For years I’ve harboured a vision of a perfect mobile computing device. It’s not a smartphone and it’s not a tablet, and while they’re heading the right way it’s not any of the present ultrabooks. I don’t think it even has a name yet so I’m going to coin myself a whole new category.
Ultrabook, picobook and smartbook were all taken so I’m going to dub it the “femtobook”.
The name gives all away. Small but perfectly-formed, just big enough to use but small enough to fit in a large pocket. For work and communication but not games. No need for a bag to throw it in, no accessories to carry, just the One True Device for all the important typey-typey stuff you need to do. A replacement for a laptop but not the smartphone; you’ll always need one for hurried messages and for talking on. Small-but-usable screen to use on the move and ports enough to dock it when you’re not. It should be good enough (really, not “just” good enough) to use as your main computer.
Up until now the hardware wasn’t ready. But it’s now evolved to build smartphones the size of a cracker with near-omnipotent power and Apple have shown the way with hardware design – so I think it’s time to have a go.
How big can it be? Mac-Air-skinny obviously but what about width and height? Let’s define this as “small enough to fit in a jacket pocket”. It’s allowed to stick out a little at the top. Experiments with scissors, scrap paper and my second-best jacket reveal the optimum size is 8″ x 4″.
Given the 8×4″ size and clamshell form factor you get a maximum of 32 square inches on each surface. Make all 32 count. The best new smartphones only need a 1mm bezel around the display and I want to see the same here. If you need to dot peripherals around the display (mic, camera etc) remember it’s already too wide and too short; put them at one side where you can afford to lose the space.
Build quality needs to be excellent. Metal or carbon fibre please. Not too shiny; if it’s living in my pocket scratches are to be expected and a matte finish will help to hide them. Put a logo on the lid if you like (your own version of the glowing apple logo?) but don’t distract me with one next to the screen. Rounded corners so it doesn’t destroy everything it touches.
The 8×4″ surface is large enough for a usable keyboard if you’re smart about it. I’ll forgive tiny function keys so long as you don’t put me through some silly fn+arrow contortion whenever I want to pgdn. Unless you have some magical new pointer technology a nipple mouse is the best bet; don’t forget to add a decent substitute for the mouse wheel.
Don’t stick buttons on the sides. They’d be too tiny and fiddly, let in pocket fluff and easily get broken. Put the power button in the keyboard like Apple do. Don’t try to add a pause/play button to the outside and make it into an mp3 player, my phone does that. Oh, and speaking of pocket fluff I’ll reward extra points for rubber caps to stop it invading the ports.
OSX might have scaled well to this dinky screen but I doubt Apple will want to license it to you.
ChromeOS? No, too dependent on connectivity to serve a device this portable.
Android would be a respectable (& free) choice but I’ve never seen it work well without a touchscreen. You’d end up working hard to skin it for the display I have in mind and it’s doubtful half the apps would ever look right or cope well with keyboard input.
I think the answer is Linux with a window manager adapted to make best use of the small display. But maybe I’m wrong about this: make Android work well and I’m a happy camper.
Features: Where I Won’t Compromise
Keyboard. I type a lot. Believe it or not I’m typing a blog post right now. A chicklet keyboard like my mac air is fine but it has to be real. Touchscreens give no feedback and this makes it impossible to type with any accuracy. Correcting 20% of your words is okay if you’re doing a quick email but not when you’re IM-ing, writing or programming all day.
Microphone and camera. I Skype a lot. And there needs to be a speaker but I don’t mind if it’s crap and hidden under the keyboard.
Connectivity. Wifi a given but energy efficiency > speed. A lot of people here will demand [3|4]G mobile data but they’re missing a trick – you already have a data plan on your phone so just bluetooth it in through that. The OS should automagically pick the best connectivity source in under a second when I open the lid. My mac doesn’t do this: OSX demands a fiddly click-select-click gesticulation get online through bluetooth and boy does it piss me off.
Charging. If this device travels in your pocket you don’t want to carry a charger. Let’s make it charge from some standardized, ubiquitous power source I’ll find wherever I go. Micro USB. Manufacturers take heed – you can save $$$ by leaving out the adapter, earn yourself some green points and everyone will love you for it. Better yet that means I can give it a jolt from the same cheap, shit external USB battery pack I carry for my phone when the power’s running low.
Battery. If the femtobook is tiny and portable enough to travel in my pocket I’ll be using it a lot. All day in fact. If it doesn’t have an 8-hour real-world battery life it’s going to piss me off and get hurled at a wall around 3pm every day. Seal it inside; now I can juice it from any phone charger or a USB power pack I don’t need to change the battery often. But please do make it serviceable; I’ll wear it out in a year and pay you to install a new one.
Ports. Three USB ports – external keyboard, mouse and one more to avoid swearing fits when I need to plug in a USB stick. Video out is a must but use Micro HDMI to keep it small. With these I’ll be able to plug my femtobook into the monitor I find on any desk and use it as a ‘real’ computer. Don’t forget the headphone jack; I need those podcasts while I work. Video, power and at least one USB port on the same side please – looks neater when docked.
Storage. Give me 64GB+ of built-in flash (more on higher models?) for the OS and a MicroSD card slot tucked away behind a flap to add as much more as I like. The 128Gb MicroSD card will be here soon enough.
Hackability. Don’t be a dick – let me root it and install my own OS if I want to. Make your money on the hardware (I’ll pay for quality) but let me wipe it clean and install some strange mutant quadruple-netbsd if I’m mad enough to think it will impress people.
UnFeatures: the Tradeoffs I’ll Forgive You
The first thing I’m willing (nay, glad) to part with is the x86 chip. It’s 2013 and running that old copy of Duke Nukem 3D isn’t a priority. Modern dual and quad-core ARM chips are cheap and super-fast; bring them to the party instead.
Don’t drown me in ports. Apple get this right; USB, video and audio jack are all you need. Don’t waste money/space/weight on anything more. If you dare to invent some crack-fuelled new port of your own that requires an adapter I’ll hunt you down and strangle you with it.
The keyboard should not be detachable. Detachable keyboards are torture devices designed to inflict pain and humiliation on the user; they add extra connectors to go wrong and on the rare days you leave them at home you inevitably regret it. If I want a tablet I’ll go to the Apple store and buy one.
The display is a funny one. Once you’ve switched to an ARM core it becomes the biggest power drain. So unless some fab new cheap-zero-power-thin-lightweight-retina technology comes along, use e-ink. It’s thin, cheap, incredibly high contrast, can be high-res and the refresh rate is better than it used to be. Remember this device is for working and communicating; I’ll have an Ouya for playing games. Colour if it’s feasible but I can live with B&W. Doesn’t need to be a touchscreen if you can make the pointing device work well. Backlight nice-to-have but not mandatory. Retina resolution to make the most of the small area.
They Came So Close…
This is the computer I’ve always wanted and a handful of devices have come close. But none quite made it and, sadly, none is still usable today.
First and foremost – the venerable Psion 5. Surprisingly advanced for its time this had an ARM core, a B&W LCD screen and a clever fold-out keyboard with real, moving keys. Power came from AA batteries (it’d run for fifteen hours on a pair!) and the OS was an early version of Symbian. Keyboard and screen were a little too small but (my perfect device would be an inch or two bigger) but on so many levels Psion’s tiny device got it right.
Some smartbooks looked good but the category floundered as better netbook designs emerged.
Sony have made credible attempts. In 2005 I had a brief love affair with a PictureBook and more recently they dabbled with the P series. Both suffered from mediocre battery life and the small screen made their unmodified Windows OS practically unusable.
The most recent device to inspire me was the Raspberry Pi. It’s tiny, runs a Linux desktop okay and uses minimal power. Find something like it with a little more oomph and you’ve got most of the hardware for our new femtobook ready-made.
This is a the kind of computer I’ve wanted for years and never quite had. I’ve spent thousands of pounds on devices that were nearly-right: manufacturers tried their best but the tech was never there.
You’ll never compete with the iPad but you don’t need to – there’s a niche here waiting to be filled. Please, finally, someone make this thing. And let me have one.