Monday, June 9, 2008

Dialogue Flybook V33i

Flybook V33iAfter spending some time with the Raon Digital Vega recently, one of the smallest devices in the Ultra Mobile PC bracket, it was a huge leap over to the top-end of the market to a device with 400% more screen area and a 400% bigger ego! The Flybook V33i is an 8.9″ 1024×600 convertible laptop with cellular connectivity and a huge huge slice of style. Thanks to myflybook.de I’ve been able to test it out for four days and bring you the low-down. Is it all talk and no action?


The Flybook V33i is at the top-end of the Flybook range of Ultra Mobile notebook PCs made by the Taiwanese company Dialogue. All of the models in the Flybook range carry a feature-set that is unique amongst ultra mobile pc’s at the moment - the convertible screen and cellular data access combination is matched by no other device in the UMPC market at present. The Flybook is also the only PC in the Carrypad ultra-mobile PC database that uses an third-party graphic solution. Its the ATI Radeon XPress 200M with 64MB on-board. Its a slightly better performer than the common Intel GMA900/950 and Via Unichrome solutions but don’t get too excited, It’s still at the low end of the scale compared to modern GPUs and the difference compared to the Intel GMA solutions won’t be very noticeable. Finally, as part of the unique feature line-up, there’s the 1000Mbps Ethernet LAN port. (1Gbps)

Aside from the unique features, the Flybook has an Intel Pentium-M 1.1Ghz processor, a baseline 512MB memory with 40GB drive (up to 1GB/100GB with XP Pro.), 8.9″ 1024×600 touch screen (heavy-touch, passive type.), and a good set of interface ports. Another nice feature about the unit is that it has a user replaceable hard drive and memory (up to 2GB). For the full specifications, see the Carrypad data sheet .

Finally, to compliment the stylish Flybook look and feel, there’s a large suite of branded and colour keyed accessories that go right up to a superb looking Valextra Italian Leather case. Style and exclusivity is a noticeable feature of the Flybook!

Flybook V33iFlybook V33iFlybook V33i

The first five minutes
As you’d expect from this high-end device, the unboxing experience was very good indeed. Open the nicely finished carryable box and you’ll find two packages. One containing the accesories and the other a grey foam box containing the Flybook itself. The matt black rubberised finish on the back of the Flybook screen is impressive. It looks very smart indeed. It feels dense though. 1.2KG in such a small package feels slightly unnatural but like the Vega, its not heavy, just dense for its size. The keyboard surround is finished in a silver plastic which doesn’t look as nice as the screen but it appears to be of a high quality. There’s no flexibility or rattling in any part of the device and the screen fixing is absolutely rock solid. Well engineered. All in all, a good unboxing experience. One you definately need to share!

From the outside
The black rubberised screen covering looks really nice…until you touch it. Keeping it clean was just impossible. The red version might not show up the dirt so much but be careful, people will be watching even more closely when you take it out of your bag! The screen itself is solid and the hinge seems very well built. Turning the screen in the correct direction results in a positive click out and into the new position. Its possible to rub across the top of the keys if you put slight pressure on one side of the screen as you spin it round but it’s not possible to catch or damage anything in this way.

The Keyboard is compact and quiet. Key pitch is tight and you’ll have to get used to it before your typing rate gets back up to normal levels. I have slim fingers so this keyboard was never a problem for me. Sausage-sized fingers may cause a problem! On the top of the keyboard on the right is a very sensitive mouse pointer and two tiny mouse buttons. On the top left the mouse buttons are repeated in a much larger format. Its a strange positioning but easy to get used to. I found myself folding the Flybook screen right open and using the device as a ‘pad’ while on the sofa. Between the two sets of mouse buttons are the small stereo speakers.

The battery sits at the front of the unit and the pen is housed on the right. Its a cheap looking pen and difficult to get out. It should be longer, aluminium and spring-mounted to make it more useful and to match the style of the Flybook. On the left had side is the SIM card slot where you can plug in a standard sized celluler SIM card. Once it clicks home and you enable the WWAN via the keyboard hotkey, the phone application pops up (assuming you’ve left the background task running.) More about that software later. Next to the SIM card slot is the power button. Across the back you find the power socket, modem port, usb2.0 ports, Gigabit LAN port, VGA out, TV-out (via an adaptor cable), Firewire, PCMCIA, audio out and mic in ports. The only thing you could wish for is a SDcard slot but there are plenty of PCMCIA card adaptors about so there’s a tidy solution to that issue. I did look specifically for a docking port but there isn’t one. I personally hate pluging VGA, audio, usb and mic cables in and out and perhaps a docking port on the underside might have provided a tidy solution for those wishing to use the device in a desktop configuration.

On the inside

The Flybook V33i is powered by a Pentium-M 1.1Ghz processor and a minimum of 512MB memory. An ATI core logic chipset and ATI Radeon XPress 200M with 64MB of graphics memory provide support. The disk is a 2.5″ user-replaceable unit (instructions are given in the handbook) which means it should be easy to upgrade to 160GB. It was partitioned as a system and data disk. Recovery is via the supplied disks and not via a recovery partition.

The whole unit is powered by a 26w/hr 3-cell battery. Helping to keep the unit cool is a fan which, in the case of my device, seemed extremely loud and I could even feel it vibrating. Since contacting myflyook.de, I’ve been told that the fan noise is an issue only with the test device that I had.

Windows XP profesional was loaded on to the test device but its also possible to buy a Flybook with XP Home. Unfortunately, the Flybook is not available with XP Tablet edition which limits the possibilites with the touchscreen. Also included is ritepen, a handwriting recognition program and ritemail, a handwritten notes aplication. I wasn’t that impressed with either of these aplications. Although I’m not a big fan of handwriting on screens, it seems to me that XP tablet edition is a much more tightly integrated and useable way to ‘ink’ on such a device.

The cellular functionality is enabled through Phone Tools from Avantquest which enables itself when you turn on the WWAN hardware. Operating the phone and accessing the internet was very simple through this sofware as it has a built-in database of configurations for providers internet access gateways.

Flybook size comparisonFlybook size comparison

The Flybook uses a Pentium-M 1.1Hhz processor. In comparison with todays desktop processors its a minion but fortunately, most software that people use only requires a small amount of processing. This is something that’s often hard to accept. Years of marketing have indoctrinated people into thinking that clockrate = power. While it helps, its only a small part of the whole performance puzzle. In the real world, an advanced CPU with graphics co-processor can provide an acceptable expereince with the average application set.

A quick check on the CPU showed that stepping was working and C-states (sleep states) were working although C3 state is not reached when the Wifi is on. The COSBI Open Source benchmark returned a figure of 700 (compared to about 370 for the Via C7-M at 1Ghz)

Running the 3DMark 2001 SE test returned a reasonable 2700 in native resolution and 3700 at 800×600. This is comparable with the Sony UX180 using a Core-Solo at 1.2Ghz. Modern GPUs are running at ten times this power so don’t expect to be running modern games.

Testing Video performance with a 2Mbps DIVX resulted in an average 30% load and the Flybook was even able to play a 6.8mbps WMV HD file. Thats more than enough for this size screen.

Real-World performance.
Theoretical test give some idea of the performance of the device but in the real world its all about useability. In that respect, the Flybook has no problems at all. The 512MB memory is enough for multiple running applications and there’s no noticeable delay or slow-down of any of the commonly used application. As a laptop replacement for normal office work, the Flybook should be fine. When docked with an external screen and used in extended desktop mode, theres even some advantage as mail, IM, video, audio and notifiers can all appear on the small Flybook screen and you can browse or write documents on the secondary larger screen. Its a very tidy and efficient way to organise a desktop.

For 3D-enabled applications such as iTunes, Google Earth and StreetDeck, again, there will be no problems. Google Earth ran smoothly. As mentioned before, 3D gaming possibilities are limited to older titles.

Cellular connectivity.
It was a bit difficult to test cellular connectivity because the only baseline I have is my 3G phone, a Nokia 6280. I regard the reception on this as very good and the Flybook seemed to have similar coverage and throughput speeds as with the 6280 in GPRS-only mode. Throughput speed with cellular radio is so dependant on the provider, its cell load and location that its impossible to provide usable throughput figures.

For me, this capability was somewhat redundant as I only have one SIM card and connecting the 6280 UMTS phone via Nokia PC Suite or other software over Bluetooth was a lot simpler than turning off the mobile, removing the back, battery, SIM card etc etc. However, in some parts of the world, data only contracts can work out cheaper so for those with multiple SIM cards or a non 2.5G phone, it makes life a lot simpler. This is the point at which decisions between the Fujitsu P1510d and the Flybook V33i will be made. Do you or dont you want a built-in cellular radio and are you prepared to pay for it?

Battery Life.
The battery on the Flybook is a 26W/hr 3-cell part and it performs exactly the same as many other devices in this class. You’re talking about 2-2.5 hours of use before you need to change batteries or connect to power. In the worst case (under a stress-test using full load I got the battery life down to a minimum 1:45.) The easy control of the WWAN, Bluetooth and WLAN radios and the easy-to-see indicators help a lot to keep the drain down when not needed. Controls for screen brightnees and screen-off are also available direct from the keyboard. Top marks to Dialogue for providing such easy control of these components.

Flybook V33i caseFlybook SIMcard slot

Bootup / Standby /Stability
Boot-up on the base system (from off until login-screen) was around 35 seconds. Return from standby is 4 seconds and the stability was 100%. No bluescreens or other software failuresoccured during the testing.

Here’s one area that Dialogue have put a lot of thought into. A big range of colour-coded and branded accesories are available from mini-mice right up to Italian leather cases. You could easily spend another $1000 on accesories for the Flybook.

Included with the Flybook was a case which was effeminate to say the least. Not only was the style something that I don’t see any man outside Paris or Milan getting away with and the material was a weave that my grandmother would have loved! In addition to the bag you get a cleaning cloth and a metal lanyard. There are no headphones or headset included but there was an analogue TV-out adaptor. TV-out is switcheable between NTSC and PAL variants.

Other notes
I had a problem with screen rotation. After rotation, the calibration is out by miles. This is so common amongst tablet style devices that dont run Windows XP Tablet Edition that its almost to be expected. The problem is often corrected with new drivers or BIOS upgrades but there was no time to investigate that during the review. Another issue with the screen was that there was no scaling. Setting a bigger screen size results in an oversize windows that has to be panned. Again, this could be a driver or BIOS issue but it should be noted.

The manuals were good quality and a good set of support and recovery CDs is supplied. Heat was never an issue with the device and finally, sound quality through the speakers was better than most devices. Through headphones it was very nice indeed.

holding flybook V33i

Comparison to similar products
There’s only one other device in this form-factor and size that can be considered for direct comparison at the moment. The Fujistsu P1510d has almost exactly the same specifications minus the PCMCIA slot and cellular radio. The P1510d is, however a full Tablet PC so if you require the full handwriting and speech input capability that it provides, this might be a better choice. It also has a fingerprint reader for added security.

There’s practically no price difference between the devices so as I said earlier, it all boils down to the cellular data and the style factor.

If you’re looking at the Flybook only in terms of mobility, you might also want to consider one of the Pentium-based UMPCs that are available too. They are much lighter and cheaper and take a modular approach to computing. If you need a keyboard, take one with you. If not, then don’t bother. The i7210 from TabletKiosk is a good example (and the device i’m using to write this review.) Its a tablet PC that comes with a docking station allowing you to use it as a full PC. The screen is a lot smaller though (7″ 800×480 instead of 8.9″ 1024×600) so take that into consideration.

Who’s the target customer?
I’m guessing that there’s a lot of people out there that would love to own a Flybook however, as with all minaturised PCs, there is a price premium and somehow you need to justify it. For those that can justify devices based on style alone, the Flybook is for you. No question. For the rest of us, you need to be thinking mainly about cellular internet access. Internet access via cellular data is not mainstream yet but 2006 has seen a lot of new products, services and data plans becoming available. In Europe there are now data plans (and data speeds) available for prices that can easily be justified. Even for coffee-shop dwellers. Free Wifi is not taking off in my opinion and cellular data is going to work out a lot cheaper than paying for hot-spot contracts in many cases. It could also work out as a more secure wireless option fpr the business user. The next question you need to ask yourself though is, will you configure and use your mobile phone (check your contract. Some cellular operators prohibit the ‘tethering’ of mobile phones to PC’s via Bluetooth.) as a modem or will you take a second SIM card and leave it in the Flybook. There’s a lot to be said for splitting data and voice contracts (some data-only plans can work out cheaper and if you country-hop, a suite of local pay-as-you-go SIM cards could be handy.) so the Flybook could provide the perfect option.

Bear in mind that in the last few weeks, a UMTS-capable Flybook V33i Broadband has been released that will give you an internet access rate of over 1Mbps via cellular data. WIth the right data plan you might even consider dropping your home broadband line altogether!

Faults and Issues
There are really no major faults to report with this device. As far as minor issues go, there’s the black rubberized finish which looks great when clean but gets dirty very quickly. There’s the terrible stylus and then there are the screen issues I mentioned before (rotation and scaling.) At one point in the review I saw a tiny bit of mouse crawl. I’ve seen this happen on many devices and I think it has something to do with the device heating up and changing shape. The pointers are so sensitive that they pick this up until they can re-calibrate. Just my guess though. It was fine after leaving my finger off for two seconds.

Style and portability with a rich specification set. The Flybook doesn’t just dress to kill, it performs too. High-points include the rotating screen, the graphics co-processor and the cellular data radio. Its a shame it doesn’t have a full tablet PC operating system but the included handwriting recognition software goes some way to making up for that.

In Germany, the Flybook V33i is available through Myflybook.de who also offer try-before buy and leasing options. Across the rest of Europe the Flybook seems to be generally available. In the USA and Australia, there does not seem to be any reseller channels yet.

Thanks again to myflybook.de for the loan of the device.

More information on the V33i in the product portal.