UMPCs Take Different Tacks

May 17, 2007
Ultra Mobile PCs are making a comeback utilizing new hardware. Technology Editor Bill Wong takes a look at two platforms: the PepperPad3 and the Samsung Q1B

Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs) have been available in the past but the latest crop is garnering more interest due to capability and cost. They are also finding their way into more embedded applications. I had a chance to take a hands-on look at Pepper Computer’s PepperPad3—distributed by Hanbit America—and Samsung’s Q1B. Both are compact, lightweight and have touch-screen, color LCD displays. They also have mobile hard drives and 802.11b/g wireless support. The PepperPad 3’s AMD LX800 GEODE processor is typical for this class of machine. Despite many common components, these machines have distinct differences depending upon their intended application. Most are targeted at general consumer use in conjunction with existing PC and laptop computers, although they are fully-functional PCs. PepperPad 3 The PepperPad 3 is powered by a 533MHz AMD LX800 GEODE processor with access to 256Kbytes of RAM. It has a 20Gbyte hard drive and support for 802.11b/g and Bluetooth wireless, as well as rubber-covered USB and audio ports. Its infrared support also acts as an infrared remote control. There’s a 640-by-480 pixel camera primarily designed for video conferencing, since it’s aimed at the user. It’s currently supported only by the image viewer application. Expect more for this peripheral in the future. Standard applications include Game Pack 1, Mail, Music Library, Photo Library, Radio, Remote Control, Web, Video Library, Journal, eBook Library and Talk. The web application is actually Firefox. One thing that caught my eye was the use of Linux and Java. The PepperPad runs Pepper Linux but the Java-based user interface hides it almost completely. I found wonderful ways to dig down like using the web browser with an URL like file:///. Developers have gone to great lengths to isolate users from the underlying system to the detriment of power users. For example, it is easy to transfer files to and from a USB flash drive but not from a SAMBA server. WiFi configuration is good but it is not possible to add extensions to Firefox. The use of Linux provides access to a host of Linux-based services, though these are only available to developers at this point. The PepperPad software does not allow users to run native applications. It only provides access to the Java applications. There is, however, a facility to download and install other applications, as well as an SDK (software development kit). The SDK works with Eclipse for Java-based development, and Java packages can be downloaded and installed via Firefox. The documentation for the SDK walks users through all the development steps including debugging. Thought I didn’t get a chance to do any significant development work, the included familiar and sophisticated tools make possibilities robust. The C/C++ development tool (CDT) can be used to create native Linux applications, and the SDK provides information on how to build applications that integrate with the standard applications and user interface. It is also possible to get to an xterm window from the keyboard. This provides complete access to Linux. The system is based on open source software that can be downloaded from the Internet. As far as aesthetics go, I came to appreciate the wire stand that runs the width of the unit, making it possible to sit it on your lap at an angle. This is not possible with most UMPCs that have a small, center stand on the rear of the unit. While the rubber IO port covers did a good job of keeping out dust and liquids, you don’t want to drop liquids on the screen or keyboard. The keyboard is the saving grace of a package that’s still in the process of refinement (this entire review was written on the PepperPad; it took a lot of time and thumbwork, and touch-typing is tough because there are raised keys on the home row). The platform is in its third incarnation, but like most UMPCs on the market, it is still not completely user-friendly. For example, it lacks function keys that could provide access to the main menu, rather than having to use the stylus. That’s another pitfall of the UMPCs I’ve experienced: a lack of multiple stylus docking locations. Most UMPCs have a single spot to store the stylus. The PepperPad has it in the ideal spot, right under the display. Unfortunately, it takes some effort to remove and replace the stylus, slowing down interaction with the system. A second holder could be included to simplify this. Overall, the PepperPad represents a solid, Linux-based portable platform especially for applications that will require text input. For this, it does much better than most other UMPCs I’ve had my hands on.

Samsung Q1B Since it doesn’t have a keypad, Samsung’s Q1B is smaller than the PepperPad3 but weighs about the same. It does have cursor and mouse pads similar to the PepperPad’s, but there are only a few special function keys on either side. Its design is sleek, and rear flip-up supports operate in multiple configurations for adjusting the viewing angle. The Q1B runs Windows XP Tablet Edition on a 1GHz VIA C7-M processor (the new processor almost doubles the system run time compared to the Celeron used in the Q1 version). It has 512Mbytes of RAM and a 40Gbyte hard drive, and the 7-in LCD delivers a resolution of 800-by-480. Like the PepperPad3, it has 802.11b/g and Bluetooth support, as well as a VGA output ideal for hooking up to a projection system. The Windows-based operating system and applications had no trouble handling servers or USB-based storage devices. The same was true for Bluetooth devices including cell phones, mice and keyboards. A wireless mouse is much-preferred to the button-style joystick next to the screen. As with many current UMPCs, most of the applications running on the system are designed for laptops or desktops, making them less-than-optimal for use on a UMPC. However, there was no problem loading and running standard Windows applications like Firefox and Thunderbird. Navigation and text entry, however, are limiting factors, and screen size—albeit adequate—does not help. Menus are small and difficult to use even with the stylus. There are effectively three ways to enter text: an on-screen keypad, handwritten text and an on-screen split keyboard Dial application. The latter puts a pair of semicircular keypads on the screen that you can use your thumbs to operate. A full QWERTY mode would be handy since the default configuration takes some getting used to, even for those familiar with touch-typing. Novices will likely prefer it since it’s designed more for individual data entry, though it does not take after the Dvorak keyboard. The system’s application launcher uses larger buttons and icons, but provides access to applications with tiny menus and buttons. This is not really a finger-oriented interface. The stylus is almost always out of its holder, which is on the rear of the unit. This keeps it out of the way, but it’s a chore when switching between the touch screen. I usually used the stylus rather than the Dial keys for data entry. Programmers and developers will find the platform appealing. There are no special tools required for development, and standard applications work nicely. Designers should keep in mind the limitations of the user interface, though this is a general problem with UMPCs and other hand-held devices. I did not try booting other operating systems but this platform should support them nicely. The only limitation may be drivers for the wireless and touch screen support. The rest of the platform is just like that of a PC. In Comparison Both units—which I’ve been using on a regular basis for a few weeks—have proven robust and mobile. Most users will find them a good sidekick to a laptop or desktop PC. Using only a UMPC will be limiting because of screen and processor performance. A drawing tool like Adobe Illustrator, for example, is usable but tedious. It’s impractical for large, complex drawings that are relatively simple fare for a dual core processor with a couple gigs of memory and a large SATA hard drive. Those who make a UMPC their only PC will likely invest in a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Browsing and emailing were simple with both systems. The PepperPad was good for writing long responses, but the Q1B was better-equipped for handling attachments that required applications beyond standard ones like Acrobat PDFs. As for display options, the Q1B’s screen can be rotated, which is handy for reading eBooks. Unfortunately, switching between portrait and landscape mode takes quite a bit of stylus tapping. And the cursor button does not rotate with the screen, sometimes making scrolling tedious. The PepperPad only works in landscape mode and would be rather cumbersome in portrait mode due to its keypad. Both platforms are preferable in a class or presentation setting where portability and battery life are an advantage. Battery life was only an issue during heavy, continuous use like watching a movie. WiFi support was key: untethered, these systems are wonderfully mobile. Since UMPCs have larger screens than other handheld devices, as well as excellent WiFi support and sufficient storage, they’ve got a great deal of potential in vertical markets. Related Links AMD Hanbit America Microsoft Pepper Computer Samsung VIA Technologies

About the Author

William G. Wong | Senior Content Director - Electronic Design and Microwaves & RF

I am Editor of Electronic Design focusing on embedded, software, and systems. As Senior Content Director, I also manage Microwaves & RF and I work with a great team of editors to provide engineers, programmers, developers and technical managers with interesting and useful articles and videos on a regular basis. Check out our free newsletters to see the latest content.

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I earned a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Masters in Computer Science from Rutgers University. I still do a bit of programming using everything from C and C++ to Rust and Ada/SPARK. I do a bit of PHP programming for Drupal websites. I have posted a few Drupal modules.  

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