Technology

When a Laptop Is Too Much to Lug


0807_samsungq1
Editor's Rating: star rating

Samsung's Q1 Ultra is a vast improvement over its predecessor, but it's still not clear whether there's a huge market for superportable PCs

Samsung's initial foray into ultraportable personal computers elicited enough gripes—about the Q1's steep price and its lack of a keyboard—to make some manufacturers flee the market. Instead, Samsung stood its ground and responded with the stylish Q1 Ultra.

The Q1 Ultra delivers several notable improvements over the original Q1. These include an 800Mhz ultralow-voltage processor from Intel (INTC), a Windows Vista operating system, the ability to connect to cellular data networks, and a built-in webcam for videoconferencing. What's more, Samsung has made the device lighter, about 1.5 pounds, and added a built-in keyboard and other features that simplify navigation.

Hard Drive Is Cheaper But Slower

Overall, I liked the Q1 Ultra. It won't replace your desktop or notebook PC, but it could serve as a nice adjunct for times when you merely want to surf the Web, type out short e-mails or instant messages, make an Internet phone call, or view pictures on a screen larger than that available on most cell phones.

The base model of the Q1 Ultra substitutes a physical 60-gigabyte hard drive for the fast but expensive flash-based drive on the original Q1. Samsung offers an upgrade to a 32GB flash drive as a substitute for the physical drive, though that will add about $700 to the overall price.

Though it saves on cost, the downside to a physical drive is that it's more prone to damage and it drains more energy as the disk platter spins up and down to access data. Samsung tries to compensate by using one of Intel's new ultralow-power processors, but that entails its own benefits and disadvantages. The battery gives you close to four hours of Web browsing time, but the processor's lower operating frequency, coupled with just 1GB of cache memory, makes for a very leisurely stroll, thanks to the heavy processing and memory demands of the Vista OS.

Plenty of Navigation Options

Basic navigation on the new Q1 is fairly straightforward. Borrowing a page from Sony's (SNE) PlayStation Portable video game device, Samsung includes a joystick button to the left of the screen, though its functionality is limited to tabbing up and down through Vista's screen icons, or in four directions on the main menu. Below the joystick is a fingerprint reader to authenticate users. Left- and right-click buttons and a four-way directional pad sit to the right.

To address one of the biggest complaints about the original Q1, Samsung gave the Ultra a keyboard that offers BlackBerry-like thumb typing. It takes some getting used to: The keyboard is split in two, with one set of letters placed to the left of the screen and the other to the right. Complicating matters, numbers share their keys with certain letters, and the buttons are a bit cramped. Even so, it's a welcome addition to the many navigation options available on the device.

Another of those options is the Tablet PC software now built into certain versions of Windows Vista. Pulling the Q1's stylus from its side slot, you can press the screen to click buttons or bring up an on-screen keyboard. Or you can simply hand-write notes and store them on the hard drive.

Plug In, Play, Take Pictures

The Q1 also features two USB 2.0 jacks, a headphone jack, a built-in microphone, and an input/output port for streaming music and video to or from the device. This time around, Samsung replaced the compact flash card reader with the more common SD memory card reader. A built-in battery indicator and stand on the back are also nice additions.

Samsung also added two digital cameras, a 0.3-megapixel webcam on the front for videoconferencing and a 1.3-megapixel camera on the back for shooting video and photos. When you hold the device like a camera, there's a shutter button on top. For Internet connectivity, there's built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0, and an Ethernet port. Mobile professionals also can opt for cellular broadband from providers such as AT&T (T) that use the GSM wireless standard.

Another thing I liked is that Samsung doesn't clutter the device with a lot of trial software. You get a trial version of Microsoft (MSFT) Office Professional, Adobe (ADBE) Reader, McAfee (MFE) Virus Scan, and basic audio/video playback software.

New Networks Could Drive Popularity

Of course, the price tag rises should you spring for an external dock that contains an optical drive for CDs and DVDs, or an optional Bluetooth keyboard or mouse.

The Q1 Ultra certainly is not for everybody. It's still not very clear just how big a market the ultramobile PC category will become. Certainly, faster networks like the national WiMAX system being built by Sprint Nextel (S) and Clearwire (CLWR) will be key to delivering the always-connected capability that this type of device begs for. But even now, early adopters and people going on short trips who don't want to lug a laptop along might find the Q1 Ultra appealing.

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

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