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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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  • Linux? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JimXugle (921609) <Jim AT xugle DOT com> on Monday March 26, 2007 @01:18AM (#18484513)
    Anyone know if the FLipstart can/will be able to run linux?
  • by Eq 7-2521 (159354) on Monday March 26, 2007 @01:30AM (#18484591)
    The Fly Pentop Computer! http://www.flypentop.com/ [flypentop.com]
  • Sticky qualifiers! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by vjouppi (621333) on Monday March 26, 2007 @01:34AM (#18484617)
    Argh! Even the OQO 01 got that one.. The qualifier keys are all sticky.

    Press once, the LED next to the key starts blinking. Now the key is sticky for one keypress..
    If you press the qualifier twice before pressing something else, the LED lights continuously, and the key is now stuck down until you press it a third time.

    Thus ctrl-alt-del means pressing ctrl alt and fn one at a time and then pressing backspace/del at your leisure. No need for acrobatics or super speed on the user's behalf.

    I don't believe that the flipstart guys managed to design a keyboard without sticky qualifiers.. Unless they did and made it so unintuitive that no-one understood that the keys are indeed sticky?
  • by non (130182) on Monday March 26, 2007 @01:44AM (#18484671) Homepage Journal
    this [sonystyle.com] is something i would consider buying, except that unless someone else is picking up the tab its somewhat overpriced. nevertheless, if what you want is extreme portablity with all the functionality of a 'real' computer, this is the ticket
  • by jhoger (519683) on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:15AM (#18484835) Homepage
    I would concur with that... the keyboard+display is the data entry interface. It must be large enough to type on, and the display must be large enough to see 85 columns of text. Anything without a decent keyboard is not a general purpose computer. That's ok for a phone, calculator, music player, but not a computer.

    I think these ultra-portable PCs are off on a wrong track, and they will disappear from the marketplace. Here's what I want:

    a) Doesn't radiate signficant heat
    b) Lasts at least a day on the battery
    c) Built in apps... word processor, spreadsheet
    d) Act as an ebook reader
    e) GUI organized around keyboard access rather than mouse
    f) Laptop style keyboard
    g) Flash memory instead of hard disk
    h) Battery backed RAM, but off of a battery that is independent of the charge cycle of the main battery. That, or the hibernate code needs to be rock solid and fast. Open the lid, and the system is usable, not 15 seconds later.
    i) I don't care if it has a color screen, really. B/W or grayscale would be fine. Even some of the e-ink style displays would be ok for office apps.
    j) Obviously, USB, flash drive ports, ethernet would be nice.
    k) Doesn't need a pointing device. Just needs a good keyboard. Trackpads and pointers suck, and mice don't work when you're balancing a laptop on your lap on the train or a cramped space.
    l) Integrated applications. No Load/Save file paradigm.

    The closest thing on the horizon is OLPC. But I'm not convinced they're going to get the battery life, and they're target market means that they are making a smaller keyboard and targeting users who may not be able to read yet. That said, the GUI shows lots of good ideas.
  • by istartedi (132515) on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:25AM (#18484889) Journal

    Why not just provide standard keyboard and screen interfaces for the thing. Then, the PC can be very small, and users can purchase a case that meets their needs. OK, I guess you do have to answer the question in some sense: The PC is too small when it doesn't have room for the following standard connectors: Video, Network, USB some kind of power.

    OK, we might be missing a standard for the laptop-style LCD screens. I know there's LVDS, but AFAIK all the manufactureres have proprietary connectors (but correct me if I'm wrong).

    The other day, as I was fiddling with my MP3 player, I realized that many such specialized devices could easily fit in a laptop case. If everything inside there ran over 10gigE, would it perform OK? Do we really need DMA and all that just to push pixels to the screen? If we don't, then the display server can just service clients. The clients can be on this little private network inside the box. All the interconects would just be client-server interactions. Moore's law will make this practical at some point... Imagine a Beowulf cluster--inside your laptop or PDA case.

  • by Tsagadai (922574) on Monday March 26, 2007 @02:39AM (#18484971) Journal
    You know there are solutions to keyboards, many are however immature but that shouldn't be a reason to halt a design in the small direction. What about voice imput, or slide keyboards, or muscle sensors, or Brain wave readers, or even nerve signal decoders. As soon as you put a limit on anything it limits what solutions could be. Personally I'm waiting for voice recognition software to improve so I could run a headless and inputless wearable PC, speak to it, it speaks back. If you don't think about what is possible you will always be one step behind.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:10AM (#18485093)
    first the size:
    height: 20 cm
    width:13 cm
    "fat": 4cm
    weight: ~700 grams.

    now the novelty: mostly the keyboard is below the screen
    and needs to be a useable size.
    the problem is that the backside of the device is never used.
    okay, imagine picking up a book with approx. size above.
    now hold it so as you would give it to somebody with both hands,
    like giving a japanese perosn a business card. your finger touch
    the backside, while your thumbs are in the front.
    now the keyboard is in the back of the "book". this is where
    the keybaord is. of course it wouldNT be a 08/15 "ASDF" keyboard,
    because the "book" is higher then wide ...
    you might ask, but this way you need to flip the "book"
    over to see which key u want to press.
    here's the clue: once you touch the screen (which is the complete
    front side of the "book"), e.g. to enter data. the window become semi
    transparent, and you can like "see thru" the "book" to see the
    keyboard on the back. of course this is just "simulation", you can't
    really make the "book" transparent.
    the desktop wallpaper becomes a "keybaord" correspoding to the
    real keyboard on the back
    catch my drift? :D

    by the way my guess is with those size specs, you can fit
    and nice harddisk, a flashy CPU -AND- a gamers GPU into it.
    scrap the harddisk and you can make it even lighter -or- you can then add
    a bigger battery. there should be tons of space for
    connectors too (ether,USB,mic,head,fire,etc.)
      =)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:18AM (#18485129)
    This thing (N800) is an update to the older Nokia 770. It's a wonderful little gizmo - it runs an ARM port of a Debian variant, so lots of SW is getting ported. It's powerful enough to feel like a "real" computer, although it still has the standard PDA input limitations unless you spring for a bluetooth keyboard.

    It has included opera (800 px wide screen so you can actually view most web pages without horizontal scrolling, unlike all the 320x200 PDAs). You can ssh into it and use VNC and run opera and gnumeric and lots of Linux software.

    The included mp3 player software sucks, but there are already better alternatives provided by the community. Battery life is quite good compared to my old Ipaq - 8+ hrs of active web browsing on low backlight (maybe 2-3 on high), and ~8 days of standby time without turning it off.

    Disclaimer: I have no association with Nokia. I just like the device.
  • by suv4x4 (956391) on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:26AM (#18485159)
    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):

    How is it a Windows issue? Is Windows the only piece of software out there to use multi-key combos?
    Also you can open the task manager without any keyboard keys at all (right-click on the task back, pick Task Manager.. now I suppose they have some way to right-click on this device).

    That said the ctrlaltdel button solution seems stupid. I'd rather implement a "combinator" button: a button that accumulates the keys pressed while it's down, and fires the signals at once when release.

    Example of usage:

    1. Hold the combinator button with the left hand.
    2. With the right hand tap in succession, one by one: ctrl, alt, del.
    3. Release the combinator button.

  • Re:Wrong tree (Score:3, Interesting)

    by suv4x4 (956391) on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:31AM (#18485183)
    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.

    That's one reason to believe portable computers (as in really portable, PDA and down) will never develop to the point where they are used for apps requiring complex input.

    But we may see the development of tiny pearl-sized computer you can "anchor" in any host monitor/keyboard and work with your personal data everywhere.

    And around year 2080, I suppose, we'll be able to drop it into a hole in the back of our skull and make it work with our brain directly. :P

  • by iion_tichy (643234) on Monday March 26, 2007 @03:54AM (#18485269)
    ...you have to include an extra key labeled "CtrlAltDel" with your product.

    Wasn't there a famous column in the MAD magazine?

    Seriously, this is so incredibly, incredibly bad, it is beyond words.
  • Re:Linux? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pe1chl (90186) on Monday March 26, 2007 @04:27AM (#18485429)
    XP is "fat-ass" and needs as much + more resources as Linux does.

    This simply isn't true. A system used to run Linux with X, a desktop and some typical end-user applications (say Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice) requires more resources than an XP system with IE, OutlookExpress, Office.
    Linux advocates like to claim the contrary but they base their claims on old information, limited environments (embedded sytems, limited GUI, crippled apps).
  • by iangoldby (552781) on Monday March 26, 2007 @07:58AM (#18486367) Homepage

    the smallest computer is only limited by the size of the keyboard
    I agree (although it's nice to have a decent-sized screen too).

    But I would have thought that this might finally provide the impetus for alternative keyboards. I can imagine a handheld PC with sculpted handgrips containing switches for a chord keyboard. After the initial effort of learning a new type of keyboard, data entry could be nearly as fast with a full-sized qwerty keyboard. And there would be no danger of dropping the PC while reaching for awkward keystrokes.

    Would people go for this sort of thing? Of course many would be put off by the initial effort of learning the key combinations. The problem with this kind of keyboard is you really have to learn it. You can't 'hunt and peck'. But I think that anyone seriously interested in a miniature PC might just bite.
  • by hey! (33014) on Monday March 26, 2007 @09:16AM (#18486921) Homepage Journal
    CTL-ALT-DELETE is a Windows issue, but it is symptomatic of a bigger issue: interfaces need to change with the form factor.

    When I started writing PDA interfaces, I simply shrunk down what I'd been doing on desktops, with a few tweaks. Most PDA apps appear to be designed this way.

    After a few years, I realized that while you could create a workable interface this way, it wasn't natural. On a desktop, text entry is easy (you have a keyboard) and navigation is hard (you have to take your hands off the keyboard), so you use your copious screen space to put a lot of data up at one time. On a pure PDA navigation is the easiest operation because you have your stylus in hand. The popularity of PDAs with keyboard (e.g., smart phones) is in part due to unimaginative user interfaces; even so it is easier to navigate with the stylus than enter text via any method other than a full sized keyboard.

    My recent UI designs tend to eschew things like forms and combo boxes, instead giving over the entire screen to enter one piece of information, perhaps with a generously sized scrolling list of choices, or a big fat calculator interface for entering number values. Backward forward and upward navigation is available through consistently placed on screen buttons. Navigating to a data data entry "form" automatically puts the focus in the right place, since there is only one right place for it to go. This means the number of taps to enter a sequence of data items is the same as if you had a multi-element form. There are other tricks you need to make this work, but the result is that with careful design data entry in the most common cases can be made much faster than on a shrunk down desktop interface, with the uncommon cases being about the same.

    It is likely that every style and size of mobile device has unique characteristics that change the optimal interface on that device. I can see this even on laptops; some programs really are pain to use on laptops because they are designed around the assumption that most people have 19" screens or larger. One program I sometimes have to use at work uses a proliferation of nested split panes. On a 25" screen, you'd set up all the information you need in a bunch of boxes and keep it that way. Any time you need a piece of information, it'd be like picking out Florida on a map of the US; you look where it was last time. On a 15" screen the same interface doesn't work at all. There isn't enough room, so you collapse nearly everything into a (recursive) nest of vertical and horizontal lines, then pick through them when you need hidden information.
  • by IANAAC (692242) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:46AM (#18487815)
    I had and loved a Zaurus C3000 until it was recently stolen. I used it for all sorts of things it was never inteded to do, thanks to the rather large developer community that sprang up around the device.

    I decided against purchasing another though. Instead, I went with a Nokia N800 and bluetooth keyboard. I'm just as happy as I was with the Zaurus, and in some cases happier. The screen is much larger, built-in bluetooth and WiFi, two SD slots that can now handle 4gig each out of the box, and truthfully, I never did much like the thumb keyboard on the Zaurus (but it was probably the most usable of all the thumb boards out there). I ended up carrying around a USB keyboard to use with the Zaurus.

    If I had one complaint about the N800, it's the applications. It takes a while to hunt down all the repositories to find everything you want, but it's doable. I think that's now changing, as more developers appear and maemo.org is becoming the central place to go for apps. Granted, the N800 is marketed as an "Internet Tablet" and is really pretty good at that, but like the Zaurus, I'm pushing it to do things it wasn't intended to. I'm thankful there are enough developers out there to provide the apps people want. And Nokia seems rather open to the developers, unlike Sharp, who did nothing but alienate the developers.

  • How do you login without using ctrl-alt-del? How about unlocking a locked XP session?

    I run my finger over the fingerprint scanner just below the trackpad on my compaq.

    Next question? :)

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