For the past several months I've been watching the development of a newly designed "netbook", from the Thailand-based company Norhtec, called the Gecko Edubook. A few weeks ago I finally decided to ordered myself one them to find out if it was a suitable replacement for my aging EeePC, which is slowing beginning to succumb to daily wear and tear. Here's what I found...
If you haven't heard about the Edubook before, let me sum up some of the innovative features about this mobile PC. To begin with, it is the first device to incorporate the XCore86 Device-on-Chip (DoC) module, also designed by Norhtec. It's an entire motherboard in a single chip that uses less than 3W of power and runs at 1Ghz. In total, the Edubook draws less than 7W of power. Secondly, because this DoC draws so little power, this PC can be powered with AA batteries - no need for any proprietary battery packs. And lastly, it contains internal SD card readers and USB ports, so you can customize the storage space and additional modules (like WIFI or 3G support) easily and at will.
Norhtec sells the Edubook in a couple of different ways. One way is with and included WIFI USB dongle, eight gigabyte SD card (with Linux installed), a full set of batteries and a power cord; all for US$200. I bought the "bare bones" system, which included 512MB of RAM, and a power cord for US$155. Norhtec charged me US$50 for courier shipping, so, after taxes and exchange, the total price of my Edubook came to CAD$240. Pretty sweet! I didn't get charged any duty by Canadian Customs, so I assume the low price of the Edubook saved me in this regard.
Okay, so enough with the background story... lets take a look at Edubook, itself.
First thing I noticed upon opening my parcel was the use of cardboard packaging, rather than foam. Not only does the Edubook use lower energy and resource to produce and operate, but Norhtec also uses more Earth friendly packaging. Way to go!
As I mentioned earlier, the Edubook is designed to be easy to configure by the user; this includes the case. The image on the back of the LCD screen can be customized to what ever the user wants, simply by unscrewing the four corner screws of the plastic "window cover" and using any image desired. In this case, I dressed up my Edubook with a rendition of the Puppy Linux logo (Puppy Linux is the OS I'm currently using for the Edubook).
Once you open the LCD screen, you're greeted with a nice 8.9" screen that has been given a matte finish (which makes it a very nice low-glare screen), a keyboard that is exactly the same as the one found on the EeePC 701 (save for the logo on the "special function key), and a typical mouse touch-pad and dual mouse buttons.
A few things to note here. The form factor has a shiny finish, very similar to the Acer brand netbooks. The Edubook looks great when you first see it, but this finish also scuffs fairly easily and gathers fingerprints like a magnet. At least, this is the case for the black model. The red or blue models of the Edubook may fair better.
However, I will say that the molded mouse pad is a much better design than the one on the EeePC. Because it has no groves or crevices, the mouse pad is very easy to keep clear of debris. My EeePC's mouse pad isn't so easy to keep clean. The quality of the mouse-buttons feel good and comparable to those on the EeePC.
Overall, the Edubook feels like it's been put together really well. It doesn't feel flimsy in the least and you wouldn't think, from the feel of it, that it was a budget PC. The hinges on the LCD are quite tight and I would have no hesitation of picking the machine up by the screen (which I tend to do with my EeePC from time to time). So, just get used to fingerprints and you'll be fine.
One other point about the LCD screen is that you can fold it 180 degrees, which is something you cannot do with the EeePC.
Taking a quick tour of the ports around the case, we see:
- Left side -
Two USB ports and a notch for a Kingston cable lock.
- Right side -
Ethernet, VGA out, USB, microphone in and speakers out ports.
- Back -
On the back is the plug for the power cord. There's no external power brick for the Edubook; all you have (and in that case, need) is a three prong power cord. The power adapter / battery charger is in the form-factor.
To get to the innards of the Edubook, there are three screws you need to remove from the bottom panel. Once those are removed you simply slide the metal cover plate down and lift it away.
In the front corners of the form-factor, you can see the slits for the left and right stereo loudspeakers.
Once the cover is removed, you now have access to the battery compartment, the XCore86 DoC motherboard, and the USB / IDE drive bay. The Edubook requires you to use AA NiMH rechargeable batteries. The unit will charge the batteries when it's plugged in, but you can also use a lithium battery pack, which Norhtec will provide if requested.
The internal USB port is embedded in the IDE drive bay, as seen here near the top of the photo (sorry for the blurry picture - the camera wasn't focused where I wanted it). You can also see, in this photo, the IDE port - used if you ever wanted to plug in a 2.5" hard drive.
To access the internal SD card readers, you need to pop out the XCore86 board. There are two spring clips on the sides that makes this easy to do.
Once the board is removed, you have full access to the SD card readers. Currently, I have one 8GB card installed. With Puppy Linux installed, along with all of my desired apps., I have only used up 2GB of space. Got to love Linux!
Before we close this back up and move on to the performance of the 1Ghz XCore86 chip, I'd like to mention the loudspeakers for the Edubook. They are quite good. They produce excellent sound and I was quite surprised to see such well made speakers in a budget machine like the Edubook.
They certainly look like a pair of well made loudspeakers... certainly more substantial than the speakers that come installed on the EeePC.
Also, I have to admit that I prefer the Ethernet port in the Edubook over the EeePC. The EeePC's Ethernet port does not have any LEDs, which makes it difficult sometimes to confirm that a network connection has been established. Not so on the Edubook.
Overall and for what it is, the Edubook performs admirably as far as I'm concerned. Light office duties, typical Internet related task (I've yet to find a web page that hasn't been viewable), audio playback, image editing, and the like all perform well - just as long as you don't try to do several of them at once.
The 1024 x 600 resolution is wonderful and the LED-lit LCD screen is bright and sharp. It's really nice to look at.
About the only thing the Edubook falls short on is in its multi-media / video playback capabilities. Although YouTube videos an MP4s do play, they are very choppy and out of sync with the audio track.
However, there is one saving grace; Puppy Linux come installed with a YouTube video downloader and format converter. If you download the YouTube video you wish to watch and convert it to a lower resolution MPEG, the video plays just fine. Same with MP4s you may have ripped from you DVDs.
Battery power performs as advertised. I get at least four hours of use from my AA NiMHs. The only drawback from using these kinds of batteries is the heat generated when the Edubook is re-charging them. If you have ever used NiMHs and a standard battery charger, you may have noticed that the batteries get quite warm when they're being charged. Same goes for the Edubook. I'm guessing they made the bottom plate out of metal to help radiate heat away from the batteries and internals.
However, once the batteries are charged, the Edubook runs quite cool, when compared to other laptops I've used.
Now for the biggest beef I have against the Edubook... the mouse-pad. In my opinion, this mouse-pad is far too sensitive to the touch. I don't even need to be touching the mouse-pad for the mouse pointer to start jumping all over the screen. If I leave a finger resting on one of the mouse buttons, the pad picks it up. If, while typing, my palm comes too close to the surface of the mouse-pad, it registers as a mouse-click. Very annoying.
I've been able to mitigate this annoyance by cutting an old PDA screen protector I had to the shape of the mouse-pad and using that as a barrier to help reduce it's sensitivity. It's much better now.
So, with everything I've done so far with the Edubook, the only complaint I have is with the mouse-pad - and all things considered, that pretty darn good. Hopefully Norhtec can improve on this with the next model. But don't change it from the mouse-pad being molded into the case. This is an excellent design feature.
Here's a video showing some of the topics I just touched upon.
You get great bang for your buck with the Edubook. It's stury but not clunky, has great flexibility as to how the user can configure it, and does the lighter computer tasks really well. The Edubook makes for a great secondary PC for most, and would even work well for some as their only PC. It all boils down to what you need. And for what it does, the Edubook does it well - the price certainly can not be beat. I'm looking forward to see what comes from Norhtec next.
I'll continue to happily use my Edubook for all of my computing tasks that do not require video of some kind. In my case, that's most of what I do. Since I don't need video playback / editing capabilities at the office, I can leave my EeePC safely at home and use the Edubook out "in the field".
My wish-list for the Edubook Mark II:
- Improved mouse-pad (scrolling or multi-touch support would be nice, too)
- External SD card reader (handy for people who have SD storage for their digital cameras and need to work on their photos - and don't have a card reader handy)
- Better video playback capabilities
Here's a few extra photos of the Edubook. First, some side-by-side comparisons with the EeePC 701.
(Edubook on the left and the EeePC 701 on the right)
(Edubook on the bottom and the EeePC 701 on the top)
(Edubook running Puppy Linux with its power cord on the side)
More about the Edubook, the XCore86 Device on Chip and Norhtec can be found here: