When I first took the Raon Digital Vega out of the box, I was simply shocked by the size. Yes, I knew it had the 4.3-inch screen, but with roughly a one-inch bezel on the left and right, along with a small half-inch bezel above and below the screen, this is one tiny device! Being "vertically challenged" and small in stature, this is why I jumped at the chance to review this Korean made unit. You won’t find the Vega in your local Best Buy or CompUSA here; you’ll need to order it from an importer or hop a plane to Asia. I opted for the former and got a loaner from the great folks over at iCube. Along with many other devices you’ll find overseas, iCube sells the Raon Digital Vega and were kind enough to let me play with one for the past several weeks.
Since the size made such an impression on me, let’s compare it to a few other devices to give you a feel for the size difference and then we’ll take a tour of the Vega:
Those pics give a decent illustration of just how small this handheld truly is. It’s quite an amazing experience to run Windows XP on 4.3 inch screen, especially when the native resolution is the same 800 x 480 that I’m used to on the Samsung UMPC. Let’s talk about the screen for a second.
Anytime you pack the same amount of pixels on a smaller screen, the smaller screen image will almost always look better simply because of pixel density. Think about it this way: there are more dots per inch (DPI) on the Vega than on the Q1P since the resolution is the same. As a result, the screen looks incredibly clear using the same res.Granted, everything is pretty small, but you can customize icon sizes and DPI settings for text if need be. Between the bright LED backlit screen on the Vega and the high DPI, I found the screen to be incredibly usable.
On the other hand, this touchscreen is probably too small for using a finger for most touch actions. With such a small screen, I found myself continually using the stylus because my finger wasn’t precise enough. I wouldn’t say this is good or bad; it simply is. You’d be hard pressed to go without the stylus for any length of time. Speaking of the stylus, here’s what it looks like compared to the Samsung UMPC stylus:
In case you’re not familiar with the Samsung stylus, I can tell that the Vega stylus is short; about 2.5-inches. Normally, I’d be concerned with losing such a small piece of necessary equipment, but Raon smartly provides a tether and loop to keep the stylus attached to the Vega. The Vega doesn’t have a place to store the stylus, which is a little disappointing. I was occasionally pre-occupied with the dangling stylus when using the Vega. You can also see that the stylus is flat near the top; this could bother some folks, but I found it to be comfortable. This will, of course, depend on your writing style.
OK, let’s get back to the device itself. I demonstrated how small it is, but I didn’t get into the thickness of it. I can’t say this any other way, so I’ll just come out and say it: the Vega is the closest device to a "brick" than I’ve ever seen. Because it’s so compact, I’m not sure there’s anything that Raon could have done differently and to be honest I found the 450g device easy to hold because of its solid shape. Here’s a look at the Vega’s thickness when compared to other devices:
You can see that the Vega is roughly as thick as the Samsung UMPC. Since it’s fairly rectangular on all sides, it really does feel like a small brick. Ironically, a bunch of the bulk doesn’t come from the innards of the device, but from the battery that uniquely attaches to the back. When you consider how much computing tech Raon tucked into the device itself, you can’t help but be impressed. Here’s what I mean by the battery:
The top component in the picture is the main part of the Vega, while the bottom half is the slide-on 3300 mAh Lithium-Ion battery. Because the entire backside of the Vega is the battery, it tends to feel warm on the hands during hours of use. It’s not unbearable by any means, but it runs warmer than my Samsung Q1P for example. Note that I said "hours of use". Raon claims that the battery is rated at 5.5 hours and in my tests I was easily getting between 4 and 5 hours of use with WiFi on. Let’s keep touring the device….
There are two speakers on the front; top left and right, plus there’s a mic in the bottom left. You can’t help but notice the abundance of buttons on the face of the Vega. It took me a while to get used to them as there are over 40 combinations of button functions and the Vega manual is in Korean. After perusing the manual and through some trial and error, I found the buttons to be quite handy. I most often used the mouse clicks, screen resolution switching and page navigation: with practice, these became second nature.
Overall, there are 5 buttons on the left and 8 on the right. I could easily reach all of the buttons with a quick thumb-press. If I had to quibble about one thing it would be the button combos; there are a few that require two buttons on the left side of the device to be pressed at the same time. Unless you have two thumbs on one hand, you’ll occasionally struggle; the external monitor output / screen resolution switching combo is one of these. Here’s a close up of both the left and right button banks; only the four arrow buttons on the right side are backlit when the device is used; something I’d like to see expanded upon in a future Vega version.
The Vega also has a silver-colored mouse disc at the top left; if you’re not using the stylus or a finger, this is quite usable for moving the cursor around. When I combined this navigation method with the left and right mouse click buttons, I was zipping along quite nicely. It can take some getting used to because the disc can feel a little "mushy" but I like it better than the analog stick on my Samsung Q1P.
Let’s finish up the tour with the sides and the available ports starting with the top:
On the right is an external monitor jack that uses a special VGA adapter cable (included), a lock level, a device reset button and the power button. I mistakenly thought the "R" button was a Rotate screen button and found out the hard way that it resets the device. The Vega does not support screen rotation, but can output video to an external monitor at up to 1280 x 1024 resolution.
While there are two USB ports, you can almost count on one of them to be in use most of the time. The Vega has no integrated connectivity options: no WiFi, no Bluetooth and not even an Ethernet jack. Raon does include a USB WiFi dongle and I found that it took up one of the two USB ports roughly 90% of the time I used the device. I simply do so much online that I needed the connectivity. Ideally, integrated WiFi should be included in the next go around. Raon doesn’t install the wireless drivers by default, at least not on the unit that I used. However, they were included on a mini CD and I had no issues installing them using an external optical drive. On the downside, the USB dongle does protrude from the device; you’ve got two choices of placement and I found myself opting for this one:
OK, so that’s all of the ins and outs of the device. What are the specs like and how does it perform? Here’s where we need to be careful and not try to compare the device to something it’s not comparable too. If I had to pick a device most like the Raon, it would probably be a Pepper Pad 3 or a Nokia N770 or 800 Internet Tablet. As a result, my expectations went down a different path; you can’t equate this device or its performance to an Origami spec UMPC or slate Tablet PC. Those are different devices for different purposes This is arguable, but I’d say the purpose(s) of the Vega are:
- Web surfing
- Using on-line applications
- Occasional or light audio / video usage
As opposed to full laptops or current mainstream UMPCs, I’d say this device is not for:
- Heavy duty or processor intensive local XP-compatible applications
- 3D gaming
Could you use this device as your primary computer? I’d say you’d be hard pressed and I say that as someone who uses a UMPC as a primary device, simply because I’m pushing the limit of a companion device and keeping my expectations reasonable. While you can connect the Vega to an external monitor, external optical drive and have WiFi connectivity, the issues would lie around the horsepower of the device.
The Vega runs on an AMD Geode LX800 processor at 500 MHz. While that helps with the great battery life, the trade-off is in performance. This chipset doesn’t support 3D acceleration, so 2D support is all you’ll get. My review unit came with 512 MB of RAM, which is barely enough for a device these days IMO. The 1.8-inch, 30 GB hard drive is enough for a device at this size; if you want to carry 30 GB of music in your hand, I’d recommend an iPod, not a Vega or any other handheld computing device. Bear in mind that the Vega also runs Windows XP Home, not the Tablet Edition; that might marginally help performance but of course limits your input options.
Having said all that: I think the Vega (when compared to the like-devices I mentioned) holds its own. I found that the unit struggled with multiple apps opened andor when I was pushing for multi-tasking. I unwisely attempted to install the Zune software on it to try my Zune Pass subscription and the app was just too much for the Vega. The installation took about 40 minutes and execution of the app really never worked. In the Vega’s defense, it handled iTunes fairly well and I was able to listen to some podcasts without any issue.
Based on my Zune experience, I opted to not even try to the Microsoft Office suite. Instead, I relied on using Gmail and Outlook OWA access; both worked without a hitch as expected; most of the processing power is needed on the server-side for these apps. On the flipside, I thought I’d try Skype to take advantage of the built-in mic and speakers. Again, the processing power required made the experience marginal at best. My calls were choppy, making Skype fairly unusable. Perhaps the next Vega will get the recently announced AMD Geode LX 900.
Raon does bundle the Nero ShowTime software with the Vega and I found that watching a test video was a positive experience. The sample file was an MPEG Layer-3 file at 23 fps and there was minimal choppiness. Still, I wouldn’t compare nor expect the experience to be similar to watching a DVD on a more powerful laptop. You’ll get decent performance here that matches the expectation for this configuration.
While the performance may not be what you expect, if you’re the kind of user that wants a handheld and works heavily on web-based apps, the Vega might be just the thing. It all depends on what your tasks are and that should be the first question you ask yourself when shopping for a mobile device.
I did save the text input for last for a few reasons. First, I do a good portion of my daily input via inking on the Samsung Q1P. Since the Vega runs XP Home, that same option isn’t available without a third-party application. There is a virtual on-screen keyboard that did work OK in my testing, but my personal preference is to ink when possible. As a result, I used many different input methods that you’ve read about here: InScribe, RitePen and SpeedScript to name a few. All worked well and it really becomes a matter of personal preference. My own experience is that I tended to gravitate back to a real keyboard after using each method for a while. Again, it’s personal preference and I think for me, a 4.3-inch screen is too small for prolonged use. Your opinion could well be different.
We have to again thank the folks over at iCube for the Raon Digital Vega loaner. Without the importers getting their hands on these devices and allowing us to put them through the paces, we’d be missing out on some good mobile equipment!
Oh, I almost forgot! Raon includes a case with the Vega, but iCube provides what I think to be a much better solution. They include a custom leather case that holds the Vega security, but allows it to be used while in the case. In fact, it has something I believe every small computing device should have: a built in stand. Here’s a few pics of the nice extra provided by iCube.