As laptops get smaller and PDA-style mobile phones get larger, a loose coalition of companies, including Microsoft and Intel, have been pushing a new category of mobile computing product, called the Ultramobile PC, or UMPC. The first generation of these handheld PCs, including the Samsung Q1 and the Sony VAIO UX50, fell short of the mark, offering limited battery life, outdated components, and awkward user interfaces. While upcoming pocket-size systems, such as the OQO Model 02 and the VAIO UX Premium, show promise, Asus has taken a different track with the R2H Ultra-Mobile PC, using a larger, brick-size design to house a generous 7-inch touch screen. The middling Celeron M performance and the lack of a slide-out keyboard will turn off many users, but at $999, it's the cheapest UMPC we've seen, and it's the one that's best suited for viewing media files.
Measuring 9.2 inches wide, 5.2 inches deep, and 1.1 inches thick, the Asus R2H is at the upper end of the UMPC category. It's not nearly as pocket-size as the Sony VAIO UX50, and it will fit in only the largest of jacket pockets. Weighing 2.4 pounds (3.1 pounds with the AC adapter), it's actually heavier than the Fujitsu LifeBook P1610 ultraportable laptop. Compared to other UMPCs, it feels unreasonably heavy and bulky, but taken as a portable Web-surfing, media-playing box, it's easy to tote around in a shoulder bag or a backpack.
The 7-inch LCD offers an unusual 800x480 native resolution. Images and text appear nice and crisp at the default setting, but screen real estate is severely limited. There's an included application that lets you easily set a higher extrapolated resolution--something you would never do on a standard laptop. With it, you can set the resolution at 800x600 or 1,024x600, which makes for a less cramped Web-surfing experience but also loses some sharpness and image quality. The 800x600 setting offers the best compromise in terms of image quality and viewing area.
Lacking the slide-out keyboard of the Sony VAIO UX or the OQO, the R2H's biggest hurdle is with inputting information. You have a variety of interface options, none of which are sufficient on their own. Most basic screen navigation can be accomplished through a thumb stick to the right of the display. It acts as a mouse, moving the cursor around the screen. To the left of the display are two mouse buttons, easily clicked with your left thumb. The thumb stick takes a little getting used to, but anyone who has used a pencil-eraser-style laptop nub (I'm looking at you, ThinkPad owners) should get the hang of it in short order. Below the mouse buttons on the left side is a four-way rocker control, used to navigate around large documents. With the screen's low native resolution, that will include pretty much any Web page or office document. On the right side, below the thumb stick, are page-up and page-down buttons, good for fast scrolling.
If mastering a thumb stick doesn't appeal to you, the R2H is also a tablet PC, and its touch-sensitive screen works with both the included stylus or your fingertip (or any similar object). The responsiveness was good, especially after recalibrating the touch screen, although the stylus worked much better than our fingers when we tried to hit a tiny button on the tiny screen.
For entering actual text, your options are much more limited. You could always attach an external USB keyboard and mouse, but that defeats the purpose of having an ultramobile PC. Instead, your only recourse is the onscreen keyboard, easily accessible by clicking a small icon that helpfully pops up when you hover over any text-input field. Unfortunately, the response from the onscreen keyboard is so slow as to be nearly useless, and typing just the URL for a Web site was a trying process.
The R2H includes a decent set of connections, including three USB 2.0 ports (two full-size, one mini), headphone and mic jacks, a standard A/V out jack, and an SD card reader. Sitting above the screen is a 1.3-megapixel Webcam. Networking includes an Ethernet connection, 802.11b/g wireless, and Bluetooth. One interesting addition is a built-in GPS antenna that works with the included copy of Microsoft Streets and Trips 2006. The antenna flips out from the rear of the system, but we were unable to get a solid GPS signal--likely owing to our urban location, a weak point of many GPS systems.
The included 60GB hard drive and 768MB of DDR2 RAM are decent, but saddled with a 900MHz Intel Celeron M CPU, the Asus R2H isn't going to be a performance leader. Out of the handful of recent systems with Celeron M processors, the R2H was far behind the HP Compaq Presario V5000T (1.46GHz Celeron M410) and the Toshiba Satellite M115-S1061 (1.6GHz Celeron M420) in CNET Labs' Multitasking test. In the hard-drive-intensive Photoshop CS2 test, however, the R2H was much more in-line with the other Celeron M systems. For basic Web surfing and media playing, the R2H works fine, but even there, there's a small but noticeable amount of lag.
The R2H did manage to impress us with its decent battery life--usually a weak point for UMPCs. It ran for 3 hours, 41 minutes on our MobileMark battery life test. Both the Samsung Q1 and the Sony VAIO UX50 offered less than 3 hours of battery life on the same test. This is especially impressive given the R2H's larger screen.
Asus offers a one-year limited global warranty with all its notebooks; unfortunately, you'll have to pay to ship the laptop back to a repair depot for service. Also, phone-support hours are limited, and the call is not toll-free. The company's support Web site includes the expected driver downloads and a handful of FAQs, and you can always post questions to the company's active user forum.