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UMPCs are here!

Review of the Samsung Q1

By Tim Hillebrand

After much ado and hyperbole under Microsoft's code name "Origami," the first UMPCs are finally available. UMPC stands for Ultra Mobile Personal Computer, which is touted as the go-anywhere computer. To qualify as a UMPC, the candidate must have a seven-inch screen, weigh less than two pounds, and run on a modified Windows XP Tablet PC operating system. Several companies have announced their intention to be players: Asus, Founder, PaceBlace, Samsung, and Tablet Kiosk. So far, I believe the only two to reach the market are Samsung and TabletKiosk's models. The one I would like to review for you here is Samsung's Q1 (www.samsung.com), which you can buy soon at CDW and BestBuy.

The Q1 weighs in at a mere 1.5 pounds, sports a seven-inch LCD touch screen offering 800x480, 800x600, and 1024x800 pixel resolutions that you can switch by the push of a button. Its overall dimensions are 9.0 x 5.5 x 1.0 inches. Wireless connectivity is available through built-in Bluetooth 2.0 and Wi-Fi 801.11 b/g radios. Origami hype had us believing that UMPCs would have cell phone connectivity, and cameras, but that hasn't happened, nor is there an InfraRed port. There is an Ethernet port but no phone jack and no modem. You can stand it up with a fold-out leg at two angles for better viewing.

It has a 40 GB hard drive and is powered by an Intel Celeron M ULV 900MHz processor with a 915 MGX Intel GMA900 graphics chipset and 512 MB DDR2 memory upgradeable to 1 GB. There are two USB 2.0 ports, a Type I CF card slot, and a 3.5 mm audio jack. Why Samsung would include a single CF slot instead of the far more prevalent SD slot is a mystery to me.Samsung rates battery life at 3-9 hours depending on the battery capacity installed.

Unencumbered by a great deal of pre-loaded software, the Q1 comes with Internet Explorer, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Windows Media Player, MSN Messenger, AVStation, Sticky Notes, Windows Journal, a few games, a program launcher, and a trial version of Norton Antivirus. It lacks the expected Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Now it's time to kick the tires and take it for a spin. Thrilled with the prospect of a touch screen like that of a Pocket PC, I couldn't wait to start writing on it without the use of a pesky Tablet PC digital pen that you have to use and can easily lose. Eagerly, I began writing in Windows Journal with the stubby stylus included. Whoa! Fireworks seemed to be exploding on the screen with jagged lines radiating everywhere. I thought I had broken the bloody thing with my heavy handedness or something. The fireworks turned out to be a function of my hand resting on the screen as I wrote. You can't do that, but try writing on a piece of paper and not touching it with anything but the tip of a pen sometime; it's almost impossible. So, that quick test, as far as I'm concerned, rendered the handwriting aspect of the UMPC useless. You don't have this problem with a Pocket PC because the screen is so small that you don't touch it with your hand while writing. And you don't have this problem with a Tablet PC because the screen only responds to the cyber ink pen.

There are two other on-screen input methods available with this device. One is the familiar popup keyboard, which in this case is so large that you waste a lot of time traveling between characters. The other is an innovative approach called DialKeys, which consists of two translucent quarter circles that appear in the lower corners of the screen sprinkled with characters in a QWERTY layout. You can tap or use your thumbs, but either method is slow and cumbersome. I suppose, with practice, one could generate a certain amount of proficiency, but I don't have the patience.

Instead, I dragged out my trusty ThinkOutside Bluetooth StowAway keyboard (www.thinkoutside.com). Frustrated at first because I could not find a driver for it on the ThinkOutside Website, I realized that perhaps the operating system may accommodate it with native drivers, and it did! I was connected and typing away at my heart's content.

The next day a very nice keyboard and optical drive arrived from Samsung. Both units are designed to be companion pieces to the Q1 and worked seamlessly. The USB keyboard is very nice with a little joystick in the middle for navigation. I much preferred my portable WOW MousePen, however. Check it out at www.wow-mousepen.com.

For short emails, SMS, and IM messaging, both of the screen-oriented keyboards may be adequate. Handwriting is a problem. However, for serious inputting, an external keyboard is the solution.

Now we know that its Bluetooth radio functions fine for keyboards. Let's get hooked up to the Internet and make a few more tests. The Wi-Fi radio quickly connected to my home network and other access points around town. I was able to cruise the Net, do email, listen to streamed radio, download movies, and hook up to satellite radio wirelessly, all of which I listened to with a Plantronics Bluetooth H980 Headset (www.plantronics.com).

Disappointed that it didn't come equipped as a wireless phone, I was curious to see how it would work as a VoIP phone. I downloaded Skype, pulled up the contacts in my account, and started making calls over the Internet using my Plantronics Headphones. I have to tell you that the quality of the calls was equal to, if not better than using a landline. I disconnected the headphones and used the built-in stereo speakers with the on-board microphone, and it worked great too. Before I was finished making test calls, I also hooked up a Motorola Bluetooth H500 headset (www.motorola.com), and that gave good service as well.

For music from a CD, MP3 music from a Flash Drive, streaming live music over the Internet, and recorded movies or movies from a DVD, I used the incredible, new Logitech NXT flatpanel speaker system (www.logitech.com), and it sounded akin to Carnegie Hall quality, at least to my Van Gough ear. The nice thing about the AVS music system is that you can listen without booting up the operating system and save battery life.

I loaded up the laptop version of Co-Pilot Live GPS software (www.alktechnology.com), connected to the satellites with a Bluetooth receiver, and used it for navigation in my car. I appreciated its larger screen size than a Pocket PC and yet not so large, cumbersome, and hot as a laptop or Tablet PC. The only problem is that I don't have a mounting solution for it yet, but I'm working on it. Come to think of it, it doesn't come with a car adapter either, which would be a good thing for a device touted to be a go anywhere goat. I guess I'll have to limit my navigation to trips fewer than three hours in duration until I get some bigger batteries or a car adapter. Anyway, it worked just great in the navigation mode.

Conclusion

The question is whether the UMPC will subsume and ultimately replace a variety of other devices including the MP3 player, storage devices, Pocket PCs, and mobile phones. Certainly the UMPC provides all the above services, but while it is diminutive compared to a laptop, it is huge compared to a Pocket PC or a Smartphone. If you tried dangling a UMPC from your belt, you would be a candidate for the plumber's union. I would certainly entertain substituting the UMPC for a laptop, but I would not give up the portability of something that fits in my pocket for something that needs a tote bag to lug around with its peripherals. I think it would be great to tuck into a purse or a briefcase and should work well for students, businesspersons, lawyers, and professionals on the go.

My wish list for this device is for an SD slot instead of or in addition to the CF slot, two more USB ports, a camera for taking photos, videos, and video conferencing. I think it would be wise to revert to the Tablet PC screen and get rid of the touch sensitive screen to make handwriting a viable means of inputting. The screen resolution is a bit of a problem sometimes because dialog boxes are cut off and you have to switch to a higher resolution to see them. When you do, the screen can become blurry. Navigation using the screen controls provided is not efficient, and tapping small drop-down menus with a stylus can be inaccurate. The best solution is a mouse, preferably a Wow-mousepen. Inputting is a problem, but not with an external keyboard. Other than that, the UMPC Q1 is a kickass alternative in the portable PC market, and I welcome it enthusiastically.

My most pleasurable moments with the Q1 have been writing in my garden while listening to music over a wireless Internet connection and reading the local paper in bed. While cooking in the kitchen, I placed the Q1 on the microwave and used it to listen to music over Logitech NXT flat panel technology speakers, to watch movies, to look up recipes, to add to my shopping list, and to talk to friends and family with a VoIP connection. I'm looking forward to taking it on the road with me as a travel companion on my annual summer sojourn. But, you can be sure that I'll be packing a Pocket PC Phone Edition as well (with a camera).