Aimed squarely at leisure users, this 8'' model has two strong selling points: excellent battery life and weight under one kilo.
To slim their netbook down, Hercules have had to use an AMD Geode processor which is far less powerful (but consequently more energy efficient) than the Intel Atom found elsewhere.
The manufacturer has chosen Mandriva Linux, adding their own customized shell which is incredibly easy to use.
Handling & Connectivity
The case is described as coming in light gray and champagne, which is probably a reasonable way of describing the color scheme, which is matte inside and glossy on the back and sides.
The whole thing is reasonably solid, and doesn't seem to give way too easily. This is particularly true of the keyboard, which has responsive keys, although they are definitely smaller than on other netbooks we tested.
|Typical webcam shot
The touchpad too is small, with left and right click buttons in chrome--all very stylish but it's hard to avoid leaving grimy fingerprints behind.
Outputs and inputs have been reduced to a strict minimum, with just two USB ports, an Ethernet port and a VGA output. Mini jack in and out allow you to plug in headphones and an external microphone, but the card reader is mediocre.
We could read from it more easily than on any of the other netbooks we tested, but couldn't write to it at all.
As for the built-in 0.3 Megapixel webcam, we couldn't test it thoroughly using the eCAFE's default configuration.
The open source IM client supplied by Hercules, Pidgin, doesn't yet support video chat, and although several solutions do exist for Linux (including, amongst others, aMSN, emesene and Ekiga), the manufacturer chose not to supply them because of legal worries about some of the code used.
Memory card reader
VGA, 2 mini Jack
2 USB, RJ45
If you want to use the eCAFE in a noisy environment, you'll need to plug in some headphones.
AMD provide the eCAFE's processor, and both its speed and power consumption are lower than that of those provided by its competitor Intel.
This means that Hercules have been able to build a netbook with excellent battery life which requires only passive cooling--there's no fan to be found on this machine--but the flipside of this is that launching applications and watching streaming video is very slow.
By default, the software layer supplied by Hercules on top of Mandriva Linux is designed to constantly monitor CPU usage, and the bar frequently reached 100% during even simple tasks.
The machine boots up in 50 seconds, but if you add to that the amount of time needed to activate the WiFi, which is turned off by default to save power, then you'll need about 90 seconds from hitting the power button to getting online.
Battery Life & Portability
These are this laptop's definite strong points.
According to Hercules, setting the brightness to 50% should allow you to watch 3 hours 15 minutes of video using the speakers, and not headphones for audio without plugging in.
We used our standard test (brightness at 100 cd/m², headphones), and found the battery lasted 3 hours 3 minutes, which is excellent and more than an hour longer than you can enjoy video for on the Medion Mini Akoya, for example.
In general, the machine's dimensions, as well as its low weight, make it very easy to take with you where you go.
It even crosses below the symbolic barrier at one kilo (although only just--it weighs in at 980g), but we are left wondering whether or not the 200 g or so that separate it from other netbooks with 10'' screens are really that much of a bind?
It's a personal choice, of course, but we certainly think the extra screen real estate is worth the extra weight.
One point worth noting though, is the total weight of the netbook and its charger, as you'll almost certainly be carrying both of them together.
Hercules have done well to manufacture a power brick that weighs just 188 g, while Medion's is 388g, meaning that there's almost 400g separating the two models.
A drink at the eCAFE
Hercules has developed an online portal for eCAFE users where you can get support, download updates, drivers and software packages compatible with the Linux distribution they ship.
Pleasingly, there's also an extra 30 GB of free online storage, which will apparently be available from the end of October 2008. However, plans only exist to make it accessible directly from the Hercules hardware and not from other computers.
It's Mandriva Linux that's behind the scenes as the OS on the eCAFE. Hercules have added their own touch, via an ultra-simplified interface that's based around four 'worlds': communication, multimedia, online gaming and work.
The user experience is not a million miles away from that found on the Acer Aspire One, which is in turn based on Linpus Linux.
With both systems, there's no need to panic if you're only familiar with Windows, as getting a grip is quick and easy. Indeed, Hercules' interface design is in many places almost identical to what you're used to so you should feel at home very quickly.