Review: The litl webbook

litl_product_03I need to apologize up front: This review could get long.  The “litl” is an unusual device, from an unusual company, and it deserves an in depth look and analysis.

This is something new.  This isn’t just another netbook.  It’s not a tablet.  It’s not running Windows or Android or MacOS X.

So what, exactly, is the litl webbook (usually just called the “litl”)?

It’s like a Netbook.  Kinda.  But not really.

The basic idea is this: An always connected, web-focused device that anyone in the house can use… that transforms from netbook into an easel-shaped internet appliance.  And it has a wheel on it.

With me so far?  Let’s go over this one feature at a time.

The Hardware

From a purely physical standpoint, the litl is a remarkably odd thing.  And I mean that in the best way possible.

The screen is 12.1 inches (1280 x 800) with an excellent viewing angle (meaning it looks great no matter what angle you look at it from).  I would say the screen in the litl rivals that in many LCD TV’s in terms of quality.  This is a rather astounding thing in a device that is, to the casual observer, a “laptop”.

Under the hood, the litl is powered by an Intel Atom Z540 (1.86GHz) processor backed by 1GB of RAM and an Intel GMA 500 graphics chip.  (AKA: Plenty of horsepower for a web-focused device, but nothing out of the ordinary.)

Here’s where things start to get a little crazy:

There’s no user accessible storage.

None.  Nadda.  No hard drive.  No Solid State Disk.  The only storage at all is a 2GB Compact Flash drive that is used by the OS (no direct access by the user).

“Say whuuuuu?” you ask.  To which I can only say, “Yes.  It makes sense.  Keep reading.”

In terms of ports, the litl has HDMI (for plugging in to your TV), a singular USB port, an audio out jack and a spot to plug in the power adapter.  Not a lot of options.  But, then again, not a lot of options are needed.

On the front there is an IR sensor (for using with the remote control… oh yeah… there’s a remote control.  Don’t let me forget that!) and on the side are the audio volume controls.

litl_product_07Which brings us to “Easel mode”.

“What in the deuce is ‘easel mode’?!”  A great question!

Easel mode works like this:

You open up a laptop by lifting up the screen.  But what happens if you keep going? Keep lifting the screen until, before you know it, the screen has gone so far as to turn, what was once the keyboard… into a stand for the screen.  (Allowing you to set down the litl on a table top more akin to a TV than a laptop.)

That’s “easel mode”.  That’s right.  The litl is a transformer.  We’ll get into how this works in just a second.

But the first question is, how do you interact with the litl when the keyboard is up-side-down behind the screen?  Typing on it in this mode would be… problematic.

On the hinge of the screen there is a small wheel.  And, next to it on the edge of the hinge, is a singular button.  These are used to interact with the litl when it is in “easel mode”.  And, if you aren’t standing right next to the litl, there is also a remote control.

litl_product_11What controls does the remote control have?  Just that same wheel.  And that single button.

The battery life on the litl is not great.  About 2 hours in my testing.  But, then again, the litl isn’t meant to be a traditional “laptop”.  It was designed to be more of an appliance (kinda) at home, where it would stay always on and always plugged in.

In total it weighs around 3.4 pounds.  Definitely more than your average netbook.  But not huge and hefty.

And it has built-in wifi (802.11 b/g) and a fairly simple VGA resolution webcam.

The whole unit has a design aesthetic that is both unique and appealing.  This isn’t a metal box (in fact it’s entirely plastic).  It’s not some pure white Apple-ish laptop.  It doesn’t look like a business machine in any way, shape or form.  It also doesn’t look like a machine you’d find on the desk of a gamer or most nerds.

It is… in a word… adorable.

The Software

To start with, don’t think of the litl as a typical computer.  This is not your standard laptop or desktop, and trying to approach it as such is just going to frustrate you.

There are no “normal” applications.  You aren’t going to find any icons to double click on your desktop.  Heck, you aren’t even going to find a desktop.

logo_whiteThe litl has an entirely new system called, appropriately litl OS.  And here’s how it works:

When you turn on your litl it displays a black screen with the word “litl” on it.

Then it connects to your homes wireless network and checks for any updates.  If you leave your litl on overnight it will also check for updates in the background while you sleep.  This cannot be disabled.

Normally forced auto-updating of software would annoy me to no end… but for the litl I’m actually pretty okay with it.

The whole point is to provide an always-up-to-date (and always virus free) connected device.  And, since you can’t install any desktop applications (like Photoshop, etc.), this really doesn’t pose a problem.

Once this update is complete, you are presented with the main litl screen, which is a thumbnail view of all your “cards”.

Think of “cards” as windows or tabs in a web browser.  For every tab you’d have open in your browser on your desktop computer… on your litl you’ll have a card.

litl_product_05Clicking on that card with the built-in trackpad opens up that “card” to full screen mode.  Clicking on the “litl” button in the upper left corner of the screen will return you back to the main thumbnail card view.

(Interesting note: There is also a “litl” button in the bottom left corner of the keyboard that performs the same function.  And… get this… there’s no “Windows” key… or anything like it.)

All applications (or cards) on the litl are web applications.  There is even a litl version of an “application store” called the “Card Catalog” (all the cards there are free).

So expect to be using a lot of things like GMail, Google Docs, Pandora (for your music), Meebo (for instant messaging), Facebook and Flash-based games (such as on Kongregate).

When I first learned about the litl, and it’s complete lack of “native” applications, my gut reaction was roughly like this:

“Are you freaking kidding me?  Why on this green earth of ours would I ever want to be stuck only using web applications?!  Not a chance you’ll ever catch me with a device like that!”  (If memory serves I ranted on like this for some time.)

Those of you who know me from Jupiter Broadcasting have an idea of just how opinionated I can be, and that I don’t exactly relish the idea of being wrong.

litl_lifestyle_13But, in this case, I was absolutely wrong.

The web-application-only approach that the litl has taken works extremely well.  In my daily usage of the litl over the last several weeks I have found that there is very little I can’t do with this little device.  Turns out: Most of what I do with my normal computer is all web-based already.

In fact, more and more I simply reach for the litl when I want to look something up online.  Or check my email.  Or watch something on youtube.  Or hop in to Facebook.  Or check my schedule for the week in Google Calendar.

Does this make the litl a glorified Web Browsing-only device?  Kinda.

Or at least it would… if that’s all it did.

There are several cards that are written specifically for when the litl is in easel mode.  Simple things… displaying the current weather, a picture slideshow (the litl makes a stellar web-connected digital photo frame), a digital alarm clock, etc..

They all look and work great.  You can cycle through all the Easel optimized cards you have running by turning that wheel that is built in to the display hinge, and select them by hitting the button next to it.

And, if you think having this display on and going while you sleep will be annoying, there is a setting to turn off the display between any hours you choose.  Very handy.

The interface is not really customizable at all.  It’s simple and attractive, but not overly “flashy”.  There’s no pulsating “aqua” blue buttons.  Just simple, classy lines and smooth animations (such as when going from the thumbnail view of all your cards, to the full screen view for a card).  About the only customization you can do is re-order the cards (which is a simple matter of dragging them around).


Normally I don’t care about the box a device or computer comes in.

It’s just a box.  I view boxes as obstacles that are there to keep me from playing with a new toy.

But this box… is great.

On the font of the box reads the following:

“Inside you will find an internet computer, not a laptop.  We believe computers have become too complex.  We hit the reset button by designing an experience different than a PC.  Simplicity over features.  Design over options.  Entertainment not just work.  Sounds like a lot, but actually it’s a litl.”

Then, on the inside, there is a small black box.  In it are a series of… flash cards.  Drawn by David Macaulay (author and illustrator of “The Way Things Work“) to teach you how to use the litl.

It is freaking adorable.

litl_product_02Some Uber Nerdy Notes

The litl OS is Linux based.  Ubuntu to be specific.  But it bears no resemblance (from a user standpoint) to any operating system out there.  There’s no command line.  No application repositories.  No Gnome Panel, KDE bar or Start menu’s to be found.

The user interface makes heavy use of Clutter (a toolkit for building animated user interfaces).  Which I think is very cool.

The litl company itself has some very interesting folks working there.  Including Havoc Pennington who, if you are off-the-charts nerdy, you will recognize as having been the chair of the Gnome Foundation (among other things).

All of this brings some substantial “nerd-cred” to the litl.

Many of you might note some similarities to Google’s Chrome OS.  Both Chrome OS and litl OS are entirely “web based” (no non-web applications).  That’s where the similarities seem to end.  The litl OS has a more unique interface (the cards) whereas Chrome OS seems more a traditional tab-based web browser look and feel.  Plus, and here’s a big point, the litl is here.  Right now.  Chrome OS based devices will ship “in the future”.

The Future

The guys over at litl have sat down with me to go over what they’ve got in the works for the litl.  And, to be clear, every new feature they’ll be releasing will be an automatic (and free) update for all litl owners.

The big update for me will be webcam functionality.  Currently… the built-in webcam doesn’t really do anything (as it needs software to power it).  They have stated this is in the works but can’t go into further details or time-line.  So that will have to do for now.

But there’s also a bunch of new updates coming that are, according to litl, planned to be quite soon (possibly during the month of February if all goes according to their plans):

  • Google Picassa and Shutterfly cards plus the ability to upload pictures from a usb device.
  • A new Calendar card.
  • Some family games.
  • NPR radio.

According to litl they also are in the process of upgrading to Flash 10.1 which will speed up video playback and, with that, they will also be releasing an SDK to allow developers to create Flash-based content that specifically takes advantage of the litl (and its Easel mode).

Based on the fairly rapid improvements they’ve made to the litl software in just the short time since release, I feel pretty confident that we are likely to see these updates soon.

litl_lifestyle_06The Verdict

I love the litl.

Let’s just get that right out of the way.  It is an incredible and unique device that was designed with amazing grace and engineered with some serious talent.

But it does have some downsides.  And I am going to list them all here.

  • The Price.  At $699 the litl is not cheap.  I think at, say, $499 I could easily recommend the litl to just about everyone.  But, until the price comes down a little, I think the litl is going to be a tad outside most people’s price range.  That said, after being able to use it for this review, I will likely be buying one myself.
  • The webcam currently doesn’t have software for video chat.  This isn’t a deal breaker.  In fact, that it has a webcam is a plus (the new Apple iPad doesn’t have one for example)… but I am impatient for being able to use it (especially now that I know it will be coming).
  • The battery life is not great.  While 2 hours of battery life is enough to carry around the house for a while, it’s not stellar.  But, then again, this isn’t a laptop in the conventional sense.  And I’ve only fully drained the battery when I’ve actively tried to do so.

I am a nerd.  I like command lines.  I like being able to tweak my system to do things my own way.  I like hard, metal edges.

And, yet, I love this… cute… little device.  Even with the downsides listed above, the litl has become a key part of my home computing.

I would, without hesitation, recommend the litl to a few key types of people:

  • Grandparents.  Grandparents.  Grandparents.  This device will, literally, have no tech support once it’s up and running.  No viruses (virii?).  No Spyware.  No way for grandpa to accidentally delete some important system files.  Easy to use, only a few buttons to click.  Boom.  Grandparents are online and looking at your pictures from flickr or facebook.
  • Kids.  The litl is sturdy as heck (no hard drive built in) and has rounded corners.  So kids aren’t likely to hurt it or themselves (at least not unless they go Hulk-Angry-Smash on you… but then you’ve got bigger problems to worry about).  And, again, they won’t be downloading stuff on to your computer by accident.
  • Nerds who want at least one device at home they don’t have to worry about (plus it’s a good conversation starter).

Will the litl be a financial success?  I have no idea.  But I really hope so.  The litl dares to do things differently (and succeeds).  And that is something I want to see a lot more of in this industry.

And, in the interests of full disclosure: I don’t own a litl.  The litl that is currently sitting in front of me is on temporary loan from the company.  That’s right.  I have to send it back.  And, believe me, when FedEx picks up this box to take the litl back to its home… that day, if you listen carefully on the internet, you just might hear a grown nerd-man cry.

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  • Alan Pope

    I’d be interested to hear what your experience of flash video is like on that device. How does it cope playing your own Jupiter Broadcasting output for example? Full screen flash video? Hulu (or similar)?

    Given it has an HDMI port it seems logical to me that it might be connected to a TV for watching videos (I don’t look at photos on the telly, but I’m sure someone does).

  • Bryan

    Alan: Flash video playback is pretty good. Including Hulu and Youtube. It stuttered a fair bit with HD content, but not terrible. My hope is that the upcoming Flash 10.1 update will improve on that a smidge.

  • Richard Querin

    Sounds like a nice device without any preconceptions of being designed for “everyone”(tm). Not a big surprise given that Havoc Pennington was involved. Of course there will be the requisite scream of ‘why isn’t it easily crackable.. I should be able to put Debian on this?”.. but such is the case with a device with a strong design goal in mind. Good design needs to focus on a specific audience, you can’t help alienating other audiences when you do that.

    Interesting and thorough review btw. Maybe you can sweet talk them into sending the device to me before it goes back. :)

  • shane

    I don’t see much of a difference between the Litl and Chrome OS software wise… but your opinions of the two are worlds apart… Strange…

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  • Jimmy H

    Bryan, I really don’t see how you can endorse this HIGHLY overpriced nothing and hit the iPad so hard. I’m not for the iPad at all, but I’m also not for this thing. I would buy the litl webbook if it was <$200, because my PHONE does more than this, and my phone was $99.

  • pragmaticmom

    i have been using the litl as a family computer for a while and am finding it to be a great kitchen/family computer, especially for the kids. my 5-year-old doesn’t have to google to find his websites because i set cards for his sites. we use it in the morning to streamline checking the weather and the daily calendar for the day. i blog on this at please see entry: Loving My litl Webbook.

    in terms of price point, my other computer is an iBook which my kids also comandeer. they use both computers in the same way, but the litl is much less expensive.

    Pragmatic Mom

  • Alan Pope

    @richard Good luck running any recent distro on it, it’s got Intel GMA 500 (poulsbo) video driver. Such a shame.

    Of course if you’re an average joe user that this device is aimed at, you probably don’t care. However I can see that – with a driver that will not get updated and won’t run with newer kernels – the litl could get into the same stale state that the Eee Xandros distro got into.

  • ProjectMorris

    Litl…hmmm Glossy coffee table magazine computing? I’m torn. The ipad was, after my head went back in gear, a disappointment. This however is more like i’d envisage a home internet device, but the price makes me squeak. I think all the tablet manufactures are circling what will be the right answer to this, both in functionality and interface but I’m not sure its there yet and is the market for this stuff big enough to allow sufficient “Beta” time to find the right solution? I’m not convinced. As you have seen there is already a flurry of these devices, who will have sufficient capital to ride this to completion? I have my doubts at this price point if Litl will be around in two years.