Review: Gigabyte M704

Gigabyte_m704_review

The newest UMPC from Taiwan-based Gigabyte is the M704, a refresh of last year’s U60 that features a larger display, faster processor, and redesigned controls. While not officially available in the US, the 7-inch slider has spent the summer making its way into the hands of importers like Direct From Japan, who was kind enough to send me the UMPC for testing and review.

See what the Gigabyte M704 is all about below.

System Specifications

CPU:
1.2GHz VIA C7-M ULV (Esther)
RAM:768MB DDR2-533
OS:Windows XP Home/Pro, Vista Ultimate
Storage:60GB (1.8″, 4200 rpm)
Expansion:SD card slot
Display:7″ touchscreen (1024 x 600, LED backlit)
Wireless: 802.11b/g wi-fi, Bluetooth
Size: 7.5″ x 4.8″ x 1.2″
Weight:1.7 pounds

Box Contents

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Included in the shiny gold box with the M704 are a zippered carrying case, three software CDs (utility driver disc, Japanese version of Windows XP Home SP2, and Nero 7 Essentials), AC adapter and power cord, extra stylus, and various guides and manuals.

A docking station, GPS module, and digital TV module are available separately.

Design

The M704 isn’t the most stylish or aesthetically pleasing UMPC I’ve ever seen (I believe my initial thoughts were “ugly” and “too block-like”), but it’s built well and has a nice, substantial feel to it.

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The casing is made of three different kinds of plastic: smooth and glossy smudge-loving black trim around the display, smooth and matte silver around the keyboard and inside the black bezel, and slightly textured matte black on the back. The end result is a device that would likely catch the eye of passerby in public places, but mostly only because it’s the largest two-handed slider they’ve ever seen. (“That sure isn’t a Sidekick!”)

The split keyboard, undoubtedly the most unique aspect of the unit’s design, is discussed in its own section below.

Size

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The M704 is perfectly sized for a slate, but is really quite big for a slider.

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Other UMPCs with 7-inch screens sport slide-out keyboards too (e.g., HTC Shift), but none of their primary usage scenarios involve two-handed thumb typing. Every other 7-inch UMPC on the market is either meant to be used in tablet/slate or laptop mode. If anything, thumb typing is more of a bonus “not recommended, but possible with large hands” feature.

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The split keyboard offsets the M704’s size, as it eliminates any unnecessary thumb stretching, but it obviously doesn’t cut back on the unit’s weight. For a device designed to be held in two hands, 1.7 pounds gets heavy pretty quickly. To put that weight into some context, the Willcom D4 is 1.25 pounds (with extended battery), the Wibrain B1H and Sony Vaio UX are 1.2 pounds, and the OQO Model 02 is just 1 pound. All of these UMPCs have smaller screens than the M704, but they’re all meant to be used in the same way.

Gigabyte_m704_size

Display

Fortunately, the size and weight aren’t deal breakers by any means. In fact, once you see the M704’s LED-backlit, high resolution (1024 x 600) 7-inch screen in person, you may even forget about them completely.

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As soon as I turned on the UMPC and saw the extra bright, colorful screen with very good side viewing angles, I understood why Gigabyte sacrificed pocketability for it. The display has a slight “fuzzy screen protector look” to it, especially against white backgrounds, but it still looks fantastic. 1024 x 600 is the perfect resolution for a 7-inch screen; it’s close to becoming the minimum for a truly enjoyable web browsing experience these days too.

Inking

Though the display is nicely suited for viewing, it doesn’t fare quite as well for inking. The passive touchscreen lacks any kind of palm rejection technology so vectoring is a major issue. The lightest touch from your palm will send the ink flying toward it, so to speak. Inking is considerably better when the screen is rotated into portrait mode because the top of the frame, which measures about three-quarters of an inch deep, can be used as a small handrest.

Unless you opt for a Vista configuration, which includes handwriting recognition but really doesn’t belong on this UMPC (more on this below), Gigabyte includes Pen Soft Pro for your XP inking needs. The software isn’t very good, in my opinion, but neither is inking on the M704.

Controls

A touchscreen is always handy to have, but since Windows is hardly optimized for fingertips and using the stylus requires readjusting your hands, a closer look at the hardware controls is in order.

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The main controls are stacked on the right side of the display and lay flush against the frame. At the top is a snapshot button (for use with the 1.3-megapixel web camera) followed by the touchpad on/off button ( to enable/disable the touchpad), the easy-to-use and slightly textured touchpad, Mobility Center button (for quick access to settings like resolution, screen brightness, and volume), and a convenient zoom button.

None of the buttons are configurable/re-mappable out of the box. I personally like the Mobility Center button and I’m sure that many will find the zoom and snapshot buttons invaluable, but an entire button dedicated to turning the touchpad on/off? Really? It works so well and is so generously sized that I don’t understand why an on/off button is necessary.

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On the opposite side of the display are left and right mouse buttons. Though thinner and longer than other UMPC mouse buttons, they are easy to press and give off a good click.

At the top of the screen are five system LEDs (Bluetooth, wi-fi, HDD, battery, power), two internal microphone pinholes, and the aforementioned 1.3-megapixel webcam. The slide-out keyboard is another important part of the M704’s hardware controls, but since that has its own dedicated section below, here’s a look at what else the unit’s casing has to offer first.

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On the left side of the M704 are a volume rocker, power/hold switch, SAS (Ctrl + Alt + Del) button, 3.5mm headphone jack, microphone jack, and power port.

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One of two USB 2.0 ports, a VGA port, and the docking station connector are on the bottom.

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The second USB 2.0 port, an SD card slot, battery release switch, and battery lock switch are on the left side.

At the top (not shown) are an air vent and Kensington lock slot.

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The back of the M704 is home to the connectors for the removable flip stand, the module port for use with the optional GPS or TV tuner accessories, two more air vents, the battery pack, and the stylus slot.

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Keyboard

Arguably the most compelling and unique feature of the Gigabyte M704 is its split keyboard.

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The 65 keys are unevenly separated (29 on the left, 36 on the right) by a 1.5-inch divider that houses four communication buttons (Bluetooth, wi-fi, webcam, GPS/TV module power) and VIA and XP stickers to lessen the lopsidedness.

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The split layout takes some getting used to if you’ve never used a similar keyboard (split keypads are most notably used on the Pepper Pad 3, Samsung Q1 Ultra, and Wibrain UMPCs), but it becomes second-nature relatively quickly. The layout is good and the keys give back the same kind of audio/tactile feedback that the mouse buttons do. The keys themselves are rather small, though, so accuracy can be an issue if you’re not careful. Typing isn’t as good as I expected it to be, with two weeks of practice yielding a typing speed of only 39 words per minute (see how this compares to my other mobile device keyboard typing speeds). With more practice and extended use, typing should improve.

The space bar is split into two, but the right half on my review unit isn’t mapped correctly. Instead of acting as a space bar, it does nothing. The Japanese printed on it suggests that the key is supposed to be used to toggle between katakana, romaji, and hiragana (forms of Japanese writing). This can likely be fixed with remapping software.

Performance

Though Gigabyte themselves list Windows XP Home as the M704’s operating system, the review unit I received from Direct From Japan (DFJ) came with a fresh install of Vista Ultimate. DFJ will also install XP Pro on request, which is what I recommend doing if you’re interested in this UMPC.

I actually prefer Vista to XP, so when I first turned on the M704 and saw that it was running Vista (I had just assumed it would’ve had XP), I was quite pleased . . . for the first few seconds. It’s been over a year since I’ve used an XP-based UMPC so seeing the more attractive Vista UI loading was a nice surprise. But then I made the mistake of actually trying to, you know, use the device.

Not that there was ever any doubt about this, but it has to be said that Vista Ultimate does not belong on the same machine as a 1.2GHz VIA processor and 768MB of RAM. Downloading and installing the first set of Windows Updates rendered the system unusable, as it was using 100% of the CPU most of the time, and took 1.5 hours to complete.

I ended up installing XP Home as soon as I got the okay from DFJ, but it took me a while to find an installation disc so I spent a few days with a Vista-fied M704. It was fine for simple web browsing with Firefox 3, but that’s about it.

Vista Ultimate Benchmarks

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XP Home Benchmarks

When I finally got XP Home running on the UMPC, the difference in performance was so significant that I forgot about how clunky-looking the OS was. While the 768MB of RAM was a joke with Vista, it was a luxury with XP.

With XP Home, the M704 is responsive, menu items and icons load instantly, and online Flash video playback is pretty smooth. The system shuts down in 34 seconds, cold boots in 42 seconds, restarts in 80 seconds, resumes from standby in 7 seconds, and awakens from hibernation in 29 seconds.

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The XP CrystalMark scores are similar to the Vista ones, but how the system feels and reacts is remarkably different. Whereas the Vista M704 requires an abnormally patient user, the XP M704 can take on Type A users with few problems. The unit stays very cool while in use, but the fan tends to get a little loud to maintain that. Though not noticeable in a room with white noise, the whirring is certainly audible in silence.

Battery

The M704’s li-ion battery (7.4V, 3900mAh) is given a 4-hour battery life by Gigabyte, but real-world usage brings that down to about 3- to 3.5-hours of wi-fi time.

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A fully charged battery loses about 4% of its capacity per hour in standby, so hibernation is a better overnight choice.

Conclusion

The Gigabyte M704 doesn’t outdo other UMPCs in any one particular area (i.e., it’s not the best at anything), but it doesn’t have any fatal flaws either. While battery life, screen size/resolution, and keyboard are often cited as deal breakers for many buyers when considering other devices, none of these areas are in dire need of fixing on the M704. Many things could be improved, sure, but everything as it is is already really good.

That said, I have no personal interest in the device. Nothing impresses me to the extent that I actually want to keep the UMPC (design is usually what wins me over, and the M704 has no aesthetic appeal for me), but I can put my subjectivity aside and understand why others would.

The Gigabyte M704 is available now for $1049 from Direct From Japan, who offers free worldwide shipping and a 1-year warranty.

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Jenn K. Lee

Jenn K. Lee is the founder of Pocketables. She loves gadgets the way most women love shoes and purses. The pieces in her tech wardrobe that go with everything are currently the Samsung Galaxy Note II, Sony Tablet P, and Nexus 7, but there are still a couple of vintage UMPCs/MIDs in the back of her closet.

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