Vodacom’s Linkbook Linux netbook reviewed

For years, Nicolas Negroponte, Chairman Emeritus of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pitched the idea for a US $ 100 laptop.

His idea was that a cheap machine, adapted to the conditions of the developing world, would transform education in the poorest countries by putting computers and information in the hands of millions of children for the first time.

The project, which over the years evolved into the XO-1, never took off as much as Negroponte had hoped. And the price of the $ 100 laptop has stubbornly stayed above that level.

But the cost of laptops – and particularly of the low-cost netbook category of laptops – has continued to fall.

Today, South African entrepreneurs Mark Levy and Neil Watson have developed a netbook that they hope will put computing – and the internet – in the hands of people who previously couldn’t afford it.

They partnered with Vodacom to supply their machine, called Linkbook, for R199 / month. This price, which requires a 24-month contract, includes 300MB / month of Vodacom data. Levy says there is considerable consumer interest in the Linkbook, which is already on sale at Vodacom outlets.

But is the Linkbook good? TechCentral has spent the last two days using the machine and our initial thoughts are quite mixed.

To reduce costs, the machine does not come with Windows preinstalled. Instead, it runs a highly customized version of the K desktop environment running on the Ubuntu Linux desktop. The designers of Linkbook call it Link OS.

The Link OS design is minimalist, intended to take full advantage of the relatively small 8.9-inch TFT display.

Each corner of the screen has an icon that provides access to a range of applications and services. Click on any of the four icons and the applications available to users – shown as a “ribbon” of icons in the middle of the screen – change.

The four icons show applications related to OpenOffice.org (the free alternative to Microsoft Office); entertainment (music and movie players); Internet (web browser, e-mail and others); and computer settings.

There is a taskbar at the bottom of the screen, which includes information about your 3G or Wi-Fi connection, as well as open apps. At the top of the screen is an info bar, which includes the time, volume controller, battery indicator, and power off button.

Besides OpenOffice, preinstalled software includes the XMMS media player (we really would have preferred VLC), Pidgin for instant messaging, Sylpheed for email (Thunderbird would have been better), and a Firefox-based web browser. There are also a bunch of educational games which is a nice touch.

The machine does not have a hard drive; instead, it uses 16 GB of flash memory. That doesn’t sound like much, but that’s okay if you only use the machine for browsing the web, checking your email, playing the games it comes with, and producing the occasional document.

The Linkbook is powered by a Motorola PowerPC processor which seems to be up to the task of running the apps that come with the device. It also has 256MB of RAM. Be warned that Flash will not run on the PowerPC processor, so you will not be able to watch videos on YouTube or view other Flash based websites. Skype will not work either.

There are two USB ports, an Ethernet port, a VGA adapter to connect the machine to an external monitor or projector, an SD / MMC card slot, and headphone and microphone jacks. The sound from the built-in speaker is low but does not distort at high volume.

The keyboard is a bit cramped – it’s not a full-size Qwerty – and typists might have trouble using it. But then the machine is primarily aimed at first-time computer buyers, who will tend to be two-finger typists.

Another issue we found was that the trackpad was not responding a bit. You really have to press hard enough before you can move the mouse pointer.

The Wi-Fi antenna, located on the right side of the screen, also heats up a bit, although the base of the machine remains cool. Your knees will thank you for it.

On the software side, the developers have done a good job simplifying the Linux experience and making the Linkbook relatively easy to use. There are still a few glitches. There are some spelling and grammar mistakes in some dialogs, for example. What exactly does “You need to determine that you have inserted the SIM card” mean? And the updater software doesn’t work – it throws a cryptic message that an average user simply won’t understand.

On the plus side, connecting to Vodacom’s network was a cinch – we had no issues, although the 3G Link software used to connect was a bit rudimentary.

However, if you want to do more than the most basic web browsing and emailing on the Linkbook, you will need some Linux experience. Unfortunately, getting into the bowels of the operating system isn’t easy – there’s no obvious way to access a text-based command line. We are told it is possible, however.

Plus, the version of Ubuntu used on Linkbook looks pretty old – as far as we can tell, it runs Hardy Heron, which was released over two years ago. If you aren’t able to run the updater software – and we couldn’t – then you might be vulnerable to software security vulnerabilities.

Finally, the battery life is appalling. A fully charged battery will only last about two hours with Wi-Fi and 3G turned off; with wireless enabled, the machine will give you approximately 90 minutes before it needs to be reconnected to the network. It’s pretty mediocre compared to other modern netbooks.

For the price, however, it’s hard to be too harsh on the Linkbook. At R 199 / month, it’s getting easier and easier to put IT in almost everyone’s hands. We’re sure Nicholas Negroponte would agree with us that this is a good thing. But whether the device to do so is open to debate. – Duncan McLeod, TechCentral

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