2009 is sure to go down in history as the year that computers became interesting again. Ironically, the credit for this doesn’t belong to industry leaders like Microsoft and Apple. Instead, the new pc revolution is being driven by manufacturers of lowly netbooks.
Despite their limited cpu power and paltry RAM, netbooks have given rise to an explosion of exciting, original form factors that quicken the pulse of tech enthusiasts everywhere. What these devices lack in raw power, they make up for with unique designs and smart use of web applications.
Just such a device is the litl Webbook from Massachusetts startup litl, LLC. Rather than try to compete with full-featured laptops, the Webbook is more of an Internet appliance meant for any room in the house. It features a full-size keyboard and touchpad for traditional navigation, but the innovation begins when you rotate the screen into easel mode. In this configuration, the litl can be placed on any countertop and operated via an unusual thumbwheel located on the device’s hinge and on its optional remote control (sold separately for $19).
The machine is made out of sturdy white plastic, with grey keys. The cover, hinge and 12-inch screen is framed in glossy black. The wheel and a litl home button are aqua blue. The construction and color choices give the litl an approachable, child-friendly appearance. The litl sports a 1.6 GHz Atom processor, 1 GB of RAM, 2 GB of flash memory, Wi-Fi b/g, a camera, mic, two speakers, headphone jack, USB 2.0, two infrared ports and HDMI output.
The Webbook doesn’t include a traditional operating system or internal storage device. When you power it on, you are greeted by a deck of 12 “cards,” which are essentially minimized browser windows. Moving the pointer to the top or bottom of the window will scroll to reveal any additional cards you have open. The litl is preconfigured with a catalog of 26 cards from a variety of news and social media sites, but any web page’s RSS feed can become a standalone card.
For news sites like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the card displays RSS headlines in a large aqua blue colored font against a black background. Maximizing the card displays a list of current headlines on one side of the screen and a preview of the news article on the right. Clicking on links in the article preview open up the actual web page in the litl’s proprietary browser, which we guess is based on technology similar to Google Chrome, due to the snappy way that new sites load and screens refresh.
We can only guess because, as with most other aspects of the litl OS, the company doesn’t provide any technical information on its website or product packaging. The only “documentation” included with the device is a box of postcards designed by David Macaulay, the author of “The Way Things Work.” To paraphrase one card, the litl is the love child of a television and a pc and to quote another, it is governed by the principle that “less is more.”
The litl is entirely cloud-based and will regularly download and install software patches without the user’s interaction. Among the cards included in the catalog are Google Apps like Gmail, Calendar and Docs that enable the litl to be used for light-duty work. This review was written entirely on the litl with Google Docs.
A couple of utility cards like Alarm Clock, Egg Timer and Mediawall are particularly useful in easel mode and help make the litl at home on a bedside table, kitchen countertop or bookshelf. Mediawall links to photo sites like Flickr and displays your images in fullscreen slideshow format. While in easel mode, you navigate different cards by rotating the thumbwheel. To maximize a card, you press a button tucked inside the hinge.
Our favorite card is the Facebook Status, which turns your Facebook friends into a series of animated characters. Surprisingly, Twitter isn’t among the included cards and its home page looks pretty lifeless when compared to the Facebook app.
As a proof of concept for a cloud based computing future, we have to admit the litl is pretty impressive. It even includes an HDMI port for hooking up to your big screen tv. We only wish the machine had sufficient horsepower to display fullscreen video smoothly. Our experience with YouTube video was that it was only tolerable in standard definition.
Of course, as a cloud-only device, the Webbook depends upon a reliable wireless Internet connection. If you’re disconnected, the device is pretty much useless. Another drawback is the webbook’s puny on-board speaker, which limits its usefulness as an alarm clock/Internet radio.
Our test Webbook locked up a couple of times during the first two days of use, although that was prior to a software update that seems to have cleared up the issue. Starting up the device requires holding down the power button for several seconds, which may confuse new users. Resetting the device requires that the power button be pressed for up to 30 seconds, which is likely to yield quite a few support calls. Battery life is also surprisingly short; in our experience, we only had about two hours of use between charges.
The litl website offers chat-based support and some introductory videos, but it could use just a little more substantive information.
For future generations of the product, we’d like to see a tablet mode for ebook reading and the addition of a touchscreen would make the device nearly perfect for the wired household.
If the litl Webbook were priced below $300, we would recommend it without hesitation. Unfortunately, the device sells for $699 on litl’s website and at that price point, it compares very unfavorably to full-featured laptops. As a small manufacturer, we understand litl’s dilemma. It can’t count on selling the Webbook in large enough quantities to cover its basic manufacturing costs, but at this price we doubt that anyone will purchase what is otherwise a terrific device.