Origami Skepticism

Q1, a joint collaboration of Samsung, Intel
I was at the trade show in Hanover, Germany in March where Microsoft, Intel, Samsung and other companies took the wraps off "Origami," the code name for a new type of Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC). I had mixed feelings about it when I had a chance to play with a prototype but now that I have my hands on the real thing, I'm even more skeptical. Samsung loaned me a Q1 to try it out for a couple of weeks.

In terms of its look and feel in my hands, my first impression was certainly positive. But since usability also counts, my lasting impression is not so positive – at least not for most mainstream PC users.

The UMPC is basically a scaled-down Tablet PC. In fact it uses the same version of Windows as the Tablet PCs that Microsoft has been promoting for years. The main difference is that most tablet PCs are about the size of a laptop with screens that typically measure about 10 by 7 inches. The Q1's 7 inch (diagonal) screen measures 6 1/8 by 3 3/4 inches which is a kind of small if you're trying to use it for work. More importantly, many of the Tablet PCs are "convertible" which means they have a built-in keyboard that swings away. I spent several weeks working with a borrowed Lenovo (formerly IBM) ThinkPad X41 and, when it's not being used as a Tablet PC, it works like an excellent regular laptop with no compromises that I noticed.

The Q1 comes packed in a gorgeous gift box and the product itself is quite attractive. It has a beautiful polished black case with a design that you might expect from Apple rather than a company that makes Windows PCs. When you grasp it with your hand, you get the sense that you're holding something of quality – much like an iPod. At a weight of 1.7 pounds and dimensions of 9.0"(w) x 5.5"(H) x 1.0"(D), it's certainly smaller and lighter than your average laptop though there are notebook PCs on the market such as the 2.1 pound Toshiba Libretto U105 that are only slightly heavier and larger yet come with a built-in keyboard.

Part of my disappointment is the price. When the UMPC was first talked about, Microsoft and Intel hinted that it would cost about $500, but the Q1 sells for $1,100 and that's without the optional keyboard and optical drive. By the time you add those, you'll spend about $1,400 which is more than many notebook PCs and the price of a full featured convertible Tablet PC such as the Acer TravelMate C300 or the Toshiba Tecra M4.

The device has two USB ports, a headphone jack, a VGA (external monitor) port and a slot for a Compact Flash card. It also has WiFi wireless networking, a wired Ethernet port and BlueTooth for wireless connection to other devices. There's a built-in microphone (which could allow it to be used to make calls via the Internet) but no microphone jack and there is no firewire port which means you can't use it to transfer video from most camcorders. There is also no PC card slot which is a common way to add devices to notebook PCs. The 900 MHz Centrino processor is adequate but a bit sluggish. My test unit came with a 40 gigabyte hard drive and 512 megabytes of memory which is a bit too little memory for decent performance.

Like other devices that use the Tablet PC version of Windows, the Q1 is designed to be usable with or without a keyboard. I started writing this review on the Q1 using an optional ($100) USB keyboard supplied by Samsung. The basic unit also lacks a built-in optical drive but Samsung loaned me an external drive that I used to install Microsoft Office on the tiny device.

In theory, the device fills the gap between a PDA – which is small enough to fit in a pocket – and a laptop which can slip into a briefcase. This device could fit into an overcoat pocket but it's clearly too big to be used as a PDA so it's no substitute for a Blackberry, Palm or Windows Mobile device. Another problem is that it doesn't turn on instantly. If you want to use it to look up a phone number (which you certainly could do), you'd have to wait for Windows to load or wake up from its hibernation mode which can take from about 30 seconds to three minutes.

The 7 inch screen looks good at first glance, but when you start to use it to run software you're likely to run into a problem. It has an unusual 800 by 480 screen resolution that's so odd that it doesn't quite work with a lot of Windows program including some dialog boxes from the operating system itself. You can change the resolution to a more standard 800 by 600 or 1024 by 600 but that's just a software emulation trick causes the screen to look distorted.

To its credit, the touch screen doesn't require an expensive electronic stylus as do most Tablet PCs. The stylus that comes with it is just a plastic stick. You can also use your fingers or fingernails. But that also means you have to be careful when you touch the screen because it's easy to make unpredictable things happen by mistake. Still, the ability to manipulate the computer by touching the screen with a stylus has its advantages. Among other things, you can handwrite notes, though as someone who types four times faster than I can write, I can't imagine dong that too often.

There is no built-in trackpad but you can use the stylus in lieu of a mouse. There is also a "joystick" for games that doubles as a cursor control key similar to the arrows on a keyboard.

One of the main touted benefits of this form factor PC is its use as a media player. It does indeed have pretty decent stereo speakers and a headphone jack and the screen is about the size of some portable DVD players that people use to watch movies on the go. But to watch a regular DVD you would have to carry around that external drive. You could download movies from services like CinemaNow or MovieLink but Internet movie downloads are not quite ready for prime-time.

While I give "Origami's" developers credit for trying something new, I'm afraid that the results of their efforts, while interesting, are so far not all that practical.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid