full-size, the fastest typists nearly matched
their benchmark rates.
Ask fast typists about small keyboards, then,
and they’ll probably say that size does matter.
Perhaps the real winners among UMPC users
are slow typists, who simply stay slow.
UMPC’s also vary in keyboard material,
which also influences speed and ergonomics.
The XO’s water and dirt-proof keyboard is
basically a rubber mat, which typists have
roundly panned for lacking feel. The Eee
PC’s individual hard plastic keys are more
functional, but lack the comfortable travel
found in a traditional keyboard, a quality
highly acclaimed by HP Mini-Note users.
The UMPC experience is strongly influenced
by the operating system being used. Except
for the XO, UMPC vendors are using off-the-shelf OS products. (To be accurate, only
the XO’s desktop GUI is custom and Asus’
customizations to the Eee PC are basically
Linux enthusiasts express excitement
over the UMPC as an ideal environment to
highlight the OS’s flexibility and resource-friendliness. Combined with its low-to-no
licensing costs, Linux is a natural choice for
minimizing an ultra-mobile’s pricetag.
Enthusiasts can even replace the Linux
versions distributed by UMPC vendors with
alternatives, like Xubuntu, a lighter-weight
version of the popular Ubuntu Linux. In
fact, Xubuntu can be installed on the Eee
PC, the XO, and the Mini-Note.
Rarely do the words “lightweight” and
“Windows” appear in the same sentence,
which has put UMPC vendors in a bind. At the
OLPC, fractious debates have taken place over
whether to pursue Windows for the XO. Other
UMPCs offer Windows in addition to Linux.
Although Windows adds licensing cost
to the unit price and consumes more of
the limited flash storage, the reality is that
most users are familiar with it and already
own Windows-compatible applications.
But UMPC users with Windows have
expressed a variety of complaints: System
dialogs sometimes extend beyond the
edges of these smaller screens, for example. Vista performance on the Mini-Note
is sluggish, scoring a lowly 1. 2 out of five
on Vista’s own “experience” test.
Neither XP nor Vista were designed
with UMPC’s in mind, of course. But
between the two, XP offers the better
experience. Microsoft had planned to discontinue Windows XP by June 2008, but
the surge in the UMPC market led to fears
that Linux would be able to dominate the
niche. As a result, Microsoft has given XP
a life extension, until at least 2010.
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More of Less?
It is difficult for the computer industry
to defy its natural instinct to offer more.
These new UMPCs are selling precisely
because users are willing to give up performance for simplicity and mobility. But even
now, “more creep” is beginning to set in.
After all, the Eee PC was introduced
with a 7-inch screen. The new model offers
nearly eight. Its competitor, the MSI Wind,
promises 10. 2GB flash memory is becoming 4, 8, and even 16 in some models. The
Mini-Note offers a configuration with a
traditional laptop hard disk.
It remains to be seen whether simplicity and modesty can last in the UMPC
segment. Will the natural momentum of
this business cause expanding UMPCs to
become the very t~hings they originally rebelled against?
Aaron Weiss is a technology writer and
Web developer shivering in upstate New York, as
well as human proprieter of livenudecats.com