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Ex-Apple staff debut palm-sized PC

WinXP in the hand?

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OQO, the start-up that debuted the 7oz "Ultra-Personal" at WinHEC this week is keeping plenty of details under wraps. But we did catch Executive Vice President Colin Hunter this morning, and he dealt with some questions unanswered by OQO's Flash-heavy website.

Hunter co-founded Transmeta, serving both as CFO while the company was in stealth mode, and head of the software engineering side. But the core design team includes several members of the Apple Titanium notebook project, including Jory Bell and Joe Betts-Lacroix, and research staff from IBM's Almaden labs.

The Ultra Personal really is small - at less than 5 by 7 inches, it's sleeker than a CD - but is nevertheless a fully featured Windows PC. It uses Transmeta's TM5800 processor, up to 1GHz, 256MB of RAM and the same 10GB Toshiba drive featured in the latest Apple iPod. It has built-in 802.11b and Bluetooth, and an optimistic battery life of eight hours under light usage.

It should be available by the end of the year, and Hunter told us it would be priced comparably to low-end notebooks, in the $1,000 to $1,400.

That's an interesting choice. The wearable designs (and for that matter, touch screen Wintel notebooks) have been much more expensive. This is designed for the mass market. And we've seen cartridge-sized PCs before, but none have a screen. The OQO has a 640x480 screen, which we wondered might be a tad useless in the real world. Straight VGA is usable, but it's far from optimal, given that today's UI designers add so much screen furniture.

This Hunter readily acknowledges, but points out that this where OQO's modular strategy kicks in. And this bit is really interesting. Although the device itself has a USB and IEEE-1394 connector, it can actually drive a PCI bus through the proprietary multi-purpose connector. This channel also drives another USB and 1394 port, video, audio and the PCI. So it's actually expandable out of the box using standard, desktop-sized PCI cards. You probably wouldn't want to play the new Wolfenstein on this, but in theory, you could throw in the latest NVidia, say, and get a significant performance boost.

In addition to the standalone and "docked" modes, Hunter told us, OQO is planning a "shell" that includes a larger LCD and a keyboard. OQO has incorporated a keyboard into the device, you'd expect, but it's restricted by the 4.9 inch width of the device. (By way of illustration, Psion's Series 5 clamshell had an inch and three quarter more space. This is hunt-and-peck).

We requested an interview with the design team and a hands-on, but Hunter added that we won't hear too much more from the San Francisco-based startup before models will be demonstrated again in the summer. Yes, the company does have patents filed in several design areas.

Modular devices have come and gone before, with one catch being cost: add in the expansion options and it starts to get pretty expensive.

But with its built-in 802.11 support, things could get very interesting indeed fairly shortly. It's far more convenient than a conventional laptop, albeit with the proviso that you'll probably need to lug along a keyboard to do some serious note-taking; but it's also much more powerful than the multimedia PDAs Microsoft is currently touting, and which Palm has staked its future on. ®

External Links

The OQO Website [warning: may cause Flash indigestion]
An OQO UPC photo gallery at crusoe.com

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