Releasing the same month as the iPad 2, Mead has taken a big risk with its new 100 Notebook series. Built around a minimal feature set and a low price point, the company is banking that the robust word-processing capabilities and ultraportable design will offer an appealing alternative to the latest tablets and netbooks. Buzz about the Mead 100 has been circulating in the tech blogosphere for months, but with such high expectations, can the notebook deliver?

Design and Build

At first blush it is difficult to classify the Mead 100. Its 8.5" X 11" size aligns it with 11" netbooks, but its surprisingly minimal weight (8 oz) positions it closer to the class of tablet devices such as the iPad 2 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. After spending some time with it, we felt comfortable calling the Mead 100 an ultraportable notebook. The Mead 100 comes equipped with an embossed cardboard cover available in a variety of colors and patterns. In a nod towards its younger and perhaps more tech-savvy users, many of the designs feature kittens, sports stars, or dolphins leaping across the planet Saturn. Although smooth and shiny, the cover felt cheap to the touch and displayed a notable amount of flex. It remains to be seen how it will fare under heavy use.

An ultraportable device this light does not come without sacrifices, and Mead has opted for the unusual choice of not including a keyboard. Instead, its operated entirely by a stylus. Some of our testers found the use of the stylus as a control device refreshing and quick, but others struggled with punctuation and poor handwriting. Disappointingly, the stylus is not included with the purchase of the notebook, although the company was quick to point out that many third party styli are available at retail locations where the notebook is sold. (See our reviews of the BIC Round Stic Ball Pen and the super-fast Pilot G2 Retractable Ink Roller).

Graphics and Performance

At its core, the Mead 100 is equipped with a metal spiral binding and 100 pages of chemically pulped memory, partitioned into standard college rule. Although we found 100 pages suitable for typical use, business and power users should consider upgrading to the Mead 150.

We were impressed by the boot time of the Mead 100, and on our test model startup was literally as fast as opening up the cover, although we did find that subsequent performance lagged as users struggled to find their last page of writing.

The display is a bleached white post-recycled paper, which isn’t as bright and welcoming to the eye as higher end acid-free displays, but is acceptable for everyday use. Some users reported performance issues in low-light conditions. The tablet can be held vertically or horizontally, and receives high marks for producing a noticeable lack of heat or fan noise, even after many hours of use.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Mead is its battery life—we used the Mead for eleven hours without a drop in performance or indication of a low battery, although the stylus does become uncomfortable during such long stints.

Graphics capabilities in the Mead 100 are largely dependent on the user’s ability to draw, here however some users found the college rule pesky. Music and video capabilities are also a non-starter, although one of our testers was able to program a workaround in the GUI by drawing a stick figure repeatedly and flipping rapidly through the pages. Still, those looking for music and video editing capabilities will need to go elsewhere.

Notes and Verdict

Shipping without an instruction manual limits the Mead 100’s appeal to a subset of tech-savvy first-adopters. We were disappointed with the lack of included stylus and this may be a deterrent to users looking for the convenience of a plug and play experience. The Mead also does not include backup features with its notebook, and users looking to archive data may need to purchase a second notebook and copy pages manually with the stylus—a time consuming prospect.

Our overall feeling about the Mead 100 is that this is a first foray into new technology that has yet to reach its full potential. However, we are encouraged that Mead seems committed to its line, as last week it announced an agreement with Pee-Chee to build external memory folders.

Even with its shortcomings, the Mead 100 is currently the only game in town for those looking for a stripped-down ultraportable notebook with extended battery life at a low price point. Like all bleeding edge technology, though, its reign may be a short one, as the next few months will see the release of the handheld Moleskine Pocket Notebook and the graphics-driven Strathmore 400 Artist Pad.