Electronic Design

A Long Look At Samsung’s Q1B

First impressions are important, but checking out a new category of products like the ultra mobile-PC (UMPC) requires long term, hands-on evaluation. Luckily Samsung allowed me an extended look at the Q1B which is based on VIA's C7 microcontroller. I have had a chance to use it for a few months now, taking it on trips to computer shows and vacations, and have made a quick note of my findings. For more specific details, check out Ultra-Mobile PCs Become A "Hotspot" In Portable Electronics and UMPCs Take Different Tacks A Quick Overview of the Samsung Q1B The Samsung Q1B is based on a 1GHz VIA C7-M processor, making it less of a power-hog than its Intel-based brethren. It's also smaller than the newer, one-pound Q1U line that adds a Windows Vista and a split thumb-operated keyboard similar to the PepperPad (see aforementioned articles). The Q1U is a bit wider but it's smaller than the PepperPad. The Q1B runs Windows XP Tablet Edition. It has 512Mbytes of RAM and a 40Gbyte hard drive. The 7-in LCD delivers a resolution of 800 by 480. Wireless support includes 802.11b/g and Bluetooth. There are USB and VGA interfaces for external devices as well as the usual audio jacks. A stylus can be used with the LCD touch panel. Fingers and fingernails work as well. The Good A number of elements make my overall opinion of the Q1B a favorable one. The form factor is a definite plus. Moving less than a pound would be nice, but the weight is fine for most adults. I found it easy to use standing up as long as data entry was limited (see The Bad for keyboard comments). Likewise, the screen is fine for most applications, although there are definite problems with the way standard applications operate on the small screen (see The Ugly). Walking mobility was key to checking email and browsing wirelessly. The Q1B had no trouble connecting to a range of Wi-Fi hot spots. The only killer was the lack of wireless support in many locations like hotels where Ethernet reigns. I had an old 3COM USB Ethernet adapter. Newer products are available for about $25 but it will be a valuable investment if you plan to use only the Q1B while on the road. I highly recommend getting one. The Q1B turned out to be fine for email, web browsing, reading ebooks and multimedia playback like watching videos. The hard drive has plenty of room for movies and songs, though these can take a while to upload depending upon the wireless connection. It helps if you can compress video before sending it since the smaller screen is not conducive to hi-res image viewing. The flip-out stand in the rear of the unit was handy when a flat surface was available for watching video but the angle cannot be adjusted. This was actually more of an issue when using an external keyboard since holding the Q1B while watching video was usually rather comfortable. I also found myself switching viewing modes from portrait to landscape quite a bit. Portrait mode was used for reading ebooks and data entry because the on-screen keyboard was smaller. Hence, the keys were closer together, making it quicker to access using the stylus. Full-screen, landscape mode is the only way to watch videos (The annoyance was switching modes, which I'll discuss in detail later). Some may look at performance if this is their only machine. Unless you plan on crunching some massive spreadsheets or pulling in your favorite 3D CAD package, then the Q1B has enough horsepower to handle most everything given its video acceleration. At 1GHz, the processor is faster than most systems from many years ago, but far short of the latest quad-core desktops. Still, browsing and viewing documents or email are not power-hungry applications. The latest 3D games will overwhelm the system but most are still playable albeit on a small screen. Plan on attaching a mouse and keyboard though. The stylus just doesn’t work well in these instances. Audio playback was good but headphones or earphones are a must. The volume control on the top of the unit is handy although I was note able to find a sole mute button. Bottom line, the Q1B can be your only machine if your requirements are not extreme and you don’t mind a small form factor screen. It can be connected to a larger screen so you could use it at home in this fashion. The cost is on par with desktops and laptops, but the trade-off is capacity and performance for portability. Now for the nitpicking.

The Bad Battery life is fair but not great. The system is rated at 5 hours but that only works if you do minimal hard disk work and keep the backlight almost off. I was able to get 3 hours of reading time but Wi-Fi and backlighting makes a difference. Unfortunately, you really need the backlight, usually at 75 percent. An external battery or better battery would be handy for cross-country flights. I usually wound up reading a real book for the last hour of a flight after exhausting the Q1B’s battery. The Q1B could handle a single movie with a little left over, but not much more. The lack of a keyboard is annoying but not a killer. I have not had a chance to check out a Bluetooth keyboard but it is likely the combination I would prefer. The software-based Dial application, hand printing recognition and on-screen keyboard options work for short email responses but fall far, far short for anything else. Some may be able to get the Dial application to work well but after many trials, the on-screen keyboard with stylus wins. It works best in portrait mode because the keys are smaller but still large enough for stylus work. Lesser issues include a lock switch that is not recessed to a big problem with booting. The default mode is typically to boot to the Windows desktop but you can enable the usual Windows logon. The problem occurs with the backlighting. It cannot be changed until you log in. That is rather difficult to do if the backlight and ambient lighting are not cooperating. Likewise, the small on-screen keyboard for log in is different than the application version plus the former cannot be moved and sometimes hides data entry field. I would really prefer to lock down the system but this problem makes that almost impossible. The unit I have has been pretty durable but it is definitely not rugged. A case might provide additional protection. I have something for my iPod and would definitely like something similar for the Q1B. Screen protection might be difficult because of the touch screen although a film option might be suitable. I have not seen anything along these lines yet. Finally there is the built-in video player. It did not have MPEG-2/DVD support. A commercial product or the open source VideoLAN VLC player are a good alternative. Unfortunately it was a bit more difficult to figure out how to replace the built-in option when using the multimedia mode power switch. That was actually a rather nice option. Slide the switch one way to turn on the system running the Windows desktop and the other to run the multimedia interface including access to videos. The Ugly The big problem was the use of standard Windows applications on a small touch screen. Luckily, this deficiency can be solved with new software, whenever that might occur. The first problem is reading text designed for a screen twice the Q1B’s size. The second is trying to utilize the menu system without a mouse or keyboard. The stylus works well most of the time but the lack of a right mouse button is a real killer. While most applications are mouse- and keyboard-friendly, they are not stylus- or finger-friendly. What is really required are applications designed like those for smart phones or navigation systems with a touch screen (versus keyboard interface) where a finger is the usual interface tool. Unfortunately, very few tools or applications are designed for changing screen sizes. Hopefully the UMPC will force this issue because it will not be as much of a success as it could be if this does not change. Another issue with the Q1B and most UMPCs is switching between portrait and landscape modes because most applications assume landscape mode. It only takes two button clicks and a stylus tap but that only rotates the view 90 degrees. Also, it does not change the screen resolution. I typically used the unit in only two of four orientations so what is really needed is a simple way to select a configuration that will adjust both orientation and resolution. In fact, what would be preferable is a way to select those options to be changed including a range of options such as audio, video and wireless. A minor issue to an orientation change is the directional buttons on either side of the unit. These do not change when the viewing orientation changes so scrolling via the buttons is off. Q1B WishList Some UMPCs are coming out with options that the Q1B lacks. For example, the Q1U from Samsung has a pair of digital cameras. One is a 0.3Mpixel for video conferencing and the other is a 1.3Mpixel unit. Unfortunately, the latter is way below current standards. A system doesn’t need a crippled camera but a hi-resolution camera. One element UMPCs typically have are level detectors and GPS units. The former could address viewing orientation automatically. Likewise, the GPS unit turns the system into a navigation unit. A mounting bracket and quick connect socket on the bottom of the unit would definitely help. This would also open up the possibility of using the system as a home control panel. Providing a dual-use could make UMPCs more acceptable to consumers. I know that it is a pain to utilize an external GPS and software that is designed to run on a laptop even though it does run on the Q1B. One thing I have not tried yet is to load Linux on the system. I am not sure it would be a worthwhile exercise unless the touch screen support was already available. But that is for another article. Right now I need to send this off via the Q1B. Related Links Microsoft Samsung VIA Technologies VideoLAN

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