eWis, for those not in the know, is a local company: back in 2013, they set up a 25,000 square foot facility and announced that they were going to make their own laptops. It was perhaps one of Sri Lanka’s most underhyped tech milestones; no news came out of that factory after the launch announcement. No products, no press, nothing. Our efforts to orchestrate a visit fell through because of security precautions and a visiting minister, so we left it at that.
Fast forward to this year. eWis is surreptitiously invading our awareness. First we glimpsed an All-In-One PC that looked a lot like an Apple monitor; later, Indika De Zoysa of Intel let me have a couple of minutes with an eWis Ultrabook – sleek, machined and looking surprisingly good, but unfortunately it was a display unit with a dying battery. Still, it got us interested again.
So when a couple of tiny convertible tablet / laptop PCs arrived in our office, we were interested. They had a price tag – Rs 36,000 each. We’re well aware that Macbook-like levels of design and utility don’t exist here, but it’s not everyday you get a tablet that was made in the same country as the tea you drank this morning. And while we engaged in some really tough research for Avurudu – like how to make chocolate kokis – we gave one of the units to a few people with the brand name taped over.
Surprisingly, many mistook it for an Asus device.
So, after a week’s worth of subjecting the thing to the Readme life, it’s time to answer the question: how good is it?
All of their strengths, some of their weaknesses
The eTAB Hybrid (T900G) is a convertible: it’s a tablet with an add-on keyboard that locks in right and the center of the screen.
The tablet and the tablet-plus-keyboard are two drastically different experiences, so let’s start with the tab part. It’s a 8.9-inch capacitive touch screen embedded in a mostly plastic frame. There’s a panel of brushed aluminum at the back, hemmed in and circled with matte plastic; a capacitive Windows button on the front; volume rocker and headphone jack on the left side of the device. It’s not thin – a good 1.7 cm thick, by our measurements. The overall impression is not unlike having an oversized Lumia. It looks decent, and feels satisfyingly heavy. There’s a microUSB port at the bottom which apparently charges the device. That’s a neat touch. Inside this is an Intel Atom Z3735F – basically, a low-voltage processor with four cores running at 1.33 Ghz – and 2 gigabytes of RAM. And a 24 GB eMMC drive from Samsung. It’s got two microSIM slots.
Normally, running processing benchmarks on something like this would be pointless, but our of curiosity, we ran NovaBench. We got a score of 326 (link). Looking through the builds around that mark – that’s roughly equivalent to an old desktop Core 2 Duo. So it’s basically Chrome, Word and Powerpoint, with a side order of YouTube. Bring it on, Jeeves.
The screen is an odd one.
It responds well to touch input. You don’t have to chickenfoot around, either – thumb contact works perfectly fine. It also seems to be an IPS display, albeit a cheap one. The colors are decent – a slightly warmer, friendlier tint that the Acer C720 Chromebook I’m typing this review on; the blacks have a slight brown tint, but overall, the colors are better than with what we’ve seen from sub-70K laptops, visible from a wide range of angles.
The resolution, though, is strange. Windows shows the tab running at a resolution of 1920×1200, but also says it’s running at less than 1680×1260. It’s actually running at 1097×685 – a frankly weird resolution that might account for the visibly low pixel density. The screen itself is detected as a “Digital Flat Panel (640×480 60Hz)”. I can’t say whether this is simply our demo device, but frankly, it’s not very encouraging. The result of this is that the screen is nowhere near as sharp as it should be.
We expected this to affect our tests, but everything else worked without a hitch. Windows 8 shines on this device: menus are fluid, programs respond well, and the accuracy of the touch screen – which almost every other budget tab compromises on – makes it a surprisingly user-friendly experience. The on-screen keyboard is set to Sinhala by default, but set it to English and you get a finger-friendly split QWERTY layout that actually works. Soon we had the T900G connected the Wi-Fi and were spending a day at office playing the Pete Holmes show and Epic Rap Battles; HD video played without a hitch. The display is definitely not crisp, but the colors were fairly pleasant and the sound was surprisingly loud and sharp for a mobile device. It’s definitely louder than most of our laptops.
At no point did we run into any lag while Youtubing in Chrome, which was surprising. We ran it for 2 hours and 12 minutes of nonstop video playback, on Wi-Fi, at full volume. By the end of the test, the battery was flat and all of us were heartily sick of rap battles.
All in all? Very usable – we have Andrew’s Acer Iconia w500 in the office, one of the first-gen touchscreen tablets that could run Windows 8, and this thing is far better than that relic – more like a budget Surface than anything. The screen is capable, and the pixel starvation doesn’t seem to affect stuff like browsing the web or regular Windows programs. It’s not even close to being comparable to an iPad or an actual Surface, but it’s usable.
However, it has a drawback: no USB ports.
It actually has no USB ports, so good luck connecting that pen drive. This is the most glaring drawback. They’ve tried to make up for it by offering microUSB ports, but when was the last time you copied the .NET framework setup off a microUSB device? You need to use the OTG cable in the box to connect things to this one.
The second drawback is the keyboard.
I like the fact that there is a keyboard attachment. What I don’t like is the keyboard itself.
They’ve made concessions to space constraints – understandable. Traditional functions like screenshotting are compressed into the function keys, with an Fn button that lets you use them. It’s just that the actual size of the keys, combined with the jarring placement, makes it difficult to use. Someone with small fingers might have better luck: The keyboard comes with a touchpad, which is frankly mediocre. And needless, given how accurate the screen is. In fact, the keyboard attachment has little utility – it has no ports or speakers. The T900G is competent without it. It even feels more premium without it.
But for the price?
36 thousand rupees. If it weren’t for the odd screen and the lack of USB, I’d say that sounds like a steal. With the screen – throw in the copy of Windows and that still doesn’t make up for the massive oversight of not having USB ports.
I like the fact that they’ve localised it off the bat: while I’m useless at typing in Sinhala, it’s common sense that this just makes the T900G so much more appealing to Sri Lanka’s populace. Clearly the local industry has what it takes to product a real, no-frills convertible with no major flaws: now it just needs to get there. If they do it right, this actually might be something worth ditching the Chromebook for. Until then, though, this one sits out on our bench.