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REVIEW: litl webbook

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In recent years, the computer has made inroads into the home entertainment space. Media center computers, network connected media players, and even gaming consoles have introduced computing to the living and family rooms.

At the same time, the netbook has emerged as the portable computer for the masses. These small, lightweight, low-power versions of their laptop siblings have become all the rage.

Another trend has been the move to "cloud computing". For those not so technically inclined, this is the movement of programs and data away from your computer and onto the Internet. Google is a leader in this movement with products like Google Docs, YouTube, and gMail. Microsoft has products like Hotmail, Windows Live, X-Box Live, Live Mesh, and their cloud computing platform called Azure. Yahoo has their own web-based mail and Flickr. You access most of these products through your existing web browser, and little to no information is actually stored on your computer.

Enter the litl, created by the company of the same name. Introduced a little over a month ago, this device, that they classify as a webbook, merges the home entertainment computer, netbook, and cloud computing into a single device.

I was allowed the opportunity to review the litl webbook, and found it quite interesting.

First Impressions

When I first received the package, I was struck by the quality and simplicity of the packaging. I immediately had the impression that this was a quality product. One unique feature is the instruction cards. Rather than creating a user manual, they created a deck of cards that explain the litl webbook.

You can get an idea of the packaging and instruction cards from this brief litl-produced unboxing video.

I was also impressed with the overall design of the litl webbook, the power adapter, and remote control. It appeared that they spent a great deal of time designing the look and feel of the product.

The Details

The litl webbook is a netbook-class machine, running an Intel Atom CPU at 1.6Ghz. It has 1Gb of RAM, and 2Gb of Flash Memory in place of a hard drive. It is Wi-Fi b/g compatible, has 2 infrared ports, 1 USB 2.0 port, and a standard mini headphone jack. It can output to your HDTV via an HDMI cable, which is included in the package. The built-in graphics can support H.264 video at up to 720p resolution. Finally, the screen is a 12" wide-angle (178 degree viewing angle) LCD, with LED backlighting, creating a very bright image.

The device operates on the litl OS, which is a Linux-based operating system with a custom user interface. The web browser is a simplified, full-screen implementation of the Mozilla Firefox browser (version 3.5). A number of custom applications are available from within the interface.

The webbook comes with a custom remote control, AC power adapter, and HDMI cable.

One of the most unique features of the litl webbook is their guarantee. They unconditionally guarantee your purchase for a full two years, with either replacement or a refund.

The litl webbook can be purchased directly from the company for $699.

The Good

One advantage that some companies have is that they really get product design. Litl has put a lot of time and effort into the design of every feature, hardware and software, included in the webbook. I would put them on par with Apple in their design skills. A definite plus!

Specifically, the webbook has a smooth, modern design, with external surfaces of plastic. The screen side is a glossy black and the keyboard side is a pebble-finish white. The batteries are located in the "hinge" area of the device, and both ends of the hinge have a button. One end is the power switch, while the other works with the wheel control as a button.

It converts from laptop mode, into what litl calls easel mode. By rotating the screen 270 degrees, the webbook resembles a photo frame or easel, and the image on the screen flips. When in easel mode, the wheel control, located at one end of the hinge, flips through the easel mode compatible applications/feeds. The button, located on the end opposite the power switch, works like a mouse button, bringing the selected application/feed to focus.

The remote control has a similar wheel/button design, as well as volume controls and a mute button. The volume/mute works in both modes, but the wheel & button only work in easel mode.

The webbook runs the litl OS. This Linux-based operating system skips the file/folder interface common to most computers, instead relying on a user interface based on "cards". Cards represent content and/or functionality on the device, and serve as the main navigation for the litl. A more detailed demonstration of the interface is shown in this company-produced video:

A couple of notable aspects to the interface - the alarm clock and egg timer applications are a little eccentric, but cute. The alarm clock wakes you up to a virtual zoo, starting with birds (sound and silhouette graphics) and ending with giraffes and elephants. The sound gets louder as the sequence plays for a full two minutes. The egg timer alerts with a chick hatching from the on screen egg.

They include channel cards for displaying your facebook or twitter feed, a flickr or shutterfly photostream, or RSS feeds from a variety of popular websites. You can also create your own custom channel cards from RSS feeds or web cards from any website.

The built-in browser supports adobe flash, so the litl is compatible with video sites like You Tube, Hulu or Vimeo and audio sites like Pandora and last.fm. You can use the included HDMI port to send video to your HDTV or compatible monitor, including audio.

One other unique feature of the litl webbook is the cloud computing features. Since it has no hard drive, all content is either streamed directly from a website, or stored in litl's cloud. For most purposes, this works quite well and quickly. All your settings are backed up to the cloud as well, so that if your litl is stolen or damaged, everything can be transferred to a new unit. You can also share content between different webbooks, making the platform ideal for families or sharing content with friends.

The Bad

I had only one concern with the performance when accessing video sites like Hulu or YouTube. If the content you are accessing is either high definition, or more complex, you may experience some stuttering video, although audio stayed pretty consistent. This is most likely caused by a combination of internet congestion, Wi-Fi connection speed, and complexity of the content itself. Without a hard drive, there is limited buffering capabilities to account for these factors. An upcoming system update will likely help in this area, as it will include a highly anticipated update to the Adobe Flash software.

The Ugly

My only hesitation with the litl is the seemingly hefty price tag. While I understand the design efforts that went into the device, along with the lifetime updates, cloud-based data backup, and two-year money-back guarantee, I am concerned that $699 is just too high a price for most people to pay for a netbook-class computer. I would really like to see this in the range of a premium netbook - $400 to $450.

The Verdict

I really like the litl. With the system update for Flash (expected in February) and a lower price point, I would likely add this to my wish list. As it exists right now, I will personally take a pass. If you are looking for a first computer for the kids, a lightweight, portable computer for sharing photos and videos, or an easy way to show photos and videos on your HDTV, you might like the litl.

I want to thank litl, and their founder and CEO John Chuang for allowing me the opportunity to review their product, and for spending the time to explain the company philosophy in creating the litl.

Disclosure: I was offered and accepted the loan of a litl webbook for review. I have since returned the product to the company.

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