[TECH] Litl Comes Up Short

The fine folks at Litl were nice enough to send us a Litl Webbook to test out and let both big and little hands play around with it.  The results of our tests showed some promise for the Litl company, but there are some shortcomings.

When we opened the box we were impressed with Litl’s attention to design.  Clearly the Litl is intended to draw attention, and it does in a positive way.  The first thing that popped out to us was its screen, which is a little smaller than the rest of the webbook.  The webbook is mostly black and white and has light blue trim.  The laptop hinge doubles as the power button, and the hinge also allows it to be converted into easel mode that our child testers thoroughly enjoyed. It feels sturdy to the point that it feels a little heavy, though it only weighs 3.4 lbs. It is a little cutesy for our taste, but as this is intended to be family and kid friendly, we’ll give it a pass. The hinge is very rugged and overall the unit feels made well enough that most member of the family can be trusted with it without constant supervision.  One nitpick on the design is the choice of a glossy black top — it’s a finger print magnet.

The Litl has a 15-inch screen with full keyboard (minus the unneeded function keys) and a traditional touch pad.  It has a 1.6 GHz Atom processor and 1 GB memory. It’s wireless, has a .3 megapixel webcam and 2 USB ports (same as many netbooks).  One big plus is it outputs 720p, which plays high def content, and can be hooked up to larger displays to play high def content via an HDMI output.  Battery life is an unimpressive estimated 3 hours of use, so don’t be far away from your power supply.

The Litl runs a proprietary operating system called, of course, “Litl OS.”   This OS lets you access your pages via windows uniformly arranged on your desktop.  No menus, icons, or folders.  It’s completely clean and clutter free.  It’s also maintenance free.  No virus protection needed, no software updates to search for.  Litl takes the guesswork out of all the stuff that regular people don’t want to bother with when they have a computer.  We found it very easy to use and found the windows to be similar to the Safari windows when you open up a new page.   All you do is set up your pages and start enjoying.  We found it to be easy and intuitive to switch from ESPN to Gmail to PBS kids.  Litl focuses on highlighting what most people at home use their computers for: checking email, surfing the net, etc… Litl’s theory is they will focus on these items and get rid of everything else.  Our testers found Litl did an excellent job taking away all the “clutter” without us missing it.

It only has a 2 GB hard drive, but if you buy into the pitch that you don’t need a large hard drive (and in this case you don’t), you won’t miss it. I for one can get there, but I feel many customers will need a little more convincing then Litl telling them they don’t need one.  We have a psychological attachment to them.  We need large hard drive until we figure out we don’t.

Now there are some shortcomings to the Litl, which I fear may significantly hinder most customers from picking up this machine.  For one, the Litl needs to be touched and experienced.  If you read what they say on Litl.com you’ll read all kinds of claims and information, but consumers need to touch products, especially computers.  Why do you think there are so many computers on display at Best Buy?  Litl addresses this issue by offering a 2-year unconditional satisfaction guarantee.  Now that is believing in your product, and it’s a good way to get a customer to take a chance on it.

The most obvious thing we feel the Litl missed out on is a touch screen. The whole premise of the Litl OS begs for touch capability.  One of its biggest features, the easel mode, is pretty much useless without the touch capability.  As we explore the photos of people interacting with the Litl on its website, almost every one of them begs for touch interface.  I saw a picture of a man getting out of bed using his Litl like a giant alarm clock.  Cool idea.  What would make it a true selling point would be to wake up to the alarm, and touch the screen to turn it off.  How about touching one of the windows to check the weather, or touch a screen for NPR to check the news, or maybe even a touch to run Pandora.  Suddenly it’s a very compelling machine and we haven’t even gotten out of the bedroom yet.

Another limitation is the price.  At $699.00 ($718.00 with the remote), we feel it is a little pricy for what it offers.  You put a touch screen on it and an instant on feature to cut out the boot up time and maybe you can make an argument for it, but it doesn’t hit that spot for us, awesome warranty or not.  While we give a lot of credit to Litl for trying something different and creating a new OS to run seamlessly with the hardware (a la Apple), we don’t think Litl is in the position to be charging a “Litl tax” for their products, especially when the hardware isn’t offering anything compelling other than original design.

Finally there is the feature set.  The Litl seems to be caught in a nether region performance wise, and while the OS makes the most use of these shortcomings, it doesn’t offer much in the way of flexibility down the road.  Will you still need a machine that only surfs the net in 2 years?  If the Litl was released a year or two ago it may have been able to offer some considerable competition when netbooks were first making their rounds.  Customers then were willing to sacrifice certain features of their computers for the sake if portability.  This would have been the perfect time for Litl to make a mark.  After seeing the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show and the rumors of the inevitable Apple Tablet, we see what other companies have in the pipes, and they are impressive.

In 6 months the mobile computer market will be a whole different landscape.  A large group of tablets and e-readers will be coming to market offering all kinds of innovative interactions with computers. Litl may need to bring more to the table than an intuitive OS and high def output to stay competitive.  I think Litl is really close to being relevant, but there needs to be a Litl 2.0 and it needs to come soon.

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