Walt Mossberg

Two Tech Leaders Aim For Bold New Portable, But Miss the Mark

In the boring world of me-too personal computers, only a few companies are frequently bold enough to try something really new.

Apple and Sony are the usual suspects. Microsoft and Intel, which dominate the industry, rarely make the list of design risk-takers. So the latter two leaders deserve credit for cooking up a whole new type of Windows computer — a machine that’s smaller than the smallest mainstream laptop — the Ultra Mobile PC, or UMPC. The first UMPC for the U.S. market, the Samsung Q1, goes on sale next week at Best Buy’s Web site.

The idea behind the UMPC is that it’s so small, yet so full-featured, it can replace a laptop. It’s meant to fit in places a laptop won’t, or simply to be held in your hands. It is also supposed to be a cool multimedia device for watching video or listening to music.

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Unfortunately, the Samsung Q1 is so deeply flawed in key respects that it amounts to little more than a toy for techies. For everyone else, it’s impractical and frustrating. Unless the UMPC can evolve significantly beyond this first effort, it may wind up as a footnote in the history of personal computers, rather than an exciting new category.

The Q1 is sleek and attractive. It’s about the size of a hardcover book, only narrower, and is clad in shiny black plastic with silver accents. Most of the unit is occupied by a wide-angle color touch screen that measures 7 inches diagonally. Overall, it’s about 9 inches long, 5.5 inches wide and just under an inch thick. It weighs a scant 1.7 pounds.

Inside, the little machine runs a full version of the Tablet edition of Windows XP. In fact, the UMPC, which Microsoft had code-named Origami, is really just a small Tablet PC. That’s a good thing, because many of the Tablets shipped so far have been too big and bulky to use comfortably as electronic notepads or document readers, which are the main functions of tablet computers.

The Q1 uses a slow, low-end Intel processor, a Celeron running at 900 megahertz. But it was adequate for the common tasks I tested — Web surfing, email, playback of audio and video files. There’s also a 40 gigabyte hard disk, 512 megabytes of memory, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless networking, an Ethernet port, two USB ports and a slot for Compact Flash memory cards.

There’s no embedded cellphone modem and no slot for adding an external one. The Q1 also lacks an internal DVD drive. An external drive can be added for $219, but it’s an extra piece to carry and plug in.

You operate the Q1 like a PDA — by manipulating icons on the screen and writing on the screen using either a simple plastic stylus or your fingers. It lacks a built-in keyboard and doesn’t come with a mouse.

In my tests, the Wi-Fi and wired networking worked well and were fast. All the applications I tried launched fine and worked fine. Video clips looked pretty good on the screen, and the stereo speakers, though small, did a decent job.

So what are the Q1′s big flaws? The first is price. Microsoft’s designers set a target retail price of $500, but Samsung is charging more than double that amount — $1,099. That’s more than many laptops cost, and much more than PDAs or smart phones. In fairness, the lightest laptops tend to cost more — $1,500 to $2,500. But $1,099 is still a lot for a UMPC.

The second is battery life. In my harsh battery test, the Q1 lasted just two hours and two minutes. That means that, in normal use, it might approach three hours, if you’re lucky. You can buy a larger battery for $119, but it adds bulk to the computer and nudges the weight up to two pounds, almost as heavy as the lightest standard laptops.

The third is the lack of a keyboard. Without a keyboard, many standard tasks in Windows are simply a huge hassle. You can’t really do word processing at speeds most people are used to. And email is a constant frustration. Yes, the Q1 has handwriting recognition, but it’s cumbersome. And there’s a semicircular onscreen keyboard, but it takes work to use it well.

Most Tablet PCs include a keyboard. Even the tiny OQO computer has a keyboard, as do Treos and BlackBerrys. How come the combined brains at Microsoft, Intel and Samsung couldn’t build one into the Q1? You can plug in an external keyboard, but that makes the machine ungainly.

The fourth big flaw is the screen. Its resolution is too low to see much material at a glance. Often, you can’t even see the OK button at the bottom of open Windows. There is a way to increase the resolution, but it results in distorted graphics and fuzzy text.

Finally, the navigation buttons and controls on the Q1 are awful. There’s a control that moves the cursor, and another that acts like a Return key. But there are no direct equivalents of the left and right mouse buttons. To emulate a mouse button, you have to hold down two of the Q1 buttons simultaneously.

My advice is to skip the Q1, and hope that the next generation of the UMPC will be better.

  • Email me at mossberg@wsj.com.

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