The Micro-PCs: How Useful Are They?

The Micro-PCs: How Useful Are They?

The synergy of PDAs and laptops has brought about an entirely new form factor - the micro PC. Carrying 60GB+ of storage, GHz+ processors, Wi-Fi, and a full Windows OS, these quaint devices seem to have almost everything.

The Micro PC

I remember my first business trip with a laptop computer. At the beginning of the trip, I was excited about what I would be able to do with it. There’s a little known fact, though: laptops get heavier as a trip progresses. By the end of the trip, I felt like I was hauling an anchor around. I quickly began to look for more portable computers.

Many of us still search for the impossible dream: a full-blown computer that’s small enough to carry everywhere. Some manufacturers have tried to realize that dream with miniaturized solutions – sub-notebooks, Windows CE devices, and even handhelds – that let you get by without the size and weight of a laptop. Unfortunately, they have all had severe compromises in screen resolution, computing power, or compatibility with desktop OS software.

Today’s new portable PCs are not equipped with Windows CE or the Palm OS, and they’re not lame, stripped-down shadows of a PC. They are full-featured, so-called “tiny” or “micro” PCs, usually running Windows XP or Windows XP Tablet Edition, with 1 GHz+ processors, hard drives, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0, USB connectivity, and more. These new devices include gadgets such as the new Sony VAIO UX280P Micro PC, the Samsung Q1, and the OQO, with more on the way. These types of devices have also been featured at [H] Consumer with the VIA Origami UMPC. At the time, the Origami was called an "ultra mobile PC."

Once you could only buy these tiny computers from vendors who imported them from Japan, where “small” is the most important feature of the device. Now we’re starting to see higher distribution with more support in the U.S.

My first hands-on impression of these computers was that they are, indeed, astoundingly small. For example, the above-mentioned Sony is 5.91”(W) x 3.74”(H) x 1.27-1.50”(D). And, yet, it’s not quite small enough to fit in my pocket. In particular, it is too thick for most people’s jean pockets – even if the jeans are on the baggy side. So the only ways to carry this new, compact technology are to keep it in hand or stowed in a briefcase. Or you can shell out even more cash for a custom carrying case.

In basketball, a player is sometimes labeled as a “tweener,” which means they are too big to play as a guard, but too small to play as a forward. Similarly, these new tiny PCs are difficult to classify: too large to carry like a handheld, but not powerful enough to replace a normal laptop. By trying to merge these two concepts, the tiny PCs are hoping to forge their own place in the landscape.

Their screens typically have a resolution that can support the width of Web pages. The Sony has a 1024 x 600 screen, which is amazing for how small it is (4.5”). Although this, of course, makes the pixels quite small, you can zoom in, and you almost have to. The Q1 and OQO both have 800 x 480 screens – just big enough to see the top half or quarter of most Web pages at full width.

And if there is a real advantage to the micro-PC, it’s the Internet. With free Wi-Fi becoming more widely supported in metropolitan areas, you can access the Web and email on the go. The Sony also includes a WAN connection to Cingular’s EDGE Network. And with Bluetooth capabilities, any of these computers can use a Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone as a modem to connect wherever there is cell phone access. The Sony even has two built-in cameras: one for video conferencing and one for taking pictures.

While multimedia capability is an important feature, it’s unfortunate that text entry technology isn’t quite where we’d like it to be. The Sony and OQO both have integrated slide-out thumb keyboards, while the Q1 is a pure tablet that features text entry from an on-screen keyboard or by using the included stylus for handwriting recognition. None of these options are suited for heavy text editing. However, they work well for short emails or for entering a search term or URL.

As mentioned, being connected everywhere is what these computers are made for, but what good is connectivity if you need to bring your laptop along to run all of your applications? This is another major advantage of these new devices. When you are on the road (but please not when you’re driving), you can run the actual tools that you already know from your desktop or laptop and not some barebones approximation of the application. Although the size of the interface is different, using the application is exactly the same. Where before you had to learn a new app (or even OS) for every device, the evolving technology and demands of the marketplace allows users to use their current knowledge of computers so that they can be productive with their new device from day one.

Beyond productivity, you can load these micro-PCs with music players, get Bluetooth headphones, and call them iPods - or Zunes - without the annoying software. With these tiny computers, you can do what these two devices (among others) can’t: buy and download music anyplace you are – or at least anywhere with cell phone service. But don’t expect to hold as many tunes as you can on an iPod. The hard drives in the micro PCs are only 40 to 60 GB currently, smaller than Apple’s 80GB iPod. And, of course, the OS and applications will chew into the storage space as well. That said, it’s hard to imagine a consumer buying one of these devices just for media playback, so the media capabilities featured on these tiny PCs are mostly a bonus.

As capable as these computers are, we can’t help but wonder if a smart phone with a decent-sized screen might do most of what these computers can do. Indeed, convergence is key in the cellular phone market. The phone/PDA concept has been around for years, so it’s no surprise that the technology is heading to the next logical step. It’s likely that cell phone integration into tiny PCs is just over the horizon so that you don’t have to have a Bluetooth phone in order to connect to the Internet or be lucky enough to be in a high-bandwidth Wi-Fi area. In fact, we’re starting to see the first of these devices with the iPhone. However, even the iPhone has its own operating system.

And, of course, these little PCs carry a big price tag. For example, the Sony VAIO UX280 is currently ticketing in the $1,500-2,000 range. The OQO starts at $1,499. As the technology evolves, the prices will drop, but for now, you have to lay down some serious cash for the convenience these devices offer. Still, for uncompromised webpage viewing and total compatibility with your home PC tools in a very small package, it's almost tempting to break the bank for one.


Managing Editor's Note: This article is the first of many of its kind to come. Although we'll still bring you our famous system evaluations, we also want to share some of our thoughts on the landscape. You'll see editorials such as this one from myself, Josh Norem, Scott Unzicker, and several other folks that have just joined our staff. All of us come from different backgrounds, and though you might not agree with our opinions, we hope to stimulate some healthy discussion on the topics.

As always, thanks for reading, and we'd love to hear your feedback.

Jason Wall

Managing Editor

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