This is a very exciting time to be involved in the UMPC space. There are new UMPCs popping out all over and new players entering the field which will shake up the old school thoughts on UMPCs. The entry of HTC into the space with the innovative sliding keyboard on the Shift is a very good thing. HTC is the most innovative mobile device maker around and seeing them turn their attention to the UMPC world will inject new life into the genre.
All of this excitement has me thinking a lot about the space, and what I’m seeing is beginning to bother me.
Keyboards. It seems that somebody took a secret vote and keyboards won over slate designs on UMPCs. This is not necessarily a bad thing but what is happening now leaves a sinking feeling in my stomach. Putting keyboards on UMPCs adds cost, size and weight to the device. That’s OK as long as the keyboard adds utility but the first few devices introduced with keyboards fall short in my opinion. Samsung put that weird split thumb board along the sides of the screen of the Q1 Ultra, something that I cannot see adds much value at all. Text entry on this goofy "keyboard" is no easier than opening up the Vista TIP keyboard and tapping away, even for shorter stuff.
OQO has added a pretty useful sliding thumb keyboard to the Model 02 but even it falls short in the utility department. Their device design puts so many system functions on the keyboard that even though the OQO has an active digitizer and can be run totally from the screen if so desired you still have to keep the keyboard extended to perform system functions easily. The keyboard is so small that if you need to enter a lot of text you’ll be reaching for an external keyboard. This is not a slam on OQO, rather a fact of having a device so small and I appreciate that.
Fujitsu has created the smallest convertible UMPC in the u1010 and on the surface it looks really cool to have a "full" keyboard in a device so small. The problem lies in how small that keyboard is and the problems that small size creates. You can’t touch type on that tiny keyboard yet it’s so wide you can’t thumb it very easily either. It seems like it would have been better to leave the keyboard off entirely and go lighter and thinner. That would make for an awesome slate UMPC.
HTC has created a very fine UMPC in the soon to be released Shift. The design has thoughtfully created an awesome device that looks very functional on almost every level. The only area of concern I have is the keyboard. My Fujitsu P1610 has an 8.9-inch screen versus the 7-inch screen of the Shift, so I estimate the P1610 is at least an inch wider. This means that the keyboard on the Fujitsu is at least an inch wider and I find I can just barely touch type on the P1610. I question if I could touch type at all on the narrower Shift keyboard.
This insistence on including keyboards on these new UMPCs is not necessarily a bad thing but to me integrating a keyboard that is too small to allow touch typing is just wasting space. Either put a real thumb keyboard for those short tasks where such keyboards suffice or leave them off. Putting a tiny keyboard with real keyboard-type keys is pretty darn useless, at least it doesn’t add any functionality. So what’s the point?