Jolibook by Vye review

What do you use your laptop for? While power users will claim that their laptop is their life, for most people it’s surfing the web, checking emails, and the odd bit of video watching. If you fall into that second category then you’ll probably be interested in the Jolibook by Vye, a laptop that promises an easy to use interface for those looking for a simple life. But is it simple and does this approach work?

On a desk the Jolicloud Jolibook by Vye looks like any other laptop. Okay so it’s got a limited edition colourful lid that’s designed to make you stand out from the crowd, but aside from that, there’s the usual collection of connection options down either side of the model. In this case it’s power, USB, mic in and headphone out on the left-hand side and a VGA, Ethernet, two further USB sockets, and an SD card on the right. There’s no connectivity on the rear, and that’s because of the rather large six-cell battery that sticks out of the back. It does mean that you’ll be able to use your Jolibook for around 7 hours without needing a socket.

Open the Jolibook and you’re presented with a 10.1-inch glossy screen with a 1024 x 600-pixel resolution display, standard for a device of this size. There is a chiclet keyboard, and beneath that a trackpad and single button. The trackpad is built into the chassis design only highlighted with a bobble effect - almost braille like. From a design perspective it looks good and thankfully it works well.

The keyboard is well spaced, comfortable to use and features all the regular buttons you would expect it to come with. It’s like every other chiclet keyboard you’ve probably used in the past. In addition to the standard keys there are some dedicated embellishments. The F-keys with the help of the function button give shortcuts to a number of features like Wi-Fi and taking a screen shot, while a Jolicloud button returns you back to the Jolicloud homepage when pressed.

Inside you get an Intel Atom N550 dual core processor and 250GB hard drive. There’s Wi-Fi as you would expect for an operating system based on “the cloud” and there’s Bluetooth tucked inside as well. For those that care you’ll also get 1GB of RAM and Intel GMA 3150 graphics. This is a netbook when it comes to specs, despite the company's protestations that it isn't.

Where the Jolicloud Jolibook is hoping to stand out though is not on the specs front, but on the user experience. Jolicloud is based on a Linux OS and lets websites behave a bit like native apps, presenting a mix of what are essentially browser links and offline apps. What that means in practice is that you turn on the computer, login, and away you go - all very simple.

The login element stands-out for two reasons, one to protect your data, but also so that you can log into the Jolicloud system wherever you are whether you’ve got your Jolibook with you or not. That means you can access the same account on a variety of machines whether they are running the software as a dedicated platform, as a bootable option, or within Google’s Chrome browser.

However, be warned, if you forget your password there is no going back. While logging in via the company’s website offers a chance to have said password reset and instructions on how to get back emailed to you, the same isn’t the case for the Jolibook itself. If you forget your password the only option is to download the software, create a USB boot key with another computer and start again, reinstalling the OS and losing all your data stored locally along with it. It’s such an awkward move for what professes to be a consumer-friendly device from the outset. The software doesn’t even offer a hint option to help people remember their password. It’s remember or reinstall.

Forgetful memory aside, once you’ve got into the system there are over 1000 apps currently available to play with. The web apps are basically links to the relevant website - so Flickr goes to the Flickr site while Twitter to twitter.com, but instead of running them in yet another tab of a browser they are run in a separate “app” that you can toggle between with Alt-Tab. For those that really must get their fix of their favourite windows app then you can install Wine and run Windows apps that way, but that route is unlikely to be discovered by the kind of user the Jolibook is aimed at.

The second big element to the Jolibook and the Jolicloud interface is a social section that lets you follow other friends, and them you, so you can see what apps they are running and share the apps you are running. It’s all about sharing in a social way making this a “social OS” rather than an OS that is just about other social services like Facebook or Twitter.

The idea is that by following one of the top Jolicloud users for example, you can discover new apps and expand your horizons. It’s a nice idea but relies on you wanting to share applications with others using Jolibook. We know just two people that use the OS so our friend stream is pretty empty - unless we start following random people it is likely to stay that way.

The third area to the OS is folders that gives you access to the Jolibook’s 250GB hard drive, meaning you can store images, files, video and other bits and bobs locally for when you aren’t connected to the Internet. If you are planning on making this a totally connected experience then the Jolicloud interface supports Dropbox, Box.net and ZumoDrive pre-installed, as well as others via the app panel.

The operating system itself is very easy to use with much of the focus being on clicking on icons to load the relevant website for many of the online services. It mimics an app arrangement of a smartphone to a certain extent, so it feels like you are using an app, when for the online services you are simply using the regular web interface. Of course to do so requires internet access, so some services won't work when offline.

The Twitter app is nothing more than a link to the Twitter homepage, likewise with other apps like Flickr and Facebook, and that’s something that you can get on a standard netbook running Windows 7 at the same price, which might be a stumbling block for potential customers. It’s the biggest problem the Jolibook faces. An operating system that needs the Internet to run is fine if you’re around your home or in your office, but not if you are on the road.

Luckily there are plenty of apps that don’t require you to have internet access allowing you to use the laptop when you are offline. It’s also worth pointing out that we were pleasantly surprised by the number of apps, including some big names, that are available, both on and offline. VLC, Skype, Open Office, and Google with plenty more in areas like Office, Productivity, Social Media, Video and Graphics present too. Those needing a picture editor get Gimp, Picnik, and Pixlr.

But why not just use the built-in 3G connectivity to resolve this offline problem? Well you could if there was built-in 3G connectivity, but in a drive to keep the price down there isn’t - so you’ll have to make sure you get a 3G dongle, or 3G hotspot, to use separately. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is down to you, but it’s an interesting move from a device that insists you stay in the cloud as much as possible.

Of course not every app requires internet access, but it’s still a major factor to bear in mind. After 10 minutes you’ll realise that really all you are running is a browser on a laptop, so why not run those websites in the same browser so you can see what’s going on? That grumble aside, the interface is clean and simple - a kind of cross between Apple’s iOS offering and Google’s grid mentally of Android with some nice tricks - we like the unified search bar at the top of menu pages for example.

The OS and the hardware aside, what’s performance like? It’s a breeze, with the innards coping wonderfully with what it’s got to deal with. We had no problem running any of the apps on the system. In fact the OS is designed to work on older tech.

Verdict

There are some nice features of the Jolibook, but also some real areas that make this not so straightforward and simple to use. In fact it very much reminds us of the first netbooks we played with over 4 years ago that ran Linux. While this experience is vastly superior, you’ll find yourself struggling to see what you can actually achieve with the Jolibook that you can’t achieve with a Windows 7 netbook and a browser.

Interestingly you can even get Jolicloud for your browser, so you can try it out now to see what we are talking about without buying the laptop. If that wasn’t a nail in the coffin for the Jolibook then you can, as we had to do to reset our device, download a USB boot key and turn that crappy 5-year-old laptop you’ve got kicking around into a Jolibook.

Of course the elephant it the corner is that Chrome and MeeGo OS (perhaps) launches are just around the corner (expected summer 2011) and will have a greater focus and greater push from Nokia and Google. Unfortunately we can’t see Jolicloud winning in that fight, so while the innovation and effort is there, the Jolibook by Vye potentially has too many stumbling blocks on the path to success.