I’m old-school now at 71, but I’m still designing and working as a consultant. I had nothing but BlackBerry smartphones for years. Then it all went wrong. My boring Samsung J-something does most things but I miss my BlackBerry. I found an old one in a drawer, and it fits nicely in my pocket when off out. However, when I’m in a coffee place or relaxing, I’d like a big screen for YouTube, WhatsApp links, and writing reports. I’m thinking of rebooting my nice small BlackBerry and putting a smallish mini-laptop in my bag. Any thoughts? Peter
BlackBerry lost its premier position in the market – when its phones were used by everyone from Paris Hilton to then US president Barack Obama – but you can still buy BlackBerry phones. The company licensed its name and technology to China’s TCL Communication Technology Holdings Limited (TCT), which sells phones under the TCL, BlackBerry Mobile and Alcatel brand names. It also makes TV sets, soundbars, headphones, air conditioners and dehumidifiers. (The BlackBerry name has also been used by Optiemus Infracom, selling phones as BlackBerry Mobile India, and BB Merah Putih, which briefly served the Indonesian market.)
In 2013, BlackBerry tried to replace its original operating system with a new version, BlackBerry 10, based on the QNX operating system it bought in 2010. This is used in the BlackBerry Classic and BlackBerry Passport smartphones. However, in 2015, it started to move to Google Android with the Priv and DTEK50 models.
You can still buy BlackBerry Mobile phones in the UK, including ones with physical keyboards, but they all run Android. While they have security and other features that could appeal to businesses, consumers can buy faster Android phones with bigger screens for less money.
Productive phone options
You are a long-time BlackBerry fan so you might consider buying a new BlackBerry Classic for £166.48 on Amazon. However, it’s still a five-year-old phone, the keyboard no longer has the “smile” shape, and I can’t see a dedicated full stop key. Its square 3.5in screen is unsuitable for YouTube and most mobile web pages, but this is why you’re looking for a mini-laptop as well.
Either way, I wouldn’t recommend a BlackBerry Classic to the average consumer, who would be better off with, for example, a Motorola G7 for £179.99. (There are hundreds of alternatives.) The G7 has a 6.24in screen, which is just about big enough for YouTube. The on-screen keyboard works well, though Google’s voice recognition is so good you should rarely need it.
For serious report writing, you can always pack an external Bluetooth keyboard. I use my Moto G6 with an old Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard, which has since been superseded by a foldable version. Again, there are many alternatives.
In the good old days, many of us carried Palm and Compaq iPaq PDAs (personal digital assistants) that enabled us to work on the move. The Psion Series 5 was a classic because it had such a good keyboard. The last one I had was, I think, an HP Jornada 720 with a 6.5in colour screen. It was great for writing, and much less cumbersome than my old Filofax.
I don’t think PDAs will ever retake the mass market, because large smartphones and small tablets have filled that hole. However, there is still some interest in mini-laptops, which can now reach enthusiasts via Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns.
The Gemini PDA, from UK-based Planet Computers, is an attempt to recreate something like the Psion Series 5. The basic machine does the same job for £499 – you can type while on the move – but there’s a £599 version that also works as a 4G smartphone.
The Gemini has a 6in screen and runs Android, so it could be a good alternative to a standard Android phone with a 6in to 6.5in screen and a Bluetooth keyboard. It also dual-boots to Linux, so you can run full web browsers and productivity software such as LibreOffice. Unfortunately for those of us who live in Microsoft Office, it doesn’t run Windows 10, which is a bit of a shame as Microsoft’s operating system is free on small-screen devices.
As mentioned in a recent answer, there are a few mini-laptops that do run Windows 10. These include the GPD Pocket 2, One Mix Yoga, One Mix 1S, and One Mix 2S. The GeekBuying website sells at least seven examples at prices from £328.79 to £588.54. The cheap ones have Intel Atom (Cherry Trail) processors while the expensive ones have Core m3 chips.
All of these mini-laptops have a screen resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, so they can run Windows 10 properly. (Old-style 7in netbooks – popular between 2007 and 2011 – had 1024 x 768-pixel screens.) But you would have to use scaling to make text comfortable to read.
From netbooks to laptops
Netbooks succeeded because the versions with 7in screens, 1GB of memory and a cut-price version of Windows XP were familiar enough to be accessible, and they were cheap. However, most people wanted bigger screens – they quickly increased to about 10in – more memory and more storage. This closed the price gap to “proper” laptops, and the netbook market collapsed.
The next generation of mini-laptops arrived with the Asus Transformer (which originally ran Android), Lenovo’s Miix range (now discontinued), the Acer One and similar machines. Most of them had 10.1in screens, and some – such as the Asus T101HA and Acer One 10 – had a screen resolution of only 1280 x 800 pixels. Most were cheap because they had only 2GB of memory and 32GB of slow eMMC chip storage, which is much the same as a built-in SD Card.
As with netbooks and Chromebooks, the idea is that users won’t need powerful processors or local storage because they will use online applications and save all their data online. In theory, this is still the case. You could therefore consider a laptop like an Acer One 10 at £229.86, or even a Thomson Neo 10 at £99.95, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Today, 32GB of storage is not really enough to support Windows 10 updates, and you’d be better off with at least 4GB of memory. The 7in mini-laptops mentioned above all have 8GB.
Most of today’s mini-laptops and convertibles now have even bigger screens, typically from 11.6in to 14in. I have 10.1in, 11.6in and 12in convertibles, and I’ve found that the combination of the extra screen area and higher resolution makes a worthwhile difference to usability. However, at 12in and above, you start to lose portability.
Here are three mini-laptops to consider. First, there’s the Asus VivoBook E203MA (search for E203MA-FD017TS), which is the latest version of a machine that’s been around for some time. It has an 11.6in screen, 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage. Its advantages are that it’s light at 0.99kg, and great value at £229.99. Its main drawback is its slow Intel Celeron N4000 processor (Passmark benchmark score: 1,436).
Second, there’s the robust Acer TravelMate B118 (search for NX.VHSEK.004), which is aimed at the education market. It has an 11.6in screen, 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage. Its main appeal is the reasonably nippy quad-core Pentium N5000 processor (Passmark score: 2,433), but it’s a bit heavy at 1.53kg. It’s good value at £244.97 and not too bad at £288.54.
The third is Microsoft’s Surface Go, reviewed here in October. This is a 10in touch tablet with an optional Type Cover keyboard and pen. It appeals because of its light weight (0.56kg without keyboard) and high quality 1800 x 1200 screen. Its Pentium Gold 4415Y processor (Passmark score: 2,229) is relatively slow compared to a Surface Pro, but good enough for your purposes. Prices start at £369 at Argos or Currys PC World. Even better, splash out £465 on a Surface Go with 8GB of memory and a faster 128GB SSD.
Any of these would slip in your bag, while also being capable of doing real work writing reports.
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