Tuesday, February 10, 2009

HTC Ultra mobile PCs

Ultra mobile PCs are beginning to make a big splash in the computing scene and HTC is not one to be left out of this exciting new product segment. THERE is no doubt that computers are getting smaller with each passing day. The underlying trend in today’s mobile computing market is not on massive desktop replacement notebooks but rather on smaller ultralight portable notebooks.

Already we have seen a couple of innovative ultraportable notebooks such as the Asus Eee PC in recent months. Naturally, HTC is not about to get left out of the race and has brought in their own ultra mobile PC, the HTC Shift.

Design - On the outside, the Shift sports a very interesting design which, to put it simply, is small for a notebook but huge for a PDA. Small and roughly slightly larger than your average paperback novel, the Shift is a very portable machine.

Although you aren’t likely to fit the Shift into your pocket, it is still light enough to carry around for everyday use. Weighing in at only 800g, the Shift is very travel friendly indeed and should come in useful for long distance travels.

The Shift can be used in one of two ways. You can hold the Shift in one hand and use the stylus with the other as you would a regular Tablet PC. One neat thing about the touchscreen is that you can still navigate reasonably well with your fingers without the stylus.

Alternatively, you can place the Shift on a flat surface and slide out the main screen to reveal a hidden Qwerty keyboard. You can then fold the Tablet portion of the Shift up to work on it as if it were a notebook PC and use the tiny touchpad on the right side to shift your cursor around.

Overall, the Shift is a nicely designed device with stylish curves and a smooth metal exterior that’s attractive to the eye.

Features - As mentioned earlier, the Shift is large for a PDA thanks to its large 7in screen. While it isn't nearly as big as a small notebook's 12in or 13in screen, the screen is still capable of displaying sharp images. The default display resolution is 800 x 480 pixels, which doesn’t offer a lot of room to work with, but you can bump the resolution up to 1,024 x 600pixels.

The viewing angles for the screen is also good, with almost no colour shifting as you view it from different angles. I wouldn’t consider it the best screen for watching videos or movies, but it does a very good job in presenting images and other information. Two tiny stereo speakers make up the Shift’s audio capabilities. While small, these speakers do pack a punch. Testing out a video file, I found the speakers to be sufficiently loud and there’s even stereo sound effects too.

Still, take note that these speakers won’t be audible if you are in a noisy environment; so be sure to bring a pair of headphones along. I found the Shift’s built-in keyboard to be on the small side, forcing me to constantly fight with the keyboard to get it to register the keys I’m aiming for.

Without a doubt, the tiny keys will prove to be a big problem for people with large fingers. The keys are also difficult to type in low light conditions since there is no backlighting. The Shift does, however, feature a handy handwriting recognition tool that intelligently appears whenever you use a text application like Notepad. The feature basically allows you to write words on the Tablet with the stylus and have it converted to actual text on the document.

I must say that I was genuinely impressed with the feature and often found myself typing with it more than the keyboard itself. The Shift has one solitary USB port on the side, though you can easily expand it using the included USB hub. The hub basically provides you with an additional three ports so you can plug in an external keyboard or mouse complete with a Ethernet port should you need a wired connection.

If you find the Shift’s 7in screen too small, you can always use the VGA-out port to expand your workspace or project a presentation on a larger screen. If you want to add an additional security layer to your data, the Shift has a fingerprint scanner that can be used as your security pass to access the Shift.

Performance - It may not sound like much but running on an Intel A110 (800MHz) processor with 1GB of RAM, the Shift is a reliable workhorse for office productivity tools. However the Shift isn’t geared for high-performance so photo manipulation and video editing are out of the question.

Still, Vista runs remarkably well on the Shift with applications launching fast and running smoothly without any noticeable slow downs. Navigating around Vista Business was made difficult by the rather small trackpad. After having used it, I have to say that I’d rather use the stylus to quickly click and navigate around.

Web surfing on the Shift is made easy by the fact that there are so many options such as WiFi, HSDPA or 3G to go online with. For entertainment, the Shift comes with its own media portal called Origami Central that adds some visual flair to the Shift’s media interface.

The Origami interface is nice and flashy looking but the little applications or widgets such notes, Calendar and To-do list in Origami aren’t as responsive as I would have liked. Vista isn’t the only operating system available on the Shift — there’s also SnapVUE, which is a stripped down version of Windows Mobile 6 that basically gives you access to a number of basic PDA applications such as a calendar, weather, contacts and email.

Visually, SnapVUE’s Today screen bears a lot of resemblance to HTC’s TouchFlo user interface found in some of its previous smartphones. While SnapVUE does not offer you the full Windows Mobile experience, it does give you quick access to your e-mail messages, giving you alerts and a preview of your new e-mail messages when you leave the Shift on to accept push e-mail messages.

The operating system is relatively fast to boot up and from our tests, we found that SnapVUE booted up faster than Vista (no real surprises there) when starting up from standby mode. SnapVUE does however have many limitations. It does not have many of the features that make up a full smartphone, such as making phone calls or web browsing. Oddly enough, I was still able to send and receive text messages from people on my SIM contact list.

Overall, I didn’t like the fact that SnapVUE felt very restrictive and limited. I was not able to install or run additional applications on SnapVUE, so I was forced to make do with the basic applications provided. Battery life for most mobile devi­ces aren’t necessarily great — the Shift is no exception as it can only last two hours while running Vista.

The Shift fairs slightly better if you leave it running on SnapVUE in standby mode though its mileage varies depending if you leave functions such as WiFi, Bluetooth or push e-mail on. It is rated to last up to 53 hours with push-email enabled and up to 10 days with the feature turned off.

Conclusion - The HTC Shift is a great mobile device designed for users on the go. Its main benefits include having a light portable design and a decent operating system in Windows Vista Business. The choice of SnapVUE is great for accessing essential information fast but it has too many limitations that bar it from being as useful as Vista. The built-in keyboard also feels too small and cramped for typing long text documents. Still, the HTC Shift is a great device when you are not in office and need to access your important documents quick and efficiently while on the go.


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