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An Itsy Bitsy Problem


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The Samsung Q1 is a very small, very clever PC saddled with two very big drawbacks. It's the first incarnation of a design called the ultramobile PC (UMPC), and it is well-suited to playing videos and games. But its $1,099 price, four times that of a Sony PlayStation Portable, is way too high. And Windows XP just doesn't work on a device this size.

Time will likely take care of the first problem as cheaper products arrive from the likes of Taiwan's ASUS and China's founder group, all based on the same Microsoft (MSFT)-Intel (IWTC) UMPC design. But making XP and other software run smoothly may be much more difficult.

Ultramobile means ultrasmall. The Q1 weighs just 27 oz., is barely an inch thick, and makes do with a 7-in. screen. Microsoft claims such computers can run "full-size software," but in my tests neither Windows nor standard applications fit. For example, the Q1 comes with a link to Microsoft's Hotmail, but it is almost unusable because you can't see enough of the page at one time.

MICROSOFT HAS DONE SEVERAL THINGS to ameliorate the problems caused by the lack of a keyboard and the tiny display. The UMPC uses Tablet PC software that lets you enter text by tapping a familiar onscreen keyboard with a stylus or by using handwriting recognition. In addition, with the push of a button you can call up a new type of virtual keyboard: Two quarter-circle arcs appear in the lower corners of the screen, with keys big enough to hit with your thumbs. It looks weird, but it works reasonably well -- as long as the keyboard doesn't hide the part of the screen you need.

To help with the small display, a special menu uses extra-large buttons and icons to launch common applications such as the Internet Explorer Web browser or the wireless network selection program. The problem is that more often than not the programs these buttons link to have not been redesigned for the small screen. IE is a particularly unfortunate example. The browser devotes a lot of space to toolbars and icons, and on the Q1, these fill much of the screen. A Google (GOOG) search page showed just one result, compared with five on the 12.1-in. widescreen display of a Gateway (GTW) E-100M ultralight notebook. Watching films from Movielink is a natural use of the Q1, but selecting films for download from the Web is painful because the site was designed for a display at least three times as large.

The UMPC's usefulness soars when it runs software that has been tailored to its diminutive screen. This point was drummed in by a couple of well-customized programs. Microsoft has designed a special version of Windows Media Player that has buttons big enough to hit with a finger but still leaves most of the screen available to show video or album art and song descriptions. Then there's the specially designed version of Sling Media's mobile TV player. If you have Slingbox hardware connected to your home TV system, you can use the Q1's full screen to watch live shows or programs you have stored on a TiVo or on another video recorder.

The Q1 makes a nice, if seriously overpriced, video viewer, and hardware improvements in coming months are likely to make it even better. New Intel processors will boost its somewhat sluggish performance while extending the mediocre three hours or so of battery life. Using flash memory could allow the sort of instant-on response we expect from handheld devices while also reducing the need to run the battery-draining hard drive.

Still, unless something is done to make the software fit the device, hardware improvements will be in vain. With the Windows UMPC in its present form, buyers would do better to step up to an ultralight laptop or down to a PlayStation Portable or a handheld media player.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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