Simon says: UMPCs are a disaster


Simonsez_1After reading yet another "UMPCs are doomed" article, I think it’s time to roll up my sleeves; I’m about to get my hands dirty. The tabloid-like site that covers technology, "The Inquirer", has the latest gossip on UPMCs from the Computex show. Simon Burns used three of the UMPCs and basically says that the devices are a disaster. We’ve heard what Simon says (I never was good at that game), so it’s time for Simon to hear my side. Right off the bat: like so many others, Simon just doesn’t get it.

Simon says: "most of the software was designed for larger PCs and is totally unsuited to the UMPC’s unique features. "
Kevin says:  "Due to screen resolutions, some applications can present a challenge; I’ve even outlined one of these outliers, but was able to work around it relatively easily. Additionally, I’ve yet to find an application that I actually need to use that doesn’t work on the UMPC."

Simon says: "the UMPC is getting such atrocious reviews from technology publications. Because these reviewers are serious PC users – and if you try to use the handheld UMPC like a PC, you’ll soon throw it to the floor in disgust (or you might just drop it when the weight overcomes you)."
Kevin says: "Technology publications have missed the point of the device, so these poor reviews are expected. How many of these pubs have on-staff experts in mobile technology? How many of these reviewers do their work in a car, at a Little League game, at a neighbors house, in a shopping mall, or while a child is taking swim lessons at the local YMCA? I’d likely say none of these reviewers do that on a daily basis, but I have and do since all of the situations I’ve outlined are real. Oh, and just how much does your heavier laptop weigh since they have much more power and usability? I’d guess that they weigh more than two pounds so exactly why are you complaining about the weight of a UMPC?"

Simon says: "This dilemma highlights one of the unresolved contradictions that undermines the UMPC concept. You have the ultimate pointing device here: a touch screen. It’s the only input device that lets you simply point at what you want. Until we have USB ports on the back of our heads, things won’t get any simpler than this. So you have the perfect pointing device. But you can’t use it. With both hands gripping the edges of the UMPC, your thumbs only reach the bottom corners of the screen. Most of the standard Windows software has controls which are out of your reach."
Kevin says: "Exactly how do you use your laptop (or desktop, for that matter) with one hand? Now, THAT would be a great article that I would read. Take a chance and hold your UMPC with one hand Simon; if I can hold the 2 pounder in one hand (and I’m a minuscule 125 pounds), I’m betting you can too. Ironically, at only 5’5", I can hold my Q1 with two hands as you suggest and still reach every bit of the screen with my thumbs. Oh and one question for Simon and all of the other reviewers: how long have you used and how proficient are you with the Windows XP Tablet Edition OS?"

Simon says: "It’s particularly telling, I think, that current UMPC’s have shorter battery life than many of the devices above them on the mobile product ladder (notebooks), and also below them (smartphones). "
Kevin says: "I’m disappointed in the battery life as well, yet I can get through the day with my power adapter or a secondary battery. There’s definitely a compromise in battery life for weight and the first laptops faced the same challenge. While there’s much room for improvement, I can be mobile for a full 3 hours with my Q1; if I expect I’ll be away from all power sources for that long, I’ll make the sacrifice of carrying around a secondary battery."

I really don’t mean to bash Simon here; he’s entitled to his opinion and I respect that. I’m simply using his article as an example because I’ve seen enough of the so-called technology experts miss the boat here. They’re not missing the boat on the actual hardware and software (even though they seem to keep focusing on it), they’re missing the concept of the UMPC devices.

Here’s my basic interpretation of the concept:

  • This device will be a companion device for most, a primary device for very few.
    UMPCs must make compromises, just like every other class of device out there. You sacrifice computing power for mobility or battery life for weight. Every other device starting out did the same, so let’s cut the UMPCs some slack.
  • You will be able to take this device places that you would leave other devices behind. What good is the best laptop if it weighs seven pounds and has a 15-inch screen if you left it at home?
  • You’ll have a wide choice of input methods available to you, giving you greater choices over other device input methods, i.e.; the UMPC is more of a "personal" computer than anything else out there today.

It wasn’t that long ago, say about 7 or 8 years ago, when we started to see PDAs that brought the same types of reviews. The Pocket PCs were underpowered, didn’t provide much value, didn’t have a keyboard, etc….so what good were they? Look at what those devices have evolved into given today’s Smartphone convergence with Pocket PCs. Is anyone still calling them "a disaster"? Simon and others: give the UMPC a chance and recognize it for what it IS and not so much what it ISN’T.

By the way: I wrote this entire post while on the road in varying locations with my UMPC. As a disclaimer, I’d be thrilled to know where Simon was and what device he used for his article, but Simon didn’t say.



Ian Betteridge

Woadan, I could reverse your argument and say “try making a phone call on a UMPC”, but that would be silly :) And yes, I can happily watch a movie on a WM5 machine – you can easily compress them enough to watch several hours worth on a 1Gb card. Plus, of course, battery life is good enough so I can actually watch a whole movie.

I don’t understand your point about being tethered. I like to have my data synced in more than one place – it means that I have redundant backups in case anything goes wrong. I’m synched – not tethered. UMPC’s are far more “tethered” – just to the power socket, thanks to the compromised battery life.

And you’re missing the point of reviews. To the end users, it doesn’t matter why a feature sucks – just that it does. You’re also ignoring what I said: “UMPC can work, but the technology isn’t there yet”. If the design is flawed because the technology isn’t there yet, then it’s dishonest to tell users to buy them anyway.


Ian, how much memory does the average WM5 device have? With a flash memory card, about 2GB. Not a lot of movies to be stored on that, nor MP3s. The programs out there of true real usefulness outside the palm or WM5 realm are few. And the screen? C’mon, I have to wear glasses to read, and I still have to squint to read the screen on any PDA or SmartPhone.

I’ll happily accept that you don’t like the current iterations of the UMPC. But please don’t try to represent that a WM5, or Palm, PDA is a viable alternative. The advantage of the UMPC comes in a decent sized screen and running a Windows OS in a lightweight package. No synching necessaryâ„¢. As long as you have to synch up a PDA, then you will always be tethered with it. (Even if you can do so wirelessly, you’re still tethered.)

What we haven’t seen in any of the “slams” is any sort of discussion with the companies involved. Did Simon think to ask MS why the screen is a 7″ diagonal one? Or the screen rez was set to 800 x 480? Where is the reference to something Aptek or Samsung said when you interviewed them?

I think it would go a lot further if instead of just slamming them, you at least did so with the authority of having found out what went into the decisions in the current form. Not happy that Samsung went with a 7″ screen because it is commonly available and therefore less costly to use it, and that is what drove the slamming? Well, it’d be acceptable. Yet you seem to ignore the design factors involved in making a current UMPC whilst also slamming the makers on their prices.

If they had everything you say they lack now, the price would be considerably higher, and you would be slamming it for that. So which is better? Some design flaws, but a decent price? Or no design flaws, but a price too high? If you want a $2000+ device, I can point you to the OQO 01+.

It feels like nothing will please the techie press, so it’s just easier to ignore them and go on about the business of enjoying our UMPCs.


PS- They aren’t failures.

Ian Betteridge

Steve (Anton), you’re misquoting Simon. At no point does Simon say in his original article that the concept is a disaster. The headline says “Origami UMPCs are a disaster”. Not the concept – the machines themselves. And I think that’s fair comment, given the limitations that Simon outlines coherently. It’s also worth noting that he ends the piece on a positive – “How to make the UMPC idea succeed”. Perhaps you didn’t read that far, but you should – Simon is completely right.

UMPC can work. But the technology isn’t there yet, and much more thought needs to be made about how the software works. Endlessly accusing people of anti-UMPC “bias” or “yellow journalism” isn’t going to make the battery life longer or the interface better.

Anton P. Nym

Simon, you may have intended your article as an indictment against the marketing campaign and the unrealistic expectations raised thereby… but that’s not what you wrote. What you wrote was that the concept was a “disaster”. What you wrote was a castigation of the form factor (as expressed in its current iteration) that read to those of us who use UMPCs as ill-considered at best.

The thumbspan complaint is chimerical. It is trivially simple to hold a current-model UMPC in one hand while standing by resting it on the forearm and gripping the opposite side from underneath; this makes for a very stable writing platform, leaving the user’s favoured hand free to use the touchscreen. Anybody who’s written on a clipboard should find this hand positioning natural and comfortable in both portrait and landscape orientations. (It took me all of two minutes’ experience to figure it out myself.)

The battery life is indeed limited right now, but no more so than the “thin and light” notebooks with which it can compete on both portability (where it easily beats them) and power (where it can lose out, but not always) and certainly it can compete on a price basis with the other ultra-lightweights.

Of course UMPCs lose out to PDAs and smartphones in terms of battery endurance and weight; but PDAs are by far the inferiors when trying to run general applications, and don’t appeal to the consumer market which is the primary focus of the UMPC. The idea isn’t to replicate a bigger PDA, it’s to incorporate a full-featured computer in as small a package as possible; and that’s what we’ve got right now.

If you didn’t intend this as a shot at the form, you probably should have skipped the inflamatory phrasing in your report… “disaster”, “[Microsoft’s] not paying for this mistake, you are”, “throw it to the floor in disgust”, etc. etc. But you did either as an intended slight or as a grab for attention.

The article’s yellow journalism as it stands, Simon; and I’m not standing for it. Looks like the rest of us (who are to varying degrees satisfied with our ultramobile computers) aren’t either.

— Steve

Kevin C. Tofel

Simon and Ian: I definitely appreciate the time and effort you took to share your thoughts. After reading your comments, I think we’re not too far off in our views after all. One aspect we definitely agree on is the poor marketing, which was compounded by the Origami hype. I have my own share of disappointments in this first generation of UMPCs, but I find that the mobility and ability to have XP Tablet in a package this small far outweighs the negatives. Still, I look forward to the hardware and battery advances that will propel this device class. Again, thanks for responding,even though I still have ONE question: what did Simon use to write his post? ;)

Simon Burns

Kevin emailed me to let me know he disagreed with my opinions on the UMPC. I thought it best to respond here. For most of the points Kevin made, I’ll defer to the words of Ian Betteridge, who has posted above.

Apart from that, there a couple of apparent misconceptions that I want to clear up, because I think you’ll find that in several important respects, my position is actually not so far away from your own.

I’m criticizing the current incarnation of the UMPC concept, not the concept itself. I believe UMPCs will sell poorly this year, and my opinion piece in The Inquirer explains why I believe that.

But I want to stress very strongly that I am not attacking the idea of a highly-portable tablet device. I believe that the kind of product you can see in Microsoft’s UMPC advertising will be a big seller a few years from now – but the UMPCs I’ve used are not that product.

I think that in your (very laudable) enthusiasm to defend the UMPC you’re sometimes seeing an attack where none exists. For example, in the excerpt below from Kevin’s analysis of my article, I’m actually saying almost the same thing as him, not the opposite, as he seems to believe:

* Simon says: “the UMPC is getting such atrocious reviews from technology publications. Because these reviewers are serious PC users – and if you try to use the handheld UMPC like a PC, you’ll soon throw it to the floor in disgust (or you might just drop it when the weight overcomes you).”

* Kevin says: “Technology publications have missed the point of the device, so these poor reviews are expected. How many of these pubs have on-staff experts in mobile technology? How many of these reviewers do their work in a car…”

What I’m trying to say here (and it’s a lot clearer if you refer to the original article and read my statement in context) is that people are misunderstanding, and mis-using, the UMPC because they don’t realize that they should use it in a different way from, for example, a PC. My point is simply that this kind of misunderstanding, by reviewers and potential buyers, is another nail in the coffin of UMPC 2006. We could argue about who’s to blame for this communication breakdown, but I think we can all agree that it’s bad for the UMPC.

I named weight and battery life as the UMPC’s biggest problems, but there’s another problem implied there that I should have emphasized more strongly: bad marketing. I think the unrealistic presentation of the UMPC in Microsoft’s (and others’) advertising is raising false expectations that are actually harming the UMPC – both the current generation of machines, and public perception of the next generation.

Ian Betteridge

Everyone here is agreeing with Kevin, so, curmudgeon that I am, I’m going to offer Simon a little support :)

Saying that Simon “just doesn’t get it” is unfair. He does get it: he understands that the three keys to the UMPC concept being a success are battery life, portability, and an interface that actually works on a small screen and these are the points he concentrates on in his piece. He’s not criticising them for poor performance, or for not being laptop/desktop replacements (as others have).

To take some of Kevin’s points, one by one:

“Due to screen resolutions, some applications can present a challenge; I’ve even outlined one of these outliers, but was able to work around it relatively easily.”

Kevin, when paying the amount of money that you’re currently paying for UMPC’s, you shouldn’t have to do workarounds. What’s more, what’s an easy working around for an experienced user is something that a less experienced one will never find out about.

Kevin: “Exactly how do you use your laptop (or desktop, for that matter) with one hand? Now, THAT would be a great article that I would read.”

But that’s missing the point: A laptop isn’t designed to be used while being held. A UMPC or Tablet is. BUT, although Microsoft has created the thumb-keyboard so you can use the UMPC while holding it, many other Windows controls are simply out of reach, with no real nod towards making them “thumb friendly”. While Media Center gets its own, dedicated interface that’s suitable for how it’s used (with a remote, on a TV) Microsoft hasn’t really thought out how a UMPC is used (with thumbs, while held).

Kevin: “I’m disappointed in the battery life as well, yet I can get through the day with my power adapter or a secondary battery. There’s definitely a compromise in battery life for weight and the first laptops faced the same challenge.”

This is supposed to be an ULTRA mobile machine, and good battery life is an absolutely vital part of that. If you’re tethered to the wall as a matter of course, you ain’t mobile. And yes, laptops faced the same challenge initially – but at that point, they were the only mobile option. If you wanted any kind of portability, you went for an early laptop. There was no other choice.

And that’s the really problem for UMPC’s: they are not the only mobile option. A slate Tablet (which does an awful lot more than a UMPC) costs only a little more – and can be used as an “only machine”, which UMPC can’t. Windows Mobile PDAs are a lot cheaper, and even the more advancd Smartphones (like the iMate K-JAM) can do pretty much everything you need from a mobile machine – with better battery life and phone features built in.

The UMPC will be taken up by vertical markets that require bespoke Windows applications in the smallest format possible. But they are not a good companion device (a full slate or a PDA/Smartphone is better), and they’re not a replacement for a laptop (nor are they meant to be). What they are is a bundle of compromises that doesn’t add up to a coherent product.

Troy Howard


Great response to these reviewers that expect the UMPC to replace a laptop. As far as battery, I own a Tecra M4, so the UMPCs have a longer battery life than my 6 lbs. tablet. I watched a review on CNet the other day and the “reviewer” stated that the UMPC does not have an optical drive so how in the world will someone be able to load media such as music or videos? Are you kidding me, where do they find these people? Even my Grandpa who is 81 years old can transfer music and video through a network without breaking a sweat. As an airline pilot, I would compare these reviews to me comparing my $40 million dollar jet to my car. Sure the car is nice but it cannot fly me across the country or reach speeds or 500 mph so it is a failure.


What is with this “Bigger is Better” mentality that many seem infected with? Do these people golf 18 holes with just a driver? What is wrong with diversity? Especially when it serves a useful purpose. I like the idea of having a little PC that I can tuck away in a corner of my desk, have hooked up to a 19″ LCD monitor and a USB keyboard with a USB DVD/RW, connect to my wireless LAN and do all of my normal PC activities, then pick up and take with me in the car to use with Mappoint, bluetooth GPS as well as Email and Web browsing and reading while on vacation. As a one handed psudotypist, I have taken the time to train the voice recognition software on my laptop to a very fine tune and it works magnificently for getting my thoughts into word. Too heavy??? Do 30 reps a day lifting your cat and you will have that problem solved in a week or two. I think the jkOTR logo speaks volumes on that topic. Geesh!

Anton P. Nym

I’m astonished that people consider less than two pounds “heavy”… sheesh, it’s like they’ve never held a hard-cover book in their hands before. (Ask their kids if Harry Potter is too heavy to hold for hours at a time.)

And the battery life, though it’s not everything I’d hoped for and it does make me “watch the clock”, isn’t so drastic a problem that I’d consider it disastrous; three hours of use can easily last a day if you remember to use Standby and Hibernate before putting the unit aside. (And as Kevin points out, there’s always *gasp* the option of a spare battery… one that weighs less than a cell phone, for that matter. Well, there’ll be that option when manufacturers get around to offering it. *cough*hint-hint-Sammy*cough*)

Oddly enough, late last night I posted over on Origami Project about some of the biases that may influence reviews by people handling different types of media. I may have to revisit that in more detail.

— Steve

Benjamin Ries

To be fair, some of the Origami teaser videos appeared to present use scenarios that conjured a 6-8 hour primary battery. Then again, so do all those Microsoft promo videos of hip young students lazing around a campus with untethered, full-brightness and WiFi-on tablets :)

You’re right to be ticked at the silly coverage that the UMPC is getting… I’m just saying that if primary battery life were out in the full-day range (as it should be for a Celeron-class CPU) then maybe reviewers would say to themselves “ah, this is more portable than an ‘ultraportable’ laptop!” and start imaging the use scenarios that MS intended. I really think longer battery life – as with the Smartphones you mentioned – is the key to mass adoption of the platform.

David Ciccone

Kevin you hit the nail on the head! This will be a total education for everyone but maybe we should start the UMPC Wiki!

Tablet PC User

“Simon says…who cares!”

KCT, excellent article. You are right to tell them that they are missing the boat! Five stars *****


Bravo Kevin! I think that the major problem is that the technology was not ready yet to deliver exactly the concept pictured by Microsoft. This is why the press has been given these bad reviews. It’s true that they are heavy and that they have a battery life that is far from be considered the best for mobility, but I think that Microsoft would not pushed to have this first generation as is at this moment we would not see coming generation with better technology. They had to prove that this concept has a market and so far it seems to me that sales are showing that even with all this bad press.

To me it’s clear that UMPCs will have a long life and a place in the market.

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