Technology

Samsung's Mobile PC for Media Lovers


0308_samsung_npq1
Editor's Rating: star rating

The NP-Q1 works like a dream for multimedia, and its flash memory puts it on the cutting edge. But businesspeople might want to look elsewhere

Samsung Electronics typically likes to be the first out of the gate to sport new technology in its devices. As one might expect, that could be a boon. But it also could be a bust if the technology falls flat with users, or competitors chose another suite of features that is more attractive.

The $1,999 Q1—available as the Q1P with an Intel (INTC) Pentium M processor and the Q1B with a Via Technologies processor—sits somewhere in the middle of that make-or-break scenario.

The good news is that when Samsung unveiled its new ultra-mobile PC in January, it became the first technology company to substitute the traditional hard drive with a solid-state 32 gigabyte flash-memory module. It makes the device less vulnerable to damage such as accidental drops. More important, programs boot faster (as much as 300 times), and because there's no spinning disk drive, it consumes far less energy, extending battery life up to five hours if you're not using any of the radio functions.

Missing Killer App

The bad news? Samsung misses the mark by failing to offer 3G cellular connectivity that can provide always-on broadband wireless access across the U.S. Competitors increasingly are offering optional installation of modem cards from the former Cingular Wireless unit of AT&T (T), Sprint-Nextel (S), and Verizon Wireless.

Samsung does include built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0, and an Ethernet connection. But wireless broadband is rapidly becoming the killer app to have. The Q1 offers two USB 2.0 jacks, a headphone jack, I/O port, and compact flash reader (though I would have preferred a more common SD memory card reader instead). A built-in battery indicator and stand that can be raised in a near-reclining and traditional position also were nice additions.

The Q1 eschews the smaller form factor of rivals such as Sony (SNE) and OQO for a device measuring a relatively large 9 inches by 5.5 inches by 1 inch. Though bulkier, this full-figured PC only weighs 1.7 pounds, looks cool with its shiny black finish, and feels good in your hands.

Optional Keyboard

Its giant 7-inch, 800-by-480 touch screen also is great for preventing eye strain, but the decision to use Windows XP Tablet PC edition is a bit of a puzzle. Pen-based computing to date has been a very narrow niche, as both businesses and consumers appear to prefer built-in keyboards, however small and cramped. Indeed, I found the small stylus requires a delicate touch to open applications.

The new Windows Vista operating system makes tablet computing more user-friendly, with the addition of hover actions and gesturing without tapping the screen, but Samsung opted not to wait for it.

Users can buy an optional keyboard that connects via USB or Bluetooth, as well as combo external DVD/CD optical drives, though that seems to negate the whole purpose of the ultra-mobile PC concept, which is to lighten the load.

Lots to Like

The layout of the Q1 without such add-ons is nicely uncluttered and well thought-out. Samsung borrows a page from Sony's PlayStation Portable game device and includes an analog button joystick on the left side of the device, though its functionality is limited to tabbing up and down through icons and in all directions on the main menu. To actually open an application, you still need the stylus, which fits snugly into a slot on the rear of the device.

Even so, there are plenty of things to like about the Q1. The aforementioned 7-inch screen and flash memory are the biggest benefits. But Samsung also adds a handy one-touch button on the front to adjust the display resolution to fit more print on the screen.

The ultra-mobile PC also has a built-in dual-array microphone for voice recording, and the speakers sitting to the left and right of the screen aren't as tinny as what competitors offer. There's also a nifty quick-launch key that lets you quickly adjust screen brightness, rotate the screen, and turn Wi-Fi and sound on and off. Users can also program a circular key just above that on the right of the device to perform four tasks.

Multimedia Companion

The model I tested included an Intel Pentium M ultra-low-voltage 1 gigahertz processor, 1 gigabyte of memory, and an Intel graphics chipset that offered very responsive performance—among the best I've seen in the category. I opened multiple applications, including iTunes, Firefox, and Outlook Express, and all ran without a hiccup.

The Q1 seems more clearly aimed at users looking for an enjoyable multimedia experience than standard productivity. Indeed, it offers a technology it calls AVStation Now that lets users launch video, music, and still photos without booting up Windows.

Multimedia lovers may find this device a welcome companion, but the lack of a built-in keyboard and always-on wireless broadband may be a dealbreaker to businesspeople.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau .

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