UMPC is an acronym for ‘Ultra-Mobile Personal Computer’. A UMPC device is a small form factor personal computer that meets minimum specifications set down by a group of manufacturers including Intel and Microsoft. They are small enough to be carried in a briefcase, bag or even a pocket, and are designed to be sufficiently powerful and versatile to be able to run a full version of most common operating systems. Physically a UMPC device is larger than a PDA but smaller than a tablet PC.
Details of Microsoft’s first UMPC device – codenamed ‘Origami’ – were circulated in early 2006, with confirmation of the ‘new generation’ hardware being given in March of that year. UMPC devices were designed for mobility, communication and productivity: wireless networking, a full complement of software and operating systems, and the ability, in theory, to do anything that would be possible on an desktop or laptop computer.
The UMPC specification defines the screen size of a compatible device as being 7 inches (17.8 cm) or smaller with a minimum resolution of 800×480 pixels. The device must weigh less than two pounds (907 grams), and have a battery life of over 2.5 hours.
Constraints on size meant that the power of the processor running the device had to be carefully weighed against its TDP. Likewise the power usage had to be low enough to allow a sensible battery life. Intel’s low-voltage processors were designed with smaller hardware such as the UMPC in mind and fitted the brief almost perfectly (unsurprising given its position in defining the specification). Intel’s processors featured in many of the early models.
Full versions of Windows XP were seen on the some early UMPCs, with Windows Vista included shortly afterwards. Other devices used specially cut-down versions of a full OS, and others simply stuck with a standard tablet-PC implementation. Intel and other manufacturers released devices bundled with versions of Linux. In all cases some adjustment and compromise was needed to overcome the constraints of the much smaller dimensions involved. Not least of these compromises was in the input devices used.
UMPC specifications do not require that a compatible device has a built-in keyboard (although some included a foldable keyboards) and so input is performed largely through touch screen operations with a number of ingenious solutions suggested and implemented. External keyboards, mice, and other I/O devices can be connected through a USB 2.0 interface that all compatible devices have.
One solution to the problem was ‘DialKeys’. DialKeys enable the user to hold the UMPC with both hands and type using thumbs applied to the bottom corners of the touch screen.
Connectivity was the key and the options available to owners was impressive: WPAN, WLAN, or WWAN, Bluetooth, infra-red and Ethernet were all provided for on some models. Built-in web cameras, microphones, and card readers extended the possibilities for communication to include instant messaging, VoiP calls and even presented the possibility of video conferencing. One early device, the Asus RH2, sported a built-in fingerprinter. For all its small size the manufacturers were determined to pack as many features in as possible.
Packing in as many features as possible naturally made the machines attractive to some buyers. But what of the practicalities? The screens were arguably too small, and the interfaces too fiddly, to make extended use of them feasible. While use of external I/O devices would ease the experience it would also compromise the device’s portability (which in any case was further hampered by a battery life as low as two and a half hours).
Pricing of the early models, whilst not prohibitive, made the decision to purchase a little more difficult: a budget laptop or notebook came in cheaper and was constructed using tried and tested hardware and software with recognized I/O methods. A PDA would also likely weigh in considerably cheaper and offered much increased portability, battery life and was again built on hardware and used software that many trusted.
It is possible that manufacturers and their experienced marketers utilized the ‘gadget’ properties of the UMPC to good effect. It is also possible that devices happen to be striking a perfect balance between portability and power, as hoped. Whatever the reason, manufacturers continue to manufacture and buyers continue to buy: as long as this mutually beneficial process continues so will the research that drives for more power, more portability, and a more agreeable price tag.