Thoughts on Ultra Mobile PCs

Thoughts on Ultra Mobile PCs
by Jeffrey Graebner

This week, Microsoft and Intel formally announced their new design for what they call Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPC). This was the project that Microsoft had semi-mysteriously hyped under the code name “Origami” via a teaser site. These devices, which will ship later this spring, are essentially oversized PDAs running the full version of Windows XP (and eventually Windows Vista) instead of a mobile OS like Windows Mobile or Palm OS.

Like existing PDAs, these devices will use a touch screen with either no keyboard or a thumb keyboard. They will use memory cards as their primary removable storage and miniature hard drives (like the ones found in digital music players) for internal storage. Data transfer and software installation will likely be accomplished primarily via synchronization with a primary PC or over the Internet instead of through optical discs. The first devices are expected to include both wi-fi and Bluetooth for communications. The biggest advantages over existing PDAs are expected to be a larger, higher-resolution screen and, of course, the ability to run regular PC applications.

While this is unquestionably an interesting new product category, the obvious question that is widely being asked is whether or not there is actually going to be much of a market for these devices.. As I look at the description of these units, I realize that I’m likely right in the core target audience for these devices. My instinct is that I probably will own one of these within the next year or so, although there are enough unanswered questions leaving me with doubts that the first-generation models will meet my needs.

As is frequently the case with new product lines from Microsoft, the UMPC concept isn’t entirely original, although their backing and promotion should stimulate substantial growth in this type of product. A couple other companies have already put out tiny miniature-laptops that run the full version of Windows, although not with too much success. Microsoft’s own design is really a progression from the previous Tablet-PC version of the OS. In addition, my own experience with PDAs over the last few years tells me that this is basically the direction that non-cellular handhelds have already been heading.

Over the last few years, I have been steadily upgrading my portable electronic devices, moving towards carrying around as much computing power as possible. I have moved well beyond the standard organizer features of a PDA and now use it extensively for email and web browsing, audio and video playback, document creation, viewing and storage, and even in-car navigation. I currently have Palm’s Lifedrive, which includes a 4GB hard drive as well as a large (for a PDA) 320×480 resolution screen and built-in wi-fi and Bluetooth. This is my 5th PDA, with each successive upgrade having moved me closer to having the capabilities of a PC in a truly portable device.

My first PDA was a Palm V, which I basically just used to keep track of my calendar and address book. I then upgraded to the Palm VIIx, which was one of the first PDAs with limited wireless capabilities. It was useful for occasionally grabbing news headlines or the current weather, but its lack of a persistent connection or much compatibility with standard Internet protocols kept it very limited as a communications device. I next moved up to the Palm Tungsten-W, their first attempt at a PDA/cell-phone combination. This was a seriously flawed device in a number of ways (poor cell phone features, slow wireless data with limited coverage, obsolete OS), but it did prove to be the first handheld device that I owned which allowed me to retrieve my email using standard protocols.

After struggling to get the Tungsten-W to work acceptably for a year or so, I finally gave up and purchased a Sony CLIÉ UX-50, a clamshell device with a 480×320 display and built-in wi-fi and Bluetooth for connectivity. This quickly gave me vastly improved email and web browsing performance as well as my first taste of audio and video capabilities on a PDA. I probably would have stuck with it much longer than I did, had it not been for its way too limited storage capacity, too small screen, and lack of support as Sony exited the PDA business.

When Palm introduced the LifeDrive, I bought one almost right away. Although I regretted the loss of the UX-50s thumb keyboard, I felt that loss was more than made up for by the vastly increased storage capacity (over 4GB) and larger screen. The extra storage space and larger screen suddenly made multimedia features vastly more practical. I also now have the storage capacity to carry around all of my critical files, including numerous documents and a couple years’ of archived email. With the addition of a Bluetooth keyboard, the LifeDrive is also the first PDA that I have had that truly seems really useable for document creation. In fact, I am writing this article on the LifeDrive.

The most obvious trend as I have progressed through these various models of PDAs has been to bring portability to more and more of my day-to-day computing tasks. It strikes me that the UMPC concept could easily represent a substantial step further in that direction, by addressing some of the key limitations that remain with even my latest PDA. A sufficiently portable device that has a full-resolution screen and which runs the same software and OS as my desktop computers seems very likely to provide a substantial improvement in the portability of data and computing tasks.

While each of the PDAs that I have purchased have improved the experience of portable web browsing, even my current PDA still falls pretty far short of the experience with my desktop or laptop computer. Most websites are designed for a minimum screen resolution of 800×600, which still leads to some substantial reformatting on essentially every site. Mobile browsers also still have a great many limitations when it comes to supporting plug-ins (like Flash) or even complex client-side scripting or framesets. To give the most obvious example, I am still not able to access my work email via my PDA simply because the browsers can’t handle the complexity of the Outlook web client. At least in theory, a UMPC should solve these issues by providing a screen that can match desktop/laptop resolutions. In addition, it should be able to run the desktop versions of Firefox or IE, giving essentially full compatibility with virtually any site.

Similarly, I can see very large advantages to a UMPC when it comes to other key functions. At present, I use Documents-to-Go by Dataviz for creating, editing, and reviewing documents and spreadsheets on my PDA. While it does a pretty admirable job at handling Microsoft Office documents, it still falls pretty short in some areas. Obviously, the smaller screen resolution is a clear limitation, particularly with spreadsheets. It also does not render fonts very accurately, making it very hard to get a good picture of how a document will look when moved back to the PC. My experience has been that documents created on the PDA pretty much always need another formatting pass once I transfer them to the PC. Finally, Documents-to-Go (and the other similar PDA products) lacks any of the collaborative features, such as change tracking or comment entry. Without those features, my PDA still remains pretty much useless as a tool for reviewing professional documents while on the go. With a UMPC, I would expect that it would be possible to simply run the full PC version of Microsoft Office or a functionally similar alternative, such as OpenOffice.

Of course the higher resolution screen and full Windows XP compatibility of a UMPC would likely give it huge advantages for multimedia over most current portable music players. For music, a UMPC would be compatible with all current online music stores, both for purchases or subscriptions. There would be no concern at all about whether or not a particular store happened to use a brand of digital-rights management that works with your portable device. Since there is really no practical way for Apple to drop iTunes’ support for Windows XP, the UMPC could be the first really substantial challenge to the dominance of the iPod for portable music playback, although the size of the units and multi-purpose nature will still leave a need for stand-alone music players as well.

The same advantages that exist for music also apply to video, since it is unlikely that any video download service is going to fail to support Windows XP either. The higher resolution, larger screen will also make these devices much more useful as portable video players than a PDA or an iPod. I noticed that Microsoft is already promoting these advantages a bit by prominently featuring an icon for Movielink, the largest service for legally downloading movies, in some of their screen captures. At present, Movielink does not support transfer to any portable devices, so this is obviously something to promote.

One limiting factor to the value of the first-generation UMPCs for audio/video could be storage capacity. The first models are expected to have no more than 60GB hard drives, which is about the same as top-of-the-line portable media players. Of course, a large chunk of that space on a UMPC will be used for the OS, applications, and other data. To carry my full music collection around, I’m already pushing the limits of my 60GB Creative Labs Zen Xtra, so I couldn’t likely fit my whole collection in the internal storage of these first UMPC models. I would imagine their capacity will increase with time, though. In addition, the inclusion of memory card slots as well as USB 2.0 connectors could provide the ability to add substantial amounts of external storage as well.

As promising as the UMPC concept looks, my instinct is that it could be another year or more before I really think they are far enough along that I will be ready to buy one. Microsoft’s announcement this week showed first generation devices from Samsung and Acer. While both are certainly reputable companies, clearly neither company is top-tier when it comes to computing devices. In another year or so, it seems more likely that we will see companies like HP and Dell releasing UMPCs. Now that they have started working with Microsoft, I could even see Palm’s Mobile Manager becoming a brand for UMPCs instead of for higher-capacity PDAs like the LifeDrive. For now, though, the offerings seem a bit slight.

The information released this week also leaves some unanswered questions that I would certainly want to see answered before I would even consider a purchase. The most obvious one is the rather vague pricing information released. The announcement simply said that they expect the first generation devices to be priced somewhere between $600 and $1,000. Even the low-end of this range might be a bit high for this type of product, while the high end seems pretty far off the chart. I only spent slightly over $1,000 on a laptop last year and you can get lower-end laptops for far less.

I also found it pretty difficult to judge how big these first units will really be from the pictures and published information. My first impression, though, is that they are still a bit too large. I don’t know that I ever expect UMPCs to be pocket sized, but they definitely need to be light enough and portable enough to easily fit in a briefcase or a camera bag. Ideally, something similar in size to the Sony Playstation Portable seems like a good target.

I doubt that I will soon see a useable UMPC that is as small as the LifeDrive (which many people already consider to be a bit big for a PDA), but I can also easily recognize an approach where that probably won’t matter as much. I already have found myself using the data features of my cell phone (particularly the WAP browser and, occasionally, even Opera Mini) if I want to just grab a quick news headline, weather report, or something similar when I’m somewhere that it isn’t as convenient to have the LifeDrive along. I could easily see eventually upgrading to a combination of a UMPC and a Treo (or similar smartphone). The Treo would be used for cases where extreme portability is needed (such as quick access to calendar or contacts) while the UMPC would be used for more serious mobile computing. Theoretically, the UMPC could even be synchronized regularly with the smartphone to keep key data in sync between them. It could be a rather potent combination, essentially overcoming most of the biggest limitations of the LifeDrive.

The other really large unanswered question about the UMPC is how well Windows XP (and eventually Vista) will actually adapt to portable use. Will most software work acceptably with the touch-screen without modifications or will UMPC users be waiting for critical applications to be adapted? How well will data entry work with the devices? The announcement showed pictures of on-screen keyboards and some of the prototypes that Intel separately showed had slide-out thumb keyboards, but it is hard to say how well those methods will actually work. One obvious question that I have is whether or not the UMPC operating system will include some form of handwriting recognition, which is standard on PDAs. For projects that require a full keyboard, I’m sure the USB plugs will easily allow plugging in standard ones, but how well will they work with small foldable keyboards, such as the Think Outside Bluetooth keyboard that I use with my LifeDrive?

Finally, the simple aesthetics and usability of Windows on this kind of portable device is an open question. Generally, it is accepted that the biggest advantage that Palm OS has always had is its basic ease of use. From the beginning, that OS was designed to make it as easy and efficient as possible to get to data using portable devices. I don’t really have first hand experience with Windows Mobile, but it seems that the most frequent complaints about it seem to be based on inefficiencies that result from Microsoft’s attempt to give it a look and feel that resembles its desktop sibling. I could easily see this becoming a much more pronounced problem with UMPCs. The UMPC front-end to Windows is going to be a real test of the skill of the user-interface designers.

Performance is also a definite open issue. Windows is not always known for its efficiency and it seems certain that a UMPC will not have as powerful hardware as a typical desktop or even a laptop. Being based on Windows, a UMPC will be as vulnerable to viruses, spyware, and other malicious attacks as other Windows-based systems as well, which means that these devices will be further slowed down by the overhead of anti-virus, anti-spyware, and firewall software. The LifeDrive has gotten some criticism for having slower performance than other PDAs that are not based around hard drives and it seems very likely that UMPCs will be substantially slower still.

I also hope that developers won’t become overly attached to the idea of the UMPC becoming a stand-alone device without any ties back to primary desktop or laptop PCs. The announcement included some references to mechanisms for synchronizing audio and video content with a primary PC, but I would hope that it would go much further than that. In particular, I would hope they will include something similar to Palm’s LifeDrive Manager software, which provides the ability to keep entire directories synchronized between the PDA and a PC. I also hope they will make certain to provide efficient and simple methods for synchronizing basic calendar, contact, and to-do data between a UMPC and one or more PCs. I already use my PDA as essentially the reference version of all these databases, keeping them in sync through regular HotSyncs with my home and work PCs and my laptop.

All of these concerns mean that I will probably be watching the first UMPCs very closely, but will not immediately be jumping on the bandwagon. I’m very excited for the potential of these devices, though, and can easily see them finally providing a big step closer to the type of portable computing that I personally very much want to have available to me.

One Response to “Thoughts on Ultra Mobile PCs”

  1. Jesse B. says:

    I feel your pain with these 1st generation devices. I’ve written in my blog as well about the uses if you want to head over and see what you think!

Leave a Reply