Review: Litl Webbook

OSNews reviews the Litl Webbook, an Atom mini-notebook with an innovative convertible form-factor and a custom, web-centric Linux-based OS. (Includes video review). Update: Turns out that Havoc Pennington, proponent of the Gnome Online Desktop, now works at Litl. No coincidence.The netbook phenomenon, particularly the non-Windows netbook, is a trend most welcomed by OSNews staff and readers alike. Many of us had high hopes that Linux netbooks would be a vanguard for increased us of non-Windows OSes by regular people. Our hopes were mostly dashed, thanks to a one-two punch: first, the netbook manufacturers displayed a lackadaisical attitude toward the installed OSes and software in general, resulting in user experiences running the gamut from poor to disastrous, and Microsoft’s savvy move to sell Windows XP licenses at cut-rate prices for netbooks, eliminating Linux’s inherent strength as far as manufacturers were concerned. What needed to happen, we noted then, was for someone to take the software seriously, and deliver a non-Windows desktop or laptop computing experience that’s superior, particular for a novice computer user, to using Windows.

Now, we’re all following the news of Google Chrome with bated breath, largely because we know that Google has the resources and the talent to get the experience right, and if they succeed, it will open the floodgates to inexpensive, user-friendly Linux-based computing for the masses. But while we’re all waiting to see what Google comes out with, other people are already there. One of these is Litl.

The Litl Webbook is a very cool-looking laptop/easel convertible form factor with a wholly unremarkable 1.6GHz Atom built in, with 1GM RAM and 2GB flash memory. It’s a true Netbook, á la Google Chrome, intended to access the web and web-based services exclusively. It also has some very cool custom software to enable common household tasks, such as viewing personal photos and videos, and data views that are particularly conducive to countertop use, such as the clock and weather report features.

Litl Webbook

When you turn it on, you don’t get a desktop, but rather a set of “cards” displayed on the screen, which you can rearrange, add, and delete. If you select a web site as one of your cards, in laptop mode it’s just like reading it in a web browser, but in tabletop mode, it’s displayed as a spare rendition of the site’s RSS feed, sort of like a news ticker, I guess. Likewise, the Flickr card will let you manage your flickr account in laptop view, and show your photos as a slideshow in tabletop format. The Facebook card is even more whimsical. It displays your friends’ status updates as a speech bubble being spoken by stick figures bearing your friends’ profile pictures for heads.

All the eye-candy aside, the Litl suffers from the perennial problem plaguing non-PC computing devices: it sacrifices full PC functionality for simplicity. The Litl Webbook can’t do many of the things that a real PC can do, including working with local documents of any kind, saving files to local disk, editing photos or video outside of the limited tools available as web apps, installing non-native apps, etc. The iPhone proved that a simplified environment could work for an everyday computing device, but the iPhone is way more flexible, customizable, and expandable than the Litl is.

What the Litl does have, that any other currently-available computing device does not have is an absolutely foolproof and maintenance-free experience. If you are satisfied with those few functions that the Litl does enable, then pretty much no matter what you do, you’re unlikely to be able to render the Litl inoperable, become infected with a virus or trojan, lose your data due to a hardware failure, or do any of the other things that novice computer users do. You won’t need to get ripped off by the Geek Squad if you own a Litl. OS and all software updates happen automatically, behind the scenes. If your Litl gets lost or destroyed or fails and you get a new one, all your configuration is saved over the network, so your new Litl will be set up just like your old one. Even hooking the Litl up to a TV is easy: there’s an HDMI port.

Even the warranty is set up for absolute peace of mind: they offer a two-year “unconditional” satisfaction guarantee. If your Litl breaks or you decide you don’t like it during a two-year period, they’ll replace it or refund your money, with free return shipping.

In short, the Litl is seemingly designed to solve one very vexing problem for tech-savvy people: what computer to give your computer-illiterate family member who you fear will be constantly calling you for tech support if you set them up on a cheap Windows machine. One of the coolest features of the Litl is even optimized for just this scenario. You can link two Litls together, so that one mirrors the other. So if you set up photos on one, they’ll be displayed on the other as a slideshow. In other words, Grandma can see your photos, just by setting the Litl on her counter when you come to visit. She doesn’t even have to touch it.

But here we arrive at the problem. The Litl is the perfect answer to a very small problem, and as the world’s population becomes more computer-savvy, and the average full-featured desktop OS becomes more reliable, that problem becomes smaller and smaller. And if the Litl were a $200-300 “toy” laptop, I might be tempted to give one to my mom and dad. But the Litl costs $700. Not only could you buy two top-end netbooks for that amount, you could get a very good full-spec cheap laptop. That’s even within striking distance of Macbook money.

In conclusion, I love the Litl for what it represents: a serious effort to make a foolproof, pleasant-to-use networked computing device. Litl’s dedication to aesthetic beauty and stress-free computer ownership is admirable, and I hope they survive long enough to evolve their product offering and produce Webbooks in large enough quantities to compete head-to-head with Windows netbooks. But until they’re $300, I won’t be buying one.

The Litl Webbook is available at Litl’s website for $699 plus shipping.


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