For years, Intel has been banging the mobile internet device drum. It’s unveiled prototypes, hyped up its Atom processors as the perfect fit, and – although we can only guess at the extent of this – encouraged its laptop-making partners to produce a mainstream device. And now Toshiba has done precisely that... with Nvidia and Google its key partners.
We’ll tackle the Google factor first. There’s no cut-down version of Windows here, not even the Windows CE of Datawind’s UbiSurfer. Instead, Toshiba has taken the fascinating decision of choosing Google Android as the operating system. It isn’t the first: Acer produced the Aspire One D250 last year, which dual-booted Android with Windows 7, but at that point we felt Android wasn’t ready for the big screen.
While our AC100 is an early sample, with a developer version of the OS, it’s already clear that Toshiba has put a lot more effort into making it work with a 1024 x 600 resolution. For instance, press the onscreen shortcut at the bottom-right, and all the available apps fill the screen. These range from Fring (a VoIP service), Opera Mobile and Evernote (a note-taking tool) to a YouTube player. Most other Android applications from the Market should work, although they’re unlikely to take full advantage of the high-resolution screen.
One app that does is the special version of DataViz Documents to Go that will be bundled with the AC100. With it you can edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations, but not create new ones. That said, you can convert a Word or Excel document and click “Save As”, so it’s easy to work around. What might persuade you to upgrade to the full version is the lack of a word count and advanced formatting.
There are other nice touches too, including the ability to associate different desktops with the wireless networks you use. So, you can have a home desktop with YouTube and social networking widgets, and a work desktop with the email client to the fore.
We can also see signs that Toshiba has put effort into making the hardware and software work together. The Escape key doubles up as a Back key, a search key launches the Quick Search tool, while four useful buttons sit at the top-right of the keyboard that allow you to bring up settings, switch between open applications, launch the web browser and switch to email.
So where does Nvidia fit into all this? The answer is the 1GHz Tegra processor, which shares more than a few similarities with the chip inside the iPad – most notably that it runs at 1GHz and is based on the ARM9 architecture. It proved enough to keep the AC100 feeling nippy, and 512MB of RAM means it’s capable of multitasking without freezing. There’s also an 8GB flash drive.
One reason Toshiba chose ARM rather than Intel’s x86 architecture is power demands. The company reckons the AC100, which weighs just 870g and is 21mm thick at its fattest point, will last for eight hours of constant use and in standby for seven days. The latter figure is important, because the AC100 is designed to spring into life immediately.
Many of its abilities would be more at home on a laptop, though. For example, Toshiba includes an HDMI port on the left-hand side of the chassis, along with an SD card slot and headphone jack. The right is home to a single USB port, power connector and a mini-USB port. The latter could be used to synchronise the AC100 with your main PC, just as you would a mobile phone.
These ports are housed in a curious yellow surround, which brings some welcome relief from the dark grey plastic used for the rest of the chassis. If it was any larger, this monotonous finish – despite a honeycomb effect on the lid – would make the AC100 look rather dull.
Far more important than this, though, is that the 10.1in screen looks great – in terms of quality it rivals the best netbooks. The keyboard is mediocre, with bouncy keys that don’t provide much resistance, but the keys are well sized so we had no difficulty typing at speed. The trackpad and mouse keys are big and responsive too.
The final notable inclusions are 802.11bgn wireless, Bluetooth, and some models will integrate mobile broadband. A 1.3-megapixel webcam completes the picture.
So we’re largely impressed by the AC100. The price, too, at $443 is similar to a netbook, and it may carve out a niche in a similar way to the Apple iPad.
An awful lot rests on the software, however, and initially buyers might be disappointed that it comes with Android 2.1. As a result, Flash won’t play, denting the AC100’s internet browsing abilities. Toshiba promises that an update to Android 2.2 (which will support Flash) won’t be too long in coming.
Without Flash, it’s an interesting device that could have some niche appeal. With Flash, it could be a constant travelling companion.