April 19th, 2010
The SmartQ V7 I wrote about arrived this morning.
So, first impressions: yes, it really really *is* the Anti-iPad. The whole thing just exudes rough edges.
It boots to a triple-boot selector (Windows CE, Android, Linux) you can’t use the touch screen on. First I booted up Android, and poked about a bit. It’s, well, Android. There’s a rather gigantic deal-breaker, though: the wireless doesn’t work. It ‘turns on’ one out of every two or three tries, but fails trying to scan for networks, then when you go back to the settings menu it’s shown as off again. I tried several times across three boots, never got a connection. I’ve found several threads on the various forums where the SmartQ devices are discussed mentioning similar problems; no-one seems to have any idea how to fix it. I can pair with my phone with Bluetooth, but couldn’t figure a way to use the phone’s internet connection over BT.
So, Android is basically useless, at least until they fix that. So I’ve been mostly using the “Linux” option. This is actually a fairly customized install of Ubuntu 9.10 for ARM. It runs LXDE as the desktop, with a hacked-up gigantic-icons ‘quick launch’ bar at the bottom of the desktop, and a range of fairly well-chosen apps (Midori for browsing, Claws for email, FBReader for ebook stuff, etc).
In contrast to Android, the wireless works right out of the box, using good old NetworkManager. I couldn’t get Bluetooth tethering to fly, though; they use a rather odd setup for this. They have Blueman for controlling Bluetooth, and you’re supposed to use Blueman to set up a DUN link with the phone and then run gnome-ppp which somehow transforms it into an actual connection. I got this to work once in ten tries, for about five minutes. So I’ve given up and am just using my phone’s wifi router functionality, which eats battery life but works simply. Hopefully a future version of the Linux implementation (they do release updates fairly frequently) will come with the newer gnome-bluetooth and NetworkManager builds that allow much smoother Bluetooth tethering.
In use, it’s…well, endearingly clunky, I guess. It is very clearly essentially a desktop Linux environment squished down to a 7″, 800×600 display. Windows render off the screen, and things chug along since it’s not exactly stuffed to the brim with processing power. It’s a lot nicer with a stylus than a finger; the on-screen keyboard works okay but tends to pop up over whatever it is you’re typing into, so you have to type blind then close it to see if you actually managed to type what you were aiming for.
The build quality is…okay. You’re not going to mistake it for a Sony, and it’s all plastic, but nothing is loose or jiggly and all the bits fit together fine. The touchscreen showed up pretty well calibrated. The buttons feel cheap but solid. It’s around the higher end of what you’d expect for the money.
It’s certainly capable of browsing the web fine, which is one major thing I want it for. Book reading is pretty nice: it uses FBReader, and has sensible shortcut keys (to save anyone who buys one five minutes, the ‘menu’ button toggles full screen mode, and the ‘left’ and ‘right’ buttons flip through pages; there’s a button on the toolbar which does rotation). Only drawback is the fonts are noticeably more jaggy than my Sony Reader – might see if I can tweak the font settings somewhere.
I did an initial test of video playback; it comes with accelerated builds of VLC and (allegedly) mplayer built-in. Testing with a 720p video with soft subtitles, first attempt failed; more jankiness! You have to reboot and go to a special boot option menu which lets you adjust the memory configuration; the default option provides as much memory as possible for normal operation, but there are two settings which devote extra memory to (I guess) the GPU to allow hi-def video playback. With the middle setting (188MB RAM available for normal use) it could play the video pretty well in vlc, though the subtitles weren’t showing up right. mplayer failed to run due to a missing libvorbisdec.so.1.
On first attempt email is kind of a no-go for me; I think it just doesn’t have the power to cope with my ridiculous mountain o’ mail (there’s 100,000 messages or so on my personal server). Claws isn’t a great experience on a 7″ screen either. I’d like to try a more phone-y app like Modest, but it segfaults at run when I try installing it.
At this point I’ve decided to install the latest Linux build for the device – it came with build 5.4, 5.5 is now available – and see how that flies.
All-in-all there’s a lot of rough edges, but I’m having fun playing with it, and it could turn out to be a net win over my Sony Reader for simple book reading + web browsing. Obviously the openness of the system leaves a whole bunch of possibilities available too, which is great. It’d be nice to have a more working Android build in future, I’ll keep my eye on that. We’ll see how useful the thing turns out to be over the next couple of months…