Flashback: Book Digital Co. SmartBook G138
Chris Tilley | Editor-in-Chief
In all likelihood Book Digital Co. will not be a name that you are familiar with, and, with that there is an equal chance that you will not have heard of the device either. Known under several different names, and offered through a number of different companies world-wide, the G138, more commonly known as the SmartBook was one of the devices which came directly out of the demise of the Handheld PC Platform in the early 2000’s.
Conceived out of the liberalisation offered by the abandonment of the pocketable ideals of the Handheld PC platform, the G138’s and its Core OS design philosophy was based around the miniaturisation of the already established Windows CE sub-notebook market, which had been dominated by the HP and NEC 800 series. The device, born of industrial roots, was designed to appeal to the unique users market that sought laptop functionality, but at the same time demanded a solution which offered a set of features more resilient and robust than could be provided from such hardware.
This is where the G138, and other such devices fit into the equation, and, it was hoped, would open up a new niche market for portable hardware.
Looking at the packaging, the SmartBook ships inside an auspicious plain white box that is functional if not elegant. Inside you’ll find the device itself, genuine leather, Velcro fastened protective wallet for the H/PC, the AC adapter and power lead, a 64MB software CF card, stylus and a headset (which I will come to later).
Aesthetics & Ergonomics
The G138 is available in three different chassis designs; brushed silver (as reviewed), slate gray and a silver/blue finish that is reminiscent of the colour scheme of the venerable Jornada 728.
From a cosmetic standpoint the G138’s chassis is laid out functionally, with all external features positioned where you would expect them. The 21.7cm x 13.7cm (8.5” x 5.39”) chassis is made of reinforced moulded plastic, and gives the unit an almost uniformal sturdiness. The screen hinges are laid-out to inset into the device, providing a buffer from the actual mechanism in the event of a drop on one of the hinge corners. The only area which is slightly let down is the moulding immediately above the CF slot, which has to my mind a degree of lateral flexibility (though no observable vertical malleability) which it could do without; though you would need to try very hard to actually fatigue it to the extent of breaking.
Pop the screen release button on the front and the G138 opens up to reveal an innovative array of input methods that have been positioned with a degree of ergonomic functionality in mind – assuming you are right handed.
Along the top right edge of the keyboard, Book Digital has positioned a multi-position track point style mouse. The location and functionality offered by the track point makes it ideal for quick movement around the user interface, particularly when using the device single headedly or thumb-typing. The track point operates well with a finger or thumb, and is capped with an indentation just the right size to be used in conjunction with the stylus in a pseudo-joystick fashion. If that wasn’t enough, both the track point and the screen digitiser offer a Windows Mobile style ‘tap and hold’ facility, allowing access to “right click” operations in a range of applications without having to perform any other hand movements. For Handheld PC traditionalists, rest assured that the regular Alt + Tap gymnastics gesture remains at your disposal in a universal fashion.
Extending upon the button gesture capabilities of the track point, the SmartBook boasts fully fledged left and right mouse buttons on either side of the screen. Their use only becomes apparent when you are using the device in a proper writing fashion, allowing the track-point to be used without gestures and for drag/highlight operations – or even in conjunction with the stylus.
The keyboard itself has a literal 77-key base, and offers the usual array of function and num-lock keys to get at the standard key set. After a degree of psychological retraining on the key dimensions and subtle differences in positioning and necessary pressure that virtually any Windows CE keyboard equipped device needs, I was able to get up a reasonable thumb-typing and touch-typing rate on the near-full size QWERTY keys.
Uniquely, and this is a personal first for any Clamshell that I have seen or reviewed, in addition to the near full-size keyboard the SmartBook manages to boast a full set of F keys (F1-F12) as well as the benign Scroll Lock, Pause/Break and Print Screen/System Request keys present on any full-size 101-key keyboard.
Clearly the keyboard on the G138 is going to be a selling point for any writer, and rightly so, however there are two slight niggles which form the results of poorly judged design decisions. The first is the inclusion of a single shift key.
Being right handed, and as a consequence of general affinity, I instinctively reach for the right hand shift key to perform second function actions. On the SmartBook, the shift key not only falls in the wrong place, it isn’t there at all. Having to think to use the left hand shift takes some getting used to, and causes repeated scores of ‘=’ characters when I instinctively reach for my tried and tested friend. Similarly, the Ctrl and FN keys are reversed, placing the Ctrl key as the second key on the bottom row – an unnatural position.
The second niggle is one which will only impact those who require network share access. Book Digital simply neglected to include the reverse solidus key on the keyboard ( \ ). Thanks to Microsoft, this key is an intrinsic part of the network share access formula, being required to insert UNC path statements. You can get around this by taking a trip to the numeric keypad and keying in Alt + 092, however it is inconvenient and excruciatingly slow.
Thankfully, there is a very straight forward way around this. By using any of the freeware Windows CE key remapping tools, there is ample space on the keyboard to quickly generate a new keyboard layout template, and make better use of some of the unexploited F keys on the top row.
Technical Features & Specification
The SmartBook boasts an impressive internal specification. An Intel StrongARM SA1100 206MHz processor running against the optimised, more honed kernel of Windows CE .net makes the device purr with a delectable level of smoothness – out performing the same processor running under the Jornada 720 and HPC2000. Providing the teeth to the processor is a wholesome 128MB of internal main RAM, and a 32MB FlashROM providing operating system image updates, and future proofing. Images for Windows CE .net 4.1 and 4.2 are available in a number of languages, along with some interim patch builds affording a degree of freedom to experiment with the best operating system combination for your purpose.
A glimpse into the unknown
The G138’s screen provides a widescreen, high resolution, low dot pitch viewing experience. The TFT technology provides a crystal clear and importantly ultra sharp 800x480x16-bit image thanks to the on-board 2MB of video RAM and 2D acceleration afforded by the Hitachi Tahoe MQ200 which also serves the external d-Sub VGA port which offers users resolutions up to 1280x1024 on an external display – independently or in conjunction with the cloned image on the devices’ LCD.
Admittedly, I have not been able to test the G138 in bright sunlight, mainly thanks to the eccentricity of those few fleeting minutes each year that we call British Summertime. That said, from the experience I have had out and about with the SmartBook, the screen has provided a pleasurable viewing experience thanks to the convenient positioning of its two analogue hardware brightness and contrast controls, both thumb dials on the left hand side of the LCD casing. The ease of access to the dials provides a good power saving solution, but also offers a reasonable range of possible brightness/contrast combinations for viewing the screen outside.
In addition to the VGA port, external connectivity comes through the built-in Micro (standard “C-Type”) USB port, used for serving the ActiveSync conduit to your PC. Although I haven’t been able to test it myself, the SmartBook’s registry appears to identify support for a USB keyboard, Bluetooth dongle and even SmartCard services.
The lack of integrated Wireless networking is to some extent compensated for by the presence of an integrated 10/100 wired Ethernet port on the back of the unit. Networking is as simple as connecting the cable and waiting a few seconds for a DHCP lease to be allocated to the device, at which point the seamlessness of the process becomes apparent as the activity LED on the front panel lights up and all of the standard IP services click into life, including Internet Explorer CE 6.0, IIS CE and a working build of Windows Messenger CE on the CE 4.2 ROM image.
The pièce de résistance of the SmartBooks’ communications arsenal crowns the device as king in its size-class.
Equipped with a Siemens MC35 SIM module compartment which is accessed through a slot on the base of the device, the G138 is fully GPRS enabled by default, operating with support for the 900MHz and 1800MHz frequency bands on the European model. In addition to the standard GPRS connectivity support, Book Digital also provides a utility called iPhone, which opens up the capabilities of the device considerably.
iPhone provides a direct interface through to the SIM card itself, providing all of the support you would expect from a cellular phone - including PIN number security to get into the SIM - right in the palm of your hand(held). SMS ‘text’ messages can be received, generated and managed from the application combining integration with the SIM address book, though unfortunately not the Pocket Outlook standard databases. If that wasn’t enough, iPhone also allows you make and receive regular phone calls directly from the device either using the built-in microphone and speakers in speakerphone mode or, by using the provided (standard 3.5mm) headset accessory which features an independent volume control.
iPhone significantly expands the capabilities of the G138, and it should be mentioned that the included Windows Messenger CE is also capable of making calls to other Microsoft Messenger clients. The iPhone application is colourful, and relatively easy to use, although it lacks some of the polish that you would get from devices like the bSquare PHH.
My only complaint with the application itself - aside from that it is relatively slow to initially log-into the SIM card when starting up - is that it seems unable to read any of the SIM contact information that I synchronised up to my Motorola V220 from Microsoft Outlook using BVRP Software’s Phone Tools.
Voice calls themselves are loud and clear using the built-in speakers, however would not make for a viable solution in an area with a lot of background noise. When using the headset the audio is crisp, clear and available in stereo to the ear pieces. Unfortunately there is no volume control in iPhone itself to allow you to customise the playback volume on demand without resorting to the control panel, or a third party tray application.
As a functional cell phone solution, the G138’s software suite ultimately comes up a little short for those looking to do away with a mobile phone altogether. In order for the device to receive incoming calls, the SmartBook needs to be on, and iPhone actively running – otherwise the inbound caller is told that the phone is not available or it just rings without providing any notification to the user respectively. Without a doubt the primary functional use of the SIM module is going to be for GPRS Internet connectivity and SMS messaging unless more efficient software is released to improve the feature set.
Put together as a unit, the SmartBook G138 strives to be the powerhouse of the Handheld PC world, it has the features to live up to what it tries to achieve, however to some extent it doesn’t always strive due in many parts to its native software implementation. Bolstering the native Windows CE .net software application suite, and seeking third-party utilities to extend and enhance the feature set really do make the device stand out, and most of its quirks – such as the missing reverse solidus key can be effectively overcome with a minimum of fuss.
The iPhone utility is provided cleverly on a bundled CF card, saving the need for any form of host installer solution to get the device up to full functionality. It may seem eccentric to have not bundled it into ROM, however if you wish to rely upon a third-party solution, or wish to prevent subscriber dial access from the device as a corporate user then it does make sense.
The G138 is let down in the form of provided documentation. No paper manuals are supplied, and the provided PDF file is effectively a summary of what you already knew about Windows CE 4.2. Information on things such as shortcut keys, the built-in and accessory Book Digital software is not provided; as a practical example it was only through assuming there must be such a combination that I discovered that FN + F6 toggles between the LCD, external VGA and both screen simultaneously. Likewise no CD is provided offering the de facto out of date ActiveSync installation, though this isn’t going to be a problem so long as you have an Internet connection (which you do seeing that you are reading this).
If technical support is crucial to your needs, then the SmartBook may not be for you, Book Digital relies upon redistribution agents across the globe to provide support options, and unfortunately, as in the UK, the associate company folded without the generation of a new contract with another company. Support from Book Digital themselves is difficult, though not completely impossible, however their software and update downloads support is less than reliable.
Overall the SmartBook is an excellent machine; the screen alone will be enough to convince many that it is worth the investment, for others it will be the promise of a good keyboard. If the SmartBook appeals to you, then you are looking for a good balance of performance, features and future proofing. Of course, it goes without saying that as a Windows CE core device you will need to spend some time getting acquainted with the software suite, and making use of some of the excellent third-party applications which exist in the Windows CE developer community as a means to recover your PIM and Pocket Office functionality.
As a communications device, the SmartBook offers a lot, and while an integrated WiFi and Bluetooth system would have made the device truly exceptional, the combination of Internet Explorer CE 6.0 and the G138’s keyboard/mouse/touch screen combination mean that you would have a hard time finding a better alternative.
What has intrigued me since I started getting to know the SmartBook, has been the level of interest that it has generated from friends, colleagues and passers-by alike. More surprisingly, interest has been higher than that which I, as an enlightened H/PC user, usually receive from carrying a Jornada.
Windows 95, 98, 98SE, Millennium, NT4, 2000, XP, 2003
Want to let us know what you think of this review? Click here to have your say in the Forums!