How Portable Internet Devices Work

Ultra mobile PCs combine the portability of a smartphone with the functionality of a PC. See more pictures of essential gadgets.
Image courtesy of Fujitsu

When most people think about accessing the Internet on the go, they think about using a laptop at a Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shop, or checking e-mail from a smartphone while waiting at the airport.

While these smartphones and PCs work remotely, they're not the only available options. A growing category of devices, called portable Internet devices, combine the portability of smartphones with the functionality of a PC.

These devices include ultra mobile PCs (UMPCs) and mobile Internet devices (MIDs). Lighter than a laptop and smarter than a smartphone, portable Internet devices can make Internet access easier, faster and cheaper.

Using mobile devices to access the Internet is increasing. According to comScore, more than 2.1 million PCs, smartphones, PDAs and other mobile devices used U.S. broadband cellular connections to reach the Web in 2007. That's more than double the number of users a year earlier. Only 1 percent of U.S. Internet users access the Web via mobile broadband today. But that percentage is expected to continue increasing, eventually making Wi-Fi hot spots irrelevant [source: PC World].

Companies are responding to consumers' interest in accessing information from mobile Internet devices. Avis Rent-A-Car Systems, for instance, offers an online booking tool designed for use with portable Internet devices including smartphones, PDAs and UMPCs. Avis servers recognize a request from a portable Internet device and respond with only the minimum information fields.

But is a portable Internet device like a UMPC or MID right for you? And how do you choose the right one? First, let's take a closer look at the types of portable Internet devices that are available.

Types of Portable Internet Devices

Portable Internet devices rely on Wi-Fi and WiMAX technology to connect to the Internet.
Portable Internet devices rely on Wi-Fi and WiMAX technology to connect to the Internet.
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Portable Internet devices can be categorized in several different ways. You can, for example, consider their form and function. Or, another way to look at these portable devices is to consider the type of Internet technologies that they use.

A portable Web device operates at short, medium or long range:

  • Short-range: Using technologies like Bluetooth, ZigBee or RFID, an Internet device can connect at low power within 100 feet.
  • Medium range: Technologies like Wi-Fi can allow a device to access the Internet anywhere from 500 feet to several miles from a hotspot.
  • Long range: WiMAX, MIT-2000 and other long-range technologies can allow Internet communication up to 150 miles from a base station or across the country as a networked service. Other long-range technologies include high- and low-altitude platform stations (HAPS/LAPS) and satellites.

While PCs and UMPCs may have relied primarily on mid-range Wi-Fi technology for connection in the past, the move now is toward portable Internet devices that can take advantage of WiMAX and other long-range technologies [source: ITU Internet Reports 2004: The Portable Internet].

Another way to look at portable devices is by their function. ABI Research divides portable Internet devices into two categories: UMPCs that run Windows and are targeted at business users, and MIDs that are focused more at consumers. ABI predicts rising popularity for both tools and toys, with shipments of portable Internet devices expected to grow from fewer than 3.5 million in 2008 to nearly 90 million in 2012, but consumer devices are expected to lead the way.

Both types can feature Wi-Fi or WiMAX technology -- and in the case of Intel Corp.'s Montevina processor technology, one device features both technologies. UMPCs and MIDs also offer Web applications such as browsing, e-mail, IM, photo and video exchange, and global positioning system (GPS) navigation. Advanced functions like medical monitoring are being developed.

But portable Internet devices also vary in form. They can be:

  • Notebooks, like the Asus eee PC models, that open like small laptops
  • Sliders, like the Fujitsu Lifebook U810, with a keyboard that slides out from under the screen
  • Tablets, like the Samsung Q1, with a side keyboard and touch screen

[source: UMPCportal.com]

While a variety of portable Internet devices are available, many more are under development or being introduced. If you're ready to buy, let's look next at what you should consider.

Choosing Portable Internet Devices

When choosing a portable Internet device, consider range, power capability and screen size.
When choosing a portable Internet device, consider range, power capability and screen size.
Robert Sorbo/Microsoft/Getty Images

If you think you're ready for a portable Internet device, you have some choices now -- and plenty more coming as new portable devices are introduced on the market.

Here are some factors to think about when looking for a portable Internet device:

  • Internet range: Consider whether mid-range Wi-Fi or long-range WiMAX would work better for you, and make sure the device you're considering has that range.
  • Power capability: Check the expected battery life for the device. Among the comparisons shown at UMPCportal.com, battery life ranges from 2.3 to 3.3 hours, depending on the Internet device.
  • Screen size: While many portable Internet devices have a 7-inch screen, some have screens as large as 8.9 inches or as small as 4.8 inches.
  • Format: Tablet, slider or notebook: It's your pick.
  • Durability: This is hard to gauge because so many of the devices are so new. Check buyer reviews of your chosen Internet device at Amazon or other Web sites to see other users' experience. UMPCportal.com provides links to reviews for some devices in its comparison chart.
  • Added functions: How do you plan to use the device? Consider whether Internet access is your primary interest, or if you want to incorporate a multimedia player, cell phone or GPS system.
  • Price: Like anything new, most portable Internet devices aren't cheap -- and they vary considerably in price. For example, the Samsung Q1 Ultra retails for about $1,100, the Fujitsu Lifebook U810 for about $1,000 and the Asus eee PC 701 for about $400.

It's important to remember that these portable Internet devices are developing technology. Price and functions may change as these devices evolve. For instance, Intel's Menlow mobile computing platform, introduced in 2008, is slightly larger than a playing card and reduced the power consumed by UMPCs to one-tenth of what it has been. Intel is expected to follow that in 2009 with a platform that will drop power consumption another 10 times.

While portable Internet devices seem poised to fill the gap between smartphones and laptops, they're not without their problems. We'll consider those next.

Problems with Portable Internet Devices

Portable Internet devices like the Lifebook U810 from Fujitsu feature a keyboard that slides out from the screen.
Portable Internet devices like the Lifebook U810 from Fujitsu feature a keyboard that slides out from the screen.
Image courtesy of Fujitsu

Problems with portable Internet devices may convince you that another option, like a smartphone or a laptop, works better for your needs. Or you may choose one portable Internet device over another based on reviews. Issues to consider include: software company compatibility, power limitations, duplication of existing technology, speed and cost.

UMPCs are not a new concept, just one that never succeeded before. Early portable devices were expensive for the limited functions they offered and had the added disadvantage of short battery life. The arrival of broadband brought speed to the portable Web device, increasing its usefulness and appealing to consumers looking for a fast, easy way to access information or communicate away from home or the office [source: CBC News].

But some problems remain, software compatibility among them. Portable devices of all sorts run simplified versions of software because of their size and screen limitations. As you go from the office to the road, how compatible is the software you use every day on your PC with the version on your portable Internet device? And if your portable device uses software from another company, how compatible is that with your PC?

Power limitations also may still be a deterrent to getting a portable Internet device. With most devices offering three or fewer hours of battery power, a portable device may not have the juice to keep pace with you during a full-day meeting or cross-country trip.

Duplication of existing technology comes into play in comparing portable Internet devices to smartphones or laptops. If you can use your phone for IMing, e-mails, file transfers and Web surfing, for example, do you need a portable Internet device to duplicate those functions?

Even with broadband connections, portable Internet devices may lack the speed of a PC or laptop in downloading large documents or performing other Web functions. Speed remains an issue with these portable devices.

Deciding whether to buy a portable Internet device may simply come down to whether you want to carry around another device. If you're carrying a BlackBerry or iPhone, and a laptop, that may be enough. But if portable Internet devices can provide the same functions as these other devices at a reasonable cost and with adequate power, maybe portable Web devices will become replacements, not extra baggage.

For lots more information about portable Internet devices and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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