July 10, 2008

UMPCs and Linux: made for each other, and coming soon

Author: Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Who knew that the biggest desktop Linux show of 2008 would turn out to be the June Computex show in Taipei, Taiwan, where the next generation of Linux desktop hardware was put on display? In fact, Linux was at the heart of no fewer than four different ultra mobile PCs (UMPC).

At the show, Intel introduced the next two members of its Diamondville Atom processor family. The first to arrive was the N270, which is meant for what Intel calls Netbooks and the rest of the world calls UMPC. The other Diamondville processor, the N230, is meant for mobile Internet devices (MID). Both chips are meant for lightweight (under four pounds) portable computers with battery lives of three hours and up.

The N270 powers four soon-to-ship Linux-powered PCs: Asus's two new Eee PCs, the Eee PC 901 and 1000; MSI's entry into the field, the N270; and the Acer Aspire One.

The Eee PC 901 comes with an 8.9-inch screen, a gigabyte of RAM, a 20GB solid state disk (SSD), a built-in 1.3-megapixel webcam, built-in Bluetooth connectivity, and 802.11n Wi-Fi. The 1000H comes with a Xandros-based Linux operating system or XP Home. The 1000H offers a 10-inch screen and 2GB of RAM, but is otherwise pretty much the same system as the 901. An 80GB hard drive is also an option. The 1000H is priced at $679, while the 901 goes for about $629. Like previous Asus Linux-powered UMPCs, the new Asus systems
run a variant of Xandros Linux.

Finding these systems today is a challenge -- I was unable to find any US resellers who had any in stock -- but most vendors are promising shipments in one to two weeks.

The MSI Wind N270, a.k.a. NB-Linux, uses the 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU and 1GB of DDR2 667MHz memory, with an upgrade to 2GB possible. Unlike Asus, MSI is continuing to use conventional hard drives instead of SSDs. The Wind N270's default storage device is a 80GB hard drive.

For a UMPC, the Wind has a good-sized screen: 10 inches wide with 1024x600 resolution. For networking it supports 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. Like almost all UMPCs these days, the Wind also comes with a 1.3-megapixel webcam. Its operating system is Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) 10 SP2.

MSI promised the Wind would go on sell in May. Now the company, citing a lack of parts, is predicting mass availability of the mini-laptops by late July. It may be later still; Amazon.com is advising would-be buyers not to expect shipments for three to five weeks. When they appear, you can expect to pay about $500 for this UMPC.

Curiously, a twin to the MSI Wind N270, the Advent 4211, is already available in the UK. The Advent 4211, however, is sold by UK retailer PC World as a Windows XP Home-only system. Presumably, the Advent would work with SLED, but UK Linux hackers are spending their time on porting Ubuntu 8.04 to the Wind and Advent UMPCs.

The Acer Aspire One runs the little-known Linpus Linux distribution. The Aspire One will come with 512MB or 1GB of RAM, 8GB of SSD, an 8.9-inch, 1024x600 display, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and a webcam. Buyers also have the option of an 80GB hard drive. Eventually, but not in the first release, Acer will offer 3G cellular wireless connectivity as an option, and the company is considering making 802.16e mobile WiMAX an option.

Like the other Atom-powered UMPCs, the Aspire One was supposed to have shipped by now, but it hasn't. Acer assures would-be buyers that it will be out Real Soon Now. Come the day the Aspire One shows up, it's pricetag will be about $500 with all the goodies.

A host of other vendors, most notably Dell, plan to release Linux-powered UMPCs this summer. Sources close to Dell confirm that its will be releasing two "Dell E" systems that will use Ubuntu 8.04. The first Atom-powered model is aimed at the growing UMPC market with a price point around $300.

The Dell E Slim, however, seems to be targeting the MacBook Air high-end laptop market. Sources say that this luxury UMPC will be just 0.8 inches thick but will include a 12.1-inch display, a choice between the 1.3 or 1.6GHz Atom processors, an 8GB SSD or a 40GB hard drive, 1GB to 2GB of RAM, 802.11g and n Wi-Fi, and mobile WiMAX support.

Officially, Dell has no word on these plans. Come August, about the same time the other Atom-powered Linux UMPCs actually arrive, you can expect to see Dell Ubuntu Linux-powered UMPCs on sale.

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