Note to self: never get a review unit of anything two weeks before or after CES. Not even a new-fangled USB paperweight. OK, not that I’ve got that personal productivity mantra off my chest, it’s time to provide a review of the WiBrain UMPC on loan from Dynamism. I’ll start with a rundown of the specs to level-set you, along with the fact that this device configuration currently sells for $849. Right up until the recent (and drastic) price reduction of the Vulcan Flipstart which now goes for $699, I was telling anyone who would listen that the WiBrain is has a great price to value ratio. It still does, but there are clearly competitors as the low-priced portable market continues to gain momentum. If you missed our unboxing and video Geek Session of the WiBrain, now’s a good time to get a quick video overview.
So what do you get for $849? The following is crammed on, with and into a handheld unit weighing just under 1.2 pounds:
- 4.8-inch WSVGA (1024 x 600) touchscreen
- 1.2 GHz VIA C7-M processor
- Microsoft Windows XP Home
- 60 GB PATA hard drive running at 4200 RPM
- 1 GB of DDR2 RAM
- Integrated Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, 802.11b/g WiFi, webcam, 2 speakers
- 1 USB port, mic & headphone jack, hold button, wireless on/off switch, VGA-out port with included dongle
- 50 key, split-QWERTY keypad,
- 4 directional keys, left & right mouse buttons, page up & page down buttons, volume control
- Touchpad with horizontal and vertical scrolling
- 4-cell battery rated at 4,000 mAh
- Soft case, hand strap, telescoping stylus, AC adapter
Note that I’m reviewing the B1-H model. You can drop to a B1-E device and save about $150. The B1-E uses a 30 GB hard drive and 512 MB of RAM otherwise, they’re identical units. If you plan to stick with Windows XP, then the B1-E with half the memory of the B1-H should be acceptable, but if you’re considering Vista on this device, I would strongly encourage the higher-end model due to the RAM. That’s not just a statement on the WiBrain, it applies to any mobile device running Vista. In my opinion, anything less than 2 GB will be sub-optimal.While we’re speaking of price, value and specs, now is a good time to reiterate an interesting comparison I noted prior with the OQO Model 02. Forgetting the device designs for a second, the WiBrain B1-H is closely configured to the “good” model of the OQO. However, that device currently sells for $1,299. For the extra $450, you’re getting an active digitizer in lieu of a touchscreen, but dropping to a 40 GB drive, 800 x 480 native resolution and 512 MB of RAM. There are more options to the OQO, such as upgrading to integrated 3G or Windows XP Professional, but out of the box, I’m not sure the OQO represents as good a value for the price. You’ll have to decide which device, both in terms of specs and design, will better meet your needs.What hardware features does it have?On the front, you can see the 4.8-inch screen straddled by the split QWERTY keypad near the top. I like having a Shift and a Function key on both sides, but a single Space key (on the left) has me wishing for one on the right. I probably would have put the F11 and F12 keys on the O and P since on most keyboards, these are on the upper right, but that’s just a personal preference. The keys are as usable as other thumb-boards I’ve used: you’ll be typing far slower than a full touch-type keyboard, so you’ll want to keep text input down to a minimum. The main reason I’m not a fan of split QWERTYs hold true in my usage of the WiBrain as well: my eyes keep darting back and forth, left and right as I’m typing and I find it very tiresome.At the bottom left of the front face you’ll see the four blue backlit directional buttons, a page down, a page up, a left mouse button, right mouse button and volume slider. [Note: the QWERTY keys have a white backlight that works fine in low- or no-light situations. It looks like there's just a single light under each 25-key cluster because the letters on the fringe aren't as bright.]Each button works as expected and the page up / down buttons come in handy because I’m not big into scrolling using a trackpad. At first, I thought the placement of the left / right mouse buttons was a bad design, but I quickly felt this was optimal for usage: it’s easier to move your left thumb up and down as opposed to left and right.
Those two buttons are pretty useless without a good trackpad, and this is one the nicest features of this device. Yes, the trackpad is small, but you can configure the mouse settings so that a full swipe of the trackpad moves you around 85% across the screen. This will keep lifting after the swipe to a minimum, even with the tiny trackpad. The trackpad also supports horizontal and vertical scrolling; it doesn’t seem to work quite as solidly for me as on a full sized trackpad, but the option is there for those who want it.Let’s quickly hit the sides with a brief description followed by pics. On the left side, as you hold the device, there’s a headphone jack, microphone jack, sliding Hold button and power port. Because the unit I have was imported, the power adapter doesn’t work natively here in the U.S.; I have my own foreign plug adapter to accommodate such situations. I fully expect the U.S. version to have a standard plug.On the top side of the device are six LED indicators, three on the left and three on the right. Each of these is also easily viewable from the front when holding the WiBrain since they’re actually placed where the top and front face meet. On the left is the Hold button indicator, caps lock and Function light. On the right is the wireless radio indicator, hard drive activity light and power status.Tucked in the back of the top face is a swiveling web-cam: it hides neatly when not in use. The back of the web-cam looks as if there’s a microphone screen, but there’s no integrated mic there. You’ll need to attach one to the mic jack from what I can see, which is a shame. Additionally, I couldn’t get the web-cam working with Skype; not sure why.On the right side is the covered USB port, of which there’s only one. Since the unit has Bluetooth, folks might be able to get by with a single USB port, but I personally like to see at least two in my devices. The wireless radio switch is here as well, making it handy to save juice and easily turn off your WiFi as needed.The bottom base of the device has a reset button and a port for the VGA dongle. There’s no room on the device for a full VGA port, so this makes sense, but I would have preferred a docking solution in lieu of the video out.The backside of the WiBrain is actually the back of the battery, which is nearly as wide as the device. The battery cells are actually split into two separate, but connected, areas with a fan vent in the center. The design actually calls out even more for a docking solution because to connect the WiBrain to an external monitor, you’ll likely let it rest on it’s backside, thus covering the fan vent.You can also see the stylus in this shot: it’s very small but does telescope out to around 4-inches. It tucks into the bottom right of the device and can be used to prop the device up although I didn’t have much luck with it. Maybe my desk is too slippery?So how does the device work?The WiBrain performs as I’ve expected, based on reading reviews of other 1.2 GHz VIA C7-M devices with a gig of RAM running Windows XP: acceptable. It’s not the most powerful handheld device on the market, but in my opinion, none of the comparably equipped devices are. My impression (which is arguable) is that VIA has opted for longer battery life over performance, so my expectations in that regard are generally met with the WiBrain. The 4,000 mAh battery has given me just over three hours of use with careful power management and non-intensive CPU tasks, i.e.; web browsing. That’s significantly more than the intense Battery Eater test that showed a worst case run-time of just under two hours. The variance will be based on the tasks you perform.Speaking of tasks: I gave it a go to write some posts and other text-heavy documentation with the WiBrain. I won’t totally fault the device for this, but I simply can’t use the QWERTY keypad for more than 10 minutes straight. I’ll admit it works perfectly fine for short bursts of text in an e-mail and that it’s not meant for heavy text entry, but I wanted to be clear as so many folks have derided handhelds and UMPCs for not having keyboards of any type. For the intended use of short bits of text, the keypad works perfectly fine. And the device itself is capable of running Microsoft Office apps or other productivity software. If you plan to use it for such purposes, I highly recommend a Bluetooth keyboard. You can certainly use a USB keyboard, but that would take the single USB port, which I like to leave open for a 3G modem.When it comes to performance, I find that I appreciate the 1.0 GHz Pentium M in my Samsung Q1P. While the WiBrain can do everything the Samsung can, it takes longer. Not double the time or anything that drastic, but it’s a noticeable difference. For example: opening up Microsoft Word 2007 takes 6 seconds on the Q1P. The same task on the WiBrain routinely takes 9 seconds. My intent here isn’t to say the Q1P is a better choice for everyone, because it’s not. The purpose is a point of comparison. If I had an 800 MHz A110-powered device, I’d make the same type of comparison, but I don’t have one on hand. Going into standby is a respectable 6 seconds, while waking up is in the 4 to 5 second range.I’m definitely sold on 1024 x 600 resolution on a small screen like the WiBrain has (which my Q1P doesn’t have. Point to the WiBrain!). It was a joy to view most web pages without horizontal scrolling like I do on the Q1P and Eee PC. I still have to keep the device to within a foot or foot-and-a-half from my eyes to take full advantage of the resolution however. Pressing the Fn key and the Page Down key will toggle to 800 x 600 or 800 x 480, but I found each of these to be a little fuzzy since they’re not the native resolution.Here’s where compromise, as it so often does with mobile devices, comes into play: due to the high res and the excellent trackpad, I found myself rarely using the touchscreen. Items are too small to accurately touch when it’s easier to just use the trackpad, cursor and mouse buttons. I’d love to see a WiBrain model that is even cheaper and foregoes the touchscreen as I don’t think folks can take full advantage of it given the high res and small screen.The fan noise is a bit much for my taste so I used the included software utility to modify the setting. There’s a tray icon for this and you can set it for Silent, Normal and Cool. These essentially mean low, medium and high. The fan is very noticeable in Cool mode, but of course, that keeps the device the coolest. On the other extreme, I can’t hear the fan in Silent mode (hence the name), but the device is much warmer. Does it get too hot to handle? No, it won’t get uncomfortable, but you can feel the warmth. I should also mention the other function of this software utility, which is very useful. You can set the Keyboard backlight to On, Auto, or Off.As far as other noise, the speakers are a real disappointment. They reside on each side of the 24PIN video out port on the bottom of the device and they’re hard to hear. As you increase the volume, distortion is easily overpowering, so you’ll want to go with headphones for any sound-related activities. Even using headphones, the sound wasn’t great, but it’s better than with the small speakers. To give you an idea of my disappointment: it was hard to hear a YouTube video clearly over the fan and without some speaker crackle.Who is it for?I think the WiBrain meets the intended use of a companion handheld computer. I’d recommend the device to anyone on a budget who can deal with the high resolution on the small screen and is looking for a portable device mainly for visual Internet usage. As mentioned, you can use the device for full desktop apps, but you’ll see a hit in the battery life and you’ll need an external keyboard for serious text entry. The touchscreen won’t help you much here because the device isn’t running the Tablet Edition of XP and based on the high res, I’m not sure it would be a positive experience in the end even if you were running it. Audio quality is lacking and the the web-cam not working with Skype takes away one of my primary functions, but if you don’t use Skype or other apps that use a web-cam, this should be a non issue.There’s no disputing that even with some shortcomings, the device is an incredible portable computing value. On price and spec alone, I think it’s a better value than the lowest priced OQO Model 02, but price and value aren’t everything. Still, I’d like to see a cheaper option that doesn’t offer a touchscreen for those who wouldn’t use or need it.Best attribute: the included soft case. It leaves no doubt what’s inside. ;)Thanks again to Dynamism for the WiBrain loan.