Samsung's Q1 Ultra

Ultramobile PCs are hot right now, but can a device with a small screen, a split keyboard, and performance in the PDA class convince you it's a fully functional PC?

June 26, 2007

7 Min Read
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The design of any portable PC is a set of compromises, and the smaller the device gets, the greater the number of compromises. Therefore, it's no surprise that a device as small as the 1.5-pound Samsung ultramobile PC, the Q1 Ultra, involves quite a few compromises. What's surprising is how useable it is in spite of them.

The Q1 Ultra is the third generation of Samsung's UMPC devices -- it follows on last year's Q1 and Q1b, which were among the first handheld devices based on the Origami specification jointly developed by Microsoft, Intel, Samsung, and other companies.

If you've ever used a Pocket PC or Palm PDA, some of the features -- and limitations -- of the Q1 Ultra will seem very familiar. Its 7-inch, 1020-by-600 touch screen is about four times the size of the typical PDA screen, but it's still small. The device doesn't have a QWERTY keyboard you can touch type on. And while it's got an 800-MHz Intel processor, performance can feel slow.

But don't let familiarity fool you into judging the book by its cover. The Q1 Ultra is a lot more than just an overgrown PDA. In fact, the Q1 Ultra is packed so full of features that just listing them could fill this review. And when you look at any particular feature, the Q1 Ultra is close to a textbook study in overcompensation.Many Levels Of Input
Take the lack of a keyboard. You can almost hear the Samsung engineers saying, "If the users think input is the problem, let's give them as many ways to input commands and text as we possibly can." Including:

  • A pull-out window that hides on the left side of the screen and opens to become a QWERTY keyboard you can tap with the stylus.

  • A browser that's available to accept URLs written with the stylus.

  • A hardware button that opens the DialKeys -- two quarter-circles that fill the lower left and right quadrants of the touch screen and display a keyboard arranged for thumb-typing. (DialKeys is an Origami feature.)

  • A "split" keyboard -- in other words, a BlackBerry-like QWERTY arrangement of teeny keynubs split between the upper left and right corners of the case.

  • And if you need a real 101-key old-fashioned keyboard, you can buy one as an accessory -- or just plug in any USB-connected keyboard.

Cursor control has a similar multiplicity of modes. You can draw on the touch screen with your finger or use the stylus for more precise control. There's also a hardware button labeled "Mouse" that you can wiggle with your left thumb. If you've ever used a ThinkPad, with its pencil-eraser mouse pointer, you'll be familiar with the concept -- but the Samsung version falls so far short of the ThinkPad version they should probably have left it off.

Four Models To Choose From
There are four models of the Q1 Ultra. All share the same very bright 1024-by-600 LED-backlit touch screen. The low-end model ($799), probably intended for institutional tablet applications, lacks the cameras, fingerprint reader, and SD slot that the other models offer, and comes with a 40-Gbyte drive. Two intermediate models offer different mixes of hardware features, a choice of either Windows XP or Vista, and 60-Gbyte drives (the review unit, with dual cameras, Windows Vista Home Premium, and 1 Gbyte of memory and a 60-Gbyte drive, lists for $1,199). At the high end, a machine with Windows Vista Premium comes with an 80-Gbyte drive, HSDPA support, and all the hardware features ($1,499).

A version of the Q1 is also available with a solid-state hard drive -- 32 Gbytes of flash memory -- at a list price of $1,999. Available accessories (depending on the model) include a docking station, high-capacity batteries, external optical disc drive, and a GPS package.

Getting To Know You
When I first tried the device I didn't think it was good for much beyond playing solitaire while I watched TV. It took me awhile to learn enough about the Q1 Ultra's interface to feel even moderately efficient using it to read and write e-mail, and without a QWERTY keyboard attached I'd never use it to write articles like this one. (A folding Bluetooth keyboard like those from iGo and Ubiquio would make a nice portable solution, but the two pieces would still be more unwieldy to carry and use than a one-piece notebook-style unit.)

Product Info

Q1 Ultra $799 to $1,499Summary: If the small screen, performance limitations, and lack of a full keyboard are acceptable trade-offs for extreme portability, then the Q1 Ultra may be just what you want.

The Q1 Ultra is evidently intended to be gripped in both hands and operated with your thumbs -- except when it's not, and you have to switch to a one-hand grip and hold the stylus in the other. This can make for a somewhat awkward user experience. Because it weighs a pound and a half and is about 9 by 5 inches, it's heavy to support in one hand and control with the other. There's an easel stand built into the back of the unit, and setting it up on a desktop while I poked at it worked best for me.

The 7-inch screen means you'll probably want to work closer to the Q1 Ultra than you would with a larger laptop screen. I found that I was happier after I changed my glasses.

While Samsung is promoting the Q1 Ultra as a "fully functional PC," there is some distance between "fully functional" and "completely satisfactory." The processor has been changed from a 1-GHz Intel CPU to an Intel A110, an 800-MHz ultralow-power CPU, to improve battery life. Battery life is good: Samsung claims 3.5 hours on the standard four-cell battery, and I experienced something better than 2.5 (at those proportions, the optional six-cell battery, rated at 6.8 hours, might deliver something around 5). But the hardware seemed a little overwhelmed by the demands of Vista Home Premium. Performance, especially in transitions like opening, closing, and switching programs, was draggy.Hitting Its Market
Samsung is aiming the Q1 Ultra at several markets: business travelers and students (because of its small size and light weight), health care and similar vertical applications (because it's a tablet PC), as a media player (it plays music, videos, and movies and is extremely portable), and for presentations ("No need to carry a bulky laptop when you need to look your best").

Some of these make more sense than others. I'm not sure I'd want to make a PowerPoint pitch to a client on a 7-inch screen. And tablet applications would probably have to be tailored to work with the small screen, too. But the Q1 Ultra makes a well-equipped media machine, and it's got good communications capabilities, too.

For media fans, the Origami platform includes the Windows Media Center applications, and the Q1 Ultra has sufficient hard-disk space for movies and TV shows. In addition, the built-in 1.5-watt speakers don't entirely suck if you want to play music without being strapped into headphones. There's an SD/MMC card slot, so it would make a good storage-and-display device for photographers.

For communications it offers Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cabled Ethernet. An HSDPA modem is available as an option. There are even dual cameras -- a Webcam at the top of the display aimed at the user, and a 1.3-Mbyte still/video camera with the lens on the backside of the device. Skype ran well enough to deliver adequate sound quality, although I did receive a warning at one point that system speed might be inadequate to deliver optimum quality. For Web browsing and e-mail the Origami software even includes some interface tricks like "page flicking" (a quick movement with the stylus to the left or right) to "turn" pages in long documents.

The Developing UMPC Market
The ultramobile PC category is growing rapidly, and designers and manufacturers are experimenting almost wildly with features and designs. Samsung has been one of the leaders with its work on the Origami spec and the rapid release of new Q1 models over the past year. It's design decisions for the Q1 Ultra are interesting, particularly the continuing omission of a full keyboard and the reduction in processor speed from 1 GHz to 800 MHz (even while adding Windows Vista, an operating system that requires a good deal of heavy lifting).The portability is hugely tempting -- I'd love to leave my 6-pound laptop at home and take a Q1 Ultra (and a folding keyboard) on my next trip. But overall, a device with a small screen, no keyboard, and performance in the PDA class doesn't quite convince me it's a "fully functional PC."

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