If you think PDAs are too small but aren't sure you need the full strength and size of a notebook PC, you may want to look into an Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC).
UMPCs are mid-sized handheld computers with touch-sensitive screens, launched by Microsoft last year to a relative thud. Since then, however, improvements in the products and growing customer awareness have made them the new darlings of the mobile sales force, with screens that are bigger than a PDA but smaller than that on a notebook. Designed for portability, they offer the full functionality and connectivity of a Windows XP computer in a pint-sized package that was made for taking on the road.
RAON Digital's Everun series is among the latest breed of UMPCs, flanking the touch-sensitive screen with a row of buttons and, most notably, a keyboard (of sorts) along the edge of the unit. The keyboard is technically a violation of that basic design principle of the UMPC, that all interaction be carried out using the screen. However, in today's world of instant email, users have been drifting towards products with built-in keyboards.
The Everun tries to straddle both worlds, and does so successful for the most part. The result is a pleasing, effective unit whose effectiveness is only marred by a few design flaws.
The Everun range comes in five identical looking flavours, which differ only on internal specifications. For this review, we tested the top of the line S66HS model.
The Everun's compact design is built around a 4.8-inch screen, with function keys F1 through F12 keys and a directional keypad on the unit's left-hand side. A button-style keyboard runs along the unit's right providing a reassuring, if not miniature, sign that this device is about more than the included stylus.
Navigating the device requires some learning about the repositioned keys, with side-mounted Alt and Ctrl buttons at various points around the Everun's perimeter. The labels on the keys are positioned at a 45-degree angle, a clear nod to the device's built-in accelerometer, which automatically senses when it's been shifted between landscape and portrait modes and adjusts the device's screen orientation and resolution accordingly. When the unit is used in portrait mode, however, some of the buttons -- most notably those for the mouse -- are rotated into a decidedly inconvenient position.
Power and status indicator lights, an optical touch mouse with standalone buttons, and a range of connectivity ports adorn the rest of the unit, which weighs in at 460g and has a generally solid, sturdy feel to it. There is no external volume switch or dial, which would have been a nice touch given how fidgety it is to locate and use the Windows volume control.
Overall, the impression the Everun gives is of a Blackberry on steroids. While the buttons-everywhere approach certainly suggests the unit is capable of much more than just being a touch-based UMPC, its total of 84 keys also makes it a slightly cluttered arrangement that takes some getting used to. Furthermore, while the keyboard is certainly a fallback for those that remain jittery of a totally pen-based computer, the fact that every key -- including space and enter -- is exactly the same size makes the keyboard harder to use than it should be.
RAON Digital clearly had the kitchen sink in mind when designing the Everun range, but must have decided it would have been too much of a power drain.
Apart from running a full version of Windows XP Home, the device includes pen-based PC add-ons such as Microsoft's OneNote application, which turns the screen into a quite capable surface for taking notes and interacting with various programs. Although OneNote was slow to load, we found the device responsive to stylus inputs and quite intuitive to use overall.
The unit's screen supports resolutions from 640 x 480 to 1024 x 768, although most of these involved scaling and produced blurry and indistinct text. The sharpest image was achieved using the screen's 800 x 480 native resolution, which provided enough space to comfortably run a range of common applications. The screen automatically rotates from landscape to portrait mode when the device is turned, with an auto brightness feature adjusting screen brightness based on ambient light.
Notably, the Everun has been designed with wireless in mind: 802.11b/g and Bluetooth are built in, as is a U-SIM card slot that lets it connect to high-speed HSDPA wireless data services. HSDPA support is a significant add-on for a device in this class, since it provides a truly high-speed broadband experience in areas where the 3G network's signal is strong enough.
Our pre-production S66HS unit only had a 60GB hard drive but production units will include 6GB of solid-state disk space, which should improve performance. The other models in the Everun range only have either the solid-state disk or a hard-disk, not both. Just 512MB of 400MHz DDR RAM is included.
Stereo speakers and microphone are built-in. External ports include USB 2.0, docking connector, USB mini-B port, VGA output (at resolutions up to 1900 x 1200), and earphone and microphone jacks. A CPU speed selector allows you to slow the unit down in order to extend battery life.
RAON Digital claims a life of 6 to 7 hours for the standard battery, although heavy usage obviously trims this down considerably. An optional larger battery, which adds 100g to the unit's weight, pushes this out to a claimed 12 hours. We did not have the unit long enough to conduct comprehensive battery life tests, but these manufacturer-provided figures should be taken as best-case scenarios.
Battery life is a key consideration in designing any kind of handheld device, and the fact the Everun is loaded with a full version of Windows XP Home means there's only so much power saving the operating system can do. That means the rest of the power optimisation comes from reducing the power consumption of the device's components, and this was evident in real-world usage.
The S66HS runs an AMD Geode LX900 (600MHz) processor -- lesser Everun models make do with the 500MHz LX800 -- which offered adequate speed for basic tasks, but the unit is hobbled by a low-power but slow 4200rpm hard drive. Shared video memory eats a chunk out of the barely acceptable 512MB of RAM, increasing disk swapping that lead to positively glacial performance when running some applications.
For example, starting OneNote, just to write down a thought, took more than 15 seconds; this is understandable given the unit's design specifications, but throughout the use of this device you never forget that compromises have been made.
Other features elicited a similar response. As mentioned above, the keyboard's design made it difficult to use in any real way; our eyes were tired from all the squinting for the backspace key as we attempted to correct typing errors we'd made. Ditto the screen orientation feature, which is a nice touch but was too sensitive in our tests. This led to wasted time watching the unit repeatedly switching video modes and redrawing the new screen. Good thing automatic orientation can be disabled.
Such compromises are to be expected in a device designed for longevity, and on the whole the Everun provides a solid handheld PC experience. Built-in wireless makes it particularly useful in mobile applications; our test area was apparently outside the 3G coverage area, so the Everun tried in vain to find a 3G carrier. However, it had no trouble finding, connecting to and staying connected with the wireless LAN on our premises. Integration of HSDPA wireless is a standout feature, since it enables far more data intensive online applications.