Getting the UMPC

Trying to find the ultimate laptop has always been an exercise in frustration. They’re always either too big, too small, too heavy, too slow or their battery life is too short. Every time I’ve tried a notebook that’s smaller than the standard form factor, it’s ended in tears, with some lasting only weeks before being parked on a shelf to collect dust. The problem is quite simple – a smaller form factor means the available space inside the box is reduced, which in turn means the designer has to decide what to leave out from a full desktop-replacement specification. The first and most obvious thing to go is a CD/DVD ROM drive, and after that the size of the battery is compromised as well to save space, and battery life suffers as a consequence. In an attempt to minimise the compromises they need to make over these built-in function units, the manufacturers will specify the slowest, least power-hungry processors they think they can get away with, so that now you have a machine that’s laggardly and annoying as well as poor in peripherals. Its small screen ends up being reduced in resolution, so modern applications don’t fit on it very well.

Getting the UMPC

To be honest, though, it’s the battery life that’s the real killer for me. I can cope quite happily with a “transportable” laptop that’s essentially a desktop replacement, because I don’t run its battery empty all that often and mostly use it plugged into a mains power socket (it’s almost like having a super-UPS built in). But once you get down to these smaller form factors, the obvious temptation is to haul the device around with you all day like a pad of A4 paper, and to rely upon it being operative whenever you need it. Having to take along a mains lead and charger, and to locate a mains socket, more than somewhat cramps one’s style.

Given all this, I was quite keen to try out one of the new breed of Ultra Mobile PC or UMPC (I fear “umpk” is never going to catch on as snappy acronym) and Samsung kindly sent me its own Q1 model to play with. My first impressions were rather positive, as it’s a good size compromise, and although it’s a little thick it isn’t too heavy. I found the keyboard Samsung supplied me with separately to be pretty good, and I understand that the Q1 is now sold as standard with a keyboard and a case that holds the whole kit together.

As for the screen, though, that was a mixed blessing. Its native resolution of 800 x 480 is just about adequate, but some dialog boxes in Windows XP are too tall to display in 480 pixels. You can switch the resolution to a scroll-around 800 x 600, but I personally can’t stand screens running at non-native resolutions: a 1,024 x 640-pixel screen would have made more sense. The screen itself is sharp and clear and it’s touch sensitive, which opens up a whole world of possibilities not available on the more common tablet PC format, where the pen is actually an active transmitter and the screen itself isn’t touch sensitive. Connectivity is good too with a good selection of wired and wireless connections – USB, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – and the inclusion of a PC Card socket means I can pop a 3G card in for high-speed data access.

So what are the downsides? Well, the processor, a low-voltage Celeron running at 900MHz, is only barely quick enough: indeed, it’s surprising how sluggish it can feel, especially when asked to do several complex tasks at once. The standard 512MB of RAM isn’t going to get anyone too excited either, and actually you only get to use 502MB because some of it’s stolen by system services.

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