Saturday, October 30, 2010

WeTab - A Look at the first MeeGo Tablet

A lot has been written in German media about the WeTab. Mostly, every news magazine tried to compare the Tab to Apple's iPad and came to the conclusion that it's not an iPad. What a surprise!

I've been using my WeTab 32GB for about a month, and this is what I can tell about it. Hell, I enjoy it!



Hardware

The hardware is manufactured by Asus, or more precisely, their OEM branch Pegatron. The Canadian ExoPC running Windows 7 makes use of the same hardware design, thus is the Windows brother of the WeTab. Asus is already well-known for their netbooks, so the WeTab hardware shouldn't disappoint, right?

The WeTab is available in two versions. One version has a 16 GB SSD on board, and the other version has a 32 GB SSD, GPS, and a 3G modem with SIM card slot. Both versions have a slot for SDHC cards and two USB slots, next to the audio out port and HDMI out.
The soon to be released dockingstation will have 3 USB (or was it 4?), microphone in, audio out, and RJ-45 Ethernet.



Another big plus of the 32 GB version is the built-in Broadcom Crystal-HD chip which enables the tablet to play 720p or 1080p HD videos fluently. The Crystal-HD chip is automatically used by the GStreamer framework and will soon also be available to the Flash player in the webbrowser.

It also features a proximity sensor (called the quickselect button) and an ambient light sensor that is not yet enabled by software. The built-in webcam is 1.3 megapixels. At the bottom there is a connector port for the soon to be released docking station. I saw a prototype model of the dockingstation yesterday and it looked really sexy.

The built-in accelerometer can be used for automatic screen rotation (currently the browser does this), or for games (but as of now there are no such games available). You can also turn around the tablet by 180 degrees and the screen will flip for all applications, including accelerated videos.

The tablet features a capacitive multitouch-capable 11,6" touchscreen with 1366x768 pixels (that's HD Ready resolution). The CPU is an Intel Atom N450 at 1.66 GHz, and it has 1 GiB of RAM. There's also Bluetooth 2.1 and WiFi 802.11n. 3G on the 32 GB version is quad band with UMTS / HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100 MHz.

The touchscreen is a TN panel and thus not well readable from the sides, or from below, as the viewing angle is narrow. According to 4tiitoo, the reason for using a TN panel was that at the time of product design, there were no better panels available in that size and resolution.
The screen is glossy, so works well as a mirror, too, just like the Apple products.

The touchscreen initially had some firmware problems which resulted in repeated phases of unresponsiveness, with a duration of up to 3 seconds. Many people, including myself, suffered from this. The newly produced units will have an updated touchscreen firmware, so this problem is gone now. On older tablets, the new firmware will be available for flashing soon. I already got the new touchscreen firmware flashed by a 4tiitoo employee at the WeTab Community Meeting in Munich yesterday, and the problems are since gone. I'm sooo happy now! :)

Being Atom-powered, it has a fan on board. The fan itself is very silent but of course audible in a silent environment. It's not so much of a problem, though, IMHO. On the other hand, the fan-less iPad tends to switch itself off on hot days, so having a CPU fan could also be seen as an advantage.

The built-in battery currently lasts for about 4 to 5 hours, which is due to the fact that there are virtually no power optimizations in place yet. Future software updates will enable a Atom-optimized kernel and WiFi powersaving. This could help expand the runtime a bit.

Unlike the Nokia Internet Tablets and N900, there is no idle mode and you have to switch to standby instead, like on a netbook. Waking up from standby is instant and well below one second, though. The standby mode is actually "suspend to RAM".

The tablet weighs about 1 kg. Being larger than the iPad this does not come as a surprise. Was the iPad as big as the WeTab, it would weigh even more, if you do the calculation.

3G works great and I was able to surf the web during a two hour train journey yesterday, on a course where I usually have some problems surfing with the N900 at some places.



Software

The WeTab runs MeeGo, and that's the reason why I bought it in the first place. It's the first consumer hardware available running MeeGo. As there is no tablet edition of MeeGo yet, it runs a MeeGo core with a custom Qt-based UI developed by 4tiitoo.
And MeeGo pays off! It boots up within 20 to 30 seconds. That's really quick.



When the product was launched in late September, the software was at a rough and unfinished state, which could be due to the switch over to MeeGo shortly before the release. 4tiitoo had a lot of hardware problems with Ubuntu, so they (luckily) decided to switch over to MeeGo shortly before product launch.

The first time you switch on the WeTab, you will have to register yourself. This currently gives no real benefit, but eventually you will be able to access the WeTab cloud (which will be voluntary). It kinda reminds of Android phones and their registration with Google. After registration, the tablet automatically pulls the latest updates, so that you start with the latest firmware.

Since release, there have been quite a few software updates. About one major update per month and several minor bugfix updates in-between. Updates come over the air and usually install when you power off. You can also look for updates manually.

Let's take a look at some of the bundled software

The pinboard is the WeTab equivalent of the desktop. You can place and arrange application launchers and widgets there. The board scrolls vertically so you have lots of space! The background image can currently not be customized, but this will be enabled in a firmware update in November.
You cannot add launchers by yourself unless editing files via the terminal. This is just not supported as installing the software will install the launchers.

The webbrowser is probably the most critical part of the tablet's user experience. It was really bad back in September but has since greatly improved. The developers put and are putting a lot of effort into this. The browser is based on Webkit, comes with Flash 10, and since the last firmware update features multitouch pinch-to-zoom gestures for fluently zooming in and out. It's a pleasure to use. Of course on a screen with that resolution, you rarely have to zoom unless you encounter some tiny text. Kinetic scrolling in the browser feels great, too.
There is no menu for bookmarks, so all your browser bookmarks are placed as launchers with preview image on the pinboard (just like the N900 can do).

The bundled e-Mail client is Claws Mail with touchscreen improvements (it doesn't look like Claws at all anymore). It works well with fingers but since I am not using it much, I won't say more about it. People who don't like Claws did install Thunderbird.

The file manager is a weak piece. It does its job but leaves much to be desired. Especially, there are only two kinds of icons, folders and files. If you want to know more about a file, you have to select it to view the preview. Luckily, there's also Thunar available, and this is a good file manager. Nautilus is available from the RPM repository, too.

The media player for audio and video is Banshee. I don't use Banshee since I have MediaBox on my WeTab, so I can't say much about it. Other people have successfully installed XBMC, too.

The image gallery shows photos, plays slideshows and videos. It supports multitouch for zooming, and wiping gestures for skipping between images, but takes a long time to build preview images if you have a lot of photos. If could be a decent piece of software once it was faster. I'm expecting a later update to fix this.

The eBook reader is FB Reader with a custom GUI. The GUI is not that good but works for reading books. You cannot set bookmarks or directly skip to a certain page, though. And the book selection dialog (or should I rather say file dialog) is not touch optimized at all, yet.
Of course, FB Reader cannot load DRM-crippled books. For these books, some people have successfully installed Adobe Digital Editions or Amazon Kindle on the WeTab using Wine.

OpenOffice.org comes with some touch optimizations such as larger icons. But this kind of software is better used with external keyboard and mouse. Then it works like you're used to.

The maps application uses Microsoft Bing maps and comes with a widget for the pinboard and a full application with multitouch for zooming and GPS support. 4tiitoo also announced turn-by-turn voice navigation for later. OK, maybe the tablet is a bit too large for windshield mounting, though... ;)

There is a market where you can get more software like Adobe Acrobat Reader, Skype, Stellarium, some games, widgets, etc. The market is currently very small and there is no pay-content yet. You can expect more software, once the SDK (based on Qt Creator and VirtualBox image) will be published later this year.

Root shell. There is a root shell available for download in the market. Once you install it, you'll lose software warranty (of course, since from now on you can tinker with everything), but hardware warranty won't be affected. Having the root shell installed is called "expert mode", but actually it's just a launcher for a terminal (Xfce terminal to be precise) on the pinboard.

If you want more apps like Opera 10 or Opera Mobile, you can e.g. go over to http://portablelinuxapps.org. But you need the terminal for running this stuff.As it turned out, it's also possible to download them via Chromium, which opens the download folder in thunar, which in turn is able to launch them directly, after setting the executable bit. Thanks to andreas5232 from the WeTab-Community for this tip!

The next major update will add support for a wide range of DVB-T sticks for turning the WeTab into a portable TV.

Of course on a keyboard-less device the onscreen keyboard is a crucial part. The one on the WeTab feels great, is big enough for comfortable typing, but lacks keys like tilde or pipe for Unix people. On the other hand, there is a Ctrl-C key. Well, actually, it's the copy key, which happens to map to Ctrl-C, too. ;)
Keyboard layouts can be edited via a XML file, though, so missing keys can be added, if necessary. The default layout also misses the dot on the same page as the numbers, which realy sucks for entering IP addresses. :(

Should I mention multitasking? Of course, unlike that other pad, the WeTab does multitask. The task switcher works similar to the one on the N900, but without the eye candy transitions (as of today).

Android Support

The OS with the little green trashcan robot runs on the WeTab, too.
Support for Android can already be installed by brave people, but it's not officially out yet. Android 2.1 runs in a virtual machine and lets you use Android software. Since Google does not allow tablets to access the Android Market (with the exception of the Galaxy Tab, which is technically a tablet-sized phone and thus good for Google), the market in use is the Android Pit App Store.
There are quite a lot of apps available, but most stuff from the Android market not (yet). Currently Android runs rather slow (hopefully this will become better once it's officially released) and does not play videos yet. Also, many Android apps look weird when running on a large screen, because they're optimized for tiny phone displays.

A Geek's Delight

The device can easily be opened to add more RAM. Some people are running it with 2 GiB of RAM.

As of yesterday, a recovery USB image is available for restoring the device if you bricked it. Until yesterday, the brick had to be sent to the Medion support company for restoring, but this is no longer necessary, thanks to the recovery image.

People have installed Windows 7 (which runs very well according to those who run it), and Ubuntu or MeeGo netbook. It's kinda hard to boot a different OS, because this is not supported, but Linux geeks find a way. Booting from an attached USB device is locked at EFI level by Asus/Pegatron, but there are ways around.

The root shell gives you full access to the underlying MeeGo core. What else do you need? :)



In the beginning the WeTab was a bit disappointing with the touchscreen problems and unfinished software. But with every update it becomes a bit better and I really like it very much now. The battery life time is still short with approx. 4 hours, but this should be fixed by software, soon. Since I have the WeTab every week is like Christmas with little new presents all the time.

I was able to meet some people from 4tiitoo at the Community Conference yesterday, and it's really amazing how a small startup from Munich managed to bring out a MeeGo tablet with some great features before everybody else. Patience definitely payed off with the WeTab as 4tiitoo are fulfilling their promises. The future looks bright and MeeGo rocks! :D

Currently the WeTab is only available in Germany at Amazon, MediaMarkt, Otto, Conrad, Cyberport, and Lufthansa Miles and More Shop. Hopefully it will launch internationally soon.

10 comments:

Fernando said...

Hi,

Have you tried installed PowerTop to tweak the power settings?

Regards,
Fmo

Martin Grimme said...

Yes, but in my opinion, it didn't help much. WiFi without powersaving is a huge battery drainer.

sincere said...

Hi, good review. I wanted to know, is there any apps for handwriting recognition and can a stylus be used with meego tablet. Thanks

Martin Grimme said...

No, it's a capacitive screen and thus not precise enough for stylus use or handwriting recognition. You'd need a special capacitive stylus anyway.

ion said...

Hi, your review is very nice.

What do you think, the Exopc has a better screen in terms of handwriting recognition?

In my opinion these two tablets have the same screen, so handwriting recognition shoudn't be a problem.

Best regards

Etheros said...

Hey, nice review. I am trying to document a lot of the cool things that can be done on my blog: wetabz.blogspot.com

I'm looking into getting rdesktop running now.
cheers

Boudewijn said...

Hi. Do you have any link to breaking open the bios so Meego can be installed?

Martin Grimme said...

The (german) number 1 source for WeTab hacks and tutorials is www.wetab-community.de

Since the WeTab uses EFI there's not much BIOS to break into. But it's possible to boot from USB e.g. by using the plop boot loader or by hacking the recovery USB stick. But I haven't done these things yet.

demonsdread said...

I wonder if wetab gives you the freedom like n900. With debian repositories n900 turns into a linux box, and thats what i expect from a linux based device.

You mention about rpm packages, so how do you install everyday linux packages to this device ? openssh, or any other linux library i may need ?

demonsdread said...

I wonder if wetab gives you the freedom like n900. With debian repositories n900 turns into a linux box, and thats what i expect from a linux based device.

You mention about rpm packages, so how do you install everyday linux packages to this device ? openssh, or any other linux library i may need ?