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UMPCs: still a gimmick despite Intel's best efforts?

It's the battery life, stupid

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Analysis Intel's ultra-mobility chief, Anand Chandrasekher, when questioned by Register Hardware this week, was suspiciously unwilling to say how long machines based on the firm's new Ultra Mobile Platform (UMP) will run between battery charges. How long you can use UMPCs for is as crucial to their success as the ability to run a standard operating system.

UMP promises big improvements to silicon power consumption, and we've no doubt Intel can deliver that - and the even greater reductions the next generation of the platform, codenamed 'Menlow', will yield. But is that enough to take UMPCs out of their tiny niche?

According to Chandrasekher, the sweet spot for mainstream adoption of UMPCs is the $500 price point. He believes devices will fall to that level in the lifetime of Menlow, which is due to launch during the first half of 2008.

Menlow will almost certainly incorporate an integrated graphics core capable of powering Windows Vista's Aero user interface and the platform's processor, the 45nm 'Silverthorne', will undoubtly be capable of running the Microsoft OS and others.

But for how long? To make a UMPC practical as a wireless internet access device - it's never really going to be a serious productivity tool, even with an integrated keypad - it has to be not only capable of connecting to the internet but be able to do so whenever the user wants to do so. That's partly about the availability of networks, but it's also about allowing users to pull out the device whenever they wish and be reasonably certain the gadget has enough juice to operate.

That's what we've become accustomed to with mobile phones, and if Intel's vision of ubiquitous wireless internet access is to be realised, it's what UMPCs must deliver too. A typical modern handset needs recharging every couple of days or so.

Unfortunately, displays and storage consume more power than processors, and its these that currently drop UMPC runtimes down to a few hours rather than a few days. Owning a device that offers an internet experience comparable to what you get from a laptop or desktop computer implies the desire to access the net to a more-than-casual extent, and that means, at the very least, keeping the display active for long periods, particularly if it's to be viewed outdoors.

There's no question display technology is improving, with the addition of LED backlighting and better use of incident environmental light able to cut screen power consumption, but it still takes plenty of power. Hard drive storage can be replaced with Flash to further reduce the system-level battery drain. But Flash remains much more expensive than hard drives, and the more advanced displays are pricey too. It's hard to see these technologies appearing in $500 UMPCs in the very near future.

Then there's the short-term problem of cooling. The new incarnation of UMP, formerly known by its codename, 'McCaslin', generates as much heat as the first UMPCs to appear. Last year, we tested Samsung's Q1 UMPC and found that, when the processors going flat out, the device's cooling fan kicks in. The Q1 gets hot and uncomfortable to hold. McCaslin's thermal specifications show devices based upon it will will be no different.

UMP's 945-class chipset has integrated graphics but not one capable of running Windows Vista's Aero UI, which means vendors keen to tout their devices' support for that OS will need to build in a dedicated GPU that can. Again, that increases the heat, making the fan more likely to kick in and, in turn, draining the battery further.

The upshot, then, is that UMP-based UMPCs are not going to deliver much better battery life in the current generation, and given Chandrasekher's unwillingness to provide any guidance on the kind of battery life we can expect Menlow-based devices to deliver, it's hard to conclude they won't be much better.

So, Intel CEO Paul Otellini's forecast of handheld devices capable of running the full version of Windows Vista in 2008 looks set to come true - what isn't yet clear is how long they'll be able to do so. Based on what Intel said - or, rather, didn't say - the prognosis is not good. UMPCs are not going to be replacing folks' laptops just yet.

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