Only a year ago, the netbook was a mere niche curiositya 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 1280×768 display resolution. There’s more to this screen than just extra pixels, too. You see, it’s a touchscreenone 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 sexyyou’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|
8.9″ TFT with WXGA (1280×768) resolution and
5,400-RPM 160GB Fujitsu MHZ2160BH mechanical
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek ALC269 codec|
3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet
via Realtek RTL8102E
1 analog headphone output
4-in-1 memory card reader
802.11b/g Wi-Fi via Atheros AR5007EG
84% horizontal/79% vertical keyboard
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 capacityplenty of space for a generous media library if you want a little entertainment on the road.
A tablet transformation
Cracking the M912 open reveals what at first looks like a standard netbook.
However, closer examination exposes the first hint that this isn’t your average Eee PC knockoff. Rather than anchoring the screen with two hingesone on the left and another on the rightGigabyte opts for a single hinge in the middle. This hinge was apparently the hardest part of the entire design, and not because there’s just one.
In addition to tilting, the hinge also rotates. With the flexible grace of an under-aged Chinese Olympic gymnast, the M912’s screen effortlessly swings up, twists 180 degrees, and folds back flat, transforming what was once a mere netbook into, well, a nettablet. This might seem like a simple mechanical contortion, but keep in mind that the system’s display interface must be run through this hinge to get to the screen. Gigabyte also has to route a connection for the M912’s 1.3-megapixel webcam through the hinge, making it considerably more complicated than simple mechanics.
When in tablet mode, the screen rests on small tabs that rise up from the system’s palm rests. These tabs keep the screen from rotating when it’s folded flat, and they work pretty well. However, there are no tabs to hold the screen in place when you’re running in netbook mode, and that can be a problem. The first few degrees of the screen’s rotation are pretty loose, which makes the screen a little prone to wobble when it’s standing up straight. Fortunately, the rest of the rotation range and the hinge’s fore-aft tilt are reasonably stiff.
True to its tablet aspirations, the M912 comes with a small stylus that can be tucked away inside the screen itself. The screen is touch-sensitive, and the stylus is considerably more accurate than clicking with your finger. However, the stylus is also quite thin; those who intend to make the most of the M912’s pen-based input capabilities may want to substitute something with a more comfortable pen-like grip.
Bend-over-backwards sensitivity isn’t the only thing that makes the M912’s screen unique. With a 1280×768 display resolution, this 8.9″ panel offers considerably more pixels than any other netbook short of HP’s Via C7-
crippledpowered Mini-Note 2133. 1024×600 has become the standard for netbook displays, and while this resolution is just barely adequate for basic computing, a 1280×768 display offers a whopping 60% more pixels. The difference in desktop real estate is really quite dramatic, although given the M912’s relatively small 8.9″ panel size, the M912’s DPI may be too high for those with poor eyesight. My contact-lens-corrected vision is decent, at least out of one eye, and I didn’t have any problems with the M912’s screen.
I tend to be distracted by the reflectivity inherent to most glossy displays, so I’m pleased to report that the M912’s panel has a matte finish. The screen itself is CCFL-backlit, and while it’s not as bright as those of some netbooks I’ve used, it’s certainly bright enough. In day-to-day usage, I found myself most often running the screen at around 50% brightness, which is more than adequate for indoor lighting. It’s monsoon season up here in Vancouver, so it’ll probably be months before I can expose the M912’s screen to direct sunlight.
In tablet mode, the screen can easily be used in a landscape or portrait format. Depending on which you prefer, and how the M912 is oriented, you may need to rotate the system’s desktop to compensate. Fortunately, this is easily done through a handy system tray shortcut provided by Intel’s GMA 950 graphics driver.
If you’re running the M912 as a tablet, the system’s keyboard is effectively useless because it’s tucked away behind the screen. The keyboard is accessible in netbook mode, but it has its share of issues. By far the biggest problem I have with the keyboard is its relatively small size. I find the most useful measure of keyboard size to be the horizontal span between the outer boundaries of the A-to-L keys and the vertical span between the respective upper and lower boundaries of the T-to-B keys. The M912’s horizontal span is just 84% of full size, and the vertical span is only 79% of the real deal. Netbook keyboards are smaller than most, of course, but that’s pretty cramped even by Eee PC standards. The Eee PC 1000 series, for example, has horizontal and vertical spans of 91% and 86%, respectively.
Of course, I have large hands with short, stumpy fingers, so I’m particularly flummoxed by diminutive keyboards. Those with smaller hands and slender fingers should have an easier time typing at full speed, but they’ll have to contend with other problems, such as the awkward placement of the right shift key, whose rightful place has been taken by the directional pad’s up arrow. The feel of the keyboard itself is also a little mushy; even hitting a single key on the M912 deforms the keyboard membrane enough that you can see the surrounding keys moving. If you hit a single key on an Eee PC 1000-series netbook, there’s no flex at all, and surrounding keys remain stationary.
Moving south from the keyboard, we encounter the M912’s touchpad, which is a little on the small side. The touchpad’s surface is nice and smooth, and you get dedicated horizontal and vertical scrolling zones. Multi-touch support isn’t available in the drivers Gigabyte ships with the system, though.
A little extra on the expansion front
The smaller netbook form factor doesn’t leave enough room for an optical drive or much in the way of expansion options. Still, the M912 manages to offer three times the number of USB ports available in a MacBook Air (and one more than you get in Dell’s 13.3″ XPS M1330).
Gigabyte also throws in a 4-in-1 card reader, which is a feature that numerous high-end subnotebooks lack. Integrated card readers are common among netbooks, of course, but the M912’s ExpressCard/34 slot is not. Only a handful of more expensive netbooks offer ExpressCard expansion options for those looking to add auxiliary storage or a mobile broadband card.
The right side of the system houses the requisite audio and display ports. The power switch is on this side, as well, and you actually have to hold it for a little more than a second to turn on the system.
Flipping the M912 over reveals plenty of venting on the underside of the chassis. No doubt thanks to its power-efficient Atom processor, the M912 runs pretty cool; it will at best only gently warm your lap, and even when the cooling fan spins up, the system is still quiet.
Popping off the bottom panel gives us a glimpse at the M912’s guts. From here, users can swap out the system’s hard drive and single SO-DIMM without voiding the warranty. The warranty itself is a one-year deal, which is similar to what Asus offers on its Eee PCs. However, it’s worth noting that some of Asus’ premium netbooks, which are actually cheaper than the M912, kick warranty coverage up to two years with a year of accidental damage replacement.
Battery life is particularly important for ultraportables like the M912if you’re going to be tethered to a wall socket most of the time, there isn’t much point to having something this small. For its nettablet, Gigabyte serves up a four-cell, 4500 mAh lithium-ion battery. Four cells is a little more than you get in most netbooks, but rather more troubling is the fact that the M912’s spec sheet only claims three hours of battery life. Manufacturers tend to overstate the battery life of their mobile systems, and three hours of run time isn’t a lot for a four-cell battery powering a lowly Atom processor.
Curious to see just how long the M912’s battery would last, I set the screen brightness to 50%, disabled the Bluetooth adapter, and let the system idle rendering the TR front page through my home Wi-Fi network. Just two hours and 17 minutes later, the M912 ran out of gas. I conducted a second battery life test looping the sort of DivX video one might download with BitTorrent, if such things were legal, and that only cut battery life by a minute. What’s worse, even dropping the screen brightness to its lowest possible setting, which is barely usable even in complete darkness, only boosted battery life to two and a half hours. We’ve seen longer run times from Atom-powered netbooks with three-cell batteries, so Gigabyte should have been able to do better.
Living with the nettablet
Like most netbooks, the M912 comes pre-installed with Windows XP Home Edition, and has just enough horsepower for web surfing, email, basic office tasks, and SD video playback. Gigabyte has thoughtfully updated the OS to Service Pack 3, which is a nice touch. However, this is a nettablet rather than a plain old netbookwhy doesn’t it come with a tablet version of Windows XP? According to Gigabyte, Microsoft wouldn’t give it a license. Redmond seems intent on having netbooks running Windows XP Home Edition or Vista, neither of which is a particularly good choice given the M912’s limited horsepower and tablet aspirations.
At least the M912’s desktop orientation is handled gracefully by Intel’s GMA 950 graphics driver. Translating stylus taps to mouse clicks presents a bit of a problem, though. The stylus is really just a precise pointing device; tapping will get you a single or double mouse click, but only with the left mouse button. To use the right mouse button, which I do quite often, one has to click a shortcut on the system tray that puts the stylus in right-click mode. This may not be the most elegant solution to the problem, but it gets the job done and isn’t too inconvenient
So we have the mouse emulated, but what about the keyboard? When running in tablet mode, the M912’s keyboard is tucked away behind the screen and essentially inaccessible. Handwriting recognition seems like the obvious choice, but since this is a desktop version of Windows XP, that functionality isn’t built into the OS. Windows XP does have an on-screen keyboard that one can access through the accessibility menu, but it’s quite small and hardly useful for more than a word or two. Gigabyte should have equipped the M912 with third-party handwriting recognition software to make up for Windows XP’s tablet shortcomings.
If you’re just browsing bookmarked sites, the lack of true pen-based input shouldn’t be a problem. I actually quite enjoyed reading web sites in portrait mode. Having 768 horizontal pixels still leaves plenty of room for TR content, although not the ads (my apologies to Adam, our biz guy). The portrait format should be good for ebooks, too. However, perhaps the most appealing element of the M912’s tablet capabilities comes in landscape mode, where the system can be used as an over-sized media player. This setup works particularly well for movies, and you don’t even need proper pen-based inputpointing and clicking with your finger works just fine.
Unless you count doodling in Microsoft Paint, that’s about it for what the M912 can do as a tablet straight from the factory. Not content to leave it at that, I went in search of a third-party software solution that would allow for better pen-based input.
My first thought was to install Microsoft’s OneNote note-taking software. However, the latest 2007 release won’t translate writing to text in Windows XP. OneNote 2003 is apparently up for the task, but I couldn’t find a free trial to download, forcing me to look elsewhere. It’s a good thing I did, because I stumbled upon ritePen, which is a handy little app that sits between your stylus and whatever application you like. Write anywhere on the screen and ritePen translates to text, recognizes punctuation, and even includes a custom dictionary that you can edit.
RitePen works well with my own printing, and the M912’s hardware seems to have no problems handling the number crunching behind the text conversion process. I tried handwriting, too, but was less successful. It’s been so long since I used handwriting for anything other than the scrawl that has become my signature that even I could barely read what I’d written on the screen. ritePen didn’t have a chance. In any case, ritePen is good enough to be bundled with systems from Hitachi, Fujitsu, Sony, and Clevo, and it appears to be a good companion for the M912. If you intend to take advantage of the M912’s tablet capabilities, you’re going to have to add something to handle handwriting recognition.
We’ve been covering the netbook market since the beginning, and over the past year, we’ve largely seen minor variations on the same basic theme. The M912, however, is a more radical departure from traditional netbook form factors that can easily be transformed into a tablet. We’ve been eagerly awaiting the M912 since we first caught wind of it this summer, but now that it’s finally arrived, I’m a little disappointed by the final product.
As a concept, the M912 is a definite winner. Tablets work well for web surfing and media playback, and those are two things that netbook hardware can handle easily, especially when you’re basking in the high-resolution glory of a 1280×768 display. Pen-based input also makes sense for students taking notes that mix text with diagrams and other scribbles, and with the right software, the M912 is certainly up to the task. Unfortunately, you have to add the software yourself, since the M912 can’t translate handwriting out of the box.
You don’t need handwriting recognition in netbook mode, but you will have to deal with a relatively small keyboard that feels a little mushy. The M912’s battery life is quite poor, as well, with the system only managing about two-and-a-quarter hours of run time on a single charge. The lack of Gigabit Ethernet and draft-n wireless support is also disappointing given the M912’s price, which is the real sticking point.
The M912 isn’t widely available just yet, but it’s selling for $800-850 online, which is quite expensive for an Atom-based system. If tablet PCs were selling in the $1500-2000 range they occupied years ago, the M912 would be a more affordable alternative. These days, however, you can get a full-blown tablet PC from HPthe Pavilion tx2500zwith a much faster dual-core Turion processor, a bigger 12.1″ 1280×800 display, integrated Radeon HD 3200 graphics that can actually handle games, an dual-layer DVD burner, and Windows Vista for just $850. The Pavilion weighs about a pound and a half more, and it’s a little bigger, but its hardware is much more capable. Why settle for an M912 that offers so much less at essentially the same price?
If the M912 were selling for $500-600, with handwriting recognition software included, I could see recommending the system to folks looking for a netbook with tablet functionality. Combining the two makes a certain amount of sense, and quirks aside, Gigabyte has done a reasonably good job with the implementation. I can see even greater potential if multi-touch trickery can be hacked into the M912’s touchscreen, which would make it an even better media player and tablet browser. At its current price, though, the M912 doesn’t deliver nearly enough value to earn our recommendation.