Switched On: Alpha 400 pays a high price for low cost

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

When a recent fake news story claiming that Coby Electronics would enter the netbook market with a $100 PC included a quote I had given two years ago, I smelled something fishy. But before I questioned the validity of the article, I questioned the validity of such a product. Because for at least those expecting some semblance of a modern PC, the fascination with a $100 notebook might turn to disappointment when they realize the considerable compromises needed to achieve that alluring price.

For as life quickly moved to imitate art, the aftermath of Cobygate saw news of the Alpha 400, which is smaller, lighter and, at $170 at, about $100 less than online pricing for the Eee PC 2G Surf. With no hard drive and no fan, it runs so coolly and quietly the only noise the product makes is when you open and close its creaky hinge, which allows the screen to lay flat parallel to the keyboard. Its brand-free top surface is glossy black, but the rest of its plastic body has a finish so dull that the product could pass for one of those plastic laptop props used in furniture stores.

Like the original Eee, the Alpha 400 has a 7-inch screen, an SD card slot, three USB ports, and a keyboard (albeit one that is even smaller than the one on the first Eee). From there, almost all the specs take a dramatic step down. The Alpha 400 has only 128MB of RAM and 1GB of local storage. It has no webcam and supports only 802.11b although it connected consistently to my home network, something that has not been true of some other Linux-based netbooks. With the Alpha 400's extremely limited driver support, very few USB peripherals will work with the device. Some USB flash drives, for example, would not mount and USB audio is not supported.

The Alpha 400's trackpad has flanked buttons like netbooks from Acer and HP. However, while the buttons from those manufacturers are large to compensate somewhat for their unusual placement, those on the Alpha 400 are small and stiff. The battery, which takes four to five hours to charge, is held in place with two screws. It is next to a reset hole that the instruction sticker on the back (which serves as the entire hardware documentation) recommends pressing if problems are encountered. While the Alpha 400 did freeze twice in a few days of usage, though, a simple restart got it going again.

Also, as noted on the instruction label, closing the device's lid does not put it into Suspend mode. Rather, this is done by the simultaneous pressing of the Function key and one labeled "Zzz." Pressing any key brings you back to work instantly although the device's slow processor makes for a relatively long startup.

The Alpha 400 may be named for its anemic 400MHz MIPS processor. The lack of compatibility with x86 architecture means that Linux programs need to be compiled specifically to run on the device, and the 400 MHz speed means that many run slowly if at all. One of the biggest disadvantages of the Alpha 400 is that it can't play Flash files within the browser, although a separate Flash player is provided to play back .swf files. However, the device's Software Update feature worked without a hitch.

The Alpha 400's user interface looks very much like the Linux-based Eee's "Easy Mode" with tabbed folders serving as a backdrop for large icons. The tabs are for Internet (Bon Echo, a Firefox-based browser, the Sylpheed email client, Pidgin instant messenger, various programs for creating WiFi and dialup connections, and a video search application called Video Online), Work (Abi Word, Gnumeric, a PDF reader and other utilities), Play, Settings and Others (a compression program, software installer and printer manager). The Alpha 400 can accommodate up to four programs open at once and files up to 8MB. There are also several parts of the user interface that clearly have been translated by those without a strong command of English.

Launching the media player presents a dialog box with recommended restrictions. Video should be less than or equal to 350 X 286 pixels running at no greater than 25 frames per second with a bitrate no greater than 129 kbps. Audio bitrates should be no greater than 128 kbps. The manufacturer may be being conservative, though, as a 160 kbps MP3 file played back normally and the Alpha 400 could even play back 720p H.264 video from a Flip Mino HD, albeit at slide show speeds.

Almost every product has at least some small market, but it is difficult to consider who would benefit from the Alpha 400 versus a more expensive netbook with an Intel or Intel-compatible processor or even, for that matter, an iPod touch for Web access within a Wi-Fi hotspot. Its lack of Adobe Flash support makes it a poor choice for browsing the Web and its tiny keyboard and mushy space bar even make it a poor choice for taking notes (although there are worse among netbooks). Linux hackers could likely find some interesting uses for it and the product might be given to children for writing short reports or doing the most rudimentary Web browsing. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about a $170 laptop is that it has a good shot of being 70 percent better than a $100 one.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.