunately, not everyone is enamored with the concept behind the N5 and similarly-sized competitors like the UMID BZ. For years, this class of pocketable notebooks, first known as UMPCs (Ultra Mobile PCs) but more recently referred to as MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices), has had its share of detractors and, in the U.S., they've been slow to catch on.

So when it came time to place a star rating on our Viliv N5 review, I found myself disagreeing with critics in my own office. One editor said point blank that he thinks nobody would want a Windows PC this small. Another was a little more diplomatic, describing the N5 and its ilk as "niche products," and he predicted that if I carried the N5 around I'd stop using it within a week.

For certain, the N5 is not a perfect product and it's not for everyone. With its somewhat pokey 1.3-GHz Atom Z520 CPU, tiny SSD, and mediocre 802.11g wireless, the tiny device is no match performance-wise for any of today's 10-inch netbooks.  Where the average netbook gets well over 6-hours of battery life (and many over 9 hours), the N5 managed just 3 hours and 58 minutes of endurance. Its webcam produced dark, low-res images; its resistive touchscreen offered too much resistance, and it lacks a video-out port. It also starts at a whopping $649 when you can get a netbook or even an iPad for much less.

Yet, we're overlooking the obvious here. The N5  is a fully functional computer that fits in your pocket! It comes with Windows 7 Starter preinstalled and a handful of Viliv utilities, but the possibilities are endless. Forget about so-called "lightweight" apps that have been dumbed-down for phones or other devices; a UMPC's app store is the Internet, from Download.com to Sourceforge.net or anywhere that hosts downloads. Does that have enough variety for you?

With a UMPC, I can run the full Microsoft Office suite or the real Photoshop (though not with great speed). I can conduct a real video chat in the actual Skype or even do some programming while I'm standing in line at the ATM. And, unlike the iPad, I can also visit sites that use Flash. We don't know what flavors of Linux work on the N5, but I'm sure some industrious geek will find a way to throw on Ubuntu or MeeGo. Try that on an Apple's tablet!

And considering its small size, the N5's QWERTY keyboard is a pleasure to type on. You can't touch type but you can easily pound out about 30 to 40 words per minute while standing up and navigating with its tiny thumb mouse. And its 1024 x 600 screen (which can scale up to 1024 x 768) can fit a real Web page, Word doc, or spreadsheet.

My colleagues would argue that devices like the N5 -- no matter how great their screens and keyboards -- are just too small to use for serious work on a regular basis. No doubt, it won't replace my regular notebook or my quad-core workstation, but a tiny PC like the N5 could come in very handy for a mobile geek like me.

One of the many hats I wear at LAPTOP is that of Web developer and, in that role, I'm called upon to regularly make changes to our site's code. The next time I'm sitting on the bus and I get an urgent message from my coworkers telling me the CMS is acting up or the site is down, I won't be able to use an iPad or a smart phone to solve the problem. But with a device like the N5 sitting in my pocket, I could fire up the tools I need to fix the site in a hurry: a code  editor like Notepad++ (my personal fave), FTP, VPN, and a real desktop browser for testing.

Is the Viliv N5 able to match up to a netbook in terms of usabilty, price, or performance? Of course, not. There are still trade-offs that companies have to make to build a 4.8-inch PC.  But I challenge you to find a pair of pants with pockets big enough for a netbook. And if manufacturers like Viliv don't listen to the naysayers and continue developing new MIDs, we may soon see a 4.8-inch notebook with 8+ hours of battery life, the ability to play 3D games, and a sub-$500 price tag. They just have to have confidence in the platform.

In the end, we finally settled on a rating of 3 stars out of 5 for the Viliv N5,  a "recommended" rating that also takes into account the product's flaws. Do you think we got it right? Would you find a 4.8-inch notebook like the N5 useful or is it just novelty? Would you rather have an iPad? Check our review of the Viliv N5 and let us know in the comments below.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and infrastructure of LAPTOP's web site. With a reputation as the staff's biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP's custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek's Geek column here every other week or follow Avram on twitter.

The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.