How does the UMPC stack up against the jkOnTheRun Mini-Tablet?

Long-time readers will tell you that I have been calling for a Mini-Tablet PC for a couple of years. One of the most popular articles on jkOnTheRun, The Untapped Tablet PC Market, was first published on October 14, 2004 and is one of the most read posts on this site. That article is an open request to OEMs and Microsoft to look at the mini-Tablet form factor and to help convince them if they built one it would sell. It would be appropriate to thank the companies involved in the Origami project as it seems they were listening, or at least thinking along the same lines as I. Now that the Origami/ UMPC has been announced and the first units are going to appear soon it seems like a good idea to see how the new devices stack up with the Mini-Tablet PC concept I described in that article. If nothing else it should be fun so here goes. The desired specifications from the original article appear in italics, followed by what we know about the UMPCs that should soon appear.

Screen

A six to eight inch screen with an active digitizer like those found in standard Tablet PCs would alleviate the note-taking problem I have now on the Sony. This screen would also provide for a small enough form factor that will control the overall size, weight, and thickness of the Mini Tablet. This will keep the size of the Mini Tablet down to a perfect size for mobility.

The UMPC falls right in line with my conceptual design with all of the first units so far coming with a 7 inch screen. While UMPCs by design all use a passive digitizer, or touch screen, I think this is a good move to make them easier to use by hand. As long as it is possible to take ink notes on the touch screen of the UMPC I am happy with this design choice.

CPU

An Intel Dothan CPU operating at >1.5 GHz would make the Mini Tablet as powerful as any Tablet or laptop and would be more than adequate for virtually any task. The Dothan is a very power stingy processor that will aid in stretching the battery as long as possible, while keeping the heat down. This CPU would work with Intel’s integrated WiFi providing 802.11 a/b/g for mobile connectivity.

Most UMPCs that have been announced to date are using either a Celeron 900 MHz, a Pentium M 1 GHz, or a Via C7 1 GHz and fall a little short of my desired CPU. I think these CPUs are probably a good compromise between performance and battery life, but it would be nice to see a little more speed. So far all announced UMPCs include integrated WiFi which is mandatory in this day and age of mobile connectivity.

OS

Full Windows XP Tablet OS 2005 should be standard. The Mini Tablet must be a full Tablet PC in function, if not size. It is important for users to be able to install any Windows XP program they want and take it with them. I cannot overstate how big a benefit this has been to me with the Sony. A stripped down version of the OS, something between Windows XP and Windows CE .NET, would not work. That would likely provide watered down software solutions that turns people off. You want to be able to use all your programs on the Mini Tablet that you currently use on your big system. No learning curve is important to win new customers. You must be able to work with all your documents with no compromises, and no synchronizing necessary.

All UMPCs hit a home run in this category with the Tablet Edition part of the reference design standard by Microsoft. The addition of the Touch Pack with DialKeys gives the edge to the UMPC over my concept. Good job here.

Memory

At least 512 MB of memory is needed to fully use multi-tasking in Windows XP and this should be the minimum. A gig would be better and a good option if space allowed.

The first UMPCs to be announced will ship with 256 MB – 512 MB of memory, with some offering upgrade options to 1 GB. I personally would not want to run Windows XP with only 256 MB of memory so hopefully these upgrades will be offered at a reasonable price, in keeping with low price standard of the UMPC.

Joystick

One of the most useful features on the Sony U-70 is the trackpoint style joystick on the upper right of the computer. This feature coupled with two mouse buttons on the upper left makes it easy to pop the computer out for quick tasks without grabbing the pen. This is a huge time saver and the Mini Tablet can also benefit with the inclusion of this. The Sony also has a hardware button configured to instantly rotate the display from landscape to portrait (and back) which is crucial for the Mini Tablet. Many functions make better sense to do in portrait orientation and I suspect most note taking would be done in portrait. All hardware buttons should auto configure (user controllable) depending on screen orientation so they are always optimal no matter which way the screen is pointing. They rotate with the screen which makes sense. The Sony does this too very nicely.

UMPCs are shipping with a D-Pad type of control which is similar to the joystick on the Sony. There are also two mouse buttons to aid in manipulating the interface by hand which is good. Some of the units I have seen in photos show the D-Pad and mouse buttons are on the same side of the screen and that seems like it would be more difficult to use, especially since the UMPC is to be used with two hands by design. I’ll have to try these myself to see if this configuration works OK.

It is not clear if the screens will rotate on the UMPCs, although a photo of the Samsung Q1 showed a menu item to rotate the screen so here’s hoping they all will do so. The Tablet Edition software allows screen rotation by design and most current graphic controllers provide the ability so we’ll see. I do hope the hardware buttons rotate as mentioned or they will lose most benefits they provide.

Page UP/DOWN rocker

This should be on the side of the Mini Tablet in portrait mode to make it easy to read ebooks and scroll vertically while web browsing. The Mini Tablet would be a perfect platform for reading ebooks and magazines and the inclusion of this simple feature would make that experience quite pleasurable.

I haven’t seen any rocker switches on the side of any announced UMPC but they all seem to have Page Up/ Page Down buttons on the front which is good. Those 7 inch screens are just crying for a good ebook reader.

Hard drive

The hard drive needs to be at least 30 GB. The appearance of 0.85 inch drives should make this very easy to do and require little space and power. Toshiba expects to have a 60 GB version of their tiny drive by the end of this year which would be perfect and offer plenty of storage space.

I have seen hard drives advertised for UMPCs from 30 GB – 160 GB so I don’t expect this area to be a problem. The more storage the better, of course.

Bluetooth

The Mini Tablet needs Bluetooth to make it easy to work with cell phones for connectivity, and wireless keyboards and mice when mobile.

I don’t think I have seen a single announced UMPC that doesn’t have Bluetooth, which is great.

Output jacks

Headphone for MP3 playing during down time or when reading ebooks.

UMPCs have a plethora of connection options including headphones and in some cases headsets. They are by design good audio and video players and perfect for use on airplanes (or virtually anywhere else).

Microphone

A good internal microphone is important to allow speech dictation as provided in the Tablet OS. It’s also important for recording meetings and interviews. The Sony lacks an internal microphone and it is sorely missed.

All UMPCs have microphone jacks and at least one announced unit has a dual-array microphone which provides noise cancellation good enough for VoIP and speech recognition applications. That is excellent news and extends the usefulness of the device on the go, which after all is the intended purpose.

CF/ SD slot

A CF Type II slot for using with Microdrives, I/O cards like GPRS. The CF and SD slots will make it easy to transfer information from digital cameras.

I don’t believe any of the first announced UMPCs claim either a CF nor a SD slot. They all have at least one USB 2.0 slot so this might not be a factor, although currently the only high speed modem options are either PC Card (which no UMPC will have due to size constraints) or CF. Hopefully we’ll see some of the pre-announced USB 3G modems become available soon. It would mean an ungainly cable to tote around and use, though.

Standby button

One of the most used buttons on the Sony is the Standby button, which does exactly what it says. The Sony will go into Standby within 2 – 3 seconds after pressing the button and the Mini Tablet needs this too. The power button should be configurable to go into Hibernate instead of power off if the user desires.

Windows XP allows you to configure what you want to happen when you hit the power button, either turn off the device, go into Standby, or enter Hibernations so this should be a non-issue on the UMPC. An additional Standby button like on the Sony U would be welcome, but not a requirement by any means.

USB 2.0

At least one USB port for connecting peripherals is crucial. It will likely be the only way to back up the device while traveling. A Firewire port would be nice to have, too. You need the ability to boot from an optical drive when traveling for emergencies whether via USB or the Firewire port.

All of the UMPCs I’ve seen so far have at least one USB port and some with at least two so this is a win. Hopefully we will be able to boot from external optical drives if there is a problem that requires some serious repair work.

Dock

It is important with mobile devices that a dock be standard. The dock should be as small as the Mini Tablet is wide in landscape, and have all the requisite ports for hooking up USB and Firewire peripherals, keyboard, mouse, external monitor, and a CD/DVD drive. The dock should be a "smart" dock in that it makes it a simple matter of popping the Mini Tablet in and instantly connecting to all peripherals and the monitor. It would be nice to have a slot on the dock for charging an extra battery along with the Mini Tablet. Since the Mini Tablet configuration I’ve outlined here is "full-figured" it would be nice if the dock would drive two external monitors for a dual head setup. Consumers will pay a premium for a portable device if it can become their only system when docked. I predict one of the biggest hurdles that UPCs will face is the cost. Users find it hard to justify a full computer price for a portable computer that can’t become their only system. The Mini Tablet when docked should do anything a bigger system can do and do it well. The Sony does all of that now with the exception of driving dual external monitors which would be nice. It will drive the internal screen and an external monitor simultaneously, however the small internal screen doesn’t add much utility in this mode.

I have heard a lot of people mention UMPCs being put into a dock for extensibility and charging but I can’t recall a single OEM claiming they will offer one. A good dock with lots of ports is critical in my view to increase the benefit of the UMPC by allowing the user to dock it and have a full suite of peripherals automatically connected. This can turn the UMPC into a fully functional desktop system and something I consider very important.

Carrying case

The size of device I have described is perfect to fit in a zip up case that protects the Mini Tablet and carry anywhere. The case would be the size of daily planners that many people carry around anyway and would be easy to handle. It is important to make sure the Mini Tablet can be removed easily from the case for using in the hand like a standard Tablet. There should be a pop-up stand that props the Mini Tablet up in the case for using with a wireless keyboard and mouse while mobile.

There are already some innovative cases with integrated stands appearing from third party OEMs and I am confident there will be a wide range of cases to fit anyone’s particular need. Several UMPCs have stands on the back of the unit which I think can be pretty useful and alleviate this particular need in a case.

Conclusions

It is easy to see why I am so excited about the UMPC. Most of the functions and features I wrote about two years ago seem to be included in the UMPC and I think it I will be quite happy working away on a UMPC. The things I find critical to keep me productive while mobile are pretty much all there in the UMPC, and I think I could be a mobile workhorse with one in my mobile arsenal. As we see the prices begin to fall with the inevitable hardware costs decreasing over time this will be a very exciting product line to keep an eye on. Where do you want to write today?

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