Google's Android operating system has spent the past two years making a name for itself in the smart-phone market. But it's also appeared on other devices, such as tablets, microwaves and netbooks. It's now putting in an appearance on the Toshiba AC100, a netbook that runs on smart-phone-style components. Our configuration, the Toshiba AC100-10U offers 3G connectivity and costs around £290. If you can do without 3G, the AC100-10Z is available for around £240.
Netbooks trade on portability. In this respect, the AC100 is probably the most impressive machine we've seen so far. It weighs about 870g, and measures 262mm wide by 190mm deep. It's only 14mm thick at its thinnest point and 21mm thick at its fattest point. That makes the AC100 ideal for slinging into a bag and taking on your jolly jaunts.
The whole chassis is a rather dull charcoal colour, with yellow accents on the trackpad, keys and the sides only slightly brightening things up. It puts us in mind of an angry bee. Overall, the AC100 isn't much of a looker.
The AC100 does, however, have a wide keyboard that's comfortable to type on and surprisingly sturdy for such a thin and light device. Although the trackpad is very small, it's not too cramped or uncomfortable to use.
The 10.1-inch display is nothing to write home about. It has a maximum resolution of 1,024x600 pixels, which is bog-standard netbook fare. It's quite bright, but colours aren't particularly vivid. Still, if all you're doing is cruising the Web, it'll suit you just fine. The horizontal and vertical viewing angles are also satisfactory.
Around the sides of the AC100 are a single USB port, a mini-USB port, a 3.5mm headphone and mic socket, a multi-format card reader, and an HDMI port. The HDMI port will certainly come in handy for outputting video to your telly, but we think another USB port would probably have proved more useful in the long run. An Ethernet port is also notably absent, although both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are supported.
The AC100 packs 8GB of solid-sate storage. That may not sound like much, because it isn't. You'll quickly need to expand the storage via SD cards and the like.
The AC100-10U has a slot for a SIM card, so you can get a 3G connection while you're out and about, but then you'll have to pay for a contract, which will increase the overall cost of purchasing the device.
The netbook runs version 2.1 of Google's Android mobile operating system, rather than Windows 7, which is now the netbook standard. For anyone who doesn't religiously follow developments in the world of mobile operating systems, Android is a platform designed for use on touchscreen phones, such as the HTC Desire HD. Latterly, it's made appearances on other portable devices as well.
Unfortunately, because the AC100 doesn't have a touchscreen, slapping Android onto it has resulted in a slightly frustrating user experience. For example, Android offers several different home screens, which you can tack widgets or app shortcuts onto. Essentially, it's like having several desktops. To navigate them on a touchscreen phone, you just swipe your finger across the screen. But to navigate them on the AC100, you have to hold down the left-click button and drag the display left or right using the trackpad.
Android devices also generally make use of 'home' and 'back' buttons. While there's a dedicated home button where you'd normally find the Windows key on a PC, the back button is relegated to the top left corner and combined with the Esc key. That can lead to some confusion, as the key behaves differently when different programs are running. Most of the time it closes an application, but in the browser it acts as a back button.
Can't touch this
The lack of a touchscreen is frustrating. For instance, the applications menu is arranged in a grid, and you have to click little arrows in the corner of the screen to get to the next page, or use the arrow keys to scroll to the end of the row, or repeat the click-and-slide method mentioned above. You can't just swipe your finger.
Tension levels rise even higher when you're using the browser, because there's no scroll bar. You can either navigate through links on the page using the arrow keys, hit space to move down the page, or, again, perform the old click-and-slide manoeuvre to move around the page.
On a couple of occasions, we were so consumed by the desire to reach out and start sliding our fingers around on the screen that we nearly poked a hole through the AC100's display. Toshiba has customised both Android and the keyboard to make the AC100 more usable, but these efforts just haven't paid off.
There are a couple of other issues too. The AC100 runs Android 2.1, which, although fairly new, isn't the most recent version of the OS. Version 2.2 offers support for Flash in the browser. Without version 2.2, you can kiss goodbye to any iPlayer or YouTube goodness, as well as those charming banner ads that expand to fill a whole Web page. We can stomach a lack of Flash support on a smart phone, but it feels like a bridge to far on a netbook.
Apps gone AWOL
The AC100 also lacks access to the full Android Market app store. Instead, you have the cryptically named Camangi Market, which offers a smattering of apps built specifically for Android tablets. Unfortunately, the pickings are slim indeed, and several of the apps we downloaded didn't really work. Overall, it's very disappointing.
Inside the AC100, there's an Nvidia Tegra 250 processor clocked at 1GHz, backed up by 512MB of RAM. It may not sound like a very powerful processor, but we didn't notice much sluggishness even when we were running several apps at the same time. The machine is actually decidedly nippy.
We managed to get 6 hours of battery life out of the AC100 under normal usage conditions, which is impressive, even if we've seen more traditional netbooks fare better.
We love the Android platform and think there's definitely scope for it to run on netbooks, but the Toshiba AC100 is disappointing. With a confusing interface, limited apps and no Flash support, we can't recommend the AC100 over the host of standard netbooks on the market.
Edited by Charles Kloet