April 12, 2006

The Amazing Shrinking PC

Author: Rob Reilly

Behold the OQO model 01+ tablet edition palmtop. It's a self-contained mobile PC system in a 4.9x3.4x0.9-inch metallic case, tipping the scales at a minuscule 14 ounces. If you need a fully functional PC at the absolute extreme end of the portability scale, this is the machine for you.

The OQO no lightweight in the feature department. This baby sports a 1.0GHz Crusoe processor, 512MB of RAM, a 30GB hard-drive, 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and an 800x480 color touchscreen with a slide-over thumb keyboard.

The model 01+ connects to the outside world via a 3/8-inch thick "accessory cable" that plugs into the bottom of the unit and supplies power, a connection to an external 1280x1024 VGA monitor, an extra USB port, a FireWire port, audio, and 10/100 Ethernet connections.

Fortunately, onboard USB, FireWire, headphone, and power connections populate the outside of the case and can be used with or without the accessory cable. There's also a built-in microphone, speaker, and thin or thick battery packs.

Overall, the design is well-thought-out and effective in ultra mobile applications.

Challenges

There are a few challenges to using the OQO. For example, since it doesn't have a built-in CD/DVD drive, loading new software is a bit tedious. You can hook up an external USB-powered CD drive or download everything over a network interface.

OQO has spent a considerable amount of time pondering how to make the palmtop experience as convenient as possible. It includes a heavy little stand for the unit to sit on when you use it on a desktop. To use the keyboard, you wrap your fingers around the back and type away with the sides of your thumbs. As you would imagine, the keys are very small and I was prone to typos initially. After some practice, using the keyboard got easier, though I wouldn't want to write all my stories that way. The thumb keyboard and mouse stick are adequate for Web cruising or keeping track of email. If you use lots of spreadsheets, set up your templates and use macros to speed data entry when you're in front of clients.

While using the unit untethered (holding it in my hands), I noticed that it really heats up after just a few minutes. It has a tiny little fan inside for cooling. Once you start doing any kind of work, such as Web browsing or editing a document with OpenOffice.org, the fan kicks on and makes a noticeable amount of noise. However, if you find yourself computing outside on a cold day, the OQO will offer some relief for your chilly fingers.

Loading open source tools under XP

This little machine has the usual Microsoft software loaded, including Internet Explorer and Office 2003. I loaded the latest version of the Raptorhead CD from which to install my favorite tools, OpenOffice.org and Firefox. Raptorhead also includes current versions of the GIMP, Gaim, and Turbocash.

To load the Raptorhead CD I hooked up my old Iomega ZipCD 650 USB drive. Windows XP immediately recognized the drive and assigned a drive letter.

Firefox worked fine for Web browsing. The keyboard worked great for pointing and clicking on links. After a short period, I became proficient with the left and right mouse buttons, conveniently located under my left thumb. My right thumb rested comfortably on the mouse stick, making it easy to control the cursor arrow. There's even a mouse wheel located below the mouse stick on the lower edge of the machine, so you can scroll up and down on a Web page.

As expected, OpenOffice.org took a couple of seconds to start up, even with the generous memory and 1GHz processor. I was able to use Writer, Calc, and Impress without problems.

Everyday use

For everyday portable use, you can start up the PC and put it into standby mode when you want to go somewhere. Standby gives you several hours of off and on portable operation on a fresh charge. When the machine is running, you can push the power button once to make it sleep. The power button will slowly flash on and off, about once a second. When you get to where you're going, press the button again and it will come back to life. A second or two later, the palmtop will poll for an access point and reconnect. At that point, you're back in business. There were no glitches or crashes as I connected and disconnected cables while the machine was running.

The model 01+ is perfect for the seminar leader or executive who is constantly traveling. You'll need to carry the accessory cable for video output to the projector. I'd also take along a portable USB keyboard/mouse combination, such as the Gyromouse, to control the slide show. While using the PC with a projector, I found that the position of the accessory cable made it a little cumbersome to work the thumb keyboard and mouse stick while holding the unit in my hands.

The video was clean and bright when viewed on both the external 1024x768 monitor and an XGA projector. Colors were vivid with no visible ghosts or artifacts.

Conclusion

The OQO model 01+ palmtop is the state of the art in portable PCs. In terms of speed and power, its capabilities compare with late-model midrange laptops. And it far exceeds what even high-end PDAs can do, in only a slightly larger package. The machine is well built and performed admirably during my review period.

I can see this PC being handy for sales pros, technicians, and business people who are highly mobile. Salesmen could set up their spreadsheets and calculate deals on the spot. Technicians could view instructions and reference material or use industry-specific applications. Businessmen could carry around their product information or slide presentations to show customers.

Everything considered, the $2,099 retail price seems reasonable for a full-featured notebook that's small enough to fit in your pocket.

If you like to be on the cutting edge of technology, this device will confirm your geek/future-trend prowess to all your non-techie friends and family. Everybody who saw this machine just couldn't believe its size and power. Be prepared for a barrage of questions and lots of attention whenever you use it.

Rob Reilly is a consultant, trend spotter, and writer. He specializes in Linux and open source portable computing and presentation technology integration.

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