The Good: Runs Windows XP; very good video quality; 5.5-hour battery life; 30GB of hard disk-drive storage
The Bad: Extremely confusing controls and user manual; lacks a camera or built-in Wi-Fi connectivity
The Bottom Line: The drawbacks outweigh the benefits
My review unit of an ultra-mobile PC from Korean company Raon Digital came with a preloaded copy of the TV show Doctor Who: The Runaway Bride. Watching the Doctor's awkward manipulations of the strange alien controls used to pilot his spaceship, I realized that's exactly how I felt tinkering around with Raon's Vega: confused and out of my depth.
Let me preface this by saying that I'm not an engineer. So when I first saw the $879 Vega, my eyes glazed over. Thick and bulky (it measures 6.3 in. by 3.1 in. by 1.1 in.), with buttons everywhere, the device reminded me of transistor radios of years past. In other words, it looked complicated.
The various buttons on the left and right of the device's 4.3-in. liquid-crystal display touch screen seemed to be marked with alien symbols and numbers. Intuitive these controls were not. Honestly, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised if, by pressing a button, I got suddenly transported into the world of Doctor Who.
This impression deepened as I learned to use the device. With other ultra-mobile PCs, you can call up a touch-screen keyboard by pressing a button with a keyboard icon on it. With this one, I had to hold down a button with a weird square, with a highlighted corner on it, and then press another button sporting the number 8 and a couple of mysterious signs (one looked like a lotus flower lying on its side) on the other side of the touch screen.
To figure out the various commands, I dug into the Vega user's manual. Unfortunately, it wasn't very helpful. I felt as if I were taking a programming class (shudder). Sample language from the manual: "Run a program to process character input." Translation: Start your word processor.
So, O.K., maybe this device isn't for me. But is it for the most technically astute? I doubt it. Sure, the Vega sports some cool features. It can hook up to an external monitor. It brags 30GB of memory, so you can watch movies on it. (By the way, the video quality was amazingly good. Watching Doctor Who on the Vega's small screen was enjoyable.) The gadget has outlets for an additional, external microphone and a headphone, two USB host ports, and a USB device port.
But unlike nearly every other ultra-mobile PC I've seen, the Vega lacks a camera. Considering that ultra-mobile PCs are supposed to be used for communication—via voice and video—that's a huge hole in the device's capabilities. You might also balk at the fact that the device comes with a Wi-Fi USB key you have to insert to browse the Web at hot spots. That's so two years ago. Nowadays, nearly every portable PC out there comes with Wi-Fi connectivity features already built in.
Long May It Run
I also thought the device's software wasn't well adapted for use on an ultra-mobile PC. Menus on Windows XP looked so tiny, I had to squint at the screen (and yes, I know I can adjust the fonts, but you can only adjust them so much). I also wished Raon had offered more applications specifically tailored to an ultra-mobile PC. What I would have liked to find was an RSS-feed management program like that offered by Nokia's portable tablets (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/31/07, "Nokia's New and Novel N800"). Or more Web-calling features.
That said, some of the device's capabilities are impressive. The gadget runs on an AMD Geode LX800 500-megahertz processor. That chip is good at power saving. Indeed, the Vega's battery is supposed to last for up to 5.5 hours—several hours longer than some other ultra-mobile PCs' battery time (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/7/07, "The Able TableKiosk eo i7210"). Better yet, Raon offers a spare battery you can buy separately. The alternative battery cuts the device's weight from 1.06 pounds to 0.77 pounds and can come in handy when you're traveling.
And despite having to squint, I liked that the device runs Windows XP and offers familiar applications such as Outlook Express 6. Most ultra-mobile PCs out there use open-source software, which means you have to learn all the applications they offer from scratch. Finally, at $879 from exclusive U.S. distributor Dynamism.com, the device is cheaper than a lot of other full-featured, ultra-mobile PCs. For me, though, that didn't make up for its many faults.