Over the last decade the average laptop computer has gotten a lot thinner and lighter. But a handful of Chinese companies have been taking a different approach to portable computers by releasing a series of pocket-sized (or nearly pocket-sized) computers.
GPD got things started with its Win line of handheld gaming PCs and Pocket line of mini-laptops. But then rival One Netbook kicked things into weird gear by adding a kitchen sink full of features to its competing products including 360-degree hinges and pen support, cellular data support, and even detachable gaming controllers.
And now there’s the One Netbook A1, a mini-laptop designed for engineers. It has a 7 inch, full HD touchscreen display, pen support, a backlit QWERTY keyboard just (barely) large enough for touch typing, and an old-school swivel hinge that lets you twist the screen 180 degrees and fold it flat to transform from mini-laptop to mini-tablet modes.
But what really makes this little computer unusual are its ports: there are full-sized Ethernet and USB ports on the back of the system, along with a micro HDMI port and an RS-232 serial port.
It’s available for pre-order from AliExpress and GeekBuying for $599 and up (or use the coupons listed below the specs/pricing section to save some money). For the past few weeks I’ve been testing a pre-production demo unit that One Netbook sent me for the purposes of this preview.
Wait, did you say serial port?
Most people will probably never need a computer with a serial port unless they’re time traveling back a few decades and want to make sure they can use the printer they had in the home office at the time.
These days some networking equipment and other headless systems (meaning they’re not designed to work with a monitor and keyboard) still have RS-232 connectors, allowing technicians to connect with a cable to monitor performance or make changes. And that’s where a little computer like the One Netbook A1 might come in handy as a compact but versatile alternative to a full-sized laptop with a serial port.
I’m… not an IT professional. So I don’t actually have any gear with a serial port lying around. But I can still appreciate having a little computer with full-sized ports for when you need them. It’s nice to be able to connect an Ethernet cable for a stable internet connection when you need it. The world hasn’t totally transitioned to USB-C yet, so it’s nice to have both Type-C and Type-A ports on any computer these days.
One Netbook isn’t the first company to create a handheld computer aimed at IT professionals. Last year the GPD MicroPC hit the streets, also featuring full-sized serial, Ethernet, and USB ports and a full-sized HDMI port.
But GPD took a slightly different approach with its handheld system, using a thumb-style keyboard that’s not really large enough for touch-typing (and which doesn’t really provide sufficient key travel and tactile feedback for it). The system doesn’t have a touchscreen. It doesn’t work as a tablet. And it has a relatively slow Intel Celeron N4100 Gemini Lake processor.
By comparison, the One Netbook A1 has a higher-performance Intel Core m3-8100Y processor, a convertible tablet-style design, touch and pen support, and a larger keyboard that makes this device feel more like a shrunken laptop than an oversized BlackBerry.
One Netbook did have to make some compromises with this system though. Battery life could be better. The hinge mechanism feels a bit wonky. It’s a little too large to consider pocket-sized. And while it’s nice to be able to touch-type, I suspect that system engineers using a little computer like this in the field might actually prefer to hold it in one hand and type with the other, at which point a thumb keyboard might be more appropriate.
Specs and design
1920 x 1200 pixel
Pen support (4096 levels of pressure)
|Intel Core m3-8100Y
|Intel UHD 615
|256GB or 512GB M.2 SSD
|12V/3A (30W USB PD 2.0)
|173mm x 135mm x 18mm (6.8″ x 5.3″ x 0.7″)
|550 grams (1.2 pounds)
|8GB/256GB for $599
8GB/512GB for $639
|Retail price (Nov 13)
|8GB/256GB for $649
8GB/512GB for $689
Note: Liliputing readers can save up to $13 at GeekBuying:
- 8GB/256GB for $590 – coupon: GKBA1256GB
- 8GB/512GB for $630 – coupon: GKBA1512GB
- 8GB/512GB + digital pen for $657 – GKBA1FS
The demo unit One Netbook sent me is a pre-production model with slightly different hardware than the company will use for the commercial version set to ship soon.
For example, the model I’ve been testing features a 7th-gen Intel Core m7-7Y75 processor, while the retail version will have an 8th-gen Core m3-8100Y chip instead. And the company says the hinge will be sturdier in the unit that ships to customers thanks to an “improved rotation shaft.”
In order to make room for the full-sized ports, One Netbook put USB-C, headphone, and microSD card ports on the sides of the computer, but everything else is on the back.
That means the company couldn’t use a 360-degree hinge like the ones typically used for modern convertible tablet-style notebooks (and which One Netbook has used for most of its other mini-laptops so far). Instead, you move between laptop and tablet modes by opening the screen to a 90-degree angle, flipping it around horizontally, and then closing the lid back over the keyboard so that the screen is facing up.
It’s an old fashioned design that works… but which means that the screen is only connected to the computer at a single point rather than at two or more points. The result is that if I push back hard enough when opening the lid, it feels like I could easily break the screen off.
If the screen is pushed back a little too far, the bottom also scrapes the base of the computer when I rotate the screen.
Again, One Netbook says the retail version will feature a sturdier hinge, but since I haven’t tested that version yet, I cannot say how much more stable it will be.
The QWERTY keyboard is similar to the ones One Netbook has used on other mini-laptops with 7 inch screens. The keys are a little small, kind of close together, and some are awkwardly placed. But the more time I spend typing on computers where the colon and apostrophe buttons are to the right of the space bar instead of to the right of the L key, the less time I have to spend hunting and pecking for commonly used keys.
For some reason One Netbook decided to include a red backlight instead of white, which seems like a strange choice. But it’s nice to at least have the option of illuminating the keys when you’re in a dimly lit environment. You can toggle the backlight on and off by holding the Fn + Space keys.
You can also hit the Fn+ fan/touchpad key in the upper right corner to switch between “Mute” and “Performance” modes, which adjusts the fan speed.
On the demo unit One Netbook shipped me, the display brightness buttons seem to be reversed – press brightness down and the screen gets brighter, and vice versa. But the volume shortcuts work as expected.
Below the keyboard is an infrared touch sensor that serves in place of a trackpad. It’s not my favorite way to move a cursor around the screen, but it gets the job done in a pinch if you can’t connect a mouse or don’t find reaching up to touch the screen convenient. There are also left and right click buttons to the sides of the touch sensor.
Above the keyboard there’s a power button with a built-in fingerprint sensor, which seems to do a pretty good job of letting me quickly login to the computer.
One thing the One netbook A1 does not have? A webcam. At a time when we’re all stuck at home videoconferencing, that seems like a major oversight, but this is a handheld computer designed for use network engineers on the go… One Netbook probably figure they have a different computer back at their desk that they can use for video calls.
I’ve been testing a pre-production prototype for the last few weeks, so while I’m going to share some benchmarks, you should definitely take them with a grain of salt. The One Netbook A1 prototype I’m testing does not have the same processor as the models that will ship to customers.
But since I have tested other mini laptops that do have an Intel Core m3-8100Y processor, I can make an educated guess that you may see slightly better CPU performance and a slightly bigger bump in graphics performance. But these are still tiny computers designed for basic computing tasks. They’re not gaming or workstation-class computers.
Both the Core i7-7Y75 and Core m3-8100Y chips are significantly faster than the Intel Celeron N4100 chip that powers GPD’s microPC though, so the One Netbook A1 should outperform the device that may be its closest competition. It also costs substantially more – you can pick up a MicroPC for around $400.
OK, so let’s look at those benchmarks:
Of course, synthetic benchmarks have limitations. While they provide a way of running the same exact test on multiple machines to see how they compare… you only find out how they compare at running those exact tasks. And sometimes speed isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to using a computer.
So here are a few other things to know about using the One Netbook A1.
- It can handle 4K video playback from YouTube when running Windows, but had difficulty playing anything higher than 1080p video (at 60 Hz) when I tried running Ubuntu 20.04 (see below for more details on running Linux).
- The computer has a 33.1 Wh battery that lasted for just under 5 hours in a battery run-down test that involved streaming 1080p video from YouTube over WiFi with the screen brightness set to 50-percent. You may get longer battery life if using the system for light tasks with the wireless turned off and the at a dimmer setting. But under heavy load, don’t expect the One Netbook A1 to run all day on battery power.
- It has a CNC aluminum chassis and the body feels pretty sturdy. It’s just the hinge that feels a bit fragile, but One Netbook says that the model that ships to customers should have a sturdier hinge.
- The keyboard is definitely on the small side, but I was able to hit 66 words per minute on a typing test with a little practice. That’s below my usual score of 90+ on a full-sized keyboard, but faster than I could type with a smartphone or a thumb keyboard like the one used on the GPD MicroPC.
- The speakers aren’t very loud, but they’re good enough for listening to video playback or VoIP calls. There’s also a headphone jack if you need it.
- One Netbook did not include a camera on this model, but there is a built-in microphone. So if you’re looking for a tiny Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet machine, this model is a voice-only solution at best.
- The digital pen seems to work as expected, but I have horrible handwriting and can’t draw very well, so I didn’t test this extensively.
- Having a full-sized Ethernet port comes in handy if you’re using the system for network administration, but also if you just want a faster, more reliable connection than you can typically get over WiFi.
- The 7 inch, 1920 x 1200 pixel display is easiest to view with the display scaling set to 200 percent, which means that you have an effective screen resolution closer to 960 x 600. That doesn’t give you a lot of room for viewing multiple windows, so I often found myself maximizing app windows and running one thing at a time. The system has enough horsepower to handle some multitasking in the background. There’s just not a lot of screen space for multi-window computing… unless you connect an external display.
- Given the other full-sized ports on this computer, it’s a little odd that there’s only a micro HDMI port. But since I happen to have a micro HDMI to HDMI cable, I was able to confirm that you can output audio and video to a TV or monitor without any difficulty.
How upgradeable is it?
A little bit.
The RAM is soldered to the motherboard, and like most laptops (and mini-laptops), the processor cannot be upgraded. But you can swap out the SSD.
Remove the six small screws holding the bottom cover in place and you’ll find the SSD populating an M.2 2242 slot. One Netbook sells the A1 with a choice of 256GB or 512GB of storage, but it should be relatively easy to upgrade to a higher-capacity drive.
I also spotted an Intel AX200 WiFi 6 & Bluetooth 5.0 wireless card under the hood. That would probably be a lot tougher to replace, but it’s a reasonably decent wireless card, so I see little need to change it.
What about Linux?
I haven’t done extensive testing, but I did boot from an Ubuntu 20.04 LTS live USB and noticed that most things were working properly out of the box. But not everything.
WiFi, keyboard shortcuts, and audio all worked properly. As I mentioned above, I was able to stream 1080p60 video from YouTube without any trouble, but playback got choppy at 1440p and higher resolutions.
The bigger problem is that the screen orientation is a bit wonky.
In order to boot from a flash drive, I shut down the computer and pressed the Del key to get into the UEFI/BIOS settings… and they were all sideways. As is often the case with mini-laptops featuring 7 inch screens, it seems that One Netbook may have used a tablet display, so the system thinks that it should display the UEFI Settings in portrait mode… even when you’re using the device in landscape like a laptop.
Navigate to the Save & Exit menu using the arrow keys and you’ll find a boot override section that lets you choose to boot from a USB flash drive. So I inserted an Ubuntu live USB and did that… only to get dumped out to a GRUB bootloader menu that was also sideways.
The good news is that once I selected the Ubuntu option and the operating system loaded, the screen orientation was correctly set to landscape. I didn’t have to do anything to make that happen.
I was able to use the keyboard, optical touch sensor, and touchscreen to navigate without any difficulty in laptop mode.
Things get trickier if you switch to tablet mode or try to use the digital pen. While Ubuntu can detect touch and pen input, somewhere deep down it still thinks it’s in portrait orientation… so when you touch your finger or the pen to the screen, it registers as a touch somewhere else on the display. It’s possible that a driver update or a configuration change could resolve this issue, but out of the box the pen is kind of useless in Ubuntu.
The other thing that’s kind of useless in Ubuntu is automatic screen rotation. When I flip the screen around and pick up the computer, it recognizes if I switch from landscape to portrait orientation. But Ubuntu consistently flips the display so that everything is upside down in portrait mode.
Again, folks who know there way around Linux display configuration settings better than I do might be able to resolve these issues. But the out-of-the-box experience is imperfect if you plan to use the One Netbook A1 as anything other than a basic mini-laptop.
The One Netbook A1 is an unusual little computer designed to fit a very specific niche: it’s a tiny laptop that can also be used as a tablet that’s designed for network engineers and other IT professionals who may need a portable device with full-sized Serial and Ethernet ports.
I don’t really fall into that category. But the One netbook A1 is still a fascinating little device because it’s one of a relatively small number of modern mini laptops with display the size of a small tablet screen, a keyboard that you can touch type on (once you get used to it), and a convertible tablet-style design that I thought had gone out of fashion a decade ago (with a 180-degree swivel hinge rather than a 360-degree “yoga” style hinge).
Like many devices from One Netbook, the A1’s battery life is rather disappointing. But the prototype I tested offers decent overall performance and it’s likely that the retail version will score slightly better in benchmarks thanks to its newer processor.
That said, the little computer measures about 6.8″ x 5.3″ making it a little too big to call pocket-sized. But at 1.2 pounds it weighs less than half as much as a typical 13.3 inch notebook, and it’s easier to hold in one hand while you’re working… plus most 13.3 inch laptops don’t have Serial or Ethernet ports.
The One Netbook A1 also has a feature you won’t find on most larger laptops: you can attach an optional wrist strap that will help keep the computer from falling to the ground if you drop it while working.
So I suspect there is an audience for this sort of device. I’m just not necessarily a member of that audience. If you are, and you’ve got $600 or more burning a whole in your pocket, then the One Netbook A1 is a slightly larger, slightly more powerful, and slightly easier to use for touch-typing alternative to the GPD MicroPC. It’s also more expensive, with prices starting at around $200 to $250 higher than the cost of a GPD MicroPC.
Meanwhile, if you don’t need full-sized Ethernet or Serial ports, then you might be better off with the similarly-priced One Mix 1S+ mini-laptop. It has the same Core m3-8100Y processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and 7 inch touchscreen display, but it has a 360-degree hinge that may make it a better fit for folks looking for a convertible tablet-style mini-laptop.