New toy: The Notion Ink Adam

Two days ago I received a product I had ordered in February: a tablet computer, Adam, designed and sold by a Bangalore-based start-up, Notion Ink, but manufactured (like most electronic products these days) in China. This tablet had received a huge amount of hype after CES 2010, skepticism since then as the company seemed to struggle to put together a working product, hype again starting in late 2010 (when they announced pre-orders), extremely good coverage at CES 2011 (Slashgear, Engadget — click there for pics and videos), and then — mostly silence. Once touted as a possible iPad-killer, now it is one of many tablets on the market running Google’s Android operating system, and it has a long, long way to go before it can think of catching up with Apple.

The reason is only partly the quality of the product (though it is that too): it appears, mainly, to be production-related. The company has only announced two pre-orders, and not announced how many devices have been ordered, but it appears to be a few thousand at most. They have struggled to meet those orders. On March 29, the company’s CEO, Rohan Shravan, announced on his blog that every order has finally been shipped. He also described some of the issues they have been having, and the steps being taken (including changing the manufacturer). The company is yet to announce another pre-order. (Also, it seems that, until they enter retail, they will no longer ship to India due to customs issues — which is odd since the majority of delays, as described by Rohan himself, have nothing to do with Indian customs.)

So, if you are in a hurry, don’t think about getting the Adam. If you live in India, you are unlikely to be able to get it anytime soon. But if you are willing to wait, should you hold out? Here are my impressions.

HARDWARE

The major selling point, for me, was the (optional) “transflective” display, made by Pixel Qi. This screen, the manufacturers claim, is readable even with the backlight turned off (though the colours are desaturated) — so the device can be used in sunlight, and the power savings are immense. So, in theory, the device works both as an e-ink reader (like Amazon’s Kindle) and as a tablet computer (like the iPad).

Outdoors, indeed the screen is very readable with the backlight off. However, it does not look like paper: the background is, at best, a light grey, not white, and the blacks are not very black, so the contrast will not compare with a printed book (I don’t have an e-ink reader to compare with). Nevertheless, it seems to me that it will be reasonably comfortable to use outdoors. Indoors, the backlight is needed, but I find that it can be left at its lowest setting and is extremely comfortable to use: it is significantly less bright than my laptop screen (barely brighter than a sheet of white paper, in fact), and very easy on the eyes, while reproducing colours very well. To me, it is worth the money.

Otherwise, the machine specifications compare well to other tablets — even to the iPad 2. Instead of front and back cameras, it has a single camera that swivels about a horizontal axis. It is not great but good enough for video chatting. It has USB and mini-USB ports, microphone, audio (headphone) output, HDMI video output, a micro-SD card slot, and (optionally) a 3G slot, for mobile broadband. It runs on the NVidia Tegra 2 processor, which compares well to the competition (and is used by much of the competition). The screen is glossy but a matte screen protector is included. The only complaint I have is the rather tacky look and feel of the white plastic band that runs around the machine, encasing the ports; but other than that, the machine looks and feels nice and solid.

SOFTWARE

Software is another matter. Notion Ink’s quandary was that Google’s Android system was developed for phones, not tablets. Google has since released a tablet version of Android, called “Honeycomb”, but not yet made it available to non-approved manufacturers. Notion Ink, therefore, built their own tablet interface, Eden, on top of the previous version of Android (2.2, “Froyo”). This has a somewhat unfinished feel to it: it has some nice ideas (such as applications optionally running in “panels”), but their ribbon-like launcher in unwieldy. The biggest problem, however, is the lack of the Android market (which is officially available only for phones, except in the Honeycomb version).

Luckily (and this is another big reason I went in for this tablet), Notion Ink decided to make their tablet rather open and “moddable”: if you don’t like their OS, you can install another, and — practically overnight — a large number of alternative ROMs have sprung up, including an attempt at Ubuntu Linux. These are available at a site called Notion Ink Hacks. I installed a ROM called EdenX, which makes rather minimal tweaks but gives “root” access and installs the Android Market and a few other applications. So far I am pretty happy with it. But one day I hope to run Linux (Ubuntu, Meego or something else) on this thing. (Yes, Android too is based on Linux, but it is completely unlike a normal Linux system.)

One of the first apps I installed from the marketplace was Amazon Kindle. My wife spent a while with it today and reported that it is extremely comfortable to read, with no eye strain. I also installed Adobe Reader (which seems much inferior to the QuickOffice PDF reader that comes pre-installed), Mozilla Firefox (again, it seems slower than the pre-installed Webkit-based browser), and Angry Birds. And that’s where it stands.

FUTURE

I expect I will use the Adam for reading, idle netsurfing, and perhaps playing games. I doubt I will use it for serious work — not even for email, primarily because typing on a touchscreen is tedious. (You can plug in an external keyboard: if I find a sufficiently small travel-friendly one, maybe I will go that route.)

There is certainly a market for tablet computers that are not Apple and not locked down in every direction by Steve Jobs. And while the Pixel Qi screen does not quite live up to its hype, it is still a big improvement on normal LCD screens for reading. So far, the Adam is the only device of significance shipping with a Pixel Qi screen, one of the most modifiable and extendable tablets around, and very reasonably priced (comparable with the iPad and cheaper than most competitors). With no advertising other than via their website and blog, Notion Ink succeeded in 2010 in generating huge interest around the world, and rapidly selling out their pre-orders. But, as things stand, not only do they have issues in production, but their software has too many rough edges. So far they have reached what was probably their intended first market: early adopters and somewhat tech-savvy people. I very much hope that, in 2011, they will sort out their production issues, iron out their software, and establish a strong presence in the mainstream market.



UPDATE 17/04/2011: This is what the Pixel Qi screen looks outdoors, in the shade with the backlight off.

It is entirely readable in the shade (the odd angle was to avoid glare in the camera image, but you can hold it more naturally when you are reading it rather than photographing it). I spent about 10 minutes reading a document in QuickOffice and surfing the net. It should be even better in the sun, but this was Chennai in April at about 11:30 am, so I didn’t try the experiment.

Also, I have switched from EdenX to Beast ROM. This is nothing like Notion Ink’s default ROM and more like a mobile phone, but it works beautifully. And, DO NOT install Angry Birds if you value your productivity.

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