The task of kick-starting the UMPC generation has inadvertently fallen to the Samsung Q1 Ultra. After a flurry of Vista-powered UMPCs from leading manufacturers including Sony, Asus and Nokia, the world has been waiting for that one device that sweeps away laptops and offers tremendous lightweight portable power at the right price. The Q1 goes close but fails to address some serious faults of this fledgling form factor.
Samsung could have easily ditched its answer to the chronic shortage of worthwhile UMPCs after the lukewarm reception of its Q1 last year, but, in sticking to its guns, Samsung has produced a much improved device just 12 months later, solving some inherent problems and creating others.
It's hard to see how UMPCs will become as easy to use as their larger laptop siblings, but the Q1 is the first major release to step away from the slide-open convention that has so far defined the UMPC, and it's a welcome change.
At first the Q1 Ultra's split keypad, dividing a Qwerty keyboard between the left and right-hand sides of the 7in screen, seems too much like a games console and totally unsuited to the business laptop-esque life of a UMPC.
However, it does allow the Q1 to be held comfortably for a reasonable length of time and is very convenient for using the tidy joystick and dial keys located beneath each section of the Qwerty keys. At nearly an inch thick, it's shown up by many of today's low-end laptops, but if it were thinner, it would certainly feel flimsy rather than sturdy and get much hotter than it actually does.
Quite rightly, the screen dominates the Q1's surface, and, at 1024 x 600, the display makes Vista shine in all its superficial glory. Its clarity, coupled with the ability to switch to portrait mode, makes web browsing pleasurable while video playback is also impressive. Surface reflection is not bad at all - given the screen's generally glossy nature.
The mouse key isn't as flexible as we would like but the lockable dial key (useful for scrolling) is a neat addition. What is less impressive is the stylus, which at times proved unresponsive, slightly off-centre and quite irritating to get commands entered into Windows programs. Compared to Sony's UX1, the Q1 has a second-class touchscreen and for nearly £800 we would expect much better.
In going back to design basics by dispensing with the idea of a slide-out keyboard and interface, the Q1 solves one UMPC difficulty: how not to make it look like an oversized mobile phone, and, by keeping the unit together at all times, the Q1 really is something that's instantly accessible.
Long periods of typing on such small keys does become tiresome, but nearly every keyboard layout of any UMPC on the market sadly suffers from the same affliction.
In general, the build of the Q1 has a lot going for it. At 0.7kg it's light, but given its size perhaps not as light as it should be. The real problems occur in the hardware, particularly the underpowered 800MHz Intel A110 processor.
If XP was the OS, the Q1 might have sailed through general use, but the resource-hungry Vista on a 4200rpm drive saps the Q1 dry, even with the recommended 1GB of RAM. Its battery life is pretty reasonable at three and a half hours and the six-cell add-on battery doesn't protrude from the device too much and gives up to six hours.
At first glance, what the Q1 lacks in pace it makes up for in features. We were impressed by just how much Samsung has packed onto the device without cluttering the display. At all angles the Q1 looks the business, and with an array of features including 1.3 megapixel camera, USB, card reader and status LEDs all on the front panel and to the sides, essential laptop features seem to have been successfully transferred to this micro unit.
The 1.3 megapixel still camera on the front is also complemented by a 0.3 megapixel webcam on the back of the unit, yet these are all let down with the bare-bones applications shipped with the product.
If the UMPC is to surpass the laptop, indeed survive at all, it needs a real power boost with Vista as the default OS. The Q1 Ultra is a big improvement over the original Q1, with a much brighter screen and sleek look, but for the money the Q1 is easily eclipsed by speedy 12in laptops that are both lightweight and keep their charge for the working day. Still, we look forward to a third incarnation of Samsung's UMPC.