Hands On With the Litl Webbook

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LAS VEGAS -- Litl's webbook looks and feels almost like a traditional laptop, but is billed instead as an internet appliance; think Chumby with a keyboard, and you won't be too far off the mark. The device was released in November, but I got a chance to check it out here at CES.

The litl is lacking much of what makes notebooks useful: there's no optical drive, a single USB port, and only 2GB of flash memory that's reserved for the proprietary OS. At $700, the device becomes an incredibly hard sell. But litl has adopted a "less is more" stance, and for the right user, there's a lot to like.

The litl OS consists of "cards," which are essentially Web widgets arranged in a grid on the home screen. Without hard drive space, litl users must depend on cloud-based services (and a Wi-Fi connection) for content. Browsing works just like a normal PC -- it sports a re-skinned Mozilla browser -- but widgets serve to heighten the experience.

Cards can be assigned to whatever Web page you'd like to track -- if a particular site offers an RSS feed, the litl will subscribe, and stream updates. An app called the Mediawall will aggregate photo-feeds from popular web services like Snapfish and Flickr, and the HDMI port makes piping content onto a larger screen easy.

Powering the litl is a 1.8-GHz Atom Z540 processor, with 1GB of 533-Mhz DDR2 RAM. The bright, two-toned chassis is sturdy, belying its dainty appearance. Its 12.1-inch screen is driven by Intel integrated graphics, and offers a 1280 x 800 resolution. It also weighs just over 3 pounds, making it very portable.

Of particular interest is the impressive 178 degree viewing angle -- the big, bright widgets are visible at almost any angle you happen to hold the machine -- something finicky kids are likely to appreciate. Folding the screen backwards converts the notebook into a standing display, allowing users to control it by a remote control.

There's no software to buy, and the machine is maintenance free; users will likely waver on whether these are positive or negative options. The webbook will automatically apply software updates, patching vulnerabilities or adding features. There's also 2 year, unconditional warranty: you can return the product and get a full refund should buyer's remorse kick in.

The litl's flaws are glaringly obvious. While it's barely two months old, its components are already outclassed by new offerings from Intel and from Nvidia. Depending on Wi-Fi for content is tricky enough, but being limited to 802.11 b/g will frustrate some. And then there's the price: while you'll be missing out on the endearing litl ecosystem, $700 can get you a touchscreen and superior hardware.

The litl also only offers roughly 2.5 hours of battery life. I was told that battery optimization wasn't a priority -- it's an internet appliance, intended to remain plugged in while streaming your content. That might be acceptable for some, but here's one usage scenario: glance at twitter feeds while making breakfast, move to the couch and eat while catching up on RSS feeds, then move to a desk, and keep an eye on news and e-mail while working on your primary machine.

You'll likely be able to complete all of that shuffling within the allotted battery time, but having just a few more hours -- say, 4 or 5 -- would mean being able to spend less time being tethered, and (more importantly) less time thinking about battery levels.

But improvements are coming. I was told that battery life can be improved through software updates, which will also add improved functionality for the device's USB port, webcam, and built in microphone. The company also plans to release an SDK for the litl OS, paving the way for content creators to populate the litl with applications.

The temptation to dismiss the litl as an overpriced, underpowered notebook is a strong one. But a shift in perspective can work in the litl's favor: it's cute and accessible for small children, while sturdy enough to withstand their destructive tendencies. The hardware is weak, but bloat shouldn't be an issue, making upgrades largely unnecessary. Once the device has had some time to age and the software improves, the litl has to potential to make the right users very happy.

For more up-to-the-minute blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out PC World's complete coverage of CES 2010.

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