Walt Mossberg

Tiny FlipStart PC Gets Caught in Snag Of Too In-Between

I am writing these words on a teeny, tiny computer, much smaller than even the littlest standard laptop. Yet it’s a full-fledged PC running the full version of Windows XP. It’s called the FlipStart and it’s from FlipStart Labs, a Seattle firm that is one of the companies owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The FlipStart is part of a new wave of tiny Windows PCs, which include the second version of a machine called the OQO, the Ultra-Mobile PC from Samsung and Sony’s UX series. For a decade or more, the computer industry has been trying to come up with an ultracompact computer that can use standard operating systems and software. They have failed to catch on broadly for several reasons.

First, they are an awkward, in-between size: too large to fit in a pocket, but too small to allow for minimally comfortable touch-typing keyboards. Second, their screens are often too small to handle the navigation through multiple windows that Windows requires. Third, their battery life has been poor. Finally, they’ve been very costly.

I’ve been testing the FlipStart and found that while it overcomes some of these issues, it can’t lick all of them. It runs Windows OK and it even has decent battery life. Its screen resolution and navigation are also pretty good. It weighs just 1.75 pounds, and is smaller in length and width than a standard paperback novel.

But its price, $2,000, is very expensive for a computer that’s too small to be very good for typing, yet isn’t small enough to be extra portable. Part of the size problem is that it’s thick — thicker than a 400-page paperback. And I found its keyboard to be too little and crude for laptop-style typing, but too wide for fast thumb typing, like people do on a BlackBerry. It also exhibited some funky behavior in my tests.

So, like its predecessors and competitors, the FlipStart is likely to be a novelty or niche product. It may be popular with some techies, but it’s no match for a small standard laptop, like Lenovo’s X models, which start at $1,250, are 2.7 pounds, are thinner than the FlipStart, and include a great keyboard and a screen that’s more than twice the size of FlipStart’s.

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The FlipStart, which goes on sale March 27 on the company’s Web site, flipstart.com, is also much larger and heavier than the new second model of the OQO, which weighs just one pound. The new OQO, on sale next week at oqo.com, is also less costly, starting at around $1,500. Like the OQO, the FlipStart can also run the new Windows Vista, as well as Windows XP.

The FlipStart is designed as a clamshell, with a flip-up lid, like a laptop. It can be used in an L-shape, like a laptop, on a desk or table. The OQO’s keyboard slides down from behind its screen and you type on it while holding it vertically, like a smart phone. The FlipStart can be used that way, too.

The FlipStart’s 5.6-inch screen is bright and vivid, and it has a resolution of 1,024 by 600, less than most laptops, but much better than the new OQO’s. There’s a zoom feature that can be adjusted with a handy scroll wheel on the side, which is also used for scrolling through text.

There’s also a second, tiny screen in the lid, so you can see your email, contacts and calendar when the FlipStart is closed. Special navigation software on the main screen offers the same information.

In my tests, the FlipStart handled Microsoft Word, the Firefox Web browser, Picasa photo software and Apple’s iTunes quite well.

In my tough battery test, in which I turn off all power-saving software, turn on the Wi-Fi, crank up the screen brightness and play music endlessly, the FlipStart did surprisingly well. It clocked in at about 2.5 hours, which means you’d get three hours or more with typical usage. The slimmer, lighter new OQO got just 1 hour, 48 minutes.

The FlipStart includes both Wi-Fi wireless networking and a built-in cellphone modem that uses the fast EV-DO network. Both worked in my tests, as did wired networking via a snap-on port replicator that lets you connect a full-size monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers.

But I ran into some problems. The unit too often failed to connect to Wi-Fi networks. Also, at one point, the FlipStart logged me out of Windows every time I typed the letter “L” in any program. Microsoft Outlook crashed on me repeatedly.

The keyboard, despite its typing flaws, has some nice aspects. It includes a touch pad and a pointing stick, to replace a mouse, and special keys for quickly performing various functions, such as getting to the desktop and switching open windows. But for thumb typing, I much preferred the OQO keyboard, even though it’s smaller and even though FlipStart commissioned a study showing its keyboard was better.

I think the solution to making better hand-held computers is in ever-more-potent smart phones, like Apple’s forthcoming iPhone, rather than in shrunken laptops like the FlipStart.


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