Tiny laptops are having their moment… again. A decade after the rise and fall of netbooks and UMPCs, a crop of Chinese device makers is breathing new life into the idea of laptops with small screens and tiny keyboards.
It has a slightly larger screen and keyboard than its closest competitors. That makes it harder to fit in a pocket, but easier to touch type on. And it’s the first device in this category to feature an Intel Gemini Lake processor. That makes it much faster than any computer with an Intel Atom chip, and not much slower than on with a recent Intel Core M chip.
The makers of this little laptop plan to sell it for $699 and up, but early birds will be able to score one for as little as $399 during a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.
The campaign is set to begin at 11:00AM Eastern on Tuesday, October 23nd, and only only the first 199 backers will be able to reserve a Falcon mini laptop for $399 ((plus 400 more who paid $10 to reserve a chance to pay the $399 price). After that prices go up a bit, but they’re still far lower than the suggested retail price.
Update: The Kickstarter campaign is live.
I’ve been using a pre-production (and obviously unfinished) prototype for a little over a week, and there’s a lot to like about this little laptop. It offers decent performance, has a versatile design that allows you to use it as a notebook or tablet, supports an optional digital pen with 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, ships with Windows, but can run Linux, and has a backlit keyboard. Best of all, at about 1.5 pounds, this is the sort of portable computer that’s easy to take with you anywhere you go.
But there are also compromises that some folks are likely to find annoying. There’s not enough room for a touchpad, so the little laptop has a tiny optical touch sensor in the center of the space bar. The unusual keyboard layout takes some getting used to. And while the Topjoy Falcon is really, really small by modern laptop standards, it’s substantially bigger than the latest GPD or One Netbook devices.
Is it worth $699? That’s hard to say. But for fans of tiny computer who are willing to live with the compromises, the $399 Kickstarter price for the entry-level TopJoy Falcon seems like a steal.
The Topjoy Falcon is a 1.5 pound laptop with an 8 inch, 1920 x 1200 pixel IPS touchscreen display, a 360-degree hinge, and pen support.
Th 16:10 display is sharp and has decent viewing angles. Out of the box the display scaling for Windows 10 is set to 150 percent so that text and graphics are easily visible on the small screen.
Folks with good vision can try switching to 125 percent or 100 percent to fit more content on the screen at once, but I’d only be able to do that if I stuck my nose inches from the screen.
It has an aluminum case and a Gorilla Glass 4 screen. The computer measures 7.9″ x 5.1″ x 0.8″ and weighs 1.5 pounds.
The Falcon is powered by an Intel Pentium Silver N5000 processor. That’s a 1.1 GHz quad-core processor with support for burst speeds up to 2.7 GHz. It’s part of Intel’s Gemini Lake line of low-power chips, and features Intel UHD graphics and a TDP of 6 watts.
Topjoy sent me a Falcon prototype with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of solid state storage, but the company will also offer models with up to 256GB of SSD storage.
You’ll probably want to pay up front for the model with the amount of storage you want, because the Falcon isn’t going to be easy to upgrade. You can open up the laptop by removing the six screws that hold the bottom cover in place. But once you do that you’re greeted with few options for removing or replacing hardware.
You might be able to pry up the board and look at the other side, but I gave up after removing a few more screws and then realizing just how many components you’d have to move (including multiple cables and part of the heat sink).
The laptop has a backlit keyboard, an HDMI port, a headset jack, a USB 3.0 Type-A port, and a USB Type-C port.
All of those ports are on the right side of the computer, and the USB-C port is used for both charging and data.
On the left side of the PC there’s an air intake vent. The system has a fan for active cooling, and you can hear it kick it pretty frequently. It’s audible, but not particularly annoying (some mini laptops have mini fans that have a high-pitched whine, while this one is more of a white noise sound). There is a fan control button on the keyboard that allows you to manually disable the fan, but doing so may affect the computer’s performance.
There’s a speaker on the bottom of the laptop and the computer has a 5800 mAh battery under the hood and features 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.1 support.
Like the One Mix Yoga, the computer borrows a lot of design cues from the GPD Pocket line of products… although the 360-degree hinge, backlit keyboard, and support for pen input really makes the Falcon feel more like a One Mix Yoga knockoff than a Pocket clone. In fact, you can use the Falcon pen with the One Mix Yoga.
The faster processor and larger screen and keyboard make the Falcon much easier to us than the Yoga though… but much harder to slide into a pocket.
The Yoga measures 7.2″ x 4.3″ x 0.7″ and weighs 1.1 pounds, which doesn’t seem much smaller than the Falcon on paper. But when you place it next to the Yoga, the Falcon looks substantially larger.
It looks positively tiny next to my 13.3 inch Acer Aspire S13 laptop though, as I discovered one day when I took them both with me to a coffee shop.
When Topjoy sent me the prototype featured in this article, the company also sent along a list of known issues that should be be addressed before the convertible laptop ships to customers. But that’s why I’m calling this a preview and not a review.
For example, the laptop is top-heavy so if you push the screen back too far the whole computer tips over. Topjoy says the weight will be redistributed in the final version of the laptop so this doesn’t happen.
One of the biggest issues is that the G-sensor doesn’t work, which mans automatic screen rotation is a non-starter. That makes it difficult to flip between laptop and tablet modes, since doing so requires folding back the screen, opening the display settings, manually changing the tablet’s orientation and… I’m getting exhausted just writing the steps.
The keyboard on the prototype also doesn’t shut off in tablet mode, which means that it’s easy to accidentally press a key and switch apps, enter text, or even turn off the screen while holding the Falcon in tablet mode.
Both of those issues should be fixed by the time Topjoy ships the Falcon to customers. But they made it tough for me to test the Falcon as a tablet. Instead I spent most of my time using it as a laptop.
I did find the touchscreen and pen features to be helpful even in laptop mode. That’s true when the computer is resting on a desk or table and even more true when I’m using it on my lap to play games, surf the web, or watch videos. So I got a little taste of the tablet experience even without folding back the screen all the way very often.
Here’s the complete list of known prototype issues that Topjoy says should be addressed by the time the Falcon ships:
- The screen doesn’t turn off when the lid is closed.
- The screen is heavy, so if you push it back too far the laptop will tip over.
- The fan on/off button on the keyboard doesn’t work.
- The USB-C port is too deep, so I can’t use most USB-C accessories with the prototype. Topjoy provided me with a custom USB cable for charging, but I cannot plug in any other USB-C cables or accessories I own.
- The battery indicator is buggy.
- The right-click button below the optical touch sensor doesn’t work well.
- The G-sensor doesn’t work.
- The keyboard doesn’t shut off in tablet mode.
Again, these are all known issues, so I don’t want to dwell on them other than to point out that they hampered my testing a little bit and you might notice some of these issues as you watch my videos featuring the Falcon prototype.
Keyboard and input
I’m about to get very nitpicky here, so let me lead off by saying I think the Topjoy Falcon offers surprisingly strong performance for general purpose computing and that it’s actually easier to type on than the One Mix Yoga or GPD Pocket 2.
But it takes a while to get used to the quirks of the Topjoy Falcon keyboard, and even now that I’m reasonably comfortable with it, my top typing speed is around 65 words per minute. I can usually hit closer to 100 wpm on a full-sized keyboard.
This isn’t entirely Topjoy’s fault: there are only so many ways to squeeze all the vital keys into a space this small. One of the things that makes this laptop so cool is that it feels almost magically small. The entire size of the laptop is dictated by the size and shape of the screen: the top and bottom bezels are relatively small and the side bezels aren’t much thicker so there’s no a lot of room to play with.
That said, I still find some of the key placement choices baffling.
For the most part the alphabet keys are where you’d expect them to be. But on thing that keeps throwing me off is the locations of the Tab and number keys.
On most keyboards, the Tab key is to the left of the Q. On the Topjoy Falcon keyboard the Tab key is above the Q, and to the left of the 1. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached up to type the number 1 and accidentally hit Tab and ended up moving the cursor instead of entering a numeral. I’ll just say the number is greater than one. Much greater.
I’m also not in love with the Fn key hanging out to the left of the Ctrl key, but Topjoy is hardly the only company to go with that arrangement, so it might just be a matter of personal preferences.
The backspace key is also above the Del key, which I find disconcerting. But I’ve started to get used to that.
The power button is above the Delete key. I really wish Topjoy (and One Netbook) would put the power button on the side of the laptop where you typically find it on convertible notebooks. That would make it easy to access whether the computer is in laptop or tablet modes. But the good news is that I never found myself accidentally hitting the power button when aiming for backspace.
There’s also a jumble of full-sized and half-width keys in the lower right corner of the keyboard where you’ll find punctuation marks, arrow keys, Page Up, Page Down, Home and End functions. It’s taken a while, but now I can usually find the apostrophe/quotation mark key on my first try when I’m looking for it… but I usually do have to glance down at the keyboard to do so.
The number keys also serve double-duty as F1 – F10 keys when you hold the Fn button and press one. The F11 and F12 functions are on the minus and plus keys above those.
Overall the keyboard layout is very similar to the one used on the One Mix Yoga… but since the Falcon is a little larger, there’s room for more space between the keys. I figured that would make typing easier, and I was right… kind of.
The first day I started using the Falcon, I had a hard time touch typing. The keyboard is a little smaller and more cramped than most, and I often wound up hitting the wrong key. I was able to type more quickly and accurately on the One Mix Yoga… but only for brief stints. My hands started to feel cramped from pressing keys that were so close to one another after a few minutes.
I figured I needed to get over the hump, so I sat down and wrote a 3,000+ word document on the Falcon one day, and by the time I was a third of the way in, I found that my typing speed and accuracy had improved considerably. More importantly, my hands weren’t as bunched up as they had been on the One Mix Yoga, which made extended typing sessions a lot more bearable.
Is this a laptop I’d want to use to write a novel? Probably not. But you probably could if you set your mind to it. That might not be saying much, since some people have actually written novels on their phones.
I guess what I’m saying is that if the best camera is the one you always have with you, the same probably goes for laptop keyboards… and if you find a 1.5 pound, 8 inch laptop easier to carry with you wherever you go than a 13 to 17 inch behemoth, it’s nice to know that you can use the Falcon for typing on the go.
Or you could use it as a touchscreen device.
While I didn’t really use it much as a tablet, even in laptop mode the touchscreen was reasonably responsive and useful. The optical touch sensor in the space bar is fine for moving the mouse pointer and clicking, but I often found it to be easier to reach up and tap the screen, long-press to right-click, or swipe to navigate.
When navigating touch-friendly apps like Netflix or games like Broken Age, it’s easy to forget that the Falcon has a keyboard at all. It becomes more of a stand to prop up the screen (and you can always flip the screen 270 degrees if you literally want to just use the base of the laptop as a stand).
You can also us the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard to enter text, or switch to handwriting recognition if that’s more your style.
The Falcon pen also comes in handy while navigating Windows. It has a finer tip than my finger, making it easier to tap a precise part of the screen or highlight text. You can also press the front button on the pen while tapping to right-click, hover the pen over the screen to move the cursor without clicking, or use the second button as an eraser.
My drawing skills aren’t very good and my handwriting skills are virtually nonexistent, but I did fire up FreshPaint to confirm that the Falcon supports pressure sensitive pen input: you can see darker and thicker brush strokes when you press the pen firmly against the screen, and thinner, lighter strokes from a gentler touch.
Intel’s Gemini Lake processors are basically the latest version of the low-cost, low-power Atom chips that powered the netbooks and entry-level Windows tablets of yesteryear. But the Pentium Silver N5000 is one of the most powerful of these chips to date, and for the most part the Falcon doesn’t feel like a cheap laptop when you’re using it.
The fact that it has 8GB of RAM and a SATA III SSD probably didn’t hurt. It boots quickly, doesn’t take too long to launch most apps, and handles multitasking like a champ.
Sure, some CPU-intensive tasks take longer to complete on this computer than they would on a model with a recent Core i3 or faster processor. And there are some games that are going to be altogether unplayable.
I spent some time playing Broken Age and on the Falcon and it was a joy to use. Death Squared also ran smoothly, although it’s a much more challenging game for game-challenged folks like me.
Neither of those games really requires a lot of horsepower though. When I fired up Batman: Arkham Asylum I found that the game was borderline unplayable at the default settings: it averaged between 14 and 20 frames per second.
Reducing the display resolution to 1280 x 800 and adjusting the graphics to their lowest setting helped keep the frame rate in the 30 – 45 fps range though.
Generally speaking, benchmark results show that the Topjoy Falcon is surprisingly close to the GPD Pocket 2 in terms of performance. The Pentium N5000 processor may not be quite as fast as the Core M3-7Y30 chip used in the Pocket 2, but the different is small enough that you probably won’t notice unless you’re performing very specific tasks.
In fact, the Falcon actually scored a little higher than the Pocket 2 in the Geeekbench multi-core CPU test… although the Pocket came out way ahead in the single-core performance test.
Both computers also performed substantially faster than the One Mix Yoga (Intel Atom x5-Z8350) or Asus NovaGo (Qualcomm Snapdragon 835) in most benchmarks… but were nowhere near as fast as computers with 8th-gen Kaby Lake Refresh processors such as the Dell XPS 13 (Core i5-8250U) or Huawei MateBook X Pro (Core i7-8550U).
Benchmarks only tell a part of the story… but subjectively I had no problems using the Topjoy Falcon to write articles for Liliputing, do some light image editing (mostly cropping and resizing images for blog posts), some gaming (Broken Age) and some video streaming (Daredevil Season 3 from Netflix).
With an 8 inch screen, I found single-tasking to be more comfortable than multi-window multitasking, but with a 1920 x 1200 pixel screen, there is technically plenty of room to view multiple apps at once if you don’t mind looking at really small windows.
Topjoy says the Falcon should get up to 8 hours of battery life. That seems a little optimistic to me: I’m getting closer to 4-6 hours of run time during typical use. The battery runs down more quickly while gaming: after playing Broken Age for a little over an hour, the battery level dropped from 100 percent to 63 percent. But I’m not sure how accurate that reading is since I didn’t run the battery all the way to zero and see the computer shut off.
One reason the battery runs down more quickly when you’re gaming? The processor consumes way more power — typically it has a 6 watt TDP, but it jumps to about 8 watts when running gaming benchmarks, sometimes peaking as high as 10 watts.
As I mentioned above, the fan kicks in pretty frequently. So it’s good to know that there will be an option to disable it if you find the noise bothersome… although doing so may cause the computer to get warm and/or for the CPU throttling to kick in and slow down the computer to keep it from overheating. Unfortunately I couldn’t test that on the prototype since the fan control button doesn’t work yet.
While watching videos and playing games, I found the built-in speaker to be… fine. It’s not very loud, but you can hear music, dialog, or other audio clearly. You can always plug in speakers or headphones if you need louder sound.
WiFi performance was fine when I used the Tojpoy Falcon in my home office. That’s not surprising, since that’s where my WiFi router is located. But when I wandered down two flights of stairs and tried to set up shop in the dining room, I couldn’t connect to the network. When I moved a few feet and sat down in the living room, I had no problem connecting with a pretty strong signal.
My Google Pixel 2 smartphone, Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet, and Acer Aspire S13 laptop all connect to my home network from the dining room without any problems. And when I plugged in a USB WiFi dongle, the Topjoy Falcon was able to connect from that room as well. So I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the issue is with the built-in WiFi. To be fair, it works in most of my house… but not everywhere that my other gadgets work.
Overall I’ve been quite pleased with the performance of the Topjoy Falcon. I wouldn’t want to use this little laptop as my primary machine for editing videos and it’s not exactly a high-end gaming machine. But for most day-to-day tasks, it works just like any other computer… only smaller.
Topjoy’s computer ships with Windows 10. The prototype I received didn’t come with a Windows activation key, but for the most part that just means I couldn’t change the desktop wallpaper and I had to get used to seeing an “Activate Windows” watermark in the bottom right corner of the screen.
It’s pretty easy to load alternate operating systems though.
When you first turn on the computer you can hit the Del key to enter the BIOS menu. From there you can disable secure boot and/or quiet boot, change the boot device priority, or make some other adjustments.
Now my unit is set up so that I can boot from a USB device just by plugging one in before turning on the computer. Not all operating systems work flawlessly, but I had success with a few different options I tried.
For my first attempt at running Linux, I loaded a USB flash drive with Ubuntu 18.04 and encountered some graphics glitches that made the operating system unusable. But that was a few days before Ubuntu 18.10 was released. The newer version of Ubuntu loads without any significant problems… except that the display is rotated 180 degrees by default.
You can flip it by opening a terminal window and typing xrandr -o right… which is interesting, because you’d think that would only rotate the screen 90 degrees. But it seems to flip it all the way around so that it’s easy to use Ubuntu 18.10 in laptop mode.
The audio, WiFi, touchscreen, and pen all seem to work out of the box. Display scaling is set to 100 percent though, which could make text and graphics look pretty small.
One easy solution is to use Ubuntu MATE 18.10 instead — there’s a custom version designed for the GPD Pocket line of devices, and while it wasn’t optimized specifically for the Falcon it does seem to work on the laptop. When I booted the operating system from a flash drive, the display was shown right-side up and display scaling was automatically set to 150 percent.
I also took Elementary OS 5 for a spin. Out of the box the display was also upside down in this operating system. But unlike Ubuntu 18.10, I was able to open the display settings to rotate the screen without opening a terminal.
When trying all three operating systems, the GRUB2 boot menu was displayed in portrait orientation, so I had to get used to reading text sideways in order to choose the “try without installing” option.
I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t be able to to install one of these operating system to built-in storage, but I did not test that option since I didn’t want to mess with the master boot record.
There’s something a little magical about tiny laptops like the GPD Pocket 2 and One Mix Yoga that are small enough to slide into the pocket of a pair of blue jeans. The Topjoy Falcon isn’t quite small enough to do that with, but this 1.5 pound laptop still feels almost impossibly small by modern laptop standards.
And unlike the One Mix Yoga, it’s actually fast enough to be pretty usable as a general purpose computing machine. I think you’d have to be a very specific kind of person to want to use a laptop with an 8 inch screen and a tiny keyboard as your only computer. But if you like to use a desktop or larger laptop at home and/or work and want a compact device that you can use while traveling or just when moving around the house, this little computer is perfectly usable and a heck of a lot more portable than most other laptops on the market.
The 360-degree hinge, touchscreen display, and pen support also mean that you can switch back and forth between using the computer as a laptop or a tablet. You can read eBooks with ease, compose messages or documents, watch videos, surf the web, or play games.
That said, the $399 starting price for backers of the crowdfunding campaign is a lot more exciting than the $699 suggested retail price. And that price only covers a model with 128GB of storage and no pen. You’ll have to pay more if you want the pen and/or a 256GB SSD (up to $569 during the crowdfunding campaign or $859 suggested retail price).
The retail price seems a bit high for a computer that’s likely to be used primarily as a secondary device… but then again you could easily spend just as much on an iPad Pro or Microsoft Surface device depending on the model.
The Topjoy Falcon clearly isn’t for everyone. Battery life is pretty limited, especially when you’re playing games. The keyboard is an acquired taste, at best. There’s no SD card slot. And there are only two USB ports — one of which will be unavailable while you’re charging the laptop unless you buy a USB-C docking station.
But it is one of the more intriguing mini computers to emerge in the past year or so, offering a combination of respectable performance, versatile design, and a backlit keyboard. Most of all, I’m happy to see a new company giving GPD and One Netbook some competition. I just wish someone would come up with a more original keyboard design.
Also keep in mind that there were some things I wasn’t really able to test in this preview since I have a prototype rather than the final retail version of the laptop.
I’m told the final version will be better balanced so it doesn’t tip over if you push the screen back, but I can’t confirm that yet. I’m told the fan toggle button will work, but it does nothing on the prototype. And the lack of screen rotation on the prototype is certainly an issue.
Hopefully Topjoy will deliver on its promises and address all of those issues before sending the Falcon to customers in early 2019.