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6/29/2008
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Ultra Mobile PC Buyer's Guide

We look at a range of versatile UMPCs and mobile Internet devices (MIDs) from ASUS, Gigabyte, and Samsung, Amtek, OQO, Roan Digital, Vye, and WiBrain.

Pity the ultra mobile personal computer. It's barely a few years old and it's already suffering from multiple personality disorder. It may even soon see a midlife crisis.

The first question to ask is, "What is a UMPC?" Don't be surprised if you don't get the same answer twice.

The product category started life as a Microsoft concept called "Project Origami." (Yes, the art of folding paper.) As you might or might not be aware, Microsoft's success with hardware-based products has not been auspicious. From the broad range of hardware it has proposed or delivered, it was first successful with its mouse and then there was... well, its mouse.

In the original plan, an Origami device would utilize a 4- to 7-inch screen that has a minimum resolution of 800x600. The operating system was Windows XP with the Microsoft Touch Pack and it supported access via touch, pen, and dedicated buttons. There was a footnote in there for keyboards as well. Apparently, big old fingers and a little tiny touch screen are no more a match made in heaven for an Origami, er, UMPC device than they are for the iPhone or iPod Touch.




The ASUS R2H adds an optional USB keyboard to its touchscreen and handwriting recognition input methods.
(click for image gallery)

According to Microsoft, in its latest incarnation (soon to be released), a UMPC should run Windows Vista Home Premium, weigh approximately 2 pounds, have an integrated touch panel, and be both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled. Did someone not say keyboard?

This newest upgrade to the platform, called Origami 2.0, brings some interesting innovations to the user interface. All are prefixed by the word "Origami." One of particular interest is called "Picture Password." According to Microsoft, it lets you, "log on to your computer by tapping a sequence of targets on a picture instead of typing a text password. It's a quick, fun, and highly secure way to unlock and log on to a UMPC." Yes, it sounds funny, but playing Simon has been fun for years.

The one thing to remember is that UMPCs are niche devices. They're trying to be something more than a PDA, but not quite a PC, and they're almost succeeding. Those with keyboards must be cradled in your hands and typed upon with your extremely agile opposable thumbs. It's not comfortable for a prolonged period of time and, in that sense, they're not PCs. The latest additions of Origami productivity software, Central and Now, add better e-mail, calendar, and weather applications and media aggregation to the device, so it's certainly more than a PDA.

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