The FlipStart UMPC

The FlipStart provides all the functionality of a notebook computer in a highly portable form factor, although its small size makes some features awkward.

June 6, 2007

5 Min Read
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If you're one of the many toting around cell phones, notebook computers, media players, and (if you're a bit old-fashioned) PDAs, the choice seems to be to lighten the load or start seeing a chiropractor. Various vendors are doing their best to help (and, they hope, come up with the Next Big Thing in mobile personal tech); one of the more interesting entries is the FlipStart.

FlipStart, which has been a much-anticipated device in technophile blogs, is a small (5.9 x 4.5 x 1.6 inch) Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) that runs Windows (XP or Vista), has a full (if very small) keyboard and built-in navigation controls. It uses a 1.1GHz Intel Pentium M processor and comes with 512MB DDR2 RAM and a 30GB hard drive.

Unlike many of the UMPC's out there, the FlipStart boasts a traditional clam-shell design -- it looks like a rather thick notebook that was kept in the dryer too long. It's certainly lighter than your average notebook computer -- under 2 pounds at its heaviest (not counting the power cord). The exact weight of the unit depends on which of the two available batteries you decide to use: the optional $150 Slimline offers a meager 1-3 hours and brings the FlipStart down to a svelte 1.5 pounds, while the standard battery provides 3-6 hours, taking the device to 1.75 pounds.

Nobody could call the FlipStart uninteresting. Being mobile, it comes equipped with 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth; you can also subscribe to Sprint Mobile Broadband so that you can stay online whether or not you're within range of a Wi-Fi connection. I had no problem configuring the FlipStart for my home wireless network. However, new owners should be aware that, unless you set it otherwise, the FlipStart will want you to manually reconnect each time you open the lid (in order to save battery life).Other features include a built-in VGA camera and dual built-in microphone (so you can use it for video conferencing) and a port replicator that adds a video port, a speaker port, an Ethernet port, and two USB ports (without the replicator, the back of the FlipStart allows for a single USB connection).

One of the FlipStart's selling points is the InfoPane, a small low-power display embedded into the cover which lets you view your e-mail, a contact list, and schedule without opening the device.

Take A Close Look. No, Closer.
If you use reading glasses, prepare to have them ready -- the FlipStart's 5.6-inch, 1024 x 600 SVGA display takes some getting used to. This difficulty was not unanticipated by the manufacturers, however -- FlipStart has a handy Zoom key that magnifies the active window. If you keep the Zoom key pressed and use the jog-dial at the right side of the device, you can raise or lower the magnification by nine degrees. Even though this usually puts most of the window off-screen, I found this feature very useful, especially for more detailed Web sites.

Product Info

FlipStartFlipStart Labswww.flipstartpc.comPrice: $1,999

The navigation controls are located on either side of the keyboard, close to the display -- the right side offers the choice of either a trackpad or touchstick (you can even use the jog-dial on the side of the unit, if you prefer), while the mouse buttons are placed on the left side. As a result, you control the movement of the cursor with your right thumb, and click with your left, which works nicely. I found them very easy to use, although I'd be interested to know if left-handed users are as comfortable with this setup as I was.On the other hand, the QWERTY keyboard may be problematic for some users. The tiny keys are mainly suited for thumb typing while holding the device (or one-finger typing if the FlipStart is sitting on a flat surface). For me, it worked well for short words and phrases -- say, for typing in a keyword or sending a short e-mail. I have reasonably small hands, but I had no problem reaching all the keys while holding the unit -- and I found it a lot more comfortable than the "split" keyboards that are being adopted by other UMPCs such as the Samsung Q1 Ultra.

Still, the FlipStart keyboard will not be a happy experience for reporters, essayists, long-winded bloggers, or anybody else who has to put together more than a few sentences. Because I don't spend a lot of time sending text messages on my cell, I may be less comfortable with doing a lot of thumb-typing than others, but I can't imagine using the FlipStart for any serious document creation -- instead, I'd bring along a USB keyboard.

And this is the crux of the problem regarding the FlipStart. It's very cool. It gives you a lot of functionality on the road while taking up very little space. It looks like and performs like a full-sized notebook computer -- but the size of its keyboard and display are more on the PDA level. I can see it as being very useful for mobile professionals who want to do some surfing and a bit of typing on the road, and then will plug it into a full-sized monitor and keyboard at the end of the trip. But its $1,999 price tag means that most buyers will have to choose between the FlipStart and an ultralight notebook such as the Fujitsu Lifebook Q or Sony VAIO TX. I know which I'd choose.

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