Monday, 27 July 2015

Linx 10: Icicles Rocked by Waves

Goodbye stretcher. You remember tee-hee. The grand old duke of salamander took off with barney's bull and roasted three pence of finest great dane. The flat-wheeled flick pass flicked a live wire lizard and today we're going to have a look at the Linx 10. It's one of those Windows tablets that emerged overnight at the tail end of 2014.

It runs Windows 8.1 with Bing and it's essentially a laptop PC but in tablet form, at a price point that competes directly with Android tablets. Unlike ARM-powered Windows RT tablets it's compatible with all of the typical PC applications that you know and love, such as Photoshop and Steam and so forth, and unlike Microsoft's own Intel-powered Surface Pro tablets it isn't vastly overpriced.

It doesn't run Android natively, although it's powerful enough to run an Android emulator such as DUOS, for example:

Looking squashed there in a window - it's a lot better full-screen.

A wave of these cheap tablets appeared last year. Microsoft wanted to get Windows 8.1 out there and Intel wanted to sell some of its mobile Atom chips - the two companies were starting to worry that Android running on ARM would steal away their future - and so both companies slashed their licence fees. OEM manufacturers in the Far East immediately responded by launching these things.

There have been some name-brand Windows tablets and lots of models from made-up companies that don't really exist; Linx seems to be the most popular in the UK. As far as I can tell Linx is just a postal address and a website. Google keeps telling me that I'm searching for Linux instead; I'm not.

Running STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which is surprisingly playable even at 1920x1080 on an external monitor. The most obvious problem is that the Linx is a touchscreen tablet, but almost all PC games require a keyboard and mouse, which means you have to start plugging things into the tablet and packing extra peripherals in your suitcase, which removes some of its portability.

Linx sells three Windows 8.1 with Bing tablets. What's Windows 8.1 with Bing? It's Windows 8.1 with Bing as the default search engine in IE. I don't use IE so I don't notice it. You can change it. It's not a problem.

Will it upgrade to Windows 10? Apparently so, although I'll wait until Windows 10 has been out for a while before doing so:

EDIT: In the next-but one post I upgraded to Windows 10, which was painless although the installation process almost filled up the hard drive. Running Disk Cleanup returned most of the space, although running this removes the possibility of going back to Windows 8.1. The upgrade ditches the with Bing nonsense and installs plain Windows 10 Home instead:

Linx sells three Windows 8.1 with Bing tablets. I've said that before. Three of them. The Linx 7, the Linx 8, and the Linx 10. They're broadly the same, with a 1280x800 touchscreen, a quad-core Intel Atom clocked at 1.33ghz, 1gb of memory, a mini-HDMI port, headphone socket, one mini-USB port, one MicroSD slot.

They all have a tiny 32gb eMMC flash drive for onboard storage, which is slower than an SSD and really only large enough for Windows and Office and a few other applications. You're supposed to offload everything - especially Steam games - onto the MicroSD card, which is a tenner for another 32gb, half again for 64gb.

There are differences between the models. The screen size, obviously. The Linx 7 has a 7" screen, the Linx 8 an 8" screen etc. Windows 8.1 with Bing is free on smaller devices but manufacturers still have to pay for anything larger than 9"; the Linx 10 is proportionately more expensive than the other two models, but perhaps to compensate for this Linx doubled the memory to 2gb. That's the main reason I bought the 10" model. Prices are roughly £60, £90, and £150 respectively. Of the three, the 8" model seems to be the most popular.

Another thing - the 7" and 8" models charge through the micro USB port, the 10" model has a separate charging port, which means you can leave it plugged in while using the USB port. Sadly the charger has a very short cable.

Windows 8.1 is a mixed bag. I've used the tablet editions of Windows 8, Windows 7, and Windows XP, and 8.1 is fine but in one respect it feels a bit of a step back - the keyboard doesn't automatically pop up when you select a text area! You have to continually pop open the keyboard manually. And the "keyboard close" button is right next to the "delete / back" button, so I constantly find myself typing search terms, hitting enter, hitting delete/back accidentally, and then going back a page.

The XP / Windows 7 floating keyboard was better - it popped up automatically and you could grab and resize it much more easily. Google Chrome tries to restore some of the pop-up functionality although it's hit and miss.

It's Half-Life 2. The machine has some trouble with DOSBox - it's a CPU-intensive application, and ironically UFO: Enemy Unknown was very sluggish - but mid-2000s 3D games seem to run really well.

Performance-wise, my Linx 10 is roughly on a par with one of the slower Core Duo laptops from 2006 or so, or at least that's what the SuperPi score suggests:

That's the kind of score that you'd expect from one of the 1.6ghz, 1.4ghz Core Duos. But on the other hand it has a much more powerful graphics system than any 2006 laptop and feels subjectively must faster - I mentally peg it as a really fast Core II Duo desktop system of the mid-late 2000s, except in a box the size and weight of one of those posh rectangular plates you get at posh restaurants. With the sauce dribbled around the outside of the food.

I'm a long-term tower case desktop PC man, with five fans and two hard drives and expansion cards and external hard drives, but I'm impressed at how far and fast mobile chips have come on in the last ten years. The Linx 10 doesn't have a fan, it's lightweight, it's on a par with a good laptop of a few years ago, but it's the same size and weight as one of those posh plates etc sauce etc.

I used mine with an external monitor at 1920x1080 for a while. It chugged a little but that might have been raised expectations on my part. The 1gb models probably wouldn't be much fun, and even with 2gb Firefox lags a bit, but you can in theory hook any of these machines up to an external monitor, plug in a keyboard and mouse (or use a wireless suite, in which case you only use one USB port), and use them as basic browsing / wordprocessing / simple games machines.

The Intel x86 / Windows architecture was invincible a decade ago. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and "wintel" doesn't seem invincible any more. Wintel is less of a draw than it was, but it's still a powerful draw. With the 7" or 8" models you have Photoshop in your pocket - grown-up, full-sized Photoshop. It probably won't be very fast Photoshop but you have that option. For music applications something like Ableton Live works at 1280x800; if you're recording interviews a Linx tablet with Audacity plus an external microphone rivals a pocket recorder for portability and beats it for flexibility. There are fewer and fewer things you can't do with Android nowadays, but generally Wintel does everything all at once and there are more options.

With an external monitor, running Firefox on the desktop (top) and a Metro application (bottom).

Surprisingly my Linx came without any bloatware at all, just a year's free subscription to Microsoft Office which you have to redeem by August. This gives you the option to install Office on a PC, a tablet, and a smartphone, and obviously trendy people like you and I pooh-pooh Office but the plebs might like it.

Will it last? The Linx is a sealed unit, neither the battery nor the flash drive can be replaced. There's no way to boot from the Micro SD card, so if the internal hard drive fails the device is kaput; but you're probably not going to keep your life on it. The battery lasts for six hours or so although Windows taxes it even when it's on standby - it helps if you disconnect from wifi and turn "flight mode" on. Eventually both the battery and flash drive will wear down although I suspect the machine will have been shoved into a cupboard long before then.

And that's the Linx. As with the Eee netbook of a generation ago it's really an expectation game. As a Windows laptop it's far behind the curve, and once you add a keyboard and mouse it's not portable any more; but as a pocket tablet that runs actual genuine Windows applications it's amazing.

What's it like to use? I took it on holiday to Budapest earlier in the year, replacing my Asus Transformer. I used it exclusively in desktop mode, in which case the buttons are occasionally fiddly but otherwise it was more flexible than an Android tablet. I used it mostly to surf the internet or read Kindle books. One thing Android/iOS has that the Windows App store doesn't is a range of airline check-in applications; DUOS dealt with that, and I suppose if you have an Android smartphone you can use that instead, but it's one of a growing number of things that don't have standard Windows equivalents, which is a sign of the times. On the other hand, I could interface the Linx with my hand-held Garmin eTrex GPS navigator, pop open Google Earth and EasyGPS, and transmit waypoints to the eTrex, which would have been awkward or impossible with Android. VLC plays any of the porn you download-thing, it plays anything.

As a mobile productivity device it has the same problem as all other tablets - you have to pack a keyboard and a mouse and perhaps a USB hub and an SD card reader and some extra (Micro)SD cards, and the charger, at which point you have a bundle that takes up as much room as a laptop. But you can use the tablet independently. I suspect that one of the biggest First World Problems - your smartphone is powerful but too small to use all the time, your tablet doesn't make phone calls and isn't practical as a GPS navigator or phone, packing both feels redundant but you have to take the phone but the tablet is very useful too - is irresolvable.


Over the last few years I've tried a variety of mobile solutions. At first I used books, which last for years but are very limited unless you cut out the pages and re-arrange them. Then I used an original Asus Eee 701, one of the cute little white models; then I upgraded to a later seashell Asus Eee 1005HA, which was less cute but a lot more functional. The Linx is faster and lighter than late-period netbooks.

Then I moved to a Thinkpad X61 12" subnotebook, which was lighter than the netbooks and much more powerful, but only slightly larger - netbooks had lost the plot by then - and eventually I tried out an original Asus Transformer TF101, an Android tablet with an unusually functional keyboard dock. I am essentially platform-independent (the headline image shows a Linx sitting on top of an old MacBook Pro, which is really too large to use on the move), and of all these different solutions to the problem of reading, researching, writing, surfing the internet and listening to music whilst on holiday or on the train I'm not sure which is best.

The Linx has the performance of a really fast netbook and it's even lighter than the Asus Transformer, although the battery doesn't last as long, and I prefer the Android version of Kindle to the Windows desktop version. App-wise, Windows is hard to evaluate - the Windows Store apps are mostly dire and pointless, with a huge number of outright cons, but on the other hand you have the standard Windows repertoire, but then again as with netbooks none of the standard Windows applications are optimised for a small touchscreen, but again again the 1280x800 screen of the Linx is a standard PC resolution whereas the 1024x600 screens of netbooks was not.

Emotionally I prefer the Thinkpad, because it feels like a proper computer. It has a really nice keyboard. I still have it, whereas I have sold off most of the aforementioned. But it doesn't fit easily into a bag and the battery life isn't very good, and it's not something that can easily be whipped out and turned on. My hunch is that something like a MacBook Air would be ideal, but perhaps there is no single solution to the mobile problem. It is nonetheless striking to think back all the way to 2000, 2001, when mobile internet was a pipe dream; we've come a long way since then.