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Review: Samsung's Q1 Ultra -- Mobile, Yes, But Is It Fully Functional?

Ultramobile PCs are hot right now, but can a device with a small screen, a split keyboard, and performance in the PDA class convince you it's a fully functional PC?

The design of any portable PC is a set of compromises, and the smaller the device gets, the greater the number of compromises. Therefore, it's no surprise that a device as small as the 1.5-pound Samsung ultramobile PC, the Q1 Ultra, involves quite a few compromises. What's surprising is how useable it is in spite of them.



Samsung Q1 Ultra
(Click image to enlarge.)

The Q1 Ultra is the third generation of Samsung's UMPC devices -- it follows on last year's Q1 and Q1b, which were among the first handheld devices based on the Origami specification jointly developed by Microsoft, Intel, Samsung, and other companies.

If you've ever used a Pocket PC or Palm PDA, some of the features -- and limitations -- of the Q1 Ultra will seem very familiar. Its 7-inch, 1020-by-600 touch screen is about four times the size of the typical PDA screen, but it's still small. The device doesn't have a QWERTY keyboard you can touch type on. And while it's got an 800-MHz Intel processor, performance can feel slow.

But don't let familiarity fool you into judging the book by its cover. The Q1 Ultra is a lot more than just an overgrown PDA. In fact, the Q1 Ultra is packed so full of features that just listing them could fill this review. And when you look at any particular feature, the Q1 Ultra is close to a textbook study in overcompensation.

Many Levels Of Input
Take the lack of a keyboard. You can almost hear the Samsung engineers saying, "If the users think input is the problem, let’s give them as many ways to input commands and text as we possibly can." Including:

  • A pull-out window that hides on the left side of the screen and opens to become a QWERTY keyboard you can tap with the stylus.

  • A browser that's available to accept URLs written with the stylus.

  • A hardware button that opens the DialKeys -- two quarter-circles that fill the lower left and right quadrants of the touch screen and display a keyboard arranged for thumb-typing. (DialKeys is an Origami feature.)

  • A "split" keyboard -- in other words, a BlackBerry-like QWERTY arrangement of teeny keynubs split between the upper left and right corners of the case.

  • And if you need a real 101-key old-fashioned keyboard, you can buy one as an accessory -- or just plug in any USB-connected keyboard.

Cursor control has a similar multiplicity of modes. You can draw on the touch screen with your finger or use the stylus for more precise control. There's also a hardware button labeled "Mouse" that you can wiggle with your left thumb. If you've ever used a ThinkPad, with its pencil-eraser mouse pointer, you'll be familiar with the concept -- but the Samsung version falls so far short of the ThinkPad version they should probably have left it off.

Four Models To Choose From
There are four models of the Q1 Ultra. All share the same very bright 1024-by-600 LED-backlit touch screen. The low-end model ($799), probably intended for institutional tablet applications, lacks the cameras, fingerprint reader, and SD slot that the other models offer, and comes with a 40-Gbyte drive. Two intermediate models offer different mixes of hardware features, a choice of either Windows XP or Vista, and 60-Gbyte drives (the review unit, with dual cameras, Windows Vista Home Premium, and 1 Gbyte of memory and a 60-Gbyte drive, lists for $1,199). At the high end, a machine with Windows Vista Premium comes with an 80-Gbyte drive, HSDPA support, and all the hardware features ($1,499).

A version of the Q1 is also available with a solid-state hard drive -- 32 Gbytes of flash memory -- at a list price of $1,999. Available accessories (depending on the model) include a docking station, high-capacity batteries, external optical disc drive, and a GPS package.

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