Didn’t expect that… What a surprise: Intel and a few hardware partners are betting on a hildonized Linux-UI for a new class of consumer devices very similar to Nokia’s Internet Tablet. Check out UMPCPortal’s coverage of the news from IDF. The first batch of these devices is slated for summer 2007, but they claim that even smaller devices will be possible with their new chipset in early 2008.

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A PSP-sized x86 UMPC prototype, scheduled for 2008. Image via Golem.de.

It’s nice to watch feature-films on the N800 while on the bus and subway; usually, I record them from TV using vdr and transcode them using 770-encode (with slightly higher bitrates, since the N800 can handle higher quality settings than the 770 could).

Problem is that other commuters on the subway notice that you are watching a film, especially if the player screen is as big as the N800. They’ll try to catch a glimpse of it.

Recently I recored John Carpenter’s Vampires from German TV and transcoded it for the N800 to watch it later. Didn’t know much about the film. Expecting a tongue-in-cheek B-movie, it turned out to feel uneasy to be on the subway, watching a film about a group of professional vampire hunters on a gory killing spree, using a bitten prostitute to lure the vampire master…

Never thought of that situation before.

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The media player for the N800 works nice, but it needs a bit of polish, though. It doesn’t save the position to continue watching a film later, playback can get jerky or freezes, the player sometimes turns unresponsive for unknown reasons. And once again: Please, Nokia, with the next hardware revision, please make 800×480@30fps playback possible. That’d be wonderful!

An interesting article on LWN about the “WONTFIX. No fixes to N770 anymore.” dispute and Nokia’s closed / open source dilemma:

Two examples of abandoned hardware (subscription required, non-subscribers have to wait a week.)

“It’s tempting to say that, since the 770 is a Linux-based device, the community should be able to support it into the future. As long as people care about the platform, it should continue to work. The problem is that the 770 contains a fair amount of non-free software at all levels. [..]”

“That will severely limit the degree to which the community can support the platform; it’s a slow death sentence for the 770 tablet. [..]”

“There are hints that more components will be opened in the future as well, but no promises. The end result is that the 770 will, for many users, hit the end of its useful life much sooner than it should have, and that the N800, while hopefully lasting longer, may well encounter similar issues. This state of affairs is unfortunate, it makes a nice piece of hardware less valuable than it really should be.”

It’s a chicken and egg problem, though. Developers and users claim that they would like to work on the 770 sources to extend the hardware’s usefulness beyond Nokia’s support.

But do they? Nokia counters that even those driver sources they did release haven’t found much response from outside developers.

In the meantime, users enjoy insulting Ari Jaaksi in his blog because of this issue. Yeah, I’m sure that will help the community making friends at Nokia…

The Arima UMPC, also known as the Medion RIM 1000 UMPC or the Gigabyte U60, was on display at a Microsoft booth on CeBIT. The device sports a slide-out keyboard. I was a bit disappointed, as the keyboard was uncomfortable and the device feels like it was made from cheap material. The Medion UMPC appeared to be a great device when it was announced, seing the actual product was unimpressing.

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They made the mistake of showing the Medion right next to a Sony UX, which is smaller, is built with higher quality materials and comes with a better keyboard. Oh, and it’s more than twice the price of the Arima, of course. But in direct comparison, it was far more impressive and it became obvious why it is worth its price compared to the Arima.

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The Arima seems to be having issues with Windows Vista. Within minutes of using some standard applications, it crashed. According to UMPCPortal, these problems appear to be the reason why the launch of the device has been postponed several times by now.

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“I saw the N800 and fell in love.. but then i saw the Sony UMPC… and wanted marriage… but saw the price tag and decided I was too young for marriage…” (from IRC)

The Origami project began with a lot of hype and the promise of a windows-XP-based mini computer for less than 500$ that will run for a full day on one battery. This hasn’t happened: Now in 2007, we have a number of bulky and heavy tablets with 7-inch-screens, usually priced around 1000 Euro.

Some smaller devices such as the Oqo or the Sony UX are closer to the originally promised device dimensions, but come at a price tag way beyond that.

So nothing revolutionary yet: Less-than-1kg Subnotebooks such as the Toshiba Libretto or the JVC XP were sold years before the Origami announcement.

The Nokia 770 and N800 came much closer: Just a bit more than 200 gramms, a full day or two on one battery for average mobile use. Thanks to the ARM-based chipset made for low-power systems and a Linux system that has been taught to conserve energy whenever it can.

But there are some interesting advances in x86-based UMPCs these days. Intel decided to make low power consumption a priority and wants to come up with a special UMPC CPU and chipset:

[..] Intel announced that they will make a dedicated CPU / Chipset platform for the UMPC that [..] will get the average power of a UMPC down to SUB 4-Watt. [..] The low-power screen component looks like it will come from Samsung who have developed, specifically for UMPCs, a 7″ screen that drains just 0.6Watt. That’s about 30% of what today’s screens typically take. [..] 4W average drain is amazing. It means that a 2006 UMPC that ran for 3 hours could potentially run for 9 hours. It also enables smaller devices to be built. It means that x86 architecture is becoming so efficient that RISC/ARM based tech loses a lot of its advantage.

The cynical result of these improvements might be smaller devices with smaller batteries that still last the magical 3 hours, only, but here’s hoping.

Intel is competing with AMD. Their Geode chipset is already used in PDA-sized windows XP computers such as the Raon Digital Vega or the upcoming Digital Cube G43 UMPC. A working prototype (it was functional and ran XP, but the case design will change) was on display at CeBIT: Twice the weight and a bit bigger than the N800, but still fascinating:

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Of course, ARM CPUs will also continue to be improved. 2007 and 2008 will be interesting years for mobile computing, as ARM-based PDAs continue to become more like mobile PCs while x86-based PCs turn into PDAs.

In the meantime, Intel wants to push new UMPCs on the market. Here is an image and a video of a prototype of one of these upcoming devices, announced for this year.

According to Harald Welte, Intel has a company policy of releasing Linux drivers for all its chipsets. x86-based Linux will be an actual, well-supported alternative operating system.

A full Gnome desktop with Firefox on this? If it’s significantly less than a 1000$, count me in!

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(Image via pocketables.net)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMsM8ku9CZ0]

(Youtube video from UMPCPortal)

Someone is getting paid to remove any sign of a nipple at shopthebunny.com. Really.

Noticed via Messe Schnell Weg.

After using the N800 for a few weeks now, here are some follow-ups to my initial review.

Steven from UMPCPortal reports that his N800 broke after accidently dropping it from just a few centimeters of height. Ouch! So to reiterate: This is a fragile device.

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It is just slightly too long. Unlike the Palmpilot, which was designed for a shirt pocket, the N800 cannot be carried comfortably. If Nokia could just cut a few centimeters off the case… (Does the N800 really need stereo speakers?)

Thanks to its size, it’s hard to find a good case for it. This is the ugly thing I use right now. It’s too big for my coat:

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Siarhei Siamashka, the developer of mplayer for Maemo, made some benchmarks and found out that the graphics bus bandwidth to the video framebuffer is 3 times slower than on the Nokia 770. So despite its better CPU, the N800 will most likely never be able to display full-resolution video at 800×480 @ 30 fps. Daniel Stone confirmed this and explained in related discussions that the N800 uses a different hardware architecture. Since the TI OMAP CPU’s system-on-a-chip LCD controller was not suitable for the N800’s screen size, the device required the use of an external LCD controller.

Frankly, this looks like a design mistake on behalf of Nokia: They have chosen hardware with closed drivers and apparently it’s still not the best fit for the targeted screen of the device. This is a major disappointment, since video on the go is my personal killer application.

Disclaimer: This was a personal review of some small issues that bother me, not a general “Nokia’s hardware sucks!” complaint. Actually, I like the N800 quite a lot.

Visiting CeBIT, I had the chance to meet Steven from UMPCPortal. He owns an N800, too, and we were both intrigued by Beijing Peace East Technology Development Co. Ltd‘s claim of an UMPC based on Linux, so we arranged to visit their both together.

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The device is indeed running Linux: After crashing the device by trying the GPS app, the bootup sequence showed the familiar penguin boot logo.

The H9 is much bigger than expected. See it next to the N800 in the photo above. On that photo, you also see their CE product below the glass display table.

The user interface is not Maemo, but it is obviously heavily inspired by it. The user interface doesn’t look very polished yet and the hardware as shown on CeBIT felt very much like a prototype. Note the WLAN card in the PCMCIA slot – but this might change for the finished product.

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Next to the Maemo GUI being copied, Microsoft will also not be happy: Note the MSIE icon on the button and the Windows icons. The whole user interface is a mish-mash of existing ideas and artwork. Well, in China nobody cares, I guess.

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The applications’ artwork is very Asian. The representative couldn’t answer many questions about the operating system and the development of the apps, he also couldn’t tell us which browser the device uses.

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The software is written in China by Insistech, a company I never heard about. Despite the rough edges and the feeling of using incomplete beta versions, the software appears to be functional and useful. Surprisingly, the video player seems to be much better than on the N800, apparently playing full-screen DivX at high resolutions. (I couldn’t test this with own files and didn’t see the specs of the test videos, so this wasn’t an actual test.)

Is it a competitor to Maemo? No idea. Probably not, since the whole system felt a bit crude and incomplete. It would be interesting to see the actual programming interfaces. It’s doubtful that third-party development is possible or desired by Insistech and that they even know about the GPL’s requirements.

Googling about Insistech, there is little to be found about them. No idea what the company does, no idea who their developers are, no idea if their system is used on more devices than the H9. Their developers have discussed about Konq/e and the Helix Media Player, so one can assume that these are used in the H9.

This brings me to the bigger picture of Linux outside the “Western” world. I know there are a lot Linux developers in Europe and the Americas, but have you heard of major Linux applications coming out of India and Asia? Now here is a mystery company building a complete set of applications and a GUI and the result is not too shabby, either. Surprising. What other Linux developments are going on out there that the English-speaking world never hears about?

Update: There is a video and some pricing info at pocketables. Steve posted his impressions at UMPCPortal plus a gallery and video.

Visiting CeBIT this Saturday, I’m sure not to miss the booth of Beijing Peace East Technology Development Co. Ltd. Chippy from UMPC Portal was there, already, but didn’t gather much new information.

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The ARM-based device comes with any feature you could wish for, including a harddisk, GPS receiver, WLAN, Bluetooth, USB, PCMCIA, SD and a kitchensink. Looking at the device’s screenshots, it appears to be running Maemo, yet the company or its Chinese developers haven’t appeared publicly on the Maemo mailing lists. The software package announced for it is also unheard of on maemo.org.

Quite a mystery device. Do you know more? Do you have suggestions what I should ask them at CeBIT? Do you have information about it? Let me know!

Update: I’ve seen the device at CeBIT. It’s running Linux, it’s not Maemo but obviously inspired by it, it’s a lot bigger than I expected, it’s quite fascinating, it’s not a real competitor to the Nokia devices. The full report with pictures will follow tomorrow.

Small computers are great, so this was exciting to hear: After years of hype, the Vulcan Flipstart has finally become an actual product. Hopefully it will be shown at CeBIT 2007 somewhere.

Looking at the specs, photos and James Kendrick’s informative video, the product doesn’t look too promising, though. Pretty ugly design, no touchscreen, quite heavy and a rather high pricetag. What a disappointment.

The Raon Vega, the Sony UX, the Oqo and the upcoming Arima UMPC (to be sold in Europe by Medion and Gigabyte) all look far more advanced and better engineered.

All of these devices share a major problem, though: They are small bricks. Compare that with the Nokia N800, which weighs just a bit more than 200 gramms and runs for days on a tiny battery. The above-mentioned UMPCs need a big battery and still run a few hours, only.

Update: “Days?” Read Karel Jansens’ clarification below.