It is an exciting time for Linux users who are interested in ultra-mobile
PCs (UMPCs). New models are being announced frequently with
many—dare we say most?—coming with at least the option to have
Linux pre-installed. The low-cost models probably require Linux in order
to make their price point, but even higher-end UMPCs seem to be made with
Linux firmly in mind. In many ways, the One
Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has driven the demand for low-cost
machines for adults as well.
Commercial offerings from ASUS (Eee PC), Everex (Cloudbook), Elonex (One),
along with a rumored
UMPC from HP are giving both the OLPC and Intel's ClassmatePC some
competition. Add in Nokia's N810 and you have a half-dozen very mobile
solutions featuring Linux—though the ClassmatePC seems to be more
geared towards Windows XP. None of them has quite the right set of
features to be the ultimate UMPC, but we seem to be headed in the right
direction, so it is worth contemplating what that machine might look like.
Battery life is the achilles heel of mobile devices; some kind of
breakthrough in power consumption or energy storage needs to happen for big
strides to be made in this area. Because of weight considerations, today's
UMPCs tend to have small batteries and three hours or less of battery life.
Something on the order of twelve hours—with a measurement in days
being the real goal—is more like what is needed. Perhaps some kind
of human-powered or alternative charging mechanism can play a role. It is
probably the biggest challenge to reaching something approaching an
Part of the reason that battery life is so low is because of how much power
the display consumes. With rotating media on its way out (at least for
these kinds of devices), the display is one of the areas where power
savings would be felt most strongly. The E-Ink displays, such as those
used by the newer e-book readers, have some great properties in terms of
power consumption, but the speed at which they update makes them
undesirable for general computer use. Many of us spend a fair amount of time
looking at a static screen for several to many seconds at a time. Web
pages or e-books might be candidates for using E-Ink, perhaps, but not
Wesnoth or typing a document.
Perhaps a dual-mode screen that
combined an LED and E-Ink display could blend the best of both. OLPC has
an innovative display with many of the characteristics needed which can also
can be viewed in sunlit conditions. Former OLPC CTO Mary Lou
Jepsen's startup is licensing the XO display technology, so we may see it in a
UMPC before too long.
The size of the display will likely need to be larger than today's
offerings as well. That will be a balancing act between size, weight, and cost
which will be interesting to see play out. A touchscreen is another feature
that will be necessary as the display should be usable separate
from the keyboard. Some way of transforming a small laptop into a tablet
PC and e-book reader would be very desirable, with bonus points awarded if that
transformation is fast and seamless.
A full-sized or nearly so keyboard is also a necessity. Too much of the
work that we do involves words and numbers that need to be input. If this
device is to become an integral part of a day-to-day routine, thumb
or child-sized keyboards just won't cut it.
Wifi and wired connectivity are obvious, while Bluetooth would seem to be a
good addition to provide internet via cell phone. Some might want to
integrate actual cell phone functionality into the device itself—to avoid
the multiple device hassle. Given that the size of a UMPC won't ever reach
that of a cell phone, that seems like a stretch, but for those who want it,
an optional feature seems like the way to provide that.
Like the OLPC, the device should be ruggedized, able to withstand
reasonable amounts of abuse without much more than a case scratch. This is
another area where flash disks will help as there won't be the threat of
losing data when the disk heads suffer rapid deceleration. The price per
gigabyte for solid-state drives will drop to the point where a few hundred
GB will be possible at a reasonable price. Carrying around one's favorite
music as FLACs, rather than in some lossy format, should be possible.
A fairly modest and power-friendly processor with a GB or two of RAM should round out the
basics of the hardware. The device will run Linux, of course, and might
have a few other peripherals: camera, microphone, speakers, etc. All
should be available for $500-700, at least in a very functional low-end
configuration. When might we see such a device? Two to three years seems
quite likely, certainly before five years have passed. When it's ready,
please send one to LWN for review in care of the author.
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