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Physical volume controls would be better for tablet use
RAM is not user-upgradeable
Not available until September
Eleven years ago a revolution in laptop design took place with the launch of the first netbook, the diminutive Asus Eee PC 701, with its 7-inch screen, Linux OS and sub-£200 price tag. I recall unboxing a review sample and thinking this was the future of home computing.
Of course, I was completely wrong. Smartphones and, to a lesser degree, tablets proved to be the future and the netbook, soon bloated with 10-inch screens and Windows XP, died a death in the space of a few years.
Now the netbook has been reborn as the UMPC (ultra-mobile PC) thanks to a bevvy of Chinese OEMs like One (part of Voyo), GPD and Chuwi, which is about to launch the 8-inch MiniBook.
Before I get stuck in, I should make it clear you can't actually buy a MiniBook yet. Its final development and initial manufacturing run are being crowdfunded on Indiegogo in a number of configurations.
The entry-level model comes with a Gemini Lake Celeron N4100 processor, 8GB of LPDDR4 RAM and a slot for an M.2 SATA3 SSD, while the deluxe model has a Core m3-8100Y chip, 8GB of LPDDR3 RAM and an M.2 PCIe SSD slot. The basic model will set you back $430 (£337), the posh one $100 (£78) more. The Core m3 machine can be specified with 16GB of RAM.
There's also a limited-edition version (listed on the above link) combining the Core m3 chip with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. That will set you back $619 (£488).
All versions will ship sometime in September. The price after the Indiegogo campaign is likely to be some 20 percent higher. I'm writing this review on an early production version of the entry-level Gemini Lake machine.
The MiniBook is certainly petite enough to deserve its 'Mini' moniker. It measures 201mm wide by 128mm deep by 19mm thick, which makes it about the same size as an average-length paperback novel. And at 662g it's not much heavier. Holding it one-handed for a prolonged period of time is not a strenuous undertaking.
The body is made of an aluminium alloy which makes the light weight all the more impressive. This lends it an undoubted feeling of quality, too. The MiniBook really is a solid and well-made device.
The 8-inch laminated IPS touch display has a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, which gives it a crisp pixel density of 283dpi. At 250cd/m2 it's bright enough for most circumstances, although it is a bit reflective. Colour balance is excellent.
The display hinges through 360 degrees in what Chuwi calls a 'yoga' action. This means you can 'tent' it like an A-frame, or use the keyboard base as a stand for 'presentation' mode, or fold the screen right back into a tablet form.
Once the screen passes the 180-degree mark the keyboard is disabled and the Bosch accelerometer fires up. Combine those features with Windows 10's often belittled (or ignored) 'tablet' interface and the MiniBook makes a useful and versatile little media consumption device.
The 10-point multi-touch screen doesn't seem to support a stylus, but otherwise it's perfectly calibrated and reacts accurately and reliably to the touch.
To the left of the screen is a poor 2MP webcam, while two loudspeakers fire out of grilles on either side of the front of the body. The speakers aren't too shabby: I watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with the volume at maximum without once wincing due to distortion. Quieter videos did leave me feeling the need for a little more volume though.
The keyboard is a pretty impressive piece of miniaturisation, although one or two aspects of the layout do take some getting used to. Even after several days, the third-of-a-key-wide Fn button (which you need to use to adjust the volume) and equally reduced Del key were still tripping me up. The optical 'mouse' and two-piece space and click bars proved easier to use.
The keyboard deck itself is perfectly solid -- in such a small area there's not really enough space for anything to flex much -- and the key pitch is just about ideal.
Usefully the keyboard is backlit -- although somewhat annoyingly, the backlight came on every time I booted my device up. Final production machines may fix this bug.
The power button is situated in the top right-hand corner of the keyboard and has a built-in, and reliable, fingerprint reader. I've read comments that the keyboard and screen could benefit from a magnetic clasp, but in my experience the hinge kept to the two parts firmly together when the unit was closed.
However, I would have preferred a physical volume control built into the side of the device, so it can be accessed without opening the screen. That would make the MiniBook easier to use in tablet mode.
One the left side of the MiniBook you'll find a fully-functional USB-C port, a mini-HDMI connector and a USB 3.0 port. On the other side there is a 3.5mm audio jack, a MicroSD card slot and another USB port, although this one is only 2.0 spec. For wireless communication, you get the ubiquitous Intel 3165 module, which supports 2.4/5GHz 802.11ac dual-band wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Basic storage is taken care of by a generic 128GB embedded MultiMediaCard and an empty bay for a 2242-size M.2 SSD. Cloning Windows across onto an SSD will improve performance, especially if you've bought the Core m3 version and installed a PCIe card.
Performance from the Gemini Lake processor and integrated Intel Graphics 600 GPU was exactly what I expected. The Geekbench 4 benchmarks -- 1808 single-core, 5489 multi-core and 8985 compute -- results were marginally up on Chuwi's LapBook SE thanks to the extra 4GB of RAM.
The MiniBook is actively cooled, but I wouldn't let that worry you: the fan does fire up regularly, but even at full speed it isn't overly intrusive.
Chuwi's press information (and indeed the sticker on the battery itself) says that the MiniBook has a 26.6Whr battery. But according to Windows, and the various battery analysis apps I use, my machine had a 35Whr unit. When I quizzed Chuwi about this, the response was that it's definitely a 26.6Whr battery. Maybe I've got some weird mutant machine.
Looping a 1080p MP4 video with volume at maximum and screen brightness at 50 percent drained the battery in 9 hours 15 minutes.
More realistically, the combination of some basic productivity and web browsing put the lights out in eight hours. I put some of the difference down to the fan and the keyboard backlight both being rather power hungry.
If the battery in my sample is some sort of freak you should knock about 25 percent off my test results to avoid disappointment. That pushes battery life from 'good' to 'average'.
Chuwi reckons the MiniBook will charge from any source putting out more than 5v. It certainly charged from my Anker Type-C PD-enabled powerpack. Charge time using the bundled power supply is about 3.5f hours.
So, the million-dollar question: is it possible to live with a MiniBook as your only mobile productivity PC? Providing you don't mind having your nose a lot closer to the screen than would be the case with a 14-inch notebook, there's nothing you can't do on the MiniBook. Granted, the optical mouse is more squirrely to use than a conventional trackpad -- but when combined with a touchscreen, that becomes less of an issue. So the answer to that question is a cautious 'yes'.
Finally, I tried to run Linux on the MiniBook but the only stock version I managed to get working at all -- the Intel-supported Clear Linux -- refused to play ball with either the accelerometer (it stayed locked in portrait) or the touch screen. Luckily just as we went to press, Chuwi posted an Ubuntu 18.04 image that should work on the MiniBook. I didn't have time to try it but the ISO image and installation instructions are available online.
There's little doubt that the MiniBook does everything that a larger laptop of similar specification can do, despite all of the components being squeezed into such a small package. If your laptop spends most of its time hooked up to a monitor, keyboard and mouse via a USB-C hub, and is only used out and about for media consumption and light productivity, then the MiniBook's small form factor makes sense. If you generally use your laptop in standalone mode, the diminutive screen and keyboard may leave you wishing you were using a device with more traditional dimensions. But that didn't happen to me as often as I thought it would.