Pity the poor UMPC. The much-hyped ultramobile PC has been hailed as the next big thing for a couple of years now, without ever turning out a product that comes close to being useful in real-world situations, thanks to clunky interfaces, high prices, and poor battery life. The $1,999 FlipStart E-1001S (from Vulcan, a company started by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen) is substantially different in form from two other recent UMPCs we've looked at, the Asus R2H and the Sony VAIO UX390, but it still shares some of the same frustrations with input interfaces and performance. We have yet to find a UMPC that crosses the line into practicality, but the clamshell FlipStart is in some ways the most useful of the bunch, offering the most traditional laptop-like computing experience.
Measuring 5.9 inches wide, 4.5 inches deep, and 1.6 inches high, the FlipStart looks like a cross between a shrunk-down laptop and a vintage-'80s Franklin Pocket Dictionary. The blue clamshell look is somewhat clunky, especially compared to the slick mockup images of the FlipStart that have been seen online since the project was first announced in 2004. The system weighs a mere 1.7 pounds (2.3 pounds with the AC adapter), but the thick, boxy design makes it a tough fit for coat pockets and small bags. In comparison, the Asus R2H is even larger, closer to a portable media player (with a massive 7-inch screen), while the Sony VAIO UX390 is slightly smaller and has a much sleeker design, typical of Sony's focus on aesthetics.
Flip open the clamshell design and you'll find a full QWERTY keyboard with input options at the bottom and a 5.6-inch wide-screen display on the top. The keys are of the hard-to-use, thumb-typing variety, which is disappointing because unlike the UX390, you can actually put this system down on a desk and attempt to type much as you would on a normal laptop (the Sony, for example, needs to be held in both hands). It does, however, include several useful shortcut keys designed to offset the disadvantages of the miniature setup. We especially liked the Ctrl+Alt+Del key, located above the keyboard, and the Desktop key, which automatically minimizes all open windows. A Webcam sits right below the screen, which might prove useful for bloggers on the go. There's also a key for launching FlipStart's custom options interface, which puts important settings right in front of you, from managing wireless devices to power settings.
The screen has a 1,024x600 native resolution, which is the same as the Sony UX390, and decent for maximizing screen real estate without sacrificing readability. Like the Sony and Asus UMPCs, a zoom feature is available, but we found the fuzzy text of the zoomed-in image distracting.
Unlike other UMPCs, the FlipStart doesn't have a touch screen, but you do get other input options--a ThinkPad-style pencil eraser nub and a tiny 1.5-inch touch pad. Despite its small size and unusual placement (above the keyboard), we found the touchpad to be the best navigation tool on any UMPC we've seen to date. There's also a scroll wheel on the right edge of the chassis.
There's also a second display, similar to the SideShow displays we've seen on some Vista systems, on the outside of the clamshell. This two-inch screen syncs to Outlook and can display your e-mail while the lid is closed. The screen is extremely small (and works only with Outlook, not Outlook Express or other programs), so its usefulness is questionable.
The system has a limited set of connections, just a single USB 2.0 jack and a headphone output. You do, however, get a small port replicator that snaps onto the back of the system. This adds two USB jacks (although you lose the onboard one), a mic-in jack, and a VGA output for hooking up an external monitor. Networking connections include an Ethernet jack (on the port replicator), integrated 802.11b/g wireless, Bluetooth, and Sprint Mobile Broadband (which starts at an extra $59 per month for service).
Components are fixed and include a 1.1GHz Intel Pentium M Ultralow Voltage CPU, just 512MB of RAM, and a 30GB hard drive. Some UMPCs, such as the VAIO UX390, are moving to solid state hard drives, to improve battery life and decrease the number of moving parts in a vulnerable mobile device. Our review unit came with Windows XP Pro, but Windows Vista Business is also available (although hard to recommend with only 512MB of RAM).
At best, you're going to get performance on a par with a budget laptop out of the FlipStart, but it was faster than the Vista-based Sony VAIO UX390, with a 1.33GHz Intel Core Solo U1500 and 1GB of RAM, in both CNET Labs' Multitasking and iTunes encoding tests. We were able to surf the Web, work on Office documents, and play back media files with only occasional stuttering. As long as you keep your expectations in check, an ultramobile PC like this can suffice for basic computing, physical usability issues aside.
Even though it lacks the power-saving solid-state drive of the VAIO UX390, the FlipStart had a nearly identical battery life performance, giving us 3 hours, 31 minutes in our DVD battery-drain test using an external DVD drive powered by a USB port. That's an improvement over earlier UMPC models, but you'll have to shut the system down, put it to sleep, or hibernate it whenever you're not actively working to get a full day's use out of it.