April 16, 2002 9:45 AM PDT

Start-up shrinks PC to palm size

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First there was the pocket calculator. Then there was the pocket organizer. And if start-up Oqo gets its way, the next big thing will be the pocket PC.

The Seattle-based company is showing off a full-fledged "ultra personal" computer this week at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or WinHEC. The computer is slightly thicker but roughly the same size as handhelds currently coming out from Palm or Hewlett-Packard.

The major difference is that the Oqo device, which will come out in the second half of the year for around $1,000, is a complete Windows XP computer. Along with Windows, it will come with a 5800 Crusoe processor from Transmeta, a 10GB hard drive, 256MB of memory, connection ports for FireWire and USB (universal serial bus), and wireless networking connections through either WiFi or Bluetooth.

The screen measures just four inches in diameter, roughly the same size as those on a Palm, but the company will also sell docking stations so that it can be used like a normal desktop or laptop. The device measures 3 inches by 5 inches, is 0.9-inches thick and weighs about half a pound.

"We see this as 'This is your only computer,'" said Colin Hunter, executive vice president of Oqo. "It isn't a PDA (personal digital assistant). With this device you can dock it in and it is your PC."

The hardware market is notoriously harsh on start-ups. Other companies, including a Taiwanese manufacturer called Saint Song, have also tried to promote miniature PCs before. Oqo executives and partners, however, say that current market circumstances have opened opportunities for super-small devices.

The technological foundation to make robust, miniature computers finally exists, for example. The Oqo uses the same tiny hard drive from Toshiba that Apple Computer incorporates into the latest iPod. The company also worked with Micron to ensure that memory could be packed into the device as densely as possible.

A lot of the design work at Oqo, which was founded by engineers who worked on Apple's Titanium PowerBook went toward reducing the size of the power supply and the overall integration of the components, Hunter said.

Another factor at play supporting handhelds is that consumers and corporate America have become acclimated to portability. The explosive growth, until recently, of handheld devices and cell phones established the market for portable devices.

Once the infrastructure for wireless networking is established, ultra-portable PCs will become more popular than PDAs because they can do more, said Dave Ditzel, chief technology officer of Transmeta. Plus, it also gets rid of the data synchronization problem because everything moves to one device.

"You can do full Web browsing with Internet Explorer. You can't do that on a PDA," he said. The Crusoe processor inside the Oqo, he noted, runs at 800MHz and contains 512KB of cache, a data reservoir for quick data access. Current handheld processors max out at 206MHz and have much smaller caches.

The Oqo is actually the first of a wave of computers with nontraditional designs. The device weighs 250 grams, about half a pound, but there are other computers coming out that will weigh 800 grams. PC manufacturers will also begin to show off tablets that can convert into notebooks, Ditzel said.

"This is a smaller form factor than Microsoft envisioned," he said. "There is a trend toward everything getting smaller."

Despite the faster chip, the batteries on the Oqo run about 9.5 hours, Ditzel and Hunter said. Although the Crusoe processor runs on fairly low amounts of energy, the small screen size helps enormously.

Two different docking stations will also be released with the device. One will allow the PC to be used like a desktop. A second will look like a notebook with a 14-inch screen. However, except for an extra battery and a CD or DVD drive, it will be empty. The Oqo will slide into a slot.

In the field, data will be input through a touch screen. The company is also working on a mini-keyboard similar to the one on Reasearch In Motion's BlackBerry handheld.

The first version of the Oqo measures 0.9-inches thick, but thinner versions will follow, Hunter added.

See more CNET content tagged:
OQO, Dave Ditzel, Transmeta Crusoe, Transmeta Corp., WinHEC


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Zaurus killer
If these OQO guys open and document the hardware specs properly, a linux distro will appear overnight. This could then become the *nix geek's choice of portable development boxes -- and the ultra-PDA for people who don't want to contract the Windows Virus Of The Week.
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I have one of these and... What a disappointment!
1) The display setting it comes with is too dim to clearly read. In order to see the screen properly you have to set it at it's brightest and that *really* impacts battery life.

2) There is no Standby button - you have to go to Start - Shutdown etc... which is annoying when you need it off in a hurry.

3) The wifi is absolutely useless - unless you are within 15 feet of a hotspot forget about it. Every single other laptop I have goes at least 50 feet without too much problem. The main reason I wanted this machine was for using at hotspots - but unless you can get right next to one...

4) The tablet-like pen and software is beyond useless - you can only calibrate top left and bottom right for the central area of the screen. You cannot reliably use any of the outlying 8 or so millimeters. What do OQO say? They suggest you resize all your scrollbars to make them big enough. Oh - and you don't get MS tablet software or handwriting recognition or anything - the tablet pen is totally useless in my opinion.

5) The heat output of this device is so much as to be unbearably hot - I mean it you practically burn your fingers. Ouch!

6) The display is messed up. It looks like OQO have taken a Pocket PC-type display and rotated it 90 degrees. This means that the left and right eyes see different levels of brightness and it's very tiring on the eye. Try rotating your laptop screen sideways and you'll see how bad it is.

7) Speaking of which, there is no facility to rotate the screen and use it in portrait mode - which *would* be much more readable. You *can* flip the screen 180 degrees but guess what? The mouse doesn't flip so it goes in all the wrong directions.

8) You *must* use two hands to move the mouse and click. Your right thumb moves the mouse and your left thumb clicks. This makes it impossible to do anything else at all while using it. If I want to show a friend something I can only have them look over my shoulder. The old Toshiba Libretto PCs used to place the mouse buttons *behind* the mouse pad so that the thumb and two fingers of the right hand could operate the mouse. This is *definitely* what OQO should have done.

9) It is impossible to use the OQO in low light. With a laptop enough light comes from the screen to light up the keyboard. The design of the OQO does not allow this. Therefore surfing while watching TV can only be done with a main light on. The keyboard should have had a light built in and used translucent keys.

10) The resolution of the screen really makes it impossible to read most web pages because it is set at an effective 1024 x 768 (well the top half of it anyway) but in such a small unit text size is miniscule. You can improve it a little by installing Microsoft ClearType but the only way I could really use it was to install Mozilla Firefox which *properly* enlarges all browser text at a single key press (MSIE doesn't really do this very well). But... It does make web pages look very weird and not how they were designed. OQO also preset all Windows system fonts to their largest which sort-of helps - but Microsoft don't use these settings for important dialog boxes etc so you still have to squint and bring the unit close to your eyes anyway.

11) There is no built-in speaker - not even an itty bitsy one - you can only plug in headphones.

12) Speaking of headphones... I was hoping to be able to use this device like a wifi Ipod but the wifi is so poor you simply CANNOT stream any audio over this device unless you stand still next to the access point. And with only a 20Gb drive, if you have a lot of music you won't be able to copy much across to the OQO.

13. The Graphic speed of the OQO is appalling. One simple test is to go into Windows Media Player - play an MP3 and try to watch a visualization. You would think you were back on a 286. Or you can place a few photos on the OQO then select the "My Picture Slideshow" screensaver - make sure "Use transition effects between pictures" is enabled. Just watch how pitifully long it takes just to fade between two pictures. I mean it - I was shocked - it's truly flabbergasting that OQO thought this was acceptable.

In summary. OQO market this as a single PC for work, home and travel. It is NOT. It's a slightly interesting toy to travel with (better buy another battery for $150 if you want more than 2 hours though) - but as a home or work PC PLEASE do not be fooled you will be totally disappointed and waste your money - it will be the slowest desktop PC you had since your last 286!

I signed up for and paid for one of the very first of these off the factory line because I was so impressed by it's spec. I have now contacted OQO to return my unit - even though they will charge a 10% restocking fee - at least I'll get 90% of my money back - maybe I'll save it and buy the Vulcan Flipstart instead when it comes out...
Posted by RobinFNixon (1 comment )
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