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Summary:

Cloud computers: Some call them ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs), some have dubbed them Netbooks, while others refer to them simply as handhelds. Regardless, there are certain features that any device in this new category must have. Continue Reading

The relative success and cult-like popularity of Asus’ Eee cloud computer has helped raise the level of interest in what’s being called a new class of computers. Some call the new machines ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs), others have labeled them Netbooks, and many are safely referring to them as handhelds. It’s hardly a surprise that the PC powerhouses — Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Dell and dozens of others — have gone running after this opportunity.

After using one of the so-called Netbooks, it has become obvious that they really need to go back to the drawing board and rethink how people are going to use these devices if they want to participate in the next big shift of computing.

So far, all they have done is cram traditional notebooks into smaller, maybe-lighter-to-carry bodies. They’re neither good for computing nor for communication. To me, the dozens of models being touted seem like a genetic experiment gone wrong, a fact that was brought home when I tested one of the most talked-about devices: Hewlett Packard’s HP 2133 miniNote.

The miniNote is being introduced into the educational market and will cost between $499 and $1,199, depending on the configuration. It looked like a promising device and I was quite eager to try it out. However, my excitement didn’t last very long. In fact, barely three hours after trying out the device, I decided to pack it in. Why? Not because it was underpowered, or the keyboard was too cramped, or the screen made you squint.

On the contrary, the Via C7-M processor makes the machine capable of easily handling all sorts of tasks and the keyboard was actually quite nice and sturdy to use, though it’s not advisable to use it for typing out long documents. The keyboard reminded me of the Powerbook 12, which had one of the best keyboards on a laptop. (For a more in-depth review and discussion of features, I recommend jkOnTheRun.)

So if those aren’t the issues, then what’s the problem? Many, if you ask me. It is a little too heavy — 2.7 lbs — for an ultraportable, especially if you factor in the fat extended battery you need to run this thing. It runs Windows XP and no surprise, takes too long to boot up. (There is a Linux version, but I didn’t try that.)

More importantly, in less than an hour it was generating more heat than my first Macbook Pro, aka the oven. It is not as if I had dozens of apps open. All I was using was a simple Internet Explorer. (I have not installed Firefox yet.) Maybe it’s a problem with the pre-production demo unit, but if it’s not, then the issue of heat is a dealbreaker for me, and it should be for other people as well. Any highly mobile device whose primary function is to surf the web should not become a kitchen appliance within an hour. It would be virtually impossible to use it on one’s lap.

So after playing around with the miniNote this weekend, I came up with a checklist of features that should be a must in a machine that has to qualify as a cloud computer (or whatever you want to call it.)

  1. Instant On
  2. Doesn’t generate too much heat.
  3. Minimum 5 years hours of battery life.
  4. Must feature at least four communications options: WiFi, Ethernet, Bluetooth & Wireless Wide Area Network connection to, say, an EVDO or HSPA Network.
  5. Less than three pounds (batteries included).
  6. Screen size of 3.5-8 inches (wide-screen proportioned)
  7. The primary function of the computer should be cloud-based activities that can include everything from listening to live music, reading blogs and watching videos. Writing research reports or cranking out spreadsheets isn’t the primary purpose of these machines.
  8. It should cost no more than $300. This isn’t a computer; it’s a communications device. It should really be an on-the-go device. It is a device for the moments when your cellphone isn’t enough, and laptop is too much. An iPhone should qualify.
  9. Its innards, ports should be geared for Internet-based activities — from making calls on Skype to consuming RSS feeds — though it should be able to handle external peripherals.
  10. In the future it should move away from the keyboard and have a touchscreen interface that allows one to sift through large amounts of data (or web pages) quickly, as cramped keyboards and touchpads can be hard to use.

What do you guys think? If you have your own checklist of features or thoughts about this evolving market, I would love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, please check out these related posts from our archives.

  1. I assume you meant 5 hours battery life – 5 years would mean nuclear, and I don’t think I want that on my lap.

    I don’t think the iphone qualifies yet. I do quite a bit of web browsing on my phone (htc diamond), and while the newer mobile browsers do quite well rendering websites designed for larger screens and I can write fairly well for the onscreen keyboard, for some things the lack of keyboard and small screen becomes an issue – something not easily fixed with current technology without losing the portability of a phone.

    That said, phones and computers will continue getting closer together, and it’s likely to be the improved phone rather than the smaller computer that can be carried everywhere and used all day.

    For now I am thinking of trying the phone with a bluetooth keyboard, which would get me something that is just as usable as a notebook for most web based stuff and still has the battery life and portability advantages of the phone.

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  2. Although I would love “five year” battery life, I assume you meant five hour.

    I want a device that can use the power of my other devices – the drive space on my desktop computer, the CPU on my laptop – this class of computer doesn’t need to rely on itself for computing or storage needs – it should backpack on other investments I already have – even if they are physically thousands of miles away.

    I think we are starting to move in that direction – Live Mesh is an example of a completely simple way to use remote desktop, even through a firewall.

    Instant on is a given though – these devices are in a class where you want to pull them out of your pocket, quickly check some info, then put them away.

    Rob

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  3. @Tom @ Rob…. All I can say: oops on that error. Sorry to you and all the readers.

    @Tom, I am not sure iPhone is the answer but it might be the closest one come to getting it right.

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  4. I think you missed an important aspect – applications.
    Such a computer needs to come with a different software suite and a different kind of a user interface. As the working habits and behavior of people with it will be different, so does the applications running and the way they are used will be different.
    Phones and PCs today are good comparisons – their computing power is used differently and the way we interact with their application is different. As the cloud computer is a new type of a machine that fits new habits – it should have its own usage model.

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  5. @ Tsahi

    Apps are a given though there should be very few apps on the computer itself and all these need to be fed off the network with enough local caching/presence. I guess I wasn’t clear about that :-)

    On the usage model/behavior, yes you and I are on the same page.

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  6. Lens-FitzGerald Sunday, June 22, 2008

    add a camera for skype

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  7. Agreed, the iPhone is not perfect, but is the closest to perfect that is available today.

    I haven’t upgraded my laptop in a few years, and probably won’t any time soon, since adding more power wouldn’t let me do anything new. I have however just bought a new phone because the cpu is twice as fast as my old one. Phones are definitely improving fast, and will be a lot closer to perfect in a couple of years when you have twice the processing power and a more established software market.

    While smartphones have been around for years, it’s only very recently they have become good enough that I will sometimes use the internet on my phone when sitting next to a computer.

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  8. If this is a communications device, why do you specify a _wide-screen_ display? If I’m going to be predominantly working on documents or a browser don’t I just want 1024 width and as much height as I can get? Or is that what we all _say_ we’re going to use it for, but end up just using it for videos (I don’t imagine it cuts it for games)? :-)

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  9. @Tsahi @Om says it right – these things should have no apps other than a browser – they’re cloud machines after all

    @Om your 5 year mistake was more correct than you know. Built in solar panels under the monitor – next gen (or the one after) battery tech and absolutely we should be able to forget about battery life. An hour under the sun should run it all day and some

    @Om – the instant on and cloud comments beg some questions about why on earth cloud based machines need an OS at all. I posted about it a year or so ago – http://diversity.net.nz/an-os-less-world/2007/09/08/ – without an OS, with a SSD and, again, with some better more logical tech instant on should be a given

    Vive la meterologique! (clouds that its!)

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  10. OM, you seem to be talking about MID’s and UMPCs.
    When the 701 launched, the netbook market looked like it might be going the ultra mobile direction but recently it’s become clear that low-price is more important than low-size. The HP is one of the biggest netbooks and compared to,say, the Gigabyte M704 which has half the volume and only 60% of the weight (but the same processor) shows how un-mobile they are.

    Your list is good although your price target is way out of whack for a 3G device. $300 would be a sensible subsidised price but $500 is more reasonable for the outright cost until the cost of 3G modems drops and the market changes from prosumer to consumer.

    Given a $500 pricing range, I think you’ll start to see your dream devices appearing with many different OS options this year. WM6.1, Andriod, XP, Linux and even Vista thanks to Intel and ARM CPU offerings.

    Steve, UMPCPortal

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