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Start-up shrinks PC to palm size

A Seattle-based company called Oqo plans to show a handheld at the WinHEC confab this week that is capable of full-size PC functions.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
First there was the pocket calculator. Then there was the pocket organizer. And if start-up Oqo gets its way, the next big thing will be the pocket PC.

The Seattle-based company is showing off a full-fledged "ultra personal" computer this week at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or WinHEC. The computer is slightly thicker but roughly the same size as handhelds currently coming out from Palm or Hewlett-Packard.

The major difference is that the Oqo device, which will come out in the second half of the year for around $1,000, is a complete Windows XP computer. Along with Windows, it will come with a 5800 Crusoe processor from Transmeta, a 10GB hard drive, 256MB of memory, connection ports for FireWire and USB (universal serial bus), and wireless networking connections through either WiFi or Bluetooth.

The screen measures just four inches in diameter, roughly the same size as those on a Palm, but the company will also sell docking stations so that it can be used like a normal desktop or laptop. The device measures 3 inches by 5 inches, is 0.9-inches thick and weighs about half a pound.

"We see this as 'This is your only computer,'" said Colin Hunter, executive vice president of Oqo. "It isn't a PDA (personal digital assistant). With this device you can dock it in and it is your PC."

The hardware market is notoriously harsh on start-ups. Other companies, including a Taiwanese manufacturer called Saint Song, have also tried to promote miniature PCs before. Oqo executives and partners, however, say that current market circumstances have opened opportunities for super-small devices.

The technological foundation to make robust, miniature computers finally exists, for example. The Oqo uses the same tiny hard drive from Toshiba that Apple Computer incorporates into the latest iPod. The company also worked with Micron to ensure that memory could be packed into the device as densely as possible.

A lot of the design work at Oqo, which was founded by engineers who worked on Apple's Titanium PowerBook went toward reducing the size of the power supply and the overall integration of the components, Hunter said.

Another factor at play supporting handhelds is that consumers and corporate America have become acclimated to portability. The explosive growth, until recently, of handheld devices and cell phones established the market for portable devices.

Once the infrastructure for wireless networking is established, ultra-portable PCs will become more popular than PDAs because they can do more, said Dave Ditzel, chief technology officer of Transmeta. Plus, it also gets rid of the data synchronization problem because everything moves to one device.

"You can do full Web browsing with Internet Explorer. You can't do that on a PDA," he said. The Crusoe processor inside the Oqo, he noted, runs at 800MHz and contains 512KB of cache, a data reservoir for quick data access. Current handheld processors max out at 206MHz and have much smaller caches.

The Oqo is actually the first of a wave of computers with nontraditional designs. The device weighs 250 grams, about half a pound, but there are other computers coming out that will weigh 800 grams. PC manufacturers will also begin to show off tablets that can convert into notebooks, Ditzel said.

"This is a smaller form factor than Microsoft envisioned," he said. "There is a trend toward everything getting smaller."

Despite the faster chip, the batteries on the Oqo run about 9.5 hours, Ditzel and Hunter said. Although the Crusoe processor runs on fairly low amounts of energy, the small screen size helps enormously.

Two different docking stations will also be released with the device. One will allow the PC to be used like a desktop. A second will look like a notebook with a 14-inch screen. However, except for an extra battery and a CD or DVD drive, it will be empty. The Oqo will slide into a slot.

In the field, data will be input through a touch screen. The company is also working on a mini-keyboard similar to the one on Reasearch In Motion's BlackBerry handheld.

The first version of the Oqo measures 0.9-inches thick, but thinner versions will follow, Hunter added.