The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Psion Netbook Pro – An Informal Review

Posted by Deliverator on February 17th, 2006

For the last week, it has been my great pleasure to play with the newest HPC in my growing collection, a used Netbook Pro. I have been eyeing the Netbook Pro with envy for quite a while, but was intimidated by the sky high price (~$1300 new) and lack of availability in the US. I finally managed to find one used on eBay for a reasonable price from a reputeable dealer. The Netbook Pro is very sought after and is a frequent target of eBay scammers, so I did my research before ordering.

I received my unit this Monday, but wanted to spend some time with the unit before conveying my thoughts. Here they are, in no particular order.

Pros:

-Bright 800*600 touchscreen with good daylight visibility
-Lots of connectivity options (CF type II, SD/MMC, PCMCIA, USB)
-Modern OS (Windows CE 4.2) with ongoing support from the manufacturer. Flashrom allows for updates. An update was released just a few days ago, in fact.
-Fast processor and lots of ram compared to other HPC options. Carries a 400 MHZ Xscale PA255 processor and 128 MB of ram (though only 80 someodd is available to the user).
-High quality, touch typeable keyboard.
-Much better application compatibility with modern Windows CE applications, without the need for as much hex-editing of executables and stub dll files.
-IE 6 properly renders almost all the websites I commonly use and has good ssl support for banking/ecommerce sites. In addition, the latest Minimo (a port of Firefox for mobile devices) builds run with the simple addition of a cellcore.dll file. This is a huge improvement over browsing on the Jornada 720, which was fairly limited with IE 4 and Netfront 3.3 as the only real options.
-High quality Java support through Insignia’s Jeode JVM opens the Netbook Pro to a much larger pool of applications. I am currently using the excellent free Mindterm JAVA SSH client from AppGate for my SSH needs.
-Remote Desktop client and VPN connectivity make for excellent remote admin capabilities.
-USB connection supports mice, flash drives and other UMS devices.
-Novel screen hinge design allows for a much larger screen than typical on such a small device. Also allows for the screen to be tilted to almost any angle without projecting backwards from the unit. This would be very useful on cramped airline food trays and the like. Also allows the unit to be easily held by its “spine” for one handed use/book reading.
-Battery life is ~8 hours with my used battery. The Netbook Pro callibrates each battery to give a very accurate estimate of remaining battery life.
-Includes Windows Media Player 9, letting you play back a wide variety of audio and video media formats.

Cons:

-Much larger than a Jornada. Not pocketable. At 2.2 pounds, it is in the same class as some sub-notebooks. The NB Pro’s excellent battery life and instant on/off serve as good compensations, though. I bought an excellent Targus carrying case designed from holding a portable DVD player, which comfortably holds the Netbook Pro, charger, portable wireless mouse, my digital camera and all accessories, while still being much smaller than a notebook bag.
-USB port is a sub-mini type, so to use a USB device one needs a short adapter cable. There seems to be adequate space for a fullsize USB port on the side, so why was one not included. My unit did come with the adapter, though.
-Stereo headphone port is a 2.5 mm mini port instead of a standard 3.5 mm port. Again, there seems room for a standard port, so why was it not included. A chance to sell yet another pointless accessory? – Update – The required adapter is sold by Radio Shack for $4 and actually kinda “locks” into the recessed port on the Netbook Pro, so no additional strain relief is needed.
-Official accessories are hard to find in the US. PsionTeklogix, the Netbook Pro’s maker is based in the UK and doesn’t seem to go out of its way to participate in the US market. The HPC form factor is much more popular in Europe and Asia and never really caught on in the US, so this is understandable, if not convenient.
-Includes viewer applications for PDFs, Images, Office Documents, but does not include Pocket Office applications for document editing, except for Pocket Word. Includes spreadsheet application, SpreadCE from Bye Design, if you update to the newest rom image (which you should do anyways). Microsoft’s “Pocket” Office applications are of limited use, anyways, as they require conversion from the desktop version of the file formats, often stripping out major formatting features like tables and embedded images. Your best option for mobile Office document editing is the excellent Textmaker and Planmaker applications from Softmaker software. These allow one to work with documents in Microsoft Office format, without any conversion needed to “pocket” formats.
-The Netbook Pro does not include a graphics accelerator chip, so play back of video is extremely CPU dependent. XVID and other modern codecs are extremely processor intensive. Decoding anything greater than quarter VGA is out (320*240), unless you use a less processor intensive codec like MPEG-1. The Netbook Pro has a beautiful, high resolution screen. It would have been nice if Psion had included better support for video and other tasks that require a graphics accelerator chip.

Tips and Tricks:

-The key marked delete on the upper right of the keyboard is really just backspace. To produce the equivalent of a true delete, hit the FN key next to the spacebar and the “delete” keyboard. Extremely useful while plowing through the spam in your inbox.
-Upgrade to the latest rom image. It adds some applications, features and drivers not found in earlier version of the Netbook Pro rom image, as well as fixing some bugs. To gain access to the files on the Psion site, you need to log in to the “Teknet” section of their site. You can bypass the mandatory registration by using the excellent bugmenot plugin for Firefox.
-Get an SD card and use it for storing all your applications/data. This leaves your memory free for running applications and leaves your CF and PCMCIA card slots free for Wifi and Bluetooth cards. You can get Wifi and Bluetooth SD cards, but they are more expensive than CF and PCMCIA ones and as the SD card slot is in the front, the antenna for such cards would interfere with your typing. I highly recommend the Socket CF Wifi and Bluetooth cards. They are well supported by Windows CE, use very little power and don’t extend out too far from the side of the Netbook. In fact, the bluetooth card doesn’t extend out at all! You can use either card in the PCMCIA slot by getting an inexpensive (<$10) pcmcia to CF adapter. -Back up your Netbook using the "Total Recall" application found in the control panel and place the backup file on your SD card. A lot of the system data is stored in ram. If you loose both your main and backup batteries, it is possible for your system to be "hard reset" back to factory default settings. Using Total Recall you can restore all your preferences in a few minutes. I highly recommend creating a backup before installing any new, untested application. It only takes a minute and it can save you a lot of time if something goes wrong. -Get the TCPMP media player. It plays back many more formats than the included Windows Media Player. Install GAPI from Wincesoft and select GAPI. Play back video files at their native resolution (zoom 100%). Do not play back video at anything other than native resolution, as the math to scale the video to fit the new size will increase the burden on the CPU and will likely greatly slow the framerate.