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Handhelds Hardware

How Small a PC Is Too Small? 324

Posted by kdawson
from the elven-fingers dept.
Banner~! recommends an article in IBTimes on the search for the ideal size for an ultraportable computer. One device mentioned is Paul Allen's FlipStart, discussed here recently. After watching early users fumble and nearly drop an early version of the FlipStart while trying to perform a three-finger salute, designers ended up including a single key labeled "CtrlAltDel" in the version that will be shipping soon. From the article: "Each device maker... has a different sense of how small an ultra-mobile can get before it becomes impossible to use. For instance, Microsoft thinks the tiniest screen possible measures 7 inches diagonally, but FlipStart Labs settled on 5.6 inches."
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How Small a PC Is Too Small?

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  • While there are many UI design problems with Small Form Factor computers (particularly general purpose input), the issues in the article appear to be with Microsoft products, not Small FF PCs in general. From TFA:

    Watching users fumble and nearly drop an early version of the FlipStart compact PC...The culprit was the three-key sequence, Control-Alt-Delete, required to log off or reboot a Windows PC.
    Well, that's a windows issue, not a PC issue. The solution? (You can tell FlipStart is a project from one of the founders' of Microsoft):

    early adopters might get a kick out of FlipStart's solution: a dedicated key marked "Ctrl Alt Del."
    Brilliant. Utterly Brilliant. This is similar to having a problem with your kitchen floor being wet due to a leaking roof & building a floor-mopping robot as a solution.
  • by Jekler (626699) on Monday March 26, 2007 @01:32AM (#18484607)
    For me, the smallest computer is only limited by the size of the keyboard. At a minimum, I need a notebook-sized keyboard, at least until the point computers can take dictation. I even thought notebook keyboards were too small in the past but I was able to adjust, but any smaller and I won't be able to. I've tried to use those thumb-type keyboards and I just can't communicate comfortably with them.
  • by A Wise Guy (1006169) on Monday March 26, 2007 @01:36AM (#18484631)
    The zaurus is now discontinued. I own a C-3200 which uses various rom images such as cacko rom, pdaxrom. It emulates all kinds of environments and runs under linux. You can run aplications or X environments and even run debian on it. Open office is available too! It all fits in my pocket and has a touch screen for easy note taking. Anyway, I been doing this for the past 4-5 years. and these new ultra small pc's can't touch the heal of this small discontinued device.
  • by artifex2004 (766107) on Monday March 26, 2007 @01:44AM (#18484665) Journal
    That's too big an OS. Or at least too big an interface.

    This should be obvious. Does it really make sense to load a huge OS like Windows, with all its carryover behaviors for backwards compatibility, for something that really should have its own methodology?
  • Too Small How? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LuYu (519260) on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:04AM (#18484783) Homepage Journal

    Is this talking about the size of the keyboard (which it sounds like), the size of the screen, or the size of the whole device?

    It is obvious that keyboards/pads have a minimum size. Fingers limit that. Also, if the keys are too close together, typing is slowed because more than one key is frequently depressed.

    The screen is also limited in its smallness by what is comfortable. I use my phone to read books, but I have heard many people claim (who havent tried it, of course) that the screens on phones are too small to read on. In my experience, screen size is not important as the size of the individual letters (or characters) in the text is what is important. Since my current phone allows me to blow the text up to a size that is larger than the typeface on most children's books, I cannot see the problem.

    The limitations on the device size probably depend on what it is used for. If it is a phone, it needs to be large enough to be comfortably held for a long phone conversation. Phones that are too small are irritating and easily misplaced. If the device is a PDA, the screen is probably the limiting factor. It should be about the size of a screen and not much thicker. Ideally, this screen should be a size that would fit in your pocket, something that "Pocket"PC's generally do wrong.

    If the device were something like a portable computer, with perhaps a bluetooth or WiFi keyboard and screen, there is probably no limit on its smallness. Why not make a USBkey style computer and keep it on your keyring? At 4+GB, such devices can already contain a decent suite of software. Removing hardware links to the device itself would free it from size restrictions. Theoretically, such a device could also be booted from any computer as its hard drive (Knoppix style), so you could take your computer anywhere.

  • Re:Not time yet (Score:5, Insightful)

    by statemachine (840641) on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:09AM (#18484805)
    You're not having a problem with resolution. It has nothing to do with 1200x800 or any other screen resolution. Instead, you're having trouble reading the text because the font size is too small.
  • Wrong tree (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tom (822) on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:11AM (#18484811) Homepage Journal
    The size of the actual computer is of absolutely no importance whatsoever. What matters is the size of the input and output components. These are the interfaces to humans and must exist on a human size scale, i.e. large enough to handle.
    So as long as you need a keyboard, the keys must be large enough to press, and the entire keyboard must be large enough to comfortably hold. But if you think virtual keyboards, i.e. one projected into the air, on a HUD, or on a table (the later exists as a Palm Pilot accessory), then the size of the actual hardware again is irrelevant, the size of the virtual "keys" is what matters.
  • Re:Not time yet (Score:3, Insightful)

    by javakah (932230) on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:22AM (#18484879)
    No, that's not the problem. My point is that the amount of data on the screen with a 10-12 point font at 1200x800 resolution is just about right. Any larger font (or reduced resolution) would result in too little data on the screen (as in lines of text viewable at a single time). The issue then is the smallest screen that this amount of data is still reasonably viewable at.
  • 11.87" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kris_J (10111) * on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:23AM (#18484881) Journal
    Let's do the math. A pixel count of 1024 across and 600 down is about the minimum you need for there to be any point in the computer running a full version of Windows. Above 100dpi and you're going to need to increase the default font sizes (which means its fairly pointless to go any higher). End result: 11.87 inches on the diagonal is about the minimum for anything serious. Below that you're going to need better than average eyesight or you're going to be scrolling sideways all the time.
  • by bm_luethke (253362) <luethkeb@comcasL ... t minus math_god> on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:31AM (#18484923)
    There is no realistic way that a PC can be too small. As long as it so small it is easily lost it is just fine - I would *love* one that could hang on my key chain.

    What *can* be too small is the interface. I do not like a tiny screen nor do I like a tiny keyboard (or other input device). I have quite large hands, even the smaller "full size" keyboards are uncomfortable and only useful as a portable device, not my main one.

    I have seen keyboard solutions that are OK - some project a keyboard on a flat surface and optically(? I do not think the descriptions said and I have never used one and that seems about the only feasible way) sense where you fingers hit. Other than some RSI problems with my finger hitting a hard surface (and that is fixable for a permanent station) that can be made to be any size or layout.

    I also prefer small text, but I prefer that on a larger screen. I am currently using a 15" LCD and that is about as small as I comfortably go. I do not like writing much code in it either, my 21" monitor went kaput and this is all I could currently get. A 17" screen is the smallest "normal" lcd I like and I prefer a 19". I know of no current technology to fix this one, but there is no reason it can not be fixed.

    Of course, that is for what I would call everyday use. If your computing power is in a small package there is no reason you can not have a docking station for full size stuff and quite small for carry around. I *can* hit some very small keys with a stylus and use a very small screen (lets face it, many of us currently do - or did - with the palm tops). That is nice for something I pull out of my pocket and use for a few minutes. Add in a few larger keys to mash and I can even game, navigate for MP3's, use a cell phone, add something to a calendar, or other typical small device things with large easy to use buttons. At that point I would consider the size my finger can reliably hit and the number of buttons to be the limit (small could use a stylus, but I do not like that idea for simple frequently used functions).
  • by Torvaun (1040898) on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:42AM (#18484993)
    If I remember my computing history, Ctrl-Alt-Del was picked because that was a keystroke combination that would never be accidentally pressed. There was nothing even close to it that did anything. The whole point was to be intentional.

    Now they want to put it on a single button, surrounded by other tiny buttons? Someone had a real winner of an idea there...
  • by mh101 (620659) on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:02AM (#18485059)

    It's only a hotkey to open the task manager.

    How do you login without using ctrl-alt-del? How about unlocking a locked XP session? Face it, this abomination of UI silliness is still neccessary all the time if you're unlucky enough to use windows.

    Maybe the control-alt-delete issue is fixed in Vista, but frankly it's one of the things that makes Windows not really ready for the desktop.
    And the funny (or sad?) thing is that this is only "necessary" in Windows because of all the crap that Windows can get infected with. Neither Linux nor OSX needed to implement the ctrl-alt-del scheme.

    My understanding of the reason for using crtl-alt-delete to log in, is because that specific keystroke got passed directly to Windows which then could make sure the official login program was running and accepting all input (or something along those lines). I think the deal is that otherwise, there's a chance that what users are seeing is not Windows' real login screen but a fake designed to steal passwords.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:13AM (#18485105)
    Ctrl Alt Del is used only if Windows is in a domain or a specific security feature is enabled.

    Ctrl Alt Del is not hookable by applications (not even by drivers unless they go as far as to patch the kernel..) so you cannot steal a user password simply displaying a logon screen on their desktop (when they press C-a-d and it's not the real logon screen, a different window pops up and a savvy user knows something is wrong.

    C-a-d was chosen basically because its behavior is different from any other key combination at the keyboard controller level.

  • by Benzido (959767) on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:37AM (#18485205)
    Modern windows doesn't suffer from accidental login problems.

    I think the grandparent's point was that it would be much better to deliver a patch so that Flipstart's windows installation allows you to login or bring up the task manager using a DIFFERENT KEYSTROKE.

    Given the premium on space in an ultra-micro computer, adding a whole new non-standard button is the worst possible solution, when it would not be that hard to remap the hotkey in the keyboard driver.
  • by Kris_J (10111) * on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:37AM (#18485207) Journal
    You really only run Windows for compatibility with your preferred applications. If you don't want to run any Windows apps, don't try and shoe-horn Windows onto a portal computer. That said, Windows itself can cope easily with 640x480 and no mouse. However, most applications need at least 800x600, with many needing at least 1024 pixels across.

    Personally, I like to run at 3840x1024 or 3072x768 on a desktop. This is nothing to do with Windows and everything to do with the complexity of what I do with Windows.
  • Re:Wrong tree (Score:4, Insightful)

    by badboy_tw2002 (524611) on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:54AM (#18485273)
    I agree. I think we're just a decade or so off from the whole "wearable" computer thing being commonplace. Maybe small finger sensors for replicating a virtual keyboard & mouse, and slim formfactor glasses for displaying a virtual screen. I'd say the input tech is here already, and the glasses will probably come around a bit slower. Then the actual CPU can really go pocket sized and smaller. If all you need is the processor (everything else is wireless except maybe a cable for charging), you're only limited by the amount of space the electronics themselves need. And if you think it won't happen because people won't like wearing headsets and the like, just take a look at how fast the borg-like cell headpiece has become a common fashion accessory. Goggles that double as shades or the like aren't that big a stretch.
  • by grumbel (592662) <grumbel@gmx.de> on Monday March 26, 2007 @04:37AM (#18485479) Homepage
    For me the biggest issue is the price, not the size. A Flipstart costs $2000, a UMPC would cost me around $1000 and a Sony VAIO is in the $1000-$2000 range, tablet PCs are also around $2000, while a normal full size PC is just something around $500. Those prices are just plain wrong. A handheld should cost less then a full size PC not two or four times as much.

    OLPC seems to get it right, the small laptop costs $150, make that $250 if it ever hits retail and its still a good price, I can also get PSP for $200, not exactly a full featured PC, not at all in fact, but a powerfull handheld at a good price, an for some uses like eBook reading actually quite good.

    I don't need a handheld that can outperform my desktop computer, I don't even need one that gets close, just make it fast enough so that it can run ssh, VNC and friends. If I ever need a full PC, I just log into it remotely, no need to carry all that useless power around with me.

    Handhelds need to be affordable, everything else is really secondary in the end, since at $2000 those things will never sell to the masses, no matter how pretty and small you make them, get them under $500 or under $300 if you really care and you might have something worth to buy.
  • by drsmithy (35869) <drsmithy@@@gmail...com> on Monday March 26, 2007 @05:19AM (#18485675)

    And the funny (or sad?) thing is that this is only "necessary" in Windows because of all the crap that Windows can get infected with. Neither Linux nor OSX needed to implement the ctrl-alt-del scheme.

    No, it's "necessary" in Windows for the same reason it's "necessary" on all platforms. To ensure no other application is masquerading as a login screen.

    My understanding of the reason for using crtl-alt-delete to log in, is because that specific keystroke got passed directly to Windows which then could make sure the official login program was running and accepting all input (or something along those lines).

    It's used because back when NT was first designed, they needed some reasonable key combination to use for the Secure Attention Sequence that was not already being used by some other application. The only one that that was (for obvious reasons, in ~1990 or so) was Ctrl+Alt+Del.

  • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Monday March 26, 2007 @05:33AM (#18485715)
    Comparing XP running some lightweight stuff with Linux running some heavyweight stuff is not a realistic comparison.

    You can run Linux with a lightweight software combo too (eg. http://www.puppylinux.org/ [puppylinux.org]).

  • It's called a PDA (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DrYak (748999) on Monday March 26, 2007 @05:44AM (#18485773) Homepage

    The closest thing on the horizon is OLPC.


    No what you are asking for is a PDA.

    A good Palm paired with one of the good foldable keyboards (to bad that they did'nt produce non-wireless keyboard for newer Athena Connector) - the good ones (Stowaway keyboard for older Palm Universal Connector) have the same area as a regular desktop keyboard.
    has flash / bluetooth / optionnal WiFi.
    some software are sold together with (Browser, Mail client, Documents-to-Go, etc), other can be installed for free (beer/speech) like SSH clients, VNC clients, tons of ebook readers.
    instant on/off (no suspend to disk) with either battery ram (older models) or flash (newer).
    uses database paradigm instead of file load/save (the Palm ones). When it seldom crashes, you just reset and return to the app with the document in the state with which you left it (WinCE crashes more often).
    you just instantly jump around from app to app (Palm tend to be more snappy than WinCE)
    no mouse. use stylus or fingers.
    lower power consumption : battery last enough for the day and can easily be charged from USB (either in craddle or using 220v-to-5vUSB wall socket plugs or 12vCar-to-5vUSB cigarette lighter plugs)

    has many other useful functionnality (GPS hardware and software can be installed. Great console emulators.)

    Have no personnal experience with Linux based PDA, but I except them to be good too.
  • by ciggieposeur (715798) on Monday March 26, 2007 @12:22PM (#18488987)
    Its a feature because it enables better security.

    But does SAK really improve security? I would argue that in practice it is useless. As you pointed out yourself, physical access to the box permits full access to the CPU (though the data on the hard drive might remain encrypted) and if anyone can subvert the machine over the network then they could replace the login program itself with their own version that popped up when the SAK was hit.

    Seems to me that SAK only buys you security if you assume that your OS is not already compromised AND a malicious user with physical access to the box who does not already have Administrator access is running a full-screen application that looks like a login prompt in order to snatch passwords AND they did not already install a hardware keylogger. Times have changed since ~1990, and this use case is very limited to me. The malicious user can just as easily find a local privilege exploit and snarf the entire password database and crack it at their leisure or just run an application that looks and behaves like Explorer.exe but records keystrokes.

    Christ, with the standard linux install, I can log in as root without knowing the password if I have console access, just reboot and trigger single user mode during startup. How is that secure?

    It's exactly as secure as any PC with a BIOS that allows booting from removable media. I can circumvent Windows security by booting a custom Linux, resetting the Administrator password, and then booting into Windows.

    I COULD secure a Linux system by:

    1) Enabling a BIOS password.

    2) Allowing only booting off the hard drive.

    3) Using LILO and forcing it to boot the kernel with no prompting for kernel parameters, hence no single-user mode before password.

    This still leaves the ability to open the case and reset the BIOS or replace the hard drive.
  • by Sleepy (4551) on Monday March 26, 2007 @01:15PM (#18489771) Homepage
    I second this opinion.

    Almost 3 years ago I opted for a "converged" phone, a Samsung SCH-i700 PDA phone from Verizon. It was pretty nice, but DAILY use exposed the shortcomings of using a handheld as a phone. Yet there were times that the device was pretty damn convenient, when I needed to Remote Desktop, VNC, or get a "more featured" browser.

    Nokia realized that putting a phone in a PDA is dumb, and they have avoided this mistake in their N series tablets. Until wireless data is universal and cheap, there's no point building the expense of a PHONE into your PDA. There's even less point in using a PDA as a phone.

    Things are better today -- you can get a "normal" phone with data, and bluetooth modem support. Your PDA becomes "agnostic" about who provides the data layer - 802.11, bluetooth, or the US cell phone cartels. It doesn't matter anymore. Now you have real choices.

    The Nokia N800 is the closest thing now to a perfect portable Internet tablet. You don't need to know Linux. It just "works". Developers are finding the device is a DREAM to develop on, combining Linux + GTK to make an open platform for anyone to use and develop on. Desktop Linux apps are being polished and ported over. And applications like 'Maemo Mapper (GPS)' are awesomely free.

    You don't get a lot of free apps with Windows CE platforms... and many of the free apps there suffer from developer disinterest. WinCE software dies when the author becomes too busy with life/etc, while Linux and GPL software has a life all its own.

    Some will complain about the N800's lack of CDMA/G3 data support, but this is GOOD -- really that is what your phone is for. Same thing with the keyboard... buy your OWN bluetooth keyboard if you want one. This was these 2 features do not bulk up the dimensions of the device.

    If you want a "bigger" tablet, the Pepper Pad 3 seems interesting. If you want something that is truly portable, the Nokia N800 is the platform to beat now.

    PS - the media player isn't horrible, but it suffers from limitations like any closed source media player. The media player has GOOD format support... many formats except no OGG support. The free 'Canola' media player offers a MythTV-like interface, touchscreen, and it plays just about anything you throw at it. Video performance on this is VERY good for a handheld.

    Oh yeah, there's a webcamera built in and meeting software. Now we have to wait for Skype and GnomeMeeting so we can ditch the Nokia meeting app... :-)

  • Re:Wrong tree (Score:2, Insightful)

    by shimage (954282) on Monday March 26, 2007 @08:54PM (#18495805)
    They already have keyboards that can be projected onto a flat surface. But they suck because there's no tactile feedback. I don't like having to look at my hands to tell where they are (particularly when I'm in the dark); I wouldn't use a virtual keyboard without some decent haptics, but maybe that's just 'cause I'm old-fashioned. Also, the size of the hardware is relevant for some people, particularly those of us that have a hard time keeping track of our stuff, big as it is.

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