Apricot Picobook Pro netbook
Intel Atom? Pah! VIA's C7-M makes good
Review We have in our hands the revived Apricot's first fruit: the Picobook Pro netbook, a Small, Cheap Computer based on VIA's C7-M processor. And a block-like boy it is too.
The Pro's display is an SCC standard-issue 8.9in, 1024 x 600 job, so the netbook's not especially large face-on. But it is thick, most notably the screen assembly. The base is home to some surprisingly long feet, needed to lift the bottom of the machine far enough off the desktop that there's room for the unsightly bulge that's home to the unit's 60GB hard drive.
Apricot's Picobook Pro: based on VIA's OpenBook platform
A peer through the vents on the base of the Pro suggest there's a fair bit of room within the casing, yet the Samsung-made hard drive sits in a shallow bay that leaves it poking up just above the level of the Pro's baseplate. On top the drive sits a cover which has clearly designed to allow plenty of room for air to flow under the drive when the whole lot's turned the right way up.
We didn't need to disassemble the Pro to see the big copper heatsink that vents out on the left side of the laptop, none of which comes as any surprise given the machine's use of a C7-M, one of the hottest-running netbook CPUs we've seen.
The Pro's chip runs at 1.2GHz, and it's linked to VIA's VX800 integrated chipset and 1GB of 400MHz DDR 2 memory.
Do you need your netbook to do this?
On the table, with the lid closed, the Pro measures almost 4cm from desk to the upper surface of the notebook, which makes it the thickest SCC in our specifications table. Not by much, it's true, but Apricot has come up with a design that does nothing to trick you into thinking the machine's thinner than it is. It feels thick.
The lid is particularly so, as we mentioned earlier. The bezel - which contains a 1.3-megapixel webcam - angles out from the display panel, so the lid is a full 10mm thick at the edge. The lid's surface angles out from the front to the back, adding a further 5mm to the lid's overall thickness.
Judging by the weight of the assembly, it's mostly air in there, but there's no question it conveys a sense of rigidity.
So does the keyboard half, which is raised steeply at the back to form a home for the Pro's two speakers and the screen hinge. Much of this back section is the Pro's 2200mAh battery.
The Pro's keyboard sits (almost) flush with the wrist-rest area. The keys are small, about the same size as the ones on the 8.9in Eee PC 900. There's a little flex to it, but it has the same rattly feel as the Eee's board, though we'd say the Pro's is definitely the better of the two. Like the Eee keyboard, we found this one a touch too cramped for comfortable touch-typing. Apricot describes it as "generous", but we disagree.
Like the original Eee, the Pro has a very small trackpad - it's just 33 x 21mm - but it's been crafted as part of the wrist-rest area so there's no edge around it. This, surprisingly, makes it much more usable since it eliminates the sense of restriction you get with small, edged trackpads. The two buttons are position in front of the pad and are likewise formed from the body of the laptop.
The trackpad's integrated into the wrist-rest
The front of the Pro is home to the four-in-one memory card reader and 3.5mm audio sockets. Round on the left side are the aforementioned air vent, one of two USB 2.0 ports and the laptop's VGA connector. The second USB port is one the right side, next to a Kensington lock slot, 10/100Mb/s Ethernet port and the power socket.
The right side is home to one of the Pro's stand-out features: an ExpressCard 34 slot. This seemed a big plus point, but then we wondered how likely it is that the average SCC buyer is going to need it. ExpressCard is the successor to the old PC Card - aka PCMCIA - slot. Time was when Ethernet, modem and, later, Wi-Fi connectivity were the sole province of add-in cards. Now they're all built-in, leaving today's add in cards an eclectic selection of niche products.
Standard Small, Cheap Computer portage
The Pro has Bluetooth on board, so you won't need a USB slot or ExpressCard for that, and its Wi-Fi connection has support for the 5GHz band and 802.11a, always a favourite of corporate wireless network implementors. Again, this may appeal to businesses, as will the C7-M processor's on-board security module, which accelerates the encryption calculations needed by VPN links.
We can't say whether it makes a practical difference, not having a VPN line into a monster corporate server handy. From a benchmarks perspective, however, the Pro's nothing to write home about. PCMark05 shows a the 1.2GHz C7-M to be the weakest netbook CPU we've tested, and the memory and hard drive scores are likewise well below many other SCCs' results.
Longer bars are better
Don't read too much into that, however, because it's not so very far below Atom-based machines set to run at half speed - clock frequencies aren't comparable across different processor makers' products - though those netbooks have the advantage of HyperThreading to make the CPU seem almost dual-core. The C7-M is a single-core part, pure and simple.
Does having a single-core CPU matter? You'd think so looking at the PCMark results, but our Gimp test results tell a slightly different story. Yes, the C7-M isn't on a par with the Atom, but it doesn't fare so very badly, and running classic netbook apps, you'd probably not feel much of a difference.
The Gimp Results
Time in seconds
Shorter bars are better
But then this is a Windows machine, and because of that we can see people attempting to run other kinds of apps on it, potentially less happily. The undoubtedly sub-par hard drive speed doesn't help.
The Pro's battery life is a little sub-par too, even falling below some Atom-based machines set to run at half clock-speed. That said, it has the same capacity as, say, the Acer Aspire One, but delivers a much longer runtime. But there are longer-running netbooks out there.
Battery Life Results
Time in minutes
Longer bars are better
Our test is a worse-case scenario - for most other tasks, the battery will last longer. But it does give an indication of how well each SCC can eke out its charge.
The Picobook Pro weighs in at a fraction under a kilo, and it's eminently portable if you need to carry it in your hand. It's done up in black, for a business-like look that's reminiscent of the classic ThinkPad style. There are no consumer-friendly fripperies here.
If only it really was this thin
Unlike past VIA-based netbooks we've looked at, this one didn't prove too noisy when the fans kicked in - the hard drive is louder - so our earlier criticism of the VIA platform that it runs hot and therefore noisily doesn't apply in this case. We've seen some netbooks that would make good hairdryers, but this isn't one of them. Clearly, all the airflow space on the inside, which we mentioned earlier, helps vent the heat out of the case quickly and efficiently.
Apricot's latest price scheme puts the Windows XP-based Picbook Pro at £299. There's no longer a Linux option. Pricing is key in this segment of the mobile PC market, and when you can have an Advent 4211 or Medion Akoya Mini for £20 less than the similarly hard drive-equipped, XP-running Apricot, why not pick them?
Nice netbook... but there are better ones
One reason is the ExpressCard slot, the other is support for 802.11a, but the number of folk who need these features will be small, we think. The Pro is smaller than those 10in machines, but then so is the Eee PC 901, also priced at £300 in its XP form. If it was our money, we'd choose the 901 with its Atom processor, 802.11n support and much longer-running battery over the Picobook.
Apricot's Picobook Pro is a nice netbook. It has a decent spec for a machine of this class, average performance and a small number of features that will appeal to niche audiences. If you can get past the design, there's much to enjoy here. The problem is, there's nothing that really allows it to stand out from the crowd.