[Review] AI Touchbook; tags=Debian, Linux, FOSS, Uni

Having my primary working Computer, a Lenovo Thinkpad, going into repair at the end of December I finally got up to ordering on of those TouchBook ARM based netbooks I was looking at for some time. After some processing time it finally got shipped in April and arrived here last Monday, time to write up my first impressions.

Some words about the Hardware. The TouchBook ships with a so called "Beagle Board" featuring a OMAP3 Processor, ARM Cortex A8 running at 600MHz, 512MiB of RAM and a 8GiB SD Card for storage. It has a 8.9" touch screen and comes with USB and Bluetooth Sticks for wireless connectivity. The Display part contains all the needed Hardware and is detachable from the bottom that is just a keyboard sitting on the secondary Battery. You can open the Top to get at 4 intern USBs (3 USB-A and one Mini-USB) where 2 of these spots are occupied already for wireless networking and Bluetooth.

First experience

The TouchBook comes with an US Power Adaptor only so when I got the device I was running for some tiny Adaptor to get the plug into a normal EU Power Outlet (it's incredibly hard to get one for this Direction while it's easy to get some travelling stuff to plug EU Hardware into various different Outlets!).

When I finally booted it the first thing you'll notice is the touch interface for the bootloader. That's quite a difference to all-text-based old grub! The shipped SD Card offers 3 Operating Systems, one custom Linux that might well be interesting to the average User, a Ubuntu Karmic that really OK for a Debianoid Hacker- both running a XFCE Desktop - and a Android that is really slow and doesn't seem to be good at anything. Needless to say I sticked with the Ubuntu for now.

What to not expect

Well this is a 600MHz CPU with half a Gig of RAM running of a SD Card. So don't expect it to be good at anything that can profit from today's High-End Hardware.

The good Points

First of all, I have to admit that the touch screen is a neat interface, way superior to the Touchpad Area you'll normally find on a Notebook - at least if you use the stylus. It's quite different from the inside-the-keyboard trackball the thinkpads have of course.

The Website claims 10h of Battery life and while I've emptied the battery much faster under certain workloads (e.g. Playing cards) it does hold that promise with emacs fired up in org-mode, IRCing on a server over SSH and the mandatory wireless working. Same for a always-on on campus day which just works.

Again putting the screen on the keyboard the wrong way 'round will give you a touchscreen tablet with the keyboard out of your way, an ideal configuration for playing. And I have to admit playing games like gtkballs or aisle riot real fun. So much fun actually I'm currently thinking on whether it would be feasible to get openpandora working on it.

What I'm really missing

There are two Properties that are really lacking from the device which would make it (in my personal opinion at least) a whole lot better: A simple Ethernet controller I could use to go online when sitting in the server room doing some maintenance without taking my WRT with me and some slot to store the stylus when not using it where it's easy to get out (currently I'm having it in my wallet).

Then there's something (maybe a Kernel Bug): The Wireless is unable to find any new Access Point after disconnecting from some and walking out of reach from that. Force-unloading the kernel module and waiting 30 minutes worked for me multiple times but that's purely inacceptable.

Finally there are some minor glitches. The shiny red cover just gets dirty every time you touch the thing and the Keyboard is really small (what a surprise on a 9" device) and has some of the special Keys (like the Home key) located at unusual spots (Page-Up/Down only available through the FN modifier). Shift and End at the right side are also labeled opposite from their actual function (at least on Ubuntu).

The last ugliness is the top part battery only charging when the device is running, which means you"ll have the TouchBook running all night to get the battery charged and the Battery Monitor not working at all (at least in the current version of the operating systems).

Where to go now

I've not yet come around to really play with the operating system (apart from installing wicd, urxvt-unicode and awesome getting the most needed of my working environment). As I'm a Debian Developer I'll definitely need a Debian running on it (although I was told it'll be slow with software compiled for armv4te) and, as it needs to be running all night anyway, I'll try out gentoo pending another SD Card for experiments.

Secondly there's currently no useable conforming Common Lisp Implementation in Debian for armel as far as I can tell. As arm was already working it shouldn't be that hard, let's see if I can change that but feel free to join me!

Final Notes

I was thinking of some mobile-ish note-taking device and remote ssh terminal for University which the device clearly can do even for 10h away from any power plug while being some non-standard non-x86 device to toy on (It's actually my second armel next to the sheeva plug mounted on my window board.

As a final Remark: This blogpost was written on the TouchBook hacking some markdown into emacs while traveling by train to Erlangen where I study on Sunday Night after having read some chapters of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother on my E-Slick E-Book reader and finished later in my Room.

Maybe I'll find some time to write a review for this device as well one day!



-- Christoph Egger <christoph@christoph-egger.org> Mon, 26 Apr 2010 10:32:35 +0200

Comments:

Post pics! :)


-- Evgeni <evgeni@debian.org> Tue, 27 Apr 2010 15:11:45 +0200

Did you ever get Debian up and running on this thing? Im curious how easy or hard it would be.


-- Wes Frazier <wes.frazier@gmail.com> Fri, 14 Jan 2011 14:51:25 +0100



valid XHTML, CSS -- Django based -- ©2008 Christoph Egger