The Latest in Ultraportable PCs

It's not a laptop. It's not a PDA. Will this little PC live up to its big billing?
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the June 2006 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

You have your laptop, which could be as small as a 3-pound ultralight, and you have your smartphone for carrying important parts of your Windows desktop in your purse or pocket. Can you afford a handtop computer priced between those two? Do you need one?

Several manufacturers think so--foremost among them the Wintel tag team. Microsoft has conceived a new tweener computing platform that's being powered by Intel's low-voltage CPUs and is due out in coming months from several PC makers who--no offense--aren't exactly household names. Speaking of names, these bouncing baby handtops were once known by the lyrical code name Origami, but have since been saddled with the unfortunate moniker "ultramobile PC"--UMPC for short.

Appointments will vary by manufacturer, of course. The basic template calls for a 2-pound slate dominated by a 7-inch touchscreen whose navigation and control buttons are within easy reach of your thumbs. UMPCs are horizontally oriented and smaller than tablet PCs. They're meant to fit comfortably in two hands like an open book or gaming controller. But they're more computer than PDA or game device.

Powered by an Intel laptop processor with at least 256MB RAM and 30GB storage, most include built-in Wi-Fi, fast Bluetooth 2.0, USB 2.0 and Ether-net for flexible connectivity to office hardware and web services. UMPCs run on the stable Windows XP Tablet PC edition (until Vista arrives) with a new Windows Touch Pack to help popular Windows applications respond to a finger or thumb as well as a stylus. Microsoft's Office suite is ready for hand-tops. So is its tablet equivalent, OneNote 2003, which lets you take notes, draw, annotate or use desktop files.

Volume data input could be a problem, though. The designated UMPC slate form factor has little room for anything other than an onscreen keyboard--albeit an innovative one called DialKeys that breaks qwerty into more thumbable groups. You could add an external keyboard like the one that will come with the MiniNote from China's Founder Group. But that's a somewhat clumsy arrangement, and even if you're a BlackBerry veteran, DialKeys probably isn't the best place to thumb-type your novel or build a spreadsheet.

UMPCs are "mainly designed for content consumption," says Intel, and the content most likely to be consumed is communications--e-mail, IM, blogs, podcasts, VoIP or whatever wacky wikiness might be coming down the pike next month. A 7-inch display also makes for fairly comfortable viewing of videos, TV and some games. It's not hard to imagine how UMPC could become the platform of choice for those in-between times when you're on the go--and maybe on your feet.

Failure Is an Orphan
It certainly sounds like a bright idea, huh? But the predominant opinion expressed by those who've leaned over the bassinet so far is "What an ugly kid."

Besides keyboard shortcomings, little Umpic gets dinged for his price and his sub-three-hour battery life, which is likely to be very "sub." The applications for which UMPCs are intended really suck up the milliwatts, and a skinny, 1-inch profile typical of all machines announced so far doesn't leave much room for improving power and cooling. Intel's low-voltage CPUs not-withstanding, it could be a while before little Umpic fills the tennies Microsoft has laid out for him--namely, to be the "go everywhere, do everything ultra-mobile PC you'll always want with you." Yes, by all means, go. Just don't wander too far from an AC outlet.

As for price, touchscreens aren't cheap, and they're not likely to get much cheaper until they're manufactured in much greater quantities than a new market can typically support. Expect early UMPCs to be priced at the high end of the $600 to $1,000 projections given at their announcement. Fortunately, price is one spec that's always on a downward trajectory. In fact, UMPCs are already $500 to $1,000 cheaper than the non-UMPC OQO and DualCor handtops that the press has been going gaga over for months.

If you ask me, little Umpic is better appointed, too, but could still stand a couple of improvements. First, a 3G cellular modem would reach farther and connect more often than built-in Wi-Fi radios. Users might be able to husband enough power for both if they toggle the radios off when not in use. And why not a convertible or slider case with a keyboard like Intel's Ruby prototype or T-Mobile's MDA? A hybrid of Toshiba's Li-bretto and Portege might be just right (hint, hint).

Technology Adoption
Good, bad or ugly, count on UMPCs to stick around for a while because there is growing demand for something that can make communications and rich media easily accessible on the go. We may not have hit the tweener sweet spot yet, but we'll need to pretty soon.

Anyway, Microsoft considers UMPCs strategic, says Ross Rubin, The NPD Group's director of industry analysis. And when it comes to markets related to its Windows franchise, Microsoft has the stick-to-itiveness of a pit bull. So it takes a few versions before UMPCs measure up to their billing--that's tradition. The alternative--that the space be left to low-power Linux or Symbian handtops--is a prospect too horrible for Redmond to contemplate.

All kidding aside, the long run-up to full UMPC-ness will be good for entrepreneurs. There's more than one new business opportunity glittering beneath those shortcomings.

Business computing is already being wagged faster every day by a generation of teens born with a cell phone in one hand and a PSP in the other. Like they won't swarm all over communication- and recreation-oriented tweeners sooner or later. It's we troglodyte boomers who could use the extra time to adjust to the new usage paradigm.

No need to rush into a UMPC. But watch this space.

New Kids On the Block
The UMPCs announced so far all weigh about 1.7 pounds and have Intel processors clocking around 1GHz. The big question: How far will they go?

  • Samsung Q1 : The prototypical UMPC, Q1 includes 512MB RAM, a 40GB hard drive and connectivity via Bluetooth 2.0, Wi-Fi, Ethernet and two USB ports.
  • Founder MiniNote : With the same ports as Samsung's Q1, MiniNote starts with only 256MB memory and a 30GB hard drive, but is bundled with a folding companion keyboard.
  • Asus R2H : A high-resolution web-cam, integrated GPS and security bolstered by a finger-print reader set the R2H apart.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.
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