Walt Mossberg

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Personal Technology

This Time, Samsung Has Made a Tiny PC That’s Practical to Use

One of the best things about high-tech products and services is that they can improve quickly. In the high-tech world, failures are viewed as learning experiences, and even negative consumer reactions are taken seriously and internalized immediately.

So, last year, when Samsung introduced a new class of tiny Windows computer called the Ultra-Mobile PC, I gave it a harsh review and advised waiting for an improved model. That first effort, the Q1, was spurned by consumers, despite the high hopes of Microsoft and Intel, which conceived the UMPC.

But Samsung now has come up with a much better version, called the Q1 Ultra, which will go on sale at major electronics stores starting next month.

I’ve been testing the Q1 Ultra and, at least for certain classes of users, I believe it’s a pretty good product, despite some lingering downsides and compromises. It addresses the biggest weaknesses of its predecessor and throws in other improvements, yet starts at a significantly lower price — $799 compared with $1,099 for the original Q1.

The biggest improvement: Even though the Ultra is a tablet computer, still able to accept handwritten notes and meant to be controlled by a stylus, this new model now has a built-in keyboard. It’s just a tiny BlackBerry-style keyboard but it makes writing emails and typing in Web addresses practical.

The Samsung UMPC still isn’t a mainstream product, or one that I’d recommend for most average users. It does run the full version of Windows Vista or Windows XP, but it’s still too compromised to replace a small laptop for most folks.

However, I do see the Q1 Ultra as a decent choice for people willing to put up with some limitations in return for the ability to carry a real Windows computer that is as small as a thin hardcover book and weighs almost nothing. These users include students and frequent business travelers who mainly want to take notes, write emails, do instant messaging and Web surfing, and play music and videos. For people who want to do a lot of word processing, or to create spreadsheets or presentations, it would be better to stick to a small laptop.

The Q1 Ultra is a sleek, shiny, black tablet with a bright, sharp seven-inch screen that feels great in the hand and has a built-in stand on the back so it can be used upright. It weighs about 1.5 pounds, is less than nine inches long and five inches wide, and is under an inch thick. It’s slightly smaller and lighter than last year’s model.

The Q1 Ultra is run by a special, low-horsepower Intel processor and has only one gigabyte of memory, which can’t be expanded. But it runs Vista acceptably, if not exactly speedily. You can get one with Windows XP for faster performance.

Samsung's Q1 Ultra
Samsung’s Q1 Ultra

The main flaws in the first model were a high price, the lack of a keyboard, a screen that had too little resolution to manage Windows, weak battery life, no built-in mouse buttons and no built-in cellphone modem to augment its built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking.

In the new Ultra model, the built-in keyboard, meant for thumb typing, is split, with half of the keys on either side of the screen. This approach looks daunting, but works pretty well once you get the hang of it. Unfortunately, Samsung and Microsoft didn’t build any intelligence into this keyboard, so it doesn’t automatically complete words, add punctuation and capitalize the first letters of sentences, unlike the keyboards on most smart phones.

While still the same size, the screen is both brighter and has a higher resolution, so open windows can be easily moved and closed. There are now mouse buttons and an optional internal high-speed cellphone modem is available. The navigation pad is simpler and is easily programmable, though you have to manually set its arrow keys to mimic the arrows on a real keyboard.

Alas, the battery-life problems remain. In my tests, where I turn off all power-saving software, use maximum screen brightness, turn on the Wi-Fi and play an endless loop of music, the standard battery lasted just two hours and five minutes, which translates to about three hours in more normal usage. The $99 optional extra-large battery, which adds a little bulk and weight, did only about 50% better.

And this little computer can still be pricey. The base model is $799, but there are three better-equipped models that can range up to $1,499. That’s almost as much as a tiny Fujitsu tablet with a regular keyboard, and way above Microsoft’s $500 target price for the UMPC.

Another big problem is start-up time. Even with no programs running, it took me over four minutes to reboot the Q1 Ultra and over two minutes to boot it after a complete shutdown. To speed up start times, Samsung suggests either turning off Vista’s snazzy graphics or ordering the one model with Windows XP, which costs $1,149.

Still, if you don’t do a lot of document creation, and value small size and weight enough to put up with some hassles, the UMPC finally is an acceptable choice.