UMPCs: still a gimmick despite Intel's best efforts?
It's the battery life, stupid
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.
Tandy 100 / Sinclair Z88
Neither the Newton nor this new UMPC fab can compete with the mighty Tandy 100 of 1983. It was basically just a text-entry portable wordprocessor, but it had sixteen hour battery life, a proper tough keyboard, and a fairly big screen. For something more recent, I'm sure you could pick up a Science of Cambridge Z88; when I'm on the move I only really want some kind of basic text-entry system that I can hook up to Word later on.
Ngage wasn't a platform
"nokia tablets are interesting but after the ngage i'm not excited about another experimental nokia platform,"
Ngage wasn't a platform, it was a brand name. The Ngage handset itself was just a standard Symbian S60 smartphone, like dozens of others Nokia make. There was absolutely nothing special about it at all, except that it had the DRM software required to access the games. If you removed the DRM on Ngage games, you could run them on standard Symbian S60 handsets because they were exactly the same inside.
S60 incidentally has done very well, it's now the most popular form of smartphone in the world. Something like half of all smartphones run S60.
The tablets are totally different, they run an interface called Maemo on top of the Linux operating system and have no technical relation whatsoever to Nokia's other products.
There is a market, and it's already becoming saturated. The Nokia N95 is a great example. I have installed the GMail client on it, have a standards compliant browser, POP3 mail access and with Wi-Fi and 3G I can get the net nearly anywhere.
On top of this, most smartphone can at least read MS office docs and some can create them too. I can use my phone for MP3's and even for 3D gaming too. (E.G. N95 has a ATi chipset in for graphics)
Generally I need to charge it every couple of days. Why would I spend $500 on another device that can do the same without the phone calls?!
Skip the color screen and Cray supercomputer core
I'm in the market to replace my Palm crap. I'm on my 5th Palm TX due to repeated digitizer failures.
Anyway, I'm in the process of installing Python and other stuff on my new Nokia N800 to turn it into a general-purpose device. I'm also writing a banking app for it, copying the GUI from the nice one on my Palm. I wanted a Micro Vaio, but a) it was $2500 and b) the day I went to buy it, Best Buy stopped carrying it.
I'm REALLY surprised my Nokia doesn't have a reminder calendar or to-do app. That's sad because it's rather simple and cheap to add. Is Mahjongg that much more important than a to-do list?
You DON'T need a color screen or the latest quad-core processor. Get rid if that crap and battery time will double or quadruple. If that means no Vista, to h*ll with Microsoft, there's always Linux.
My Palm Vx had a greyscale screen that was perfectly readable at night with the lights off as well as in brightest sunlight. The new color Palms wash out in the Sun, like in a parking lot when you're trying to look up an address.
The moment Palm went from greyscale to color, their battery life went from a couple weeks to a couple of days. My Vx battery lasted 12-16 days. My TX lasts maybe 4 days if I'm lucky.
You DO need a hardware keyboard, be it clamshell, slide-out or Palm Treo/Crackberry thumbpad. I'm tired of trying to pick out letters with a stylus. The N800 soft keyboard design is far better than the Palm, but that's not saying much.
Didn't Apple fail at this ten years ago?
Sounds a lot to me like the newton slightly updated for 2007. Last year Samsung's first UMPC lost a cnet comparison to the 10 year old newton, so one has to wonder if technology has finally caught up to the newton concept or if this will end up showing that there is still limited demand for this form factor. If I could get a modern device running os x (or even better an updated newton-style os that wasn't tied to apple or ms) that is compatible with ms office and wasn't locked into a mobile phone company like the iphone is going to be then I might be able to leave the laptop at home sometimes. Pepper pad is too far out there, nokia tablets are interesting but after the ngage i'm not excited about another experimental nokia platform, even if it has been around for a couple years. Are devices like this necessary? Of course not, but in a convienence form factor with limited function novelty is as important as functionality.