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Last Updated: Friday, 23 March 2007, 13:50 GMT
Ultra Mobile PCs moves forward
By Marc Cieslak
Reporter, BBC Click

A host of manufacturers have come to Cebit to launch machines so small they have dubbed them Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPC).

Samsung Q1
The Ultra Mobile PC was a highlight of Cebit in 2006

The brainchild of Microsoft and Intel, Ultra-Mobile PCs are small handheld computers which make use of a stylus, touch screens, or innovative keyboard interfaces.

UMPCs are supposed to provide a more powerful and feature-packed alternative to smart phones and PDAs, while remaining smaller and more mobile than a laptop.

The first UMPC was launched at Cebit last year. The Samsung Q1 is a handheld device with a 60GB hard drive running a version of windows XP. It has a touch screen keyboard, which pops up from the side of the screen as dials and is operated by your thumbs.

Being the first to market had its inevitable drawbacks; the machine came under fire for poor battery life - it had the juice to run for about two hours - and performance issues relating to its speed and screen resolution.

Improved specifications

Back to the drawing board for Samsung then. Which is why it has launched the Q1 Ultra, which it claims addresses the earlier model's problems.

Samsung Q1 ultra
The Q1 Ultra uses a chipset not yet announced by Intel

The Ultra now runs Windows Vista home edition, and while it still uses the touch screen dials seen in the previous model, an extra keypad has been added to the top corners of the device. GPS has also been thrown into the mix.

The key thing about the Ultra is the improvement in battery life. Samsung claim it will now run for four hours on a standard battery.

And the screen resolution has been improved too 1024 X 600 pixels, but at just seven inches (18cm) wide I was hard pressed to see the improvement.

It still has a 60GB hard drive, and a more expensive version with 32GB of flash memory has also been launched.

A range of add-ons including a separate DVD drive, USB keyboard and six-hour battery round out the package.

But if you end up carrying all of the add-ons around along with the Ultra, it will probably take up as much space as a normal laptop.

Sony is also throwing its hat into the UMPC ring, touting its UX1 as a portable which maintains full PC functionality. It runs Windows Vista Business without any apparent problems.

The UX1 has an even smaller screen than the Q1 at just 4.5 inches. The screen is so small that text can be hard to read.

The onboard keyboard slides out from beneath the screen. Its keys are closer to a smartphone's than a PC's.

They are so small and fiddly that typing anything other than a short sentence becomes a thumb-numbing chore.

But it does have USB slots, so it is possible to plug a USB keyboard into it. The UX1 has done away with a hard drive completely, under the skin lurks 32GB of flash memory, which ensures a healthy battery life.

Demise of the laptop?

So do these micro machines leave traditional laptops out in the cold? Not a bit of it.

Small laptops like the Flybook and the Lifebook series from Fujitsu Siemens are proving there is still life in the tried and tested form factors.

While innovative interfaces arouse interest at shows like this, a lot of mobile users still want their portable PC to look and act like a normal laptop, which is where machines like the Lifebook are positioned in the market: not strictly speaking ultra mobile, just a very small laptop.

It has a 10-inch (25cm) movable touch screen, a normal keyboard layout, an 80GB hard drive and it of course runs Windows Vista.

The major drawback to this small PC is a big price tag, 1,700 ($3,340).

In fairness, all of the small machines we have looked at here cost as much if not more than higher specced larger laptops.

For now, the UMPC is perhaps an expensive curiosity, but the use of touch screens and improvements in battery technology bode well for mobile computing in the not to distant future.

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