In search of a handheld that bridges the gap between netbook and iPhone? The Viliv S5 Premium strives mightily to straddle that divide–and it does so with some success–but some drawbacks (including an awkward software keyboard) will probably preclude mainstream acceptance.
Styled as a portable media player, the Viliv S5 Premium–one of the more high-profile gizmos demoed at the Consumer Electronics Show in January–is a small but loaded touchscreen (tablet-style) Windows XP Home Edition UMPC. Based on a 1.3GHz Intel Atom processor (from the chip family that kick-started the netbook craze), the Viliv packs not only Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but also GPS, although you’ll have to supply your own software to use it. And some models offer a slot that accepts a SIM card for a 3G cellular-data network.
At first glance the Viliv looks a lot like a midrange GPS system for a car (and in fact you can buy a $50 kit, with a charger and windshield mount, to use it as such). Measuring 6.0 by 3.3 by 0.9 inches and weighing about 14 ounces, it’s available in three configurations. A $599 model includes a 60GB hard drive but lacks the 3G slot. A $699 model swaps the 60GB hard drive for a 32GB solid-state drive but still omits the 3G slot. The model I tested, which sells for $799, provides both the 32GB solid-state drive and the 3G slot.
The 4.8-inch, 1024-by-600-pixel display is crisp and bright, and more responsive than most UMPC touchscreen displays I’ve tried (albeit prone to picking up fingerprints). And speaking of responsiveness, one of the more appealing aspects of the Viliv S5 is its fast boot time: The XP desktop takes only about 20 seconds or so to appear after you power the device on.
You get a four-way joystick, but no mouse or keyboard–and on such a tiny Windows display, fingertip touches don’t always land where you mean them to. Fortunately, the Viliv S5 does provide help, although not in the form of a traditional stylus: Instead, you get something that looks like a guitar pick strung onto the handstrap. It works pretty well as a mouse substitute.
But the keyboard workaround is less successful. The Viliv displays an on-screen software keyboard. To access it you press a hardware button on the right side of the bezel; that summons an icon at the lower right of the screen, which in turn toggles a translucent software QWERTY keyboard that stretches across the entire width and halfway up the height of the display. While that makes for large keys (supported by haptics feedback), the keyboard also often winds up on top of the field or line that you’re typing. The Viliv doesn’t resize the screen’s contents to accommodate the keyboard; instead, the keyboard simply covers the lower half of what’s on the screen. Being able to (sort of) see through the keys helps, but sometimes the clutter prevents a clear view. (Alternatively, you can supply your own USB keyboard and connect it to the Viliv’s USB port.)
As a result, I found myself frequently tapping the keyboard’s “hide” key, which makes the keyboard go away but leaves the software toggle intact, so that I could see what I’d typed or move between fields. The keyboard does not automatically appear when you’re in an empty text box, and there’s no predictive text entry to help you along. This setup is not a great way to work, and it’s the Viliv’s biggest drawback. Even the iPhone, with its smaller screen, does a better job of ensuring that you see what you’re working on and of allowing you to move through a series of text fields.
Viliv bundles proprietary software intended to give Windows and its utilities more user-friendly faces. Most notable of these is the CubeUI, a desktop alternative with sides consisting of three-by-three grids of round application icons (think T-Mobile Faves) in different categories: Entertainment, Internet, LBS (location-based services) and navigation, Productivity (a trial version of Microsoft Office is included), and My Group, which you can customize. Personally I was happier viewing the traditional XP desktop, mostly because I’m familiar with it.
The same goes for the proprietary audio and video players: I found the unlabeled controls rather unintuitive, and I wound up using Windows Media Player. But music streaming from my Rhapsody library (using my browser and Wi-Fi) sounded pretty darn good through the on-board speakers. The earbud headset bundled with the device also produced decent sound, although not as good as you’d get from a quality third-party headset. Fortunately, if you have your own headset, you can use it through the standard jack.
The Viliv also lived up to its portable media player moniker with the Hulu and YouTube videos I streamed through Internet Explorer over Wi-Fi; aside from some dropped frames (probably due to an overcrowded Wi-Fi channel), they looked great. I particularly liked the fact that media playback did not seem to overly heat up the snap-in battery, which makes up the rear case.
But even with the slide-out antenna extended, the Viliv’s 3G support wasn’t great. When I slid an unlocked T-Mobile SIM card with a smartphone data plan into the slot, located under the battery, nothing happened. A T-Mobile spokesperson says the company does not support data on devices that aren’t sold by T-Mobile or one of its retail partners. Dynamism, which is the only U.S. outlet for the Viliv S5, recommends using an unlocked AT&T SIM card with a data plan, and when I obtained one, I was able to hook up quickly through an included applet. It would have been nice to have a choice, though. Also, while the Viliv was fast enough when connected, in my tests it frequently dropped the connection completely in the midst of various tasks such as checking my Gmail account or watching a YouTube video. Even when the unit was connected, the YouTube video was unwatchable on the phone network, with frequent complete stops for buffering.
Battery life seemed surprisingly good (though we did not formally test it); Viliv says the device can support up to 6 hours of video playback and 4.5 hours of streaming video. Viliv sells an extra battery for $50 and a charging cradle for $40 (the latter requires an AC adapter, and if you don’t want to use the one that comes with the Viliv you can buy another for $30). Other optional accessories include VGA and component-video cables for sending the video to a monitor or TV.
Documentation for getting started was alarmingly skimpy: I saw no 3G or GPS setup support (and you did have to deal with some settings), and nothing about potential problems with non-AT&T carriers. The final documentation wasn’t yet ready at the time of my review, so perhaps that will address the shortcomings.
As UMPCs go, the Viliv S5 delivers on many of its promises, although the disappointing 3G performance will deter some people and the software keyboard makes it a poor choice for anyone who frequently wrangles Office documents. But for $599, you can get a nice, lightweight netbook. I recommend checking out the Viliv only if you absolutely must have a 1-pound Windows PC that works well with Wi-Fi, and you’re not expecting to do a lot of typing.