Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Always Innovating's "Touchbook"

While taking notes at conferences and lectures, I have learned two things:

  1. There are never enough outlets to keep the average laptop running all day.

  2. Graphical representations are a pain to record with a mouse.

Most devices I've found which handle these use cases are prohibitively expensive or tied to proprietary software which I can't easily work with or transition to. After much searching and waiting, I found one device that met all my requirements: the Touchbook.

Built on open source software and hardware, the Touchbook offers a touchscreen, modular keyboard/touchpad, and 10 hour battery life. What I mean by modular keyboard is that the main components are contained in the screen/tablet, which can be detached from the keyboard/bottom and used as a standalone device. The battery life is due to both the use of an ARM processor and the dual batteries in both the tablet and the keyboard. This means it has less processing power than Atom devices, but I do all my heavy computation remotely, anyway.

When I say the hardware is open, I mean it both in spirit and practice. In addition to being able to detach the screen, opening the device and accessing the internal components is as easy as the flip of a switch. There are 2 mini-USB ports and 5 full-sized ones (3 internal and 2 external.) The included wifi and bluetooth cards occupy 2 of the internal USB slots, although I yanked the bluetooth and plug it externally when I need it. In general, the hardware seems to be very good quality, especially considering the price. The only complaint I have with the hardware is that the screen outweighs the base and leads to a tendency for the device to roll when at too extreme an angle. There is, however, a counter-balance attachment offered for free, which I haven't had a chance to get yet. It will be included with all future shipments. Because main storage is provided via an SD card reader, I'm told it is simple to switch between multiple operating systems or configurations by changing out the SD card.

The official operating system, AIOS, is a derivative of Angstrom tweaked to work with the touch interface. It, unlike the hardware, is still in beta and will definitely benefit from further work. Overall, it's a very nice OS with the ipkg installer and most of the configuration tools one might expect. However, it took me some work to get the programs I wanted and the to fix a few issues I've encountered. While touch and rotation are supported, there are still a few bugs of varying degree. My least favorite involves noise when drawing/clicking, but it doesn't make it unusable for my purposes. Support has been great, but again I don't think it would be as straightforward for novices. In evidence of both points, the founder of the company compiled a kernel for me with support for a USB wired ethernet card there were no pre-compiled drivers for. There has been some work to port other operating systems, such as Ubuntu and Android. In fact, the company has offered a free Touchbook to anyone who can get Android working (along with certain features.) Granted, one would need access to a device to test, but there is an emulator which can be used for most of the work.

Overall, I recommend the Touchbook for people with needs similar to mine. If you want a long-lasting, Linux-friendly, tablet computer, it's the way to go. The hardware is good quality and quite modular. The software, when finished, could be great for users of varying degrees of experience. Right now, it's only for the brave and adept, but the community is good and we'll all work together to make what we need of it. Come join us.