UMPCs: Very mobile but not very pretty

Before the Intel Atom processors, there was the A110. This chip spawned some unsightly notebooks.

Fujitsu LOOX U series: small but not svelte.
Fujitsu LOOX U series: small but not svelte. Fujitsu

Before the Intel Atom processor, there was the A110. This chip spawned the 2007 UMPC (Ultramobile PC) category which in turn spawned some unsightly designs.

The Intel A110 and its lower-performance sibling the A100 were launched in 2007 with the intention of jump-starting the UMPC market. But that market stalled. Intel is still promoting the UMPC as a broad, somewhat amorphous category for business, while pushing the Mobile Internet Device, or MID, for fit-in-your-pocket consumer-centric designs and the Netbook for small, inexpensive, Internet-centric notebook form factors (both of which, as I will discuss below, have a better chance of success).

Kohjinsha SH Series: that's not a docking station, that's the bottom one inch of the computer.
Kohjinsha SH Series: that's not a docking station, that's the bottom one inch of the computer. Kohjinsha

Why were first-generation UMPC devices seen at trade shows and on gadget enthusiast blogs but rarely at airports (i.e., people actually using the devices)? Some were simply too expensive (the OQO PC and Samsung Q1 Ultra). Others, like the General Dynamics MR-1 discussed below, had a limited market to begin with. More generally, however, they were also slow and, for their size, disproportionately thick. For anyone considering one of these devices, these last two factors would tip the scale against a purchase.

I will focus on the last point. I submit that the design is inherently flawed. Thickness, no matter how compact, does not translate into mass appeal or even limited appeal. (Tiny keyboards don't help the cause either.)

First up, the 2007 Fujitsu LOOX U series UMPC. This UMPC uses the Intel A110. Yes, beauty is subjective but an ultramobile PC shouldn't be thicker than a brick. Fujitsu, like other UMPC vendors, adheres--doggedly--to the small-but-thick form factor.

Next, the Kohjinsha SH series. It comes with the A110 processor and a TV tuner--thus the 70s-style hinged antenna. Not surprisingly, being so thick (no, the bottom photo is not a docking station, it's the bottom one inch of the computer), it comes with almost everything a standard notebook PC offers, including a 120GB hard disk drive, Ethernet, Bluetooth, media slots, stereo speakers, and Windows Vista Home Premium.

General Dynamics MR-1
General Dynamics MR-1 General Dynamics

The General Dynamics MR-1 needs some qualification: it uses an Intel Core Solo Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) processor, not an A100 or A110, and it's built specifically as a rugged UMPC for the military. Still, it represents why UMPCs are used in the military and not in civilian life. It's one tough PC but would you buy one of these at Best Buy?

Finally, the OQO PC. This is probably one of the better UMPC-like designs but it's still too thick. It does, however, pack a 1.6-GHz VIA C7M processor, a good low-power alternative to an Intel chip.

I think consumers expect small designs to be slim. Though vendors will argue a design like this is impractical because it precludes crucial features that make it a personal computer, I would submit, again, that the original UMPC concept is flawed. Consumers don't expect to get a full-fledged PC in a tiny form factor. Some businesses may want this for very limited applications but I see little market opportunity beyond this. The MID concept--arguably, the iPhone is a MID--has much more potential because it doesn't try to be all things to all people. The user gets a limited number of features that do a limited number of things pretty well.

OQO PC
OQO PC OQO

One final thought: The ECS G10IL, though technically a Netbook, is a good example of a riveting design that is both compact and relatively slim. This is what some UMPCs, at the very least, should try to emulate. Asus's Eee PC--also a Netbook--is also more along the lines of what will appeal to consumers and even to businesses. Of course, some high-end mobile phones from Nokia, Motorola, and others may also fall into this category.

ECS's G10IL is a good example of what a compact design should look like
ECS's G10IL is a good example of what a compact design should look like Elitegroup Computer Systems
About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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