UMPCs Hit the Rails, But Still Seek a Unique Identity

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Various categories of computers and related devices are bleeding into each other. Smartphones are threatening laptops and, on the other end, big notebooks are viable desktop replacements.


This amorphous environment is risky and promising for ultra mobile personal computers (UMPCs), which are differentiated from smartphones and many other handheld devices because they run the same operating systems and applications as desktops. The category, which has just been hanging on, got some needed good news this week: InformationWeek says that CSX Transportation will outfit its 85 railroad inspectors -- who are responsible for monitoring equipment and 21,000 miles of track in North America -- with UMPCs from OQO.


Unlike smartphones, UMPCs are fully fledged computers. The story (which includes a claim by OQO's manufacturer that it is the smallest UMPC) concludes with a brief but valuable overview of the category.


There seems to be some activity in the UMPC sector. Last week, Asus unveiled the R50A. This Engadet report says that the device features full PC and GPS functionality and offers a 4.8-inch display with 1024 x 600 pixel resolution. Slash Gear reported this week that Gigabye has released the M704, which only is available in Taiwan. It features a 1.2 GHz VIA Esther ULV C7-M process, runs Windows Vista, offers up to 768 MB of DDR RAM and comes with a 7-inch backlit LCD screen with 1024 x 600 pixel resolution. It has a 40 GB or 60 GB hard disk drive, supports 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and has a 1.3 Megapixel webcam.


This blogger at GearCrave offers his take on the top UMPCs, starting at number five. The EO UMPC v7110 tablet PC from TabletKiosk has a 1 GB low-voltage processor, as much as 1 GB of memory and other features. He doesn't discuss the demarcation between tablets and UMPCs. The fourth entry is the OQO E2, which has a 1.5 GHz VIA processor and an embedded Sprint Mobile Broadband Module. Samsung's Q1P tablet weighs 1.7 pounds and is only 1 inch thick. It features a 1 gigabyte Intel Pentium M processor. Second on the list is Asus' R2H, which has a touchscreen, a 900 MHz Celeron processor, a 60 GB hard drive and uses the WinXP Tablet PC system. Finally, Sony's VGN-UX38ON weighs about one pound, offers a 4.5-inch widescreen SVGA screen that slides up to reveal the keyboard. It supports various wireless connections and runs Windows Vista Business.


The subtle shades of gray between various device types is evident in this posting at Crave. The writer says that he generally is down on UMPCs -- low usability, high price, he says -- but is intrigued by the Wibrain B1, which he saw in a video from Korea posted at Engadget. His take:

Its wide, PSP-like dimensions (7.6 inches wide bye [sic] 3.2 inches tall) make it look more like a portable Internet and communications device that happens to run a full version of Windows than simply a shrunken-down laptop stripped of many of its useful features.

This description is good evidence that the differences between the various devices are fluid and significant. The challenge to the UMPC community -- as well as those pushing smartphones, traditional but more fully-featured cell phones, tablets, ultra-mobiles and other handheld devices -- is to explain the unique advantages of their category to the vast majority of people who don't closely follow this complex world.