Those who "follow" me on G+ or Facebook, know that I was surprised to find an ARM based netbook featuring Ubuntu 10.04 LTS in a local supermarket. It was 169€ and I talked a bit with the salesman about it and when I told him I wanted one, he was nice enough to suggest me a returned model for 20% off. Nice... 135.20€ for what is quite something exotic.
Yes, I'm typing this review on it. It's extremely light, and virtually silent (Probably literally silent). The keyboard is small, chiclet style which doesn't allow quick typing. It has no windows button but a "home" button. There is one key that is weird, because it gets a double functionality where I've never seen such a thing on any keyboard. I won't go into details, because it obviously is layout dependent. What is also weird is that the screen folds over the keyboard between two raised "sides". Looks nice when closed, weird when opened.
The screen itself is crisp and clear with the classic 1024x600 resolution. Not much, but surprisingly well used by the software
Classic, also, three USB ports, VGA webcam, RJ45, 802.11n and an external SD card reader. Surprisingly, it also has an internal SD card reader in a little bay. This bay also features two dip switches. One to disable the internal (non-replaceable) battery and one labeled INT/EXT... It's actually interesting what that one does.
There is also a mini-USB port, which I assume, can be used to connect the netbook to a "real" computer. The manual talks about some sync software, but I didn't bother with that.
Now, of course, this machine was used, probably for one evening, but still. I expected it to come with a CD or something to be able to reset it. Well, no, but you can download an SD card image from the Hercules website and it's a matter of dd-ing that image to an SD card. Now, why they omitted that from the instructions and concentrated on creating the "rescue" SD card from within Windows is a complete mystery to me. Now, the question was: how do you boot from the newly created SD card? That's what the INT/EXT dip switch is for: set it to INT and the device boots from the internal device, which is technically also an SD card as I could see in mount:
jorg@jorg-laptop:~$ mount | grep ext4
/dev/mmcblk0p1 on / type ext4 (rw,errors=remount-ro)
I think it's amusing as this means the device has three SD card readers, and no real hard disk.
Set the dip switch on EXT and the device boots from the external SD card reader. That confused me a bit, because I hadn't noticed the SD card reader on the side, and used the one inside the bay where the switches are located. That didn't work. Realizing my mistake, it quickly booted from the rescue SD card and restored the initial state. The system does promise easy hacking on it. Prepare SD card, boot...
The software is a customized Ubuntu LTS 10.04 ARM which uses their own repositories (http://package.ecafe.hercules.com/). The repositories seem to be kept updated for now. At least, there were quite some patches to download.
The interface is the now abandoned Netbook Remix interface and it does actually work well for this form factor. Noteworthy is Chromium being the default browser and the webcam application is from Hercules itself. Probably proprietary, but seems fair enough. As everybody here knows, there is no Adobe Flash for this platform, so they have a YouTube viewing application called "Minitube". Works fine with a caveat: When running it and you switch applications, the video overlays in a half-transparent way over your new Window. I guess a special decoder chip is used. When playing a 720p youtube video -which runs smooth, I must admit- the CPU usage is at 50%.
Oh, yes, CPU... Here is what Linux has to say about it:
jorg@jorg-laptop:~$ uname -a ; cat
/proc/cpuinfo ; free -m
Linux jorg-laptop 188.8.131.52-ecafe-v4C #36 PREEMPT Mon Oct 24 17:18:51 CEST 2011 armv7l GNU/Linux
Processor : ARMv7 Processor rev 5 (v7l)
BogoMIPS : 799.53
Features : swp half thumb fastmult vfp edsp thumbee neon vfpv3
CPU implementer : 0x41
CPU architecture: 7
CPU variant : 0x2
CPU part : 0xc08
CPU revision : 5
Hardware : Hercules MX51 eCAFE 20110630
Revision : 51130
Serial : 008ea27ec4c91336
total used free shared buffers cached
Mem: 406 282 124 0 13 93
-/+ buffers/cache: 175 231
The packaging said that the CPU should be an ARM8, but cpuinfo says it's not. I don't know all that much about ARM versions, so I'll abstain.
I'm a bit torn whether this is strong enough. When I used the system before the restore, I consistently had loads over 4 (which means, 4 processes were waiting for CPU in average). I don't know why it did that, after the restore, it seems gone. The load is now at a consistent 0.55 while I was typing this. It sometimes does feel slow, but then so does my Atom D525/4GB RAM with 120GB SSD as disk. (That one, I really don't get: No idea what it has, except it runs Ubuntu 12.04 Beta) CPU usage is pretty moderate, even when the system features high loads. It does play 720p perfectly well (I should try Big Buck Bunny or similar)
The 512MB might or might not be enough. (Seems to use 100MB for framebuffer though, that's a bit steep) That said, in my EEE PC 701 4G, I never needed more.
For the price, it's a nice toy. I guess, on a vacation, I could do with it.
This is obviously just a quick overview of first impressions. For example, I have no idea what the run times are. The battery applet tells me I have another 2h30 of battery. Of course, I have no idea what the capacity is of the battery and whether that's any good. I mean, ARM CPUs should sip energy, right?
Well, that's it... My first ARM-based computer... Yay!