Samsung’s Q1 Ultra is a well-designed ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) that is full of potential. The problem, however, is that much of its potential is unrealized.
The first generation of UMPCs was released last year by Samsung and a handful of other vendors. These devices are “tweeners” sized between laptops and smaller mobile devices like PDAs. They run Windows but, like smaller mobile devices, UMPCs have touchscreens.
First-generation UMPCs generally were not well-reviewed, with complaints focusing on display quality and price. Samsung’s second-generation Q1 Ultra shores up some of those initial shortcomings but not enough of them to make the world sit up and take notice.
The Samsung Q1 UltraInitial impressions
Almost nine inches long by about 4.7 inches wide and an inch thick, the Q1 Ultra is marginally smaller than the first version of the device. It weighs 1.5 pounds.
After switching it on, the first thing noticed is its 1024 x 600 seven-inch display, which is sharp, bright and extremely viewable for basic tasks. Handily, you can switch the display from its default landscape mode to portrait mode by pressing a button on the device and, from the menu that appears, selecting the option to rotate the display.
A quick look around the Q1 Ultra found an impressive amount of storage and input/output capabilities. In particular, our US$1,099 review unit had a 50GB hard drive, a SecureDisk memory card slot, two USB slots, an Ethernet slot and video input for standard monitors. The Q1 Ultra comes nicely loaded with other features such as a built-in 1.3 megapixel camera, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which connected quickly and without hassle.
Browsing the Web using Internet Explorer was a satisfying experience with the sharp display. The ability to switch to portrait mode was particularly helpful for Web browsing.
However, it didn’t take long to become frustrated by the slowness of the Q1 Ultra. The test device with an 800MHz processor and 1GB of RAM was flat-out underpowered, with applications taking an annoyingly long time to load. A $799 version is available with an even-slower 600 MHz processor.
The first generation of UMPC devices drew criticism from some reviewers because they didn’t have a keypad. This updated Q1 has a keypad with keys about the same size as you’d find on a smart phone, but Samsung shouldn’t have bothered.
Strangely, the keypad is split in two, with one half to the left of the display and one half to the right. The split nature of the keypad made typing any but the shortest messages even more annoying than thumb typing on a smart phone. Let’s see …is the “B” key to the left of the screen or to the right? Samsung could have either made the device smaller or the display larger by not including the keypad.
Plus, there are so many other input and navigation methods available on the Q1 Ultra that it’s hard to figure why Samsung thought the keypad would be an improvement. For entering text, the device has handwriting recognition, an on-screen soft keyboard that you can tap with the stylus and so-called dial keys, which consist of semi-circular keypads in the lower corners of the display for typing with your fingers.
For pointing and selecting, the device has a mouse button to the left of the display that can double as a joy stick. To the right of the display there’s a toggle wheel that replicates the arrow keys on a keyboard with an Enter button in the middle. Also, you can perform tasks such as highlighting text by dragging a finger or the stylus across the screen. When you do that, a mouse appears on-screen; touch one of the mouse buttons and it’s just like clicking either the right or left button on a physical mouse.
That’s a lot of ways to input data and navigate through the interface, all of which are preferable to the woeful, unnecessary keypad.
Unrealized multimedia potential
The Q1 Ultra came with Windows Vista Home Premium Edition, which has been optimized for touchscreen devices. As such, it has the same tools for playing media as other versions of Vista. And it did, indeed, play music well. Playback sounded satisfyingly crisp and clear.
Video playback, however, was a different story. We watched a number of YouTube videos and downloaded a television episode from Amazon’s Unbox video service. Because of the Q1’s slow processor, playback of higher-quality videos was jerky, images were sometimes pixilated and colours were often oversaturated even after numerous tweaks were made to the contrast and other settings.
This means the beautiful bright screen is a boon only for use with basic applications and for viewing still images. That’s a shame because, with all its other capabilities, the Q1 Ultra could potentially appeal to mobile video fans who otherwise would be tempted to buy video-centric media players such as the Archos 704. That device has slightly smaller overall dimensions than the Q1 but it is half as expensive and its display is about the same size.
A lesser disappointment is that, with a few minor exceptions, the only pre-installed applications were those included with Windows. That lessens the Q1 Ultra’s appeal to those who need to do more than check e-mail, browse the Web and view or listen to media. Samsung says it will release a higher-priced version of the Q1 aimed at business users.
Samsung’s Q1 Ultra is intriguing, but more for its potential than its reality. Ideally, UMPCs would be media powerhouses that would be comfortable for light business tasks such as editing documents and for Web browsing and e-mail.
However, Samsung’s Q1 Ultra, while a useful mobile Web and e-mail tool, isn’t optimal for other mobile uses. It is about as expensive as many laptops but not as comfortable to use. It’s far larger and more expensive than most mobile devices but isn’t more adept at tasks such as media playback.
In other words, this could be a great device, but it isn’t compelling in its present form and price. On the other hand, if it had twice the processor speed and half the price, Samsung’s Q1 Ultra would deserve to be a huge hit.
David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.