Category Archives: Ubisurfer

Return of the Ubisurfer

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Back in January I bought a Datawind Ubisurfer, a small netbook running Linux. You can read my first impressions of it here.

It wasn’t too bad for the price, and I used it a lot at work and whenever I was stuck on a train.

Back in May, I attempted to upgrade the software on it and it went all wrong. The internal GPRS modem refused to be recognised, the MP3 player packed it, and it stopped recognising USB memory sticks.

After a few email exchanges and a bit of confusion (two tech support people with the same name!), I finally got around to sending it back to them at the end of July.

It’s back, and this time it’s WinCE!

Firstly, some hardware specs (again):

  • Display: 7 inch TFT – Wide screen display, 800 x 480 pixels (WVGA)
  • Memory: 128MB Ram; 1GB Flash
  • Networking: Embedded Cellular Modem,Wireless LAN WiFi IEEE 802.11 b/g, 10BaseT Ethernet Interface
  • Control: Touch Mouse Pad – Dual Button, Standard 80 Key Keyboard
  • Battery & Power: Lithium Polymer (Approximate Working Time: 3 hours), or External DC Adapter
  • Size/Weight: 222 x 165 x 29.5 m, 700 grams
  • Ports: Push-Push SD card socket, USB Port, Earphone & Ethernet jacks.

As for software, the thing is now running Windows Embedded CE 6.0 Core, which means that it goes from Off to Usable in about 7 seconds.

Softmaker Office 2008 comes pre-installed, which includes the usual suspects of a spreadsheet, wordprocessor, presentation maker and Outlook-a-like mail client.

Browsing is done with either the UbiSurfer browser, which works through the embedded cellular modem, and a somewhat restricted version of Internet Explorer 6.

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The UbiSurfer browser uses a proprietory protocol to have your pages rendered on one of Datawind’s servers and then sent ina compressed form to your machine. While this was painfully bad on the Linux version, it actuall seems to work fairly well this time. Once you’ve got the think connected, which takes about 30 seconds, and loaded the home page (above), it is reasonable speedy for a cell-phone connection. While taking longer than the 7 seconds quoted in the bumph, mine loads the BBC News page in a about 10 seconds. Sometimes it can be annoying and take a while to tab between fields, but generally it works.

Using a WiFi connection and Internet Explorer gives you pretty much what you expect, but ActiveX and Flash cause problems, making Facebook and Google Mail annoying. And it constantly asks if you really want to visit pages with outdated certificates. Pretty much par for the course with IE6.

With WiFi you can apparently also use the Chat program which I really can’t be bothered to test, and a YouTube viewer which I haven’t managed to get working yet.

There’s also a PDF viewer, general media player and ebook reader on there. They work fairly well, but the PDF reader is very slow.

Games wise you get Allure Xonix, one of those draw boxes and capture an area while avoiding bouncy things games, Tile Fall, one of those click on blocks to destroy them in the right order games, and Paint, one of those not real a game but lumped in with them games. A better menu title might have been Entertainment, but probably not.

Finally, there is a thing called Terminal, which seems to be neither use nor ornament. It seems to be written to access the on-board modem, but doesn’t seem to work. Neither does it support Telnet, which is a bit of a pain in the arse.

All in all, and it pains me to say this, the Windows CE version is miles better that the older Linux version. It’s actually usable for a start. Apart from the lack of a telnet client, obviously.

UPDATE:

The telnet problem is now solved, by installing PocketPuTTY.

Download “PocketPuTTY 2007-02-28 dev build for PPC2002 (release)” from the PocketPuTTY Downloads page, and copy the putty.exe file from the archive to your device. Either dump it on the desktop or put it somewhere else and create a shortcut to it.

Datawind UbiSurfer first impressions

I’m trying to get to grips with my impulse purchase of the week. For reasons best left unexplored I’ve parted with about 120 quid for a Datawind UbiSurfer from Maplin. Its a ex-display model, hence the slight price reduction over the RRP of £149.99.

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So, what is the UbiSurfer? In short, its a cheap netbook running an implementation of Linux. Oh, with a years free internet access thrown in.

More about that later, but first the specs:

  • 7 inch 800×400 TFT screen
  • 128MB RAM, 1GB Solid State disk
  • Full QWERTY keyboard and Touchpad mouse
  • Push-Push SD card socket and 2 USB ports (the box says 3, but I have 2 and a connector I’ve never seen before)
  • Measures 222x165x29.5mm, weighs 700g
  • Battery life provides 4 hours active use and 4 hours

Note the lack of a spec concerning the processor. Apparently it is some form of ARM 500Mhz job.

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Applications wise you get the usual word processing and spreadsheet offerings, and a collections of email clients, PDF readers and the like, all GPLed programs.

For web browsing you have Mozilla IceWeasel (Firefox), which only works when connected via a Wifi hotspot, and the UbiSurfer browser itself.
And now we get to the main (only) reason that I bought this thing: free internet access. Included in the price of the device is 30 hours access per month (for a year) to Vodaphone’s GPRS network, via an onboard modem. As we all know, GPRS isn’t exactly lightening fast, but Datawind claim that any web page can be loaded in 7 seconds.

This is supposed to be achieved by Datawind pre-rendering the web pages on their servers (in Canada) and sending them on in a compressed form to the UbiSurfer browser, which then decodes and displays them.
Ok, that sounds fine in theory, but in practice its not so good.
Datawind’s own site (www.datawind.com) takes about fifteen seconds to load, and more complex site such a Google Mail can take up to a minute to fully render.
This pre-rendering process also throws up problems when entering data onto a web page. Tabbing between fields can take up to ten seconds.
Obviously these problems don’t occur when using IceWeasel and connecting via a Wifi hotspot.

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But, oddly, my biggest complaint about the UbiSurfer browser is about the hideous splash screen which also comes up when you disconnect, thus preventing you from viewing pages offline. Here it is in all its glory.

splashJust look at the smug pissweasel. Those grass stains are going to raise questions in the office after lunch. Luckily you can overwrite the this image with something less irritating.

I shall continue to persevere with this thing, in the hope that I can find a use for it.