The new pretender

5th May 2006 at 01:00
You may think there is already enough choice when it comes to computers, but it seems Microsoft and Intel disagree. George Cole meets the UPMC

Computers are a bit like people; they come in all shapes and sizes. There are laptops and desktops, sub-notebooks and tablets, not to mention PDAs, Pocket PCs and All-in-Ones. Now, there's a new player in town: the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC), a new platform championed by chip maker Intel and software giant Microsoft (who developed it under the code name Origami). So what exactly is a UMPC and why would you want one? Good questions but, as we'll see, not exactly easy to answer.

Depending on who you to speak to, UMPCs either sit between laptops and PDAs or between laptops and Tablet PCs. A UMPC typically has a 7-inch touch-screen, 30-60Gb hard disc and weighs less than 1kg, although models with different form factors will appear. They are powered by an Intel processor and use Windows XP Tablet PC Edition - later models will use the new Vista operating system when it finally arrives (see Bytes, right).

UMPCs can offer features such as email, web browsing, office applications and multimedia, although most be will be aimed at specialist owners, such as gamers or education users. Most products will offer a range of connectivity, such as Bluetooth, wi-fi and Ethernet and prices are expected to be around pound;699 to pound;999. It's an impressive specification, although not so impressive is the fact that the batteries on the first generation UMPCs are expected to last for around several hours and not all day - as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates had originally suggested. And with an entry price of some pound;700, they're not exactly low-cost portable devices either - you could get a pretty decent desktop PC for these prices.

But what exactly are UMPCs for? Microsoft's website says that with a UMPC, you can "use full versions of Microsoft Office system software, Internet Explorer, and other Windows-compatible applications", and that:

"Featuring full Microsoft Windows XP functionality and the ability to touch, write, or type, the Ultra Mobile PC is a powerful companion that lets you communicate, accomplish your tasks, and stay entertained and informed wherever life takes you." In other words, it's a compact version of a laptop.

Er, well maybe not, because you'll find a very different explanation on Intel's website. In a question-and-answer section, Intel stresses that the UMPC is not a replacement for your laptop or your PDA: "The UMPC is a mobile device designed to access online media and content on the go. It is not designed to process lots of work or write a college thesis. You have your laptop or desktop for these tasks. Instead, the UMPC is a great PC companion. The UMPC is powerful enough to provide a great gaming, music or video experience. People will have to decide whether they want to replace their dedicated electronic device with the UMPC."

Intel adds: "You can access your favourite online games, videos, music, TV shows and more on the go, with the quality you are used to when you are in front of your PC. The UMPC also connects you to people via email, VoIP (internet telephony), instant messaging and texting. Additionally, the UMPC devices are expected to have GPS capabilities which allow them to recognise your whereabouts and provide you with local information." Intel sees the UMPC being used a dedicated device for internet-to-go, entertainment-to-go or education-to-go services.

So far, three companies have demonstrated UMPCs, although others (including LG and Acer) are expected to have products later in the year. Samsung's Q1 has a 7-inch touch screen, 40GB hard drive, instant-on multimedia function (which lets you access video and sound instantly rather than waiting for the Windows operating system to boot-up), Bluetooth and wi-fi. It weighs 779 grams and will cost around pound;699. Asus is releasing the R2H, which includes a webcam, Bluetooth, biometric fingerprint security access system and built-in GPS system. Founder's Mini-Note has a 7-inch WVGA screen, 30-60 GB hard drive, wi-fi, Bluetooth and weighs around 800 grams.

It has to be said that industry reaction to the UMPC has been somewhat underwhelming, with some observers pointing out that it falls between two stools - not quite a pocketable device and yet not a fully-functional laptop. The market analyst company Gartner, for example, declared that the UMPC is: "neither PDA (too large to be pocketable) nor notebook (too small to be a useful PC)," adding that the cost and limited battery life mean that "it isn't possible to produce compelling UMPC products".

Some believe the UMPC concept is an idea ahead of its time - we simply don't have the technology yet to make the most of it. It could become the next iPod or mobile phone, but then again, it could be another high-tech white elephant looking for a market. One thing is certain though: the UMPC is not quite smart enough, small enough or cheap enough for schools to seriously consider investing in at present.

* Watch out for a review of Samsung's Q1 in the next issue on Online (June 23).

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