Divide and Conquer: Today's Ultraportable Laptops: Page 2

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UMPCs and Tablet PCs land with a whimper

None of the keyboard-less UMPCs have really taken off, despite being available for several years now. Even when handed one for free, it’s still tough to decide whether to take it along on a given outing or not—usually, a real laptop wins.

Situations where an UMPC form factor is ideal are fairly narrow in scope; and deciding between taking a UMPC and taking a regular laptop can feel like splitting hairs. Throw in their high cost and UMPCs are still a niche option.

Tablet PCs, on the other hand, come in convertible, slate, and UMPC models, and are beginning to infiltrate the ultraportable market. The convertibles have screens that swivel around and fold flat over the keyboard, turning the whole thing into a kind of computerized notebook, complete with a stylus. Slate tablets eschew the keyboard entirely and are permanently in this notebook mode. UMPCs have very small (often 7 inch) screens and usually weigh just one pound—they’re about as small as you get before heading into cell phone territory.

Finally, some UMPCs today come with keyboards, but that still doesn’t guarantee a successful design. The HTC Shift, the Samsung Q1 Ultra, and the Fujitsu LifeBook U810 all have significant compromises when compared with a regular laptop PC.

The Q1 Ultra costs over $1,000 and has tiny, BlackBerry-style keys split around both sides of the screen. The HTC Shift has a dual-boot setup, plenty of wireless connectivity, and a convertible tablet design—but at $1,500, it’s an oddball effort with too many operational quirks. The Fujitsu LifeBook U810 weighs just 1.5 pounds, but it sports a very cramped keyboard and a tiny 5.6-inch screen that belies its $1,000 price point.

The rise of Linux

If UMPCs missed the boat, ASUS certainly hasn’t. Their popular Eee PC has essentially opened the door for that elusive of all tech goals, the Linux-powered consumer PC.

Linux has emerged as the ideal OS for low-power, tiny laptops in the $400 price range—an idea first credited to the One-Laptop-Per-Child project, but given weight with the introduction of the Asus Eee PC, and the general trend toward cloud computing.

This class of ultraportable may start under $400, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all cheaply made. One look at the HP 2133 Mini-Note’s sharply drawn, brushed aluminum housing will dispel that notion. But these machines have less-than-full-size QWERTY keyboards, tiny screens in the 7- to 9-inch range, and often, flash memory for hard disks (which restricts total storage to just 4GB or 8GB in some configurations).

ASUS has since rolled out more robust versions of their Eee PC, including the 10-inch 1000 and the 9-inch 901, both available with 20GB of encrypted storage as well as a choice of Windows or Linux platforms. And Acer joined the fray with its Aspire One, a $399 model with a comprehensive array of ports, two memory card slots, and an Intel Atom processor.

Ultraportables will likely always remain a “second PC.” But the reason may no longer be price, or even limited computing power. Instead, it will just be that they’re too small and cramped for comfortable use over prolonged periods. On the other hand, when it comes to slogging through an airport with several bags of luggage, or keeping a laptop ready at all times for moments of inspiration, it’s tough to beat one that weighs less than three (or even two) pounds and takes up so little space.

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Tags: management, IBM, IT, solid-state

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