First Look: Ultra Mobile PCs--Small Package, Big Price
Samsung's Q1 and TabletKiosk's EO--the first systems based on the Microsoft/Intel Ultra Mobile PC specification--prove you can cram an awful lot into a small package. Both devices condense the best features of a tablet into a package that's less than half the size and weight of a typical laptop.
One of the things that is missing is the $500 to $1000 price that Microsoft and Intel had promised for UMPCs. My 512MB configuration of the shipping Q1 sells for $1099, and the shipping 1GB EO I tested sells for $1164 (TabletKiosk sells an $899 unit with only 256MB of memory). Those prices don't include an external optical drive, a keyboard, or an extra battery pack--all options many users will consider necessities.
Even at the steep price, I think that people who prefer writing by hand to keying, and anyone who likes using a stylus instead of a mouse, may find the products viable laptop replacements. Of the two systems, I give the edge to the Q1, which has more connectivity options as well as support for portrait view.
Previously called Origami, the UMPC spec combines a touch screen with a tablet's pen input. Both the shipping devices I looked at are about the same size and weight: 9 inches wide by 5.5 inches high by 1.25 inches deep, and just under 2 pounds. In fact, if they were red, you'd think they were Etch-A-Sketches with a few extra buttons. Each has two powered USB ports, and each uses a 7-inch LCD and a 1.8-inch 40GB hard drive. Both systems run Windows XP Tablet PC Edition with Touch Pack, a version of the operating system with extensions for the touch screen.
A few other features both devices share are built-in 802.11b/g and Bluetooth for connecting to wireless networks; and screen resolutions of 800 by 480 (the default on both), 800 by 600, and 1024 by 600. In addition, you can connect to a second monitor with either machine, which lets you extend your desktop, use the external display alone, or show the same screen on both displays (for presentations).
Cramped and Cluttered
Unfortunately, each device's cramped screen real estate is difficult to navigate. At the default 800-by-480 resolution, many open windows were truncated, and dialog boxes often opened outside of the viewable area, requiring some "guess" clicks. At the higher resolutions, the problem was even more noticeable.
Worse, when the on-screen keyboard pops up, it often overlaps the buttons you need to click to proceed. When you're prompted for your user name on the Windows log-in screen, for example, the keyboard automatically appears because the device assumes you'll be typing in your password. But the keyboard overlaps the actual user ID option, so you have to click carefully.
The keyboard fills about a third of the screen, but even this isn't large enough for any serious data entry. Both companies sell compact USB keyboards priced between $50 and $100 to use with the UMPCs. Also, gamers will need to attach a USB mouse, because the "joystick" buttons on the left side of both these machines can't match the fine control possible with a mouse.
A more serious omission from both devices is an optical disk drive. I found it ironic that both products ship with restore CDs, but offer no way to run them. You can buy a USB optical drive for either system for as little as $150 (Samsung offers an external CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive for $220, and the Q1 even has a power port for the drive), but that pushes their price closer to that of 10.4-inch tablet PCs, which cost about $1400 and up.
Of course, you can download many of today's software programs from the Internet, but if you should ever need to restore the version of Windows on these machines, you'll be up a creek without an optical drive.
One of the first upgrades for many users of these products will likely be a second battery pack. The Q1 lasted only 1.75 hours on a single charge, and the EO lasted about 2.25 hours. Both vendors offer longer-lasting batteries ($240 for the Q1's Power Bank, which claims to offer 3.5 hours of power; TabletKiosk is promising a 6-amp battery pack for the EO, but hasn't announced pricing yet).
Q1 Adds Extras
Of the two models, the Q1 packs in more useful features than the EO, including an ethernet port and a VGA connection for linking to an external monitor. The Q1 also has a microphone and two speakers built in to its case (the EO has a combination headphone-microphone port).
Another plus for the Q1 is its ability to rotate from landscape to portrait mode, which is a boon for note-taking. In vertical mode you're able to use the included stylus and Windows Journal application to take handwritten notes that you can convert to type for pasting into text documents.
On both machines the program did a surprisingly good job translating my cursive and printed scribbles into something approximating English (the TabletKiosk also includes Windows Journal). For a longtime note-taker like me, this is the feature that will make or break a UMPC.
If these devices had lower prices, either one could be the portable computer I've longed for. Both the EO and the Q1 can replace a full-featured laptop, if you're willing to live with an overcrowded screen and a few costly but necessary add-ons.
This promising UMPC packs plenty of useful features and excels as a note-taking device, but it doesn't come cheap.
The EO demonstrates the promise of the UMPC design, but lacks some necessary features, such as an optical drive and a keyboard.