It's hard to say when a product category actually becomes a category, but it seems safe to say that when you have more than four of kind, it's game on. Having Microsoft or Intel come up with a code-name for a platform and issue a press release validates things even more. And so we now have the UMPC (ultramobile PC), a new breed of microcomputer that fills the gap--if there ever was one--between the Blackberry and the ultralight notebook. Or is it between the Pocket PC and Purse PC? Either way, the UMPC is loaded with gadget appeal. Maybe not quite as much as Apple's iPhone, but if you're at all into the concept of the ever-elusive all-in-one mobile doohickey, the UMPC is going to catch your eye.
Is the UMPC destined to die, flourish, or be obliterated by the iPhone?
In case you hadn't heard already, these devices are designed to run a full version of Windows. The VAIO VGN-UX280 I have sitting on the desk next to me is running Windows Vista, it has built-in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g), and support for cellular WWAN (wireless wide-area network) with an AT&T SIM card. There's also a built-in video/still camera, biometric security (a fingerprint reader), a 40GB hard drive, a slot for a Memory Stick Duo card, and a touch screen display that slides up to reveal a thumb-operated QWERTY keyboard. At just more than a pound, it's around twice the weight of a Sony PSP, but it has a vaguely similar look and feel. The VGN-UX280 and newer VGN-UX380N and VGN-UX390N
--the latter features bleeding-edge SSD flash-memory storage instead of a hard drive--come with docking stations that allow you to add a keyboard and mouse, but an external optical drive is an optional accessory. Without it, you're going to have trouble adding certain software packages.
As I write this column, Senior Editor Dan Ackerman is in the office next door, just putting the final touches on his review of the Vulcan FlipStart, a competing UMPC. The Sony has some features the FlipStart doesn't have, but Dan says he likes the FlipStart's built-in touch pad better than the eraser-style pointstick on the Sony. The FlipStart's keyboard is also spread out more and, if you set the device on table, you might be able type using all your fingers rather than just your thumbs (the Sony keypad is, in fact, a chore to use). That said, the FlipStart is a brick. And that's rub No. 1 with these guys. Their size is questionable. They're too big for a pocket and probably too big to clip onto your belt, so you're left to carry them in a bag, a briefcase, or ideally, a purse. And I'm not talking some Euro-style man-purse. I'm talking your average-size woman's purse--it'd be a perfect storage spot (thus, my coining of the phrase Purse PC). The only problem is, the target audience for pricey mini computers--gadget-hound males--aren't generally likely to be toting a handbag, Prada or otherwise.
The Sony VAIO VGN-UX390N packs a lot of features into a tiny frame--but you still have to type with your thumbs.
They have a term in basketball for a player who doesn't quite fit the parameters of his or her position: a tweener. You've got the guy who's too small to play power forward but isn't quick enough or can't hit the outside jumper consistently enough to play small forward. Then there's the shooting guard who's too short to guard taller opposing shooting guards on defense but doesn't have the handles to play point guard. Sure, every once in a while, you'll get a Charles Barkley, who plays taller than his real height (he was generously listed at 6 feet, 6 inches but is more like 6-foot-4 and change). But for now the UMPC seems like a classic tweener: Too small to be a really usable minilaptop and too big to simply qualify as a smarter smartphone. (I'm thinking of the Nokia 9300
, which would seem to be a better form factor if you were willing to put up with a bigger phone.)
I was actually sort of a fan of a few of the "clamshell" UMPC predecessors--the NEC Mobile Pro 790 and the Sony CLIE PEG-UX50 come to mind. The NECs ran a version of Windows CE; the Sony CLIEs, PalmOS. Both were the ultramobiles of their era (circa 1998 to 2003--may they rest in peace). Unlike the UMPC, they were designed as mini laptops without any pretense to creating a hybrid device. Like the UMPC, they had their strengths and a few glaring weaknesses. However, if I had my druthers, that's what the UMPC should probably be--an NEC MobilePro 790 that runs Windows Vista instead of Windows CE. In that sense, HTC's upcoming Shift may offer the most promising UMPC design, but to further confuse matters, HTC also has an upcoming device, the Advantage, which looks like a UMPC but is actually a really beefy smart phone that's not pocket friendly.
The HTC Advantage doesn't run Vista--but you can
use it to make a phone call.
If it sounds confusing, you're not alone. The whole UMPC category is very much a work in progress. The current wave of UMPCs--including the Sony VGN-UX390N and the Vulcan--will be replaced by the so-called McCaslin models
--including that HTC Shift--within just a few months, in the summer of 2007. Meanwhile, the Intel is already showcasing prototypes
of the subsequent
generation of UMPCs--dubbed Menlow--which are scheduled to hit in 2008. In addition to better battery life, Intel is designing Menlow devices to run the Linux operating system in addition to Windows Vista. (To
add to the confusion, Intel prefers the moniker Mobile Internet Device, or MID.) Unfortunately, mainstream Linux mobile devices haven't had much luck in the marketplace, so I'm not ready to get all that excited by such concepts, or even a Linux-powered Palm handheld. But the Linux community would probably beg to differ. And while we're on the subject of other operating systems with enthusiastic user bases, let's not forget the forthcoming iPhone. It's supposed to run a fully functional version of OS X--which would be really enticing if you could actually install your own applications.
OS discussions aside, as with all new cutting-edge devices, what will determine whether the UMPC category is here to stay or is destined to sputter and fade away, is finding the correct balance between design, features, performance, and price. The big problem with the UMPCs of today--rub No. 2, if you will--is that they're obviously very pricey. The Sony VGN-UX280--which started at two grand--has now slipped to around $1,400 online, but the new VGN-UX380N and VGN-UX390N list at a whopping $1,950 and $2,450 respectively. As I told the folks from HTC, if you're in the $1,500 to $2,000 range, you're just too close to what a two-pound subnotebook costs. All things considered, I'd rather have the Sony VAIO TXN17P/B. Or maybe even a smallish Tablet PC--the HP Pavilion tx1000 runs Vista, and starts at just $1,150. Unlike the Sony UMPCs, both of those systems offer a full keyboard, built-in optical drive, and decent (4-plus and 3 hours, respectively) battery life.
And there you have the final rub against the UMPC: battery life. With most of these devices, you're looking at two to three hours of juice on a single charge, and maybe less if you're playing a game or running video--and God forbid you leave the Wi-Fi and/or the Bluetooth wireless turned on. The fact is, these guys need to go a minimum of five hours and probably more like six or seven. Perhaps Intel's vaunted 45nm chips will deliver that extended battery life as promised. But even if the battery life triples in future models, UMPCs need to offer compelling competitive advantages over more robust subnotebooks and more compact smart phones that cost less and do most of what you need. For example, with HTC's upcoming P4000, which is thinner than the current Sprint Pocket PC 6700 and allegedly has improved battery life, you can send and receive e-mail using a nice flip-down keyboard, look at images and documents, take photos and shoot videos, and check out Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. The screen is not huge (2.8 inches), but it's adequate for most applications. There's built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 3G data service. So, why would I need a UMPC that costs three times as much, has worse battery life, doesn't offer that much more functionality (in terms of core needs), and still requires me to carry a cell phone for voice calls?
Can someone please tell me? Anyone?
Is the UMPC destined to die, flourish, or be obliterated by the iPhone? TalkBack to me below.