This Shrunken PC Takes Tiny Too Far

The OQO's screen is hard to read, and its keys hard to hit

Model 01 from OQO in San Francisco is a technological marvel. The device, which OQO (oh-cue-oh) calls an "ultra personal computer," is a full-fledged Windows XP computer, complete with display and keyboard, in a 14-oz. package small enough to slip into a pocket. The big question once you get past your first impression is just how you would use it.

You might think such a shrunken PC could have broad appeal, given the deficiencies of current handhelds. Microsoft (MSFT ) Pocket PCs, such as the Hewlett-Packard (HP ) iPAQs, are the most capable standard handhelds around, but they still fall far short of the full Windows experience. For example, they can run only software written for the Pocket PC; their e-mail, calendar, and contact programs are underpowered compared with Outlook; the Pocket Word and Pocket Excel programs mangle any documents that were originally formatted on the desktop; and there's no version of PowerPoint.

Shrinking the whole Windows PC down in size, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be a good alternative. OQO has cleverly crammed Windows into a 5-in.-by-3 1/2-in. box just under an inch thick, with the display nearly filling the top. The text is a bit hard to read for those of us with aging eyes, but the 800-pixel-wide screen can display a standard Web page without horizontal scrolling. The display slides forward to reveal a keyboard, which is designed to be worked with two thumbs like the smaller keyboards on the BlackBerry and Treo. A pointing stick on the left moves the cursor, and two buttons on the same side simulate the left and right mouse buttons. You can also control the display with an electronic stylus, similar to those used in Tablet PCs. Like other thumb keyboards, the OQO's is adequate if not great, but I found the small size of screen objects made it tricky to position the cursor precisely with either the pointing stick or the stylus.

THE BOTTOM LINE IS THAT SIZE MATTERS, and smaller is not always better. Windows XP was designed for a display measuring at least 10 in. diagonally -- a screen nearly six times the area of the OQO's. It turns out Microsoft has a good reason not to cram the full functionality of Outlook into a Pocket PC: It is hard to use Outlook's multipane layout on a screen that small -- and the same goes for most other applications not specifically designed for small displays.

The computer's tiny screen also means there is little room for external connections. One USB port and one FireWire port plus Bluetooth short-range wireless are it. For any other connections, including an external monitor or a wired network, you use a stiff, four-foot "docking cable" that has various connectors strung along its length. A more conventional docking cradle would have been nice.

Even battery life was disappointing. The small screen requires less juice, but the battery is smaller. So in power needs, the OQO is not much different from a laptop. Despite an ultra-low-power Transmeta Crusoe (TMTA ) processor, the OQO runs barely two hours on a charge, requiring a couple of $99 spares. The bill of materials is also much like that of a normal laptop, with a premium for miniaturization. The result is a price starting at $1,899, with a 20-gigabyte hard drive and 256 megabytes of memory.

I think the combination of technical shortcomings and high price will limit the OQO's appeal to those who really need to run regular Windows programs on a tiny device. And even for that group, the OQO isn't the only alternative. Antelope Technologies puts the guts of a PC into a Modular Computing Core a bit smaller than the OQO that can be plugged into a variety of display configurations. And Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan is developing the FlipStart, which is just a bit larger than the OQO, with a more conventional clamshell design. Maybe they all see something I don't, but these tiny PCs smack of technology for its own sake. They may not serve a true market need.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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