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.

AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
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.
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  1. Mark Says:

    I have been waiting for the Viliv N5 since I sold my OQO 02 more than a year ago. That being said, this device really seems to be too little for way too much money and way too late. The original price point Viliv was quoting back in January was under $500. $649 is too much money for what this device is.

  2. Kevin Says:

    I think atm the UPMCs or MIDs (Whatever you want to call them) are not very great, but they have a LOT of potential and I would defiantly buy one over a tablet (Unless it was Lenovo’s U1 which is rumored to come back on the market with some changes). Tablets get finger prints super easy, and I would rather have a Windows 7 notebook in my pocket than carry around a huge iPod Touch (aka iPad) that’s covered in finger prints and gets a bad glare.

    Oh and I’m not an Apple hater, but I do not like their products. I would rather have a Zune HD over an iPod Touch, Android tablet over the iPad, PC over MAC, and Palm Pre Plus (Or more specifically WebOS) than an iPhone.

  3. Woody Says:

    Avram, I enjoyed the blog, the sentiment, and the writing style but I have to disagree with you. Why not carry around one of the super thin and light netbook class machines? Yeah, a little larger and don’t fit in your pocket but that processor isn’t going to get you far when you are trying to fix the CMS. I love playing with new tech and pocketable devices are a passion for me, but this just looks a little too limited. And while I’m not an apple worshiper, that ipad may just be a big ipod touch but it sure works well.

  4. Tom Says:

    When viewed through rose-colored glasses, this device is a niche product; when viewed a little more harshly, it sits in No Man’s Land, where devices go to die a slow death. For me productivity has priority over portability. I always commute to work with a daypack or courier bag, which holds my 3.3-pound Panasonic CF-Y5 Toughbook with a 14.1″ 1400×1050 screen that is way more productive than a netbook, much less the Viliv N5. Now some people are gonna say I don’t understand the concept of the Viliv, but to that I’m gonna ask what exactly is the point? To me it is either of two things (or both): (1) a toy for big boys; (2) a great achievement in miniaturization. Sure it’s very pocketable, but is it as productive as my Y5? Not on its best day! Maybe I’m just not its target audience because when I’m not carrying around my Y5, I don’t even want to think about work. Besides, I already carry a smartphone with a decent keyboard, so there is no need for the N5 unless I feel like dressing up as Batman with a utility belt. When people have to think for more than three seconds to see what a device would be good for, I think the device will have a hard time finding a large market. With this said, I’m not bashing the N5 or its users, but it’s definitely not for me.

  5. chris Says:

    well, the thing is, that with an n5 you have no need to have a smarthone. or a gps. or an ipod. or a laptop.

    i have an umid bz myself and wouldn’t want to miss it. the n5 is kind of crippled for the lack of video out, but the bz is everything i want. going on a business trip, my luggage is now 0.5kg. and I really enjoy not having to open my 17″ dell monster in a cramped train compartment and everyone staring at its screen.

  6. J Says:

    Like the ipad it is a toy for big boys. Unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who like that sort of thing if marketed right (cue Apple).

    I can see it appealing maybe to someone who uses their smartphone for virtually no cell calls and would rather the smartphone be weighted heavily towards the “smart”. It certainly isn’t a laptop or netbook replacement. Even quick edits of excel spreadsheets aren’t particularly pleasant on a smartphone. A student in a lecture might want to whip it out to do some things discreetly. Or say in Europe where seating on a commuter train is hard to come by – to stand and work with your toughbook might be a challenge. But all in all for $650 I wouldn’t waste my money. Maybe if one day you could pick them up from ebay for $150 it might tempt me.

  7. J Says:

    Great it works for you Chris but i would be quickly frustrated using it as a main computer with the small screen and keyboard and slow processor. I had a netbook as my only laptop for a while and I quickly got really tired of waiting around for it to do things.

  8. DK Says:

    Personally, I would ditch the keyboard. I’d like to have the biggest screen possible in my pocket. I’ll probably never buy an iPad because I’d have to carry it, or always wear a backpack. I’ve done plenty of editing of MS documents on Palms, iPhone, and Android devices, and find it workable, although I never expected them to replace a full-size computer – the screen is just too small to edit effectively or use the internet well. Some of the older Palms and Dell were quite large, but they fit in my pocket just fine. A 5.5″ by 3″ device with a screen across the entire front would be great, and I’ve wondered why nobody has made one. I probably use my Incredible as a phone the least of anything. Screen, screen, screen!

  9. Joe Says:

    I am going to right out on a limb, and predict that in the very near future the smart phone will evolve into the UMPC that you like so much. I too am waiting on such a device that has good features, and power, and I know it is coming

  10. Joe Says:

    My N5 should arrive next week. I need something that I can easily carry & use in the field to collect data in Excel or hammer out some chicken scratch in Word, then transfer later to my notebook with a thumb drive to clean it up. I thought the iPad would serve the purpose but after playing with it for an hour I said to myself “this is a toy” and gave it to my wife. The N5 seems to fit the bill for what I need (just hope the screen is OK in sunlight). I dont believe that one device can suit all your needs no matter how smart it is. Im sure I wouldnt want to write a full report on the N5 but wouldnt want to carry around a cell phone that size either. A cell phone for most of us is something that has to be with you all the time, it should be small & make/receive calls.

  11. Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director Says:

    @Joe, I’m just curious. Where did you buy your N5, how much did you pay, and what config did you get? I think those things have been out of production for a while now.

  12. Joe Says:

    I found it on Craigs List for $450. The config will be a surprise because the guy selling it said he got it as a gift, has no need for it & opened the box once just to power it up. I have seen them selling on Ebay used for about $500 to $600 & new for as much as $900 depending on the specs. I mainly need it to run Office in the field & I really have not seen a bad review of the device.

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