Technology

Waiting for Windows Micro


FlipStart's micro-PC is the best yet, but it's tough on the eyes

Since you can buy compact notebook computers weighing less than three pounds for around $1,200, do we really need teensy, sub-two-pound Windows PCs for $2,000? I have tried out many ultracompact PCs over the past decade, and none has been truly compelling. The new FlipStart is the best one I've used, but it needs better software to reach its potential.

While no micro-PC has ever been a huge hit, the market is surprisingly crowded. Samsung has its slate-like Q1. Startup OQO has a model called the OQO 2 with a slide-out keyboard. Sony (SNE) has the Vaio UX1XN, also a slide-out. And this summer a company called HTC will start shipping the Shift, with a flip-up screen.

Vulcan Portals, run by Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen, took a different approach with the FlipStart. It opted for a shrunken version of a conventional clamshell design, just 6 in. by 4.5 in., with a 5.6-in. display. The unit crams in all the features of a full-size laptop. Although too small for true touch-typing, the keyboard, unlike most of its competitors, contains all the numbers and symbols in a standard qwerty layout. For pointing, there is both a touch pad and a track stick.

Ability to Connect Anywhere

One feature I greatly admire in the FlipStart is its connect-anywhere wireless. It comes with both Wi-Fi and a modem for Sprint Nextel's (S) high-speed data network (unlimited data for $60 a month), making it an effective alternative to a BlackBerry (RIMM) or other smartphone. There's even a tiny camera for video-conferencing. It's a bit big to wear on your belt or carry in a pocket, but it can run all Windows (XP or Vista) applications.

Flipstart also addresses another chronic problem of the micro-PC: poor battery life. It does so in the only feasible way, using a really big battery that gives up to six hours of use. The standard extended-life battery, which covers the entire bottom of the unit, accounts for about a third of FlipStart's 1.6-in. thickness and 10 of its 28 ounces. An optional thin battery saves a quarter-inch and 4 oz., but cuts battery life by more than half.

But for all their cleverness, Vulcan Portals' designers failed to solve a fundamental problem. Windows simply doesn't work well on a screen much smaller than 12 inches in diagonal, and FlipStart's display is far tinier than that. The screen's high resolution, 1,024-by-600 pixels, is a mixed blessing. Unlike many small displays, you can see, for example, the full width of Web pages without scrolling. But in such a small space, type, icons, buttons, and everything else are minuscule.

Windows Must Catch Up

FlipStart offers several tricks to get around the difficulty. One is a magnifier button that provides several levels of enlargement for everything on the screen—at the expense, of course, of showing you less. Another button brings up the FlipStart Navigator, which provides simple access to frequently used programs such as e-mail. And the InfoPane, a 1.8-in. display on the outside of FlipStart's lid, lets you browse e-mail messages, calendar items, and contacts without even opening the unit.

All of these features, however, are essentially Band-Aids. Microsoft, in partnership with Intel (INTC), has been aggressively promoting what it calls the ultra-mobile PC as a new class of personal device. But it hasn't customized its software to suit these radically reduced dimensions.

What's needed is a complete reworking of Windows, as well as such key applications as Internet Explorer, Outlook, and Word. This requires hard choices about what has to be on the display. The screens must be simplified—not merely shrunk—for tiny displays to be useful. Until that happens, these mini-PCs will remain tributes to brilliant engineering. But for now it's hard to make a strong case for their use.

Wildstrom is Technology You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at techandyou@businessweek.com .

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