A number of smartbooks are floating around CES, and after spending much of the day looking at them, talking about them, and using them, several things are clear. Vendors are eager to exploit the power of ARM chips and Linux to deliver great devices with novel features and long battery life at low cost, and they’re succeeding. But their success will depend on raising the level of polish and the smoothness of the user experience, something that’s lacking in the models on display here at CES.
The most-awaited smartbook here is the Lenovo Skylight, which uses Qualcomm’s celebrated Snapdragon ARM chip and runs a custom version of Linux. It’s got a 9″ 720p screen, advertises ten hours of battery life with the 3G running, which is likely, even accounting for exaggeration, to exceed current Atom netbooks by a wide margin. It will sell for $500 before contract, and is virtually certain to be carrier-subsidized by AT&T, the launch carrier.
The rounded shape of the Skylight is aesthetically pleasing, and definitely novel, but considerably less than practical. It’s thin, but not miraculously so, as compared to a Nexus One smartphone:
In the demo, its mini-HDMI output was connected to an HDTV above, cloning the same image. Unfortunately, this is the only mode the HDMI port supports; no independent multihead is possible. The HDTV was used to demo the Skylight’s unique, smartbook-suited UI:
The main screen, replacing a desktop, has six “gadgets” on the front, displaying realtime information from websites and other information. Clicking on any gadget brings up its appropriate application or website fullscreen. There’s also a three-window mode I didn’t get to see, because trying to open it caused the OS to hang. There’s also a dock at the bottom of the screen.
Most of the applications worked well, and the experience was comparable in snappiness to an Atom netbook. A notable exception was YouTube; stutter was notable and unwelcome. Since Flash support for ARM is one of the enablers for smartbooks, the stutter is somewhat worrisome.
On the hardware side, the Skylight’s chiclet keyboard was comfortable and relatively quiet. Its trackpad, though large, was blocky and imprecise in movements. I was told that the trackpad is one of Lenovo’s targets for improvement in the four months remaining until launch.
Entourage Edge Dualbook: Android learns to read
Another novel smartbook is the ARM-based Entourage Edge “Dualbook,” which, instead of a keyboard, has two screens. On the right is a touchscreen running Android, and on the left, a black and white, non-backlit E-Paper display running an unspecified Linux variant, both about 10″ in size. In Android mode, users can run one application on each screen and the two OSes can communicate, but the Android component can be shut down, letting the E-Reader part run for about 16 hours. This could be really great for use on airplanes.
The Android experience was a little sluggish, although I had to remind myself while waiting for windows to open, and to move from screen to screen, that the comparison point was Windows 7 on Atom. It’s usable.
The Dualbook is relatively heavy, though, and is about as thick as an ordinary laptop. Although I couldn’t measure, it’s probably as large, and as heavy, as the 13″ MBP. Price is unknown.
The takeaway is that while Smartbooks have features which could sell them, the user experience needs polish. Both the Skylight and the Edge had relatively slow UIs. They were both plagued by slightly strange bugs. And while we don’t have an MSRP for the Edge, the Skylight is going to cost $500, much more than most netbooks.
In its current form, the Skylight is slower, buggier, and more expensive than a mature netbook based on Menlow or Pine Trail. All of those things can change, and they’ll have to if the Smartbook is to become a commercial success.