How the Ultra-Mobile PC Works


Samsung Q1 Ultra-mobile PC. See more computer pictures.
Image copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

It isn't often that Microsoft announces a completely new concept in computing, but at CeBIT 2006 in Hanover, Germany, the software giant finally unveiled details about its Origami Project to a worldwide audience.

Microsoft created the Origami Project to develop (with various hardware and software partners) a new type of computer that falls in-between the size of a typical PDA and tablet PC, uses a standard Windows operating system and costs less than $1000: the Ultra-mobile PC, or UMPC.

The Microsoft team originally used "Origami" as a code name, and they liked it so much that they kept it for the project's public community Web site. One of the program's managers was interested in Japanese culture and liked the name, which refers to the art of intricate paper folded sculptures.

Clearly, there is a need for a smaller form factor than the traditional notebook PC. PDAs don't run standard Windows OS, and many tablets are too heavy to carry around all the time. Gartner, an IT research Web site, posits that the UMPC space should have the following advantages:

  • An eight-hour battery life
  • A sub-$400 price
  • Low-cost, compelling content bundles from partners like Intel and Microsoft
  • A better Microsoft shell/interface running on top of Vista
  • Text entry options beyond thumb-typing
  • Dock-and-go synchronization, requiring minimal user interaction
  • Sustained market momentum from Microsoft and Intel

­ These are all worthy goals, but the initial UMPC units won't deliver on all of these points at first. In this article, we'll show you what Microsoft has planned for the UMPC and what is still to come. We'll also talk about how these new computers will work and how they differ from tablets and PDAs.

Ultra-mobile PC Software

Image copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

The UMPC is unique in that it runs regular Windows OS -- it currently runs Vista and a suite of software called Origami Experience [source: Microsoft]. While there are many PDAs and PDA/phone combinations that run Windows Mobile (such as the Palm Treo 700w) it isn't the same as running the stock XP OS loaded onto millions of desktop and laptop computers. Windows Mobile requires new versions of applications to be compatible with that OS, and the applications have to take advantage of the smaller screens on these devices. The goal of UMPC is to run off-the-shelf Windows applications, with no medications whatsoever other than supporting the tablet/touch screen features.

The UMPCs that Microsoft announced are small devices -- they weigh less than two pounds and have seven-inch video screens. This puts it in a new market segment not currently served by any particular manufacturer. It is smaller than the smallest tablet PCs that are currently available from Motion and Fujitsu, and lighter than the Aopen MiniPC (a desktop model that doesn't include any screen at all). It is also bigger than the OQO PC. The other distinction is that the UMPC will be less expensive than the typical tablet.

"Origami isn't an iPod killer per se, it's rather a new class of device that will compete with other devices that cost about the same," says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research, using the original code name for the UMPC. "That means portable media players, game machines, GPS units and the like will face some new challenges. Much like there were PCs with TV tuners long before MCE, the power of MCE was really the 10-foot UI. The power of Origami is really in the 10" UI."

Ultra-mobile PC Hardware

The Samsung Q1 UMPC
The Samsung Q1 UMPC
Image copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

This isn't the first time that Microsoft has tried to promote touch-screen tablets: Windows Tablet PCs have been around for nearly a decade. But the UMPC is another step in this evolution.

In one report, Bill Mitchell said, "The touch-enhanced display can be used as an on-screen QWERTY keyboard [using Dial Keys] to navigate, or users can employ a stylus to input handwritten information. They can also input content with a traditional keyboard, linked either by USB port or wireless Bluetooth connectivity."

Not all implementations of all UMPCs will have Bluetooth ports, but the initial crop of vendors have promised this, along with support for various USB and BT keyboards. This is very similar to the tablet PCs that are currently on the market: some come with keyboards and all offer support for either pen or keyboard input devices.

Other input ports are planned for the devices, including:

  • Wired Ethernet and WiFi networking connectors
  • Compact Flash card slots
  • USB v 2.0 ports
  • An external VGA monitor port
  • Various buttons and connectors for audio operations
  • Support for stereo microphones with built-in noise reduction and echo cancellation
  • A remote control for the Media Center PC application

There will be units with a variety of processors, including the Intel Celeron M, Intel Pentium M and VIA C7-M. No AMD chipsets are in any of the announced plans yet.

Microsoft's goal was to use off-the-shelf displays that are in common consumer electronics devices to keep the costs down. They settled on 7-inch VGA displays that had 800 x 480 native resolution and can handle 800 x 600 with some loss of quality.

"The form factor was based around a 7-inch display panel, a size that is currently a standard size in the electronics industry due to broad adoption of that size display in the portable DVD player and automotive markets," said Microsoft's Otto Berkes in a newspaper interview. "Why use some new custom size when a potentially good one already exists?"

These plans for the UMPC differ from the existing Motion Computing tablets. The Motion displays use high-contrast, non-glare, active digitizers, meaning that the pen sold with the tablet is the only way to enter information. The UMPC displays are general touchscreens that can work with a finger or any other object for input. "We designed our 8.4-inch display to meet the needs of legacy enterprise applications, because many of these applications are designed for SVGA (800 x 600) resolution," said Bert Haskell, a product manager for Motion Computing. The UMPC displays are designed for showing widescreen movies.

Top and side views of the Samsung Q1 UMPC, showing some of the ports and the power switches
Top and side views of the Samsung Q1 UMPC, showing some of the ports and the power switches
Images copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

UMPC Battery Life

The Samsung Ultra Q1 mobile PC, which can function as a PC, a gaming console, a navigator and an entertainment center, consumes a great deal of power.
The Samsung Ultra Q1 mobile PC, which can function as a PC, a gaming console, a navigator and an entertainment center, consumes a great deal of power.
Sean Gallup/­Getty Images

­One of the biggest issues for any portable device is how it uses power and whether its batteries can run an entire eight-hour day without having to be recharged. Before its release, there were indications from Microsoft staff and from analysts that it would be a very power-hungry device. Part of the problem is that 7-inch screen, which consumes a great deal of power. Different configurations vary depending on the specifications of the machine, but battery life for most UMPCs ranges from 2 to 6 hours.

Michael Gartenberg of Jupiter Research wrote in his blog, "What is missing? Battery life. Right now these machines really need to be sold with a higher capacity battery if you're going to use one as a life style device going through the day."

There are numerous notebooks available today that offer three or more hours of battery life, including ones from Sony, Fujitsu and Motion Computing. Of course, these are all larger form factors and thus able to have bigger batteries included to last longer.

To counteract this issue, Microsoft has tried to finesse things by offering more advanced power management on the UMPC. Like many of today's more advanced multimedia laptops, the unit will have a special quick boot sequence that will bring up an embedded OS to run movies or play music files.

Dustin Hubbard at Microsoft writes in his blog, "The Samsung unit actually has 2 boot modes on a 3 way power switch - On, Off and AVS Multimedia (that's their name for this mode). AVS Multimedia can do near instant on by booting into what appears to be XP Embedded (as far as I can tell that is what they are doing) and allows you to play movies, music and photos without requiring you to boot into full XP. That gives you 2 advantages; presumably better battery life by not having so many services running in the background and fast cold boot startup for media only consumption."

Touch Pack Enhancements

The Touch Pack program launcher
The Touch Pack program launcher
Image copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

Microsoft has developed a special series of operating system enhancements to the tablet OS to take advantage of the UMPC platform. Called the "Touch Pack," these enhancements will optimize the touch screen experience. It has five applications: a program launcher, a series of touch improvements to the normal Windows UI, a Brilliant Black skin for Media player, a Sudoku game, and Dial Keys, a thumb-based on-screen keyboard for inputting text.

"Currently the Touch Pack is available only to UMPC qualified computers and only as an OEM pre-install," says Hubbard. "The Touch Pack was designed specifically for small form factor PCs."

Microsoft's Mitchell says, "Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows XP software optimizes the touch screen user interface for UMPCs to simplify navigation and ease-of-use while on the go. The Touch Pack's customizable Program Launcher organizes software programs into categories, and uses large buttons and icons to make it easy to find and open your favorite applications."

Most of the marketing materials that show screen shots of the UMPC feature views of this application.

There are several components to the Touch Pack. The first one is "Touch Improvements." This utility makes about 10 different settings changes to Windows such as widening the scroll bars and enlarging the minimize and maximize buttons, shows folders in thumbnail view. Next is a new skin for Windows Media Player called "Brilliant Black." This skin fills the screen on the devices with large buttons to navigate the media controls such as play, stop and volume.

Touch Pack's DialKeys
Touch Pack's DialKeys
Image copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

The third Touch Pack program is "DialKeys." This program, built by Fortune Fountain Ltd., is a way to input text with your thumbs. Dial Keys makes it easy to enter URLs, e-mail addresses, et cetera.

"DialKeys basically takes a standard QWERTY keyboard layout and splits it in two halves. It's a little hard to describe the layout but there are lots of screen shots of DialKeys to show what it looks like. The basic idea is that you hold the device in two hands and use your thumbs on the screen to type in text. It takes a little getting used to, but people are always amazed once they use it a day or two how good they get at typing with it," says Hubbard on his blog.

Touch Pack's Sudoku
Touch Pack's Sudoku
Image copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

The final product in the Touch Pack is a Sudoku game. The version is optimized for touch and the pen.

Next, we'll look at who will be manufacturing the UMPC and how much it's likely to cost. ­

Manufacturing and Cost

The Asus R2H Ultra-mobile PC
The Asus R2H Ultra-mobile PC
Image copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

UMPCs from Samsung, Asus, and Founder are based on Intel microprocessors. PaceBlade Japan announced a UMPC, known as the SmartCaddie, that uses a VIA Technology chip.

Samsung's Q1 went on sale in the second quarter of 2006 with a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $1,099. Another UMPC, manufactured by AMtek and available the United States as the TabletKiosk eo v7110, retails for $899. Asus' and Founder's UMPC should be available later this year. One vendor that hasn't announced any UMPC yet is Motion Computing, although the company sells a variety of tablet PCs in various shapes and sizes.

"We see it as validation and reinforcement of where we were headed with tablet PCs," says Bert Haskell of Motion Computing. "We were drawn into the ultra-mobile tablets by our customers who wanted a higher level of mobility. It is nice to see that Microsoft is creating the same type of vision for a consumer-oriented product."

Motion sells its tablets for the enterprise, and through the reseller channel, largely aimed at equipping sales forces and hospital staffs. "We have a significantly different focus in that we are looking at high-powered enterprise computing," says Haskell. Motion sells their tablets with higher-end components, such as with Pentium M CPUs and 60 GB hard disks with 1GB of RAM. " We are set up to understand and service the needs of the enterprise customers. We don't currently target consumer markets. If and when we decide to make that transition, it would be a pretty significant change for us," he said.

Microsoft has promised that once Vista ships that the UMPC will be able to run some version of Vista as well, but since the new OS isn't yet finished it is hard to make any definitive claims in this area. "The Vista requirements aren't out yet, but realistically if the units have the hardware specifications that Vista requires they should be able to run it," says Microsoft's Hubbard.

Just because the UMPC runs the tablet version of XP doesn't mean that every tablet-based application is worth running on it, however. "To be clear though not all tablet-enabled apps will make sense on a UMPC and not all UMPC apps will make sense on a traditional tablet," says Hubbard. "The small form factor and touch interaction of UMPC means that to have a really great user experience you need to design your UI to really take advantage of those assets." So chances are if UMPCs do take off, we will see differentiated applications over time that take advantage of its touch-screen features and enhancements that Microsoft is building into the units.

UMPCs overall are expected will cost less than most tablets and more than most PDAs. It depends on what configurations the various vendors will initially offer and how they will be priced in local markets. Price is definitely an issue that has gotten some analysts going about the new units.

"To me, one of the most important things about this, is price," stated Bob O'Donnell, program vice president for clients and displays at IDC. "If it's under $500, it's a fancy gadget. People spend that much on iPods. So there's this sense that, at a low price point, it could be very interesting and very appealing. Think about all the free WiFi networks that are out there now that you could use this thing with, and it gives you a full browsing experience as opposed to trying to browse on a two-inch cell phone, which is a horrendously useless experience. And yet people are getting more and more used to having information access almost anywhere they are, at almost any time."

Scott Fulton of TGDaily.com, sums things up the best about UMPC's shortcomings: "But what we have instead is something that's larger than the average pocket, that can't dial out, that doesn't have a discrete way to connect to the outside world, is somewhat expensive, and perhaps most unanticipated of all, is power-hungry."

So what will happen with the UMPC? Only time will tell. If manufacturers can get several hours of battery life, if the costs can drop way below $1000, if the touch experience works out for many new users, and if the right distributors pick up the products, this could be a winning product for Microsoft and its OEMs. Hitting all of these targets won't be easy, to be sure. But there is plenty of interest in UMPC and the size of the devices is very appealing.

Ultra-mobile PC Marketing

The Microsoft Origami Team Blog
The Microsoft Origami Team Blog
Image copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

Microsoft is a marketing machine, and it took over a year to build a credible marketing campaign for the UMPC. They used a combination of blogs, messages at v­arious Bill Gates keynotes and a short video showing off a concept of the UMPC that was widely distributed -- unintentionally, it seems.

As we said earlier, "Origami" was the codename that Microsoft used for the project prior to the announcement at CeBIT, but it has proved so popular that many vendors continue to refer to UMPCs by the code name, and Microsoft continues to use the name in its team blog and community site for the UMPC.

To take advantage of blogging's popularity, Microsoft used the team blog from various UMPC project members to build buzz and excitement over this new device. The blog was part of the viral marketing campaign, a way to build community and converge on solutions from a wide group of disparate players around a common platform. The team is still blogging away and the Web site has an active discussion forum debating various topics, including the features promised for the first several units.

In the Origami blog, Dustin Hubbard, Microsoft Mobile PC manager, stated: "When we came up with this idea a few months ago, this was intended to be a small, grassroots effort to generate some interest in the UMPC. Boy, did we do that! Overall, the campaign was successful beyond our wildest expectations and frankly maybe a little too successful."

The pre-launch buzz Origami Web site in week two
The pre-launch buzz Origami Web site in week two
Image copyright © 2006 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399 U.S.A. All rights reserved.

According to the Microsoft project team, it was pure coincidence that they announced the UMPC on the same day of a big Apple announcement. When they settled on the announcement date of March 9, they needed two weeks prior to build up the buzz and that was the same date (February 23) that Apple picked for one of its announcements.

Part of the buzz centered on the "Digital Kitchen video" which was developed by the production group Digital Kitchen as a concept piece (and has since been removed from YouTube for violating its terms of use). This video was more than a year old by the time it got a lot of play in the press. It has many vague statements, with just a few close-ups of what appears to be the UMPC in various everyday uses, such as mixing music, playing games and drawing pictures. Microsoft originally intended it for internal Microsoft viewing only.

A scene in which a user appears to be playing the popular Halo video game on a UMPC-like device attracted the most attention. "The video, which was intended for viewing by Microsoft employees only, showed our ultimate goal of running all Windows software on this ultra-mobile form factor. However, in this first release, you'll probably be primarily limited to casual games," says Dustin Hubbard.

Microsoft says that the hype surrounding the video was completely unexpected. Hubbard writes in the UMPC blog: "No one at Microsoft even knew that video was publicly available until someone posted it after finding it by doing an Internet search. Both of those events may have turned out to be serendipitous I suppose, but it wasn't planned if I'm being honest. The discovery of the video was what took our buzz campaign from a tech enthusiast following to mainstream media."

For lots more information on the Ultra-mobile PC, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Block, Ryan. "Microsoft's Origami project." Engadget, February 24, 2006. http://www.engadget.com/2006/02/24/microsofts-origami-project/
  • Malaka, Yazan. "Microsoft's Origami Project: An Ultra Mobile PC Afterall." TechHash, March 9, 2006. http://techhash.com/blog/2006/03/09/microsofts-origami-project-an-ultra-mobile-pc-afterall/
  • Microsoft: Ultra-mobile PC http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/umpc/default.mspx
  • Richer, Thomas. "Hands-on with the Samsung Q1 / Origami." Engadget, March 8, 2006. http://www.engadget.com/2006/03/08/hands-on-with-the-samsung-q1-origami/
  • UMPC Community http://umpc.com/product.aspx
  • "Will UMPC hit a sweet spot?" Incremental Blogger, March 15, 2006. http://journals.tuxreports.com/lch/archives/003423.html