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Origami's the wrapper for a small PC

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Microsoft's 'Origami' is no more than a new user interface for a tablet PC - Intel's mini-tablet form factor Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC), to be precise. Intel showed several machines it described as prototypes and reference platforms at its developer forum this week, and we have pictures.

Wintel has been trying to make this kind of computer a success for 15 years, dating back to the WinPad, and Bill Gates hinted at a reborn Tablet almost a year ago. But small PCs have proved to be a graveyard for manufacturers.

Microsoft's 'Origami' component is not a new OS, merely a layer on top of Windows. But it seems all you have to do is put up an empty teaser website to send pajama pundits into paroxysms of anticipation.

Intel's UMPC

The drawbacks to a UMPC are immediately apparent. This year's UMPCs have a battery life of just two hours, and will cost up to $1,000. That's twice as much as today's laptops, which are faster, have a more readable screen, and the convenience of a full keyboard.

And twice as much as PDA-style devices, which turn on in a second or two.

UMPCs were trailed as having the form factor of "a paperback book". But few paperbacks weigh as much as 2lbs, and are too large for the pocket.

Tablets, er... UMPCs at rest, recharging

The models we spent some time with do run cooler than OQO's PC, which one Intel staffer described as a "coffee heater". But they weren't exactly speed champs: they run the older and slower Celeron processors, not Centrino.

Intel is working with AOL and Yahoo!. Yahoo!'s Go! service might make some sense on a UMPC as Yahoo! Go! on a smartphone turned out to be a piece of malware that eventually rendered the device unusable. But it makes more sense on a discrete device.

In San Francisco this week, Intel's mobile products vice president Sean Maloney used Nokia's 770 Linux tablet to show how one needed "the full Web" - which apparently only runs properly on a Wintel x86 device. The UMPC uses the same 800 x 480 screen resolution, but it's a lot bigger, having to house an Intel processor. Nokia's tablet is $350.

UMPC with thumb board

Microsoft and Intel will formally unveil the venture at a press conference at CeBIT on Thursday.

Intel's UMPC will surely have find a place in vertical industries and government, such as with the police and field workers, as it's both more convenient and cheaper than either a laptop or today's bulky Windows Tablet. Let's hope Microsoft supports it better than its first generation Tablet OS. Redmond let a fatal bug in its digitizer go unfixed for more than a year - to the dismay of its military customers, and it took The Register's persistence to embarrass the team into fixing it. Users were advised to reboot their machines every day.

Some UMPC models will have GPS built-in. Some have integrated keyboards, although the one on show this week is thumbs-only.

But for now it looks like a heck of a clunker. Great things should be expected next year, we were told.

Ain't that always the case? ®

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