Every six months or so, a new manufacturer takes it upon itself to flog the terminally-wounded horse that is the ultra-mobile PC. Samsung has cracked the whip three or four times, Asus had a go, and we've seen countless others try and ultimately fail in the process.
The latest to try its luck is HTC, a company best known for its mobile phone handsets. Its device, the HTC Shift, looks good on paper. It's small, packs a touchscreen, has a slide-out keyboard, and can be contorted into a laptop orientation. But can this £900 device be taken seriously, or is it just an expensive and ultimately flawed experiment?
The Shift looks like the vast majority of UMPCs -- it's rectangular, has a 7-inch screen occupying the vast majority of the front, and has a range of shortcut buttons on the screen bezel. Mouse input comes courtesy of a half-inch square trackpad on the right side of the screen and two selector buttons on the opposite side.
The accuracy of this system is often poor and you'll need several thumb strokes to get the cursor from one side of the screen to the other, which is as frustrating as trying to wipe a red wine stain off your own shirt. Still, this setup seems slightly more responsive than it was on the Packard Bell EasyNote XS.
Just above the trackpad, there's a button that takes you into the 'communications manager'. Here, you can toggle the modem, wireless LAN, Bluetooth and push email settings, as well as brightness and volume levels. A button just below this lets you quickly toggle the screen resolution between the default 800x480-pixel orientation to an interpolated 1,024x600 pixels.
The face of the Shift is also home to a fingerprint reader and a 1.3-megapixel webcam. Arguably, the most interesting button of all is one that lets you switch between Windows Vista Business edition and an alternative Windows Mobile-based graphical user interface -- more on this later.
The Shift's trump card is its keyboard, which reveals itself when you slide the screen upwards. We've seen this sort of thing on UMPCs like the OQO model 2, but unlike the model 2, the screen can be folded vertically upwards so it sits at a near right angle to the keyboard. The Shift looks like a mini-laptop when in this mode, but sadly, the keys are so tiny you'll need the precision of a sniper to avoid making any typos.
The HTC Shift uses two separate operating systems. Users can choose between Windows Vista Business edition or the 'SnapVue' PDA-style graphical user interface. The latter is occasionally useful since it boots in seconds and gives you quick access to your calendar, Outlook email, SMS text messages, local weather and your contacts list.
The downside is that it's not possible to add any new applications, so its functions are fairly limited -- most users will end up running Windows Vista Business edition as that's the only way to do anything useful.
That's where the Shift falls down. Vista Business edition demands a PC with at least a 1GHz CPU and 1GB of RAM, but the HTC Shift's CPU runs at a maximum frequency of 800MHz, or 600MHz when it's trying to preserve battery life. It's not as if the rest of the chip's architecture helps matters -- the 400MHz front side bus is nowhere near as high as the 1,066MHz FSBs on the latest 'Penryn' Core 2 Duo laptop CPUs, and it has a paltry 512kb of level 2 cache memory.
Those scraped processing knees are enough to put most people off buying the Shift, but if not, consider this rugburn: its A110 CPU will soon be superseded by the forthcoming Intel Atom CPUs, which already look like a more promising mobile solution.
HTC has opted to use a traditional 40GB hard drive at the expense of solid-state memory. This keeps the total cost per gigabyte to a respectable minimum, and although the total capacity isn't anything to scribble down for mum, it's enough to store office files, a couple of dozen DivX movies and a few hundreds MP3s. Video and audio can be piped to external devices courtesy of the D-Sub video port at the rear of the device, and the 3.5mm headphone jack on the left.
Those who intend to use the Shift as a video playback device won't be too disappointed. The 7-inch screen is clear, bright and -- best of all -- isn't coated in a glossy finish, so it remains visible even in direct sunlight. We also appreciate that it's touch-sensitive and can react either to finger inputs or to the inputs of the bundled stylus. The latter, it has to be said, is ideal for typing directly on the screen. Happily, Windows Vista's handwriting recognition worked nearly flawlessly, making this method of input our favourite.
The fingerprint reader is a godsend for those who are prone to losing things. It can prevent unauthorised third parties from gaining access to your files, and makes it more convenient to log in to the Shift since there's no need to use a password. The Shift uses a trusted platform module (TPM) to generate cryptographic keys, making it exceedingly difficult for would-be hackers to gain access to your data.
The Shift's best feature is its 3G/HSDPA SIM card slot, which lives just below the battery. This allows the device to access the Internet from almost anywhere -- which is where it comes into its own. The drawback -- you knew it was coming -- is that you'll have to pay quite a lot of money for the privilege. Orange recommended its Business Everywhere tariff to us, which has an 18-month contract, costs £17 per month and is 'unlimited' to 2GB of data per month -- whatever that means.
One of the worst items on the laundry list of disappointments is the Shift's awful performance. It feels slow doing pretty much anything, whether that's loading up an Internet browser or running Microsoft Office. We can't really recommend it for doing anything more demanding. It failed to run our PCMark 2005 or 3DMark 2006 benchmarks, but if it did, the scores would probably be the lowest we've ever come across.
Its battery life makes for slightly more interesting reading, but only if you're grasping at straws. It lasted 2 hours during anecdotal tests, which involved alternating between sitting idle and doing the odd chunk of text editing. This dropped to 1 hour 20 minutes in our CPU-intensive BatteryMark test.
We'd only recommend the HTC Shift to two types of user: those who are exceptionally wealthy or those who are exceptionally ridiculous. It doesn't meet the system requirements to run its operating system and it's hopelessly expensive. Buy yourself a newly updated Eee PC 900, or even -- dare we say it -- a Samsung Q1 Ultra.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday