Octavo Touch-Type Form Factor

Updated 21-Sep-2023

In this post I outline what I would consider a compelling form factor, one which existed for a while, but which may be is returning for certain niche uses.

Usability and Useful Form Factors

While the term notebook has been taken over to mean a laptop computer that is much larger on average than a standard physical lined-paper notebook, that in my experience is best sized as Duodecimo or 12mo. With a size of 4.75-5" x 7.25-7.5". I consider this one of the handiest form factors for books.

However, dealing with a computing device with a touch-typable keyboard (less than 100% in size, but still able to achieve 80-wpm typing with less than 5% error rates (above standard practice), one needs a different size: Octavo.

Technically this could be 7"-10" in length and 4.5"-6" in width.

Handheld PCs - Mobilepro - Jornada - Viao P

The various form factors of H/PCs from the late 1990s through the 2000s ranged from the diminuative HP Jornada to the quite similar NEC Mobilepro and Sony Viao P:

  • 7.4"-9.7" length
  • 3.7"-5.2" width
  • 0.8"-1.3" thickness
  • 6.5"-8.1" screen diagonal
  • 510g-770g weight

The 9.6" x 4.7" x 0.8" (24 x 12 x 2 cm) and 500g (or lighter) is possibly the best form factor, with 88% standard keyboard it supports full touch-typing. The NEC Mobilepro has 79% sized keyboard, which is certainly adequate for small to medium-sized fingers of an adult male.

For the purposes of touch-typing, the Jornada is likely too small for a majority of touch typists. However, it is likely possible to do a clever keyboard layout that still supports touch-typing, and get the length somewhere around 8.5", shaving off an inch or so, while keeping the same screen dimensions (if desired).

Screen Sizing and Usability

The screen of the Viao P is 1,600 x 768 in 7.99" which is ~222 ppi. Even when having a slightly smaller form factor, it should be possible to get close to a 9" screen, which would go a long way to making for a much more usable device. The Viao P is a nearly 2:1 aspect ratio. In landscape mode, this maked for cramped reading. However, in portrait mode, this is much more usable in terms of reading for documents and websites.

The question is, at what size does reading standard websites become possible? The 768 pixel height is too small for most websites, which do not appear able to handle such widths, and devices with this are trapped in a no-man's land of almost, but not quite, mobile. Resizing web pages can reduce general legibility.

What is Not Needed in an Octavo Device

Generally there are several misgivings regarding an Octavo-class device, as we are calling this design thought experiment. These are things that such a device does poorly, at best, including:

  • Webcam (actually, this might be very useful, esp. to replace the handheld)
  • Speakers (moderately adequate are good enough)
  • Trackpad / Pointing devices (touchscreen covers it)

For the first four items, simply dispense with them. There is no need for a webcam, speakers, a trackpad, pointing devices, and the like.

Ports Aplenty

Include the following:

  • Headphone Jack
  • MicroSD Card Slot
  • 2 x USB C for power, HDMI out, etc.

Bluetooth and WIFI as necessary evils, but support decent USB C dongles that can include HDMI, additional USB, RJ45, for docking purposes.

ChromeOS to the Rescue - Or Not

The one major issue regarding such small devices are the poorly designed and bloated operating systems that go on these. Focus on the streamlined, secure, and regularly updated ChromeOS, including support for Android and Linux apps. This seems way more appropriate than a version of Windows, which is unfortunately the standard. ChromeOS can deal with Battery Life much better than other general purpose operating systems. In addition, Debian is a better option if the distribution supports the various hardware components/drivers.

That said, Windows 10 is the go-to OS for full-featured laptops and netbooks. Debian is generally possible on most standard platforms.

Flip/Convertable Chromebook

Having a flip/hinge mechanism and of course touchscreen support means that the 9" screen is a small tablet form factor as well as a touch-type keyboard device.

E-ink & Ebook Reading

A final improvement on the back of this device would be an E-ink display, and especially the ability to read ebooks.

Convergence and Device Unity

Currently, I bring my 200g Kindle Paperwhite to read. It isn't too far to be able to integrate what is effectively a Kindle, a Tablet, and a Keyboard.

Tablets Advantages and Disadvantages

To be honest, many tablets are very close to what is desired (not including e-ink) as bluetooth keyboards can be added to things like the Huawai Mediapad M5 (which is an 8" screen in 300g), or the cheaper, heavier Lenovo Tab 4. The Huawai comes in at 8.4"x4.9"x0.3" and has a 2560 x 1600 screen. A great form factor and with accessories such as bluetooth keyboards and cases, this is already mostly a viable computing platform.

PDA, Palmtop, UMPC - 2018

While this was originally published in August, 2018 it turns out that there are three brands producing models that more-or-less meet/match these specifications and needs. These are more recently being referred to as PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), Palmtops, and/or UMPC (Ultra-Mobile Personal Computers). Whatever the computer niche, they are a welcome return of this form factor. These are: Planet Gemini, GPD Pocket, and One Mix Yoga, and most recently the Topjoy Falcon.

Planet Gemini

First or rather most recently there is the Planet Gemini -- the name refers to twin OS support: Android and Linux (which is to say, Linux and Linux) -- which is specifically attempting to recreate the Psion (and indeed has a designer who was involved in it). This is the smaller of the three, with only a 6" screen, and weighting 320 grams. Also, it is the only one which is in its first generation / initial release.

GPD Pocket, GPD Pocket 2

The GPD Pocket 2 is on presale as of October, 2018.

One Mix Yoga, One Mix 2 Yoga

By the company One Computer is a smashup of model names one, mix (at least not miix) and yoga. Still, this is the larger of the three brands, weighing in at 515 grams. It is an upgraded processor at 1ghz core-m Kaby Lake, with 256gb PCIe. A solid offering.

Topjoy Falcon

Topjoy Falcon is the most recent netbook launched on Kickstarter in October, 2018.

Overview of Current PDA/UMPC/Palmtops

Model Weight Screen Dimensions Processor Ram Storage Camera 4g 2-in-1 SD-Card Price
Planet Gemini 320g 6" 2160x1080 18:9 17 x 8 x 1.5 cm MediaTek 6797T 4gb 64gb eMMC Front yes no yes $599*
GPD Pocket 2 467g 7" 1920x1200 16:10 18 x 11 x 1.5 cm intel Core M-5Y10 8gb 128gb eMMC none no no no $699*
One Mix 2 Yoga 515g 7" 1920x1200 16:10 18 x 11 x 1.7 cm intel Core M3-7Y30 8gb 256gb PCIe none no yes yes $649**
Topjoy Falcon } 650g 8" 1920x1200 16:10 20 x 13 x 2.0 cm intel Silver N5000 8gb 128/256 SSD none no yes no $499*
  • * Prices are current/sale prices at Geekbuying or Direct/Kickstarter/Indiegogo
  • ** Note also the One Mix Yoga at $449

Other Form Factors

While Octavo is first and foremost a smallest functional full keyboard, there are other options that are interesting (and moreso than a wrist watch), such as Runcible.