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Gigabyte's M912 nettablet

Turning the netbook on its, er, screen

Manufacturer Gigabyte
Model M912
Price (Street) $800-850
Availability Now

Only a year ago, the netbook was a mere niche curiosity—a promising concept, but one whose utility was far too limited to have mainstream appeal. Fast forward to the present, and netbooks have practically become a commodity product. Fueled by an Atom platform that has become the de facto standard for the genre, the netbook market is littered with copycat designs and painfully devoid of original ideas. Some of the me-toos are better than others; a few, like the Aspire One and Eee PC 1000, are even exceptional. But I wouldn't call either particularly unique.

Gigabyte's new M912, on the other hand, is as close to a true original as any netbook we've seen. Like most popular netbooks, the M912 sports a 1.6GHz Atom processor paired with a 945GSE chipset and mechanical storage. The system also features an 8.9" screen, but unlike most contenders in the market, it has a relatively high 1280x768 display resolution. There's more to this screen than just extra pixels, too. You see, it's a touchscreen—one that swivels and folds flat, transforming the M912 from a netbook into an, er, nettablet.

Tablet PCs are nothing new, of course, but they've always been a little too expensive to really catch on among mainstream consumers. The M912 should have an edge on that front thanks to its low-cost Atom underpinnings, and with a subnotebook form factor, it's also more portable than the average tablet PC.

This all sounds intriguing, but is a tablet interface even appropriate for what netbook hardware does well? And more importantly, is the M912 an attractive alternative to full-blown tablets? We've been playing with the world's first nettablet quite a bit in an attempt to find out, and the answers might surprise you.

A little more style than the average me-too
Putting the M912's tablet aspirations aside for a moment, the system looks rather unassuming at first glance. Unassuming, and yet subtly stylish, in a tasteful sort of way.

The M912 is a study in black and gray, which isn't terribly exciting. However, Gigabyte has adorned the lid with a muted geometric pattern under a glossy finish. I'm not a particular fan of gloss, if only because it tends to attract fingerprints and smudges. However, it's probably the best way to make plastic look sexy—you're not going to get more exotic brushed metals with a budget ultraportable.

Form factor is a far more important part of the netbook equation than fashion, and the M912 is very portable indeed. The system measures 9.25" wide, 7.1" deep, and 1.1-1.65" thick, which makes it a little smaller than the Eee PC 1000HA in the picture above. Netbooks all tend to be around the same size, and their weights are pretty comparable, too. The M912 tips the scales at just under three pounds, which is par for the course in this segment.

Processor Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz
Memory 1GB DDR2-533 (1 DIMM)
North bridge Intel 945GSE
South bridge Intel ICH7M
Graphics Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950
Display 8.9" TFT with WXGA (1280x768) resolution and CCFL backlight
Storage 5,400-RPM 160GB Fujitsu MHZ2160BH mechanical hard drive
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek ALC269 codec
Ports 3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Realtek RTL8102E
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots 4-in-1 memory card reader
ExpressCard/34 slot
Communications 802.11b/g Wi-Fi via Atheros AR5007EG
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Input devices 84% horizontal/79% vertical keyboard
Touchpad with horizontal and vertical scroll zones
Camera 1.3 megapixel webcam
Dimensions 9.25 x 7.1 x 1.1-1.65" (235 x 180 x 28-42 mm)
Weight 2.9 lbs (1.3 kg)
Battery 4-cell Li-Ion 4500 mAh

Speaking of par, the M912's underpinnings are pretty much what you'd expect. An Intel Atom N270 sits at the heart of the system, with a single Hyper-Threaded core running at 1.6GHz. It's accompanied by a 945GSE chipset, which includes GMA 950 integrated graphics and an ICH7M south bridge chip. Obviously, the GMA doesn't offer much to gamers, and it can't accelerate HD video playback. However, it may be the most sensible graphics sidekick for this platform; even when paired with a discrete GeForce GPU, the Atom doesn't have the horsepower to handle relatively old games like Half-Life 2.

Intel has yet to craft an all-in-one Centrino-like brand to cover netbooks, so Gigabyte looks elsewhere for networking. Realtek provides the 10/100 Ethernet controller, and Atheros kicks in an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi chip. The lack of Gigabit Ethernet and draft-n wireless support is disappointing given the M912's relatively lofty price, although it is worth noting that the system does have built-in Bluetooth.

On the storage front, the M912 employs a 5,400-RPM mechanical hard drive from Fujitsu. Considering the poor performance of budget SSDs, we think mechanical storage makes the most sense for netbooks, especially since this particular drive delivers a healthy 160GB of storage capacity—plenty of space for a generous media library if you want a little entertainment on the road.