Ultra-mobile PCs are the future of mobile computing according to Microsoft.
Ross Burridge looks at the devices and the technology
Behind all the hype, current devices are essentially small-form-factor tablet PCs with a fairly rigid set of specifications. These are currently a 7in resistive touchscreen (as opposed to an active digitiser requiring a specific stylus), running at a minimum resolution of 800 x 480 pixels. Processing is dealt with by either a Low Voltage Pentium M, Celeron M or a VIA C7-M, and 3D graphics need to be DirectX 8-compliant or better. A minimum of 256MB RAM and 30GB hard disk, as well as Bluetooth, Wireless LAN and wired Ethernet, are all specified.
To really achieve the goal of a highly portable PC, using the screen for both input and display is the Holy Grail. To that end, Microsoft has added the ‘Touch Pack’ to the basic Windows XP Tablet Edition: a set of OEM utilities designed to make Windows friendlier on touchscreens. DialKeys splits a QWERTY keyboard into two quarter circles at the bottom left and right of the screen, which you can use with your thumbs. It’s a surprisingly effective arrangement for entering web addresses or, once you get used to it, IM or a quick email. The Program Launcher uses a Media Center-style interface.
The remaining additions include Touch Improvements, a convenient one-click way of changing a dozen system settings such as enlarging window furniture and showing folders as thumbnails. Finally, there’s a new full-screen skin for Windows Media Player that’s nigh-on impossible to use, and a passable rendition of Sudoku.
It’s a start, but it’s the underlying software that really exposes current UMPCs as resolutely interim technology. The Program Launcher is thrillingly sleek to zip about using just your thumbs, but as soon as you click on a program, you’re dumped back into the standard Windows Desktop and it’s suddenly like trying to thread a needle with a pair of spatulas.
Even such a basic experience as web browsing needs huge amounts of fiddling: you need to remove all extraneous menus and set toolbar icons to small to show a reasonable amount of a page.
Once you’ve done all that (and presuming that you stay in range of a WLAN), it’s here that the tremendous potential becomes clear – but it needs to work seamlessly from the Program Launcher, without XP’s mouse and keyboard paradigm getting in the way. Each of the applications being pushed – email, note taking, web browsing and media playback – need significant, consistent overhauling before any type of user will be truly tempted.
In the meantime, if you can look through the hype and find a use for an ultraportable tablet, and you don’t expect it to be like a giant Sony PlayStation Portable, and you don’t plan to be away from a power socket for long, the UMPC could be what you’ve been waiting for. We’re just not sure how many people that leaves.
The original Origami concept device, was codenamed Haiku, and it’s still seen as the future of the UMPC. While no-one expected such a device to spring fully formed from the ether, it’s further off than many thought.
In terms of the hardware, the biggest obstacle is battery life. This needs addressing before we can have mobile devices that last all day with large, bright screens, as well as significant desktop levels of power. While battery technology itself is proving slow to answer the challenge, developments in LCD and processor technology are more promising. OLED displays are becoming more commonplace, and indications are that Intel’s next generation of mobile CPUs, previously-codenamed Merom, will provide significantly greater performance per watt than current ULV Pentium M or Core chips.
On the software side, Windows Vista is already being positioned as the ideal UMPC partner, although it isn’t yet clear what specific enhancements there will be, save for the inclusion of the Media Center interface as standard.