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The Samsung Q1 Ultra: YAFF

Of the many Holy Grails in computing, the perfect form factor remains the most evasive, especially with Tablet PCs. Call it the never-ending quest to balance more portable devices with power and functionality in the category called the Ultra Mobile PC.

Samsung's latest entry is the Q1 Ultra Mobile PC, billed (yet again) as the "next generation" of computing. Produced under Microsoft's "Origami" project name and partnered with Intel, the Q1 desires to be that form factor that is balanced enough to be actually useful. Samsung has tweaked form versus function, and attempted to align screen size, keyboard and other inputs against battery life, connections and storage.

Physics does get in the way as we try to fit our desired features into a form factor with a desirable size, weight and shape. Perhaps, someday, science will come up with a battery the size of a quarter that can power an array of servers for a year, a screen that floats in mid-air, and a USB connector for the back of our skulls. Until then, we make do with the technology available today.

The Q1 is just over nine inches long and about an inch thick. It features a seven-inch WSVGA touch screen, and an 8-way direction button for mousing to go with a stylus for on-screen input.

It sports Intel's Ultra Mobile Processor running at a clock speed of 600MHz or 800MHz, along with 1GB of system memory and runs on Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows XP Tablet Edition. One new feature is the split-screen QWERTY keyboard, with half of the keyboard on either side of the screen.

Has Samsung Q1 Ultra succeeded in building a "missing link" between the palm-sized computer and the laptop this time? Well, it's certainly added to the annals of computing companies that continue to experiment with an "outside the box" mentality.

One note to Samsung: Like Starbucks, which calls a small cup a "tall," this model might be better called "coming along" or "better than the last one" as opposed to the word "Ultra."

I had the chance to heft a few at a recent launch event. As I traipsed through Windows Vista, the unit hung up as I was launching an IE browser. That's when I noticed a few of these in the back. When one hung up, off it went, soon replaced with another Q1. I tried a few tasks: composed a simple e-mail, created a document and checked a few stock prices online.

Samsung Ultra Q
Samsung's Q1 'Ultra.'
Source: Samsung

Using the split keyboard turned out to be a bit of a challenge for me (and I'm a reasonably fast typist). The pointing stick was comfortable but also took a little getting used to. Finally, to get down to business, I placed the unit down and used the touch screen with both hands free. If I have to place it down, then I'd much prefer a subcompact notebook and a normal keyboard (I have a Thinkpad X31, and there are smaller examples).

Samsung's Q1 has plenty of history to inform its attempt to inspire. In the beginning was, of course, Altair: a box, and, in those days, a terminal.

Later, we would see the typewriter style like the Apple and the Commodore Pet showing two types of keyboards. Then the mouse came along, and the keyboard became (usually) external, the de facto standard of today.

But, as we know, the only constant is change.

Apple's "Snow White" design, continued from the IIc, gave computing a new face and approachability. And now, we see the transformation of the screen into various shapes and resolutions, starting with the text-only terminals and graphics adapters to the Mac's 256x256 (64K pixels) and IBM's CGA of 320x200.

Resolutions continued to climb until designers ran out of superlatives: Super, eXtended, Super eXtended, Ultra eXtended. Then we began to see Wide applied to the mix, getting us to 1920x1200 pixels of Wide Ultra eXtended graphics. The largest readily available production model now is 2560x1600 by Apple, Dell and others called Quad XGA at around 3 megapixels. There even was a Wide Quad Ultra eXtended monitor available for a while at over 9 megapixels (talk about superlatives).

As video extended, computer makers tried to figure out how people wanted to communicate with their computer, leading us to mice, voice, lasers, bar code readers, tablets and various 3-D virtual inputs. With today's drive to make computing more personal and mobile, the big target for extinction is the keyboard.

That brings us to the pocket computing part of this little history review, starting again with Apple (and its Newton) and continuing with the Palm and the advance of handwriting input (Graffiti is an excellent example).

With computing shrinking on to cell phones, we have seen the emergence of tiny thumb keyboards, dual purpose keys and multipurpose multi-stroke keys, and split left/right QWERTY keyboards, all of which allow today's ubiquitous clicking and clacking of instant messages to occur everywhere.

As pen and handwriting style inputs evolved cheaper and smaller, PC manufacturers began to experiment with Tablet PCs, which brings us to the Q1.

Was the Q1 experience enough to inspire me to buy one? No. If I ever had to file a significant story with one, after a few edits and a page of typing, I'd go nuts. I admit that I could get used to the split thumb keyboard for instant messaging.

I do see this as useful for light computing needs: checking e-mail, occasional light browsing, maybe even to copy photos from my digital camera's chip (only SD is supported but there is a USB port), or play a movie while on the plane.

Samsung is moving in the right direction with this latest version of the UMPC line. The power is properly balanced, the screen is small but attractive, and the battery life is reasonable. (The company claims a minimum of 4.5 hours of continuous run time via the integrated Lithium Ion prismatic batteries.)

Now, all we need is more mainstream, real-world applications for this form factor. And perhaps that USB port for the back of my head.

Gene Hirschel is a contributing editor for internetnews.com. He has over 25 years of experience in the technology industry, including systems management, network administration, capacity planning and data center design. He can be reached at gh@realnews123.com.