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Turning a Miniature Into a Lightweight

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Samsung's Q1 might seem like an impressive piece of laptop engineering -- it weighs just under two pounds, light enough to carry around full-time.

But the company had to sacrifice a few things to reach that weight: a keyboard. A CD or DVD drive. A screen big enough to display everyday Windows programs properly. Acceptable battery life. And, as a result, any justification for this device's existence.

The $1,100 Q1 is the first product designed to Microsoft's "Ultra-Mobile PC" template ( http://www.microsoft.com/umpc ); it's also been called an "Origami" device, after the code name Microsoft used before its unveiling in March.

The concept represents Microsoft's attempt to solve two long-standing problems: the weight and size of most laptop computers and the irrelevance of the company's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition to most consumers.

An Ultra-Mobile PC such as the Samsung Q1 runs on the Tablet software, which replaces a mouse with a touch-sensitive display and lets you enter text by writing on that screen. It includes WiFi wireless networking and Bluetooth wireless connections to peripherals such as printers and handheld devices. It has a screen no bigger than seven inches across and should weigh two pounds or less.

The Q1 weighs in at just 1 pound, 11 ounces -- although its power brick and the padded carrying case to protect its exposed screen add about another pound. It's about the size of a hardcover novel, with a seven-inch widescreen LCD framed by a handful of buttons and, on the review unit, a bright orange sticker with the excitable motto: "Always Being Connected!!!"

There is no keyboard (although its two USB ports and Bluetooth wireless can accept an external model). Instead, text is entered using various touch-based methods. One on-screen keyboard requires tapping keys with a stylus but "only" blocks the bottom fourth of the screen. Another has keys big enough to hit with your thumbs but it covers most of each side of the screen. Or you can write letters and numbers into an input palette that occupies as much real estate as the first keyboard but, in my experience, worked slower.

In Microsoft's Windows Journal note-taking program, you can write anywhere on the screen -- but your handwriting isn't converted to text automatically, making these files impractical to share with other people. You're also liable to scramble your input every time you brush the screen with the knuckles of your stylus-wielding hand.

The tested Q1 arrived with almost no third-party software; a copy of Microsoft Office and last year's version of Norton AntiVirus were the only notable additions. The copy of Windows Media Player included an extra "skin" for that program, with large buttons meant to be selected with a thumb (should you want to employ something the size of two Walkmen duct-taped together as an MP3 player).

Adding to that set of programs will be difficult, as the Q1 lacks a CD or DVD drive. You'll have to buy an external model or use another computer to copy the contents of an installer CD to a flash memory card. (Samsung chose that format even though its cameras and camcorders -- along with most other vendors' devices -- use smaller secure digital memory cards.) Either way, the review unit's almost 36-gigabyte hard drive, smaller than that of many MP3 players and quickly eaten away by the basic Microsoft programs that make the device run, doesn't offer much room to install extra software.

The Q1's screen represents an even greater impediment to using this thing as an everyday Windows machine. Not only is it far smaller than almost every other laptop's display, its low resolution -- a scant 800 by 480 pixels -- leaves most programs painfully cramped. Web pages required constant scrolling, Microsoft Outlook could only display 14 lines of an e-mail message, and buttons in most dialog boxes were either partially cut off by the bottom of the screen or hidden entirely.

A button to the left of the screen can simulate a higher resolution, but at the cost of making text and images look unfocused and blurry. And even then, many Web pages assume a taller display.

(A VGA port on the side can drive an external monitor. So if you just buy a keyboard, CD/DVD drive and monitor, you're well on your way to working around this device's foibles.)

With that dinky display and no optical drive to gobble up electricity, you'd think that the Q1 would at least provide excellent battery life. Wrong. In its default settings, the review model allowed only 2 1/2 hours of music playback. Under its maximum-performance option, the Q1's battery ran down after just two hours. Selecting its maximum battery-life option and sticking to just Web browsing stretched that run time to 2 hours and 50 minutes.

Many laptops last longer even when assigned the far more energy-intensive task of playing DVD movies. On a device as limited as the Q1, these times are pathetic.

This device also puts out a fair amount of heat, and its cooling fan emits a slight but constant whine.

These issues make for a thoroughly unsatisfying mix. The Q1 has all the flaws of a full-size Windows PC -- it can get infected by viruses and spyware and so needs a herd of security programs, takes its sweet time to boot up or wake up, and will require the usual mind-numbing maintenance over time -- but only provides a weak approximation of a real PC's capabilities.

And it costs $1,100, more than many heavier laptops and not that much less than ultralight models that only weigh a pound or so more than this crippled contraption.

There will be other manufacturers selling Ultra-Mobile PCs, some of which could include such interesting additions as Global Positioning System capabilities and (here's a crazy idea) a keyboard. If they sell for anything close to Samsung Q1's price, any potential the Ultra-Mobile concept might have will continue to be Utterly Missed.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.

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