Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

"Researchers are solving the screen size issue and other problems, but it's still a very difficult market [for UMPC-type products]," he said.

Like Acer, Toshiba is watching and waiting for the market to improve before putting another toe in the UMPC water. Meanwhile, its Portege range - whose latest representatives are the 1kg R500 and 1.4kg R400, with Telstra NextG cards included from December - has found a niche with professionals.

Whittard agreed that bigger screens and full-size keyboards were more popular - and practical - with Australians. "You should feel you can do everything on your device," he said. "And people have become conditioned to having a bigger screen."

SPURring ahead

That said, ongoing technological advances should make smaller notebooks and even UMPCs more popular. Toshiba is researching technologies such as virtual keyboards, taking away the need for an actual physical keyboard but supplying a full-size interface for user comfort. This will be complemented by the SPURS engine, which will 'read' and respond to human gestures. Whittard said the keyboard was 2-3 years away.

Ultra WideBand (UWB) wireless technology will be integrated into notebook design even sooner.

Whittard said UWB would slake the resource thirst of applications such as video-over-wireless, making it more feasible to do such tasks on smaller laptops or UMPCs.

Meanwhile, the Tecra 14-inch laptop, at 2.2kg, is Toshiba's best seller, with just 5-7 per cent of its sales at the 12.1-inch and smaller end of the market. October saw another new take on the ultramobile concept, Asus' Eee PC.

Asus product manager, Emmanuele Silanesu, said the 7-inch, 907g Eee PC sold for just $499, a fraction of the price of most laptops. It didn't, however, offer truly comparable features or performance - although that might be no object for its stated target of students, children and travellers. It can also work as a thin client. The Eee PC comes with 802.11g and Linux as OS, although it can carry XP. It is based on an Intel CPU and chipset and has 512MB memory. It also offers just 2-8GB of solid state storage, which is smaller, lighter, slower and more robust than traditional hard drives. Maximum battery life with its four-cell battery is 3.5 hours.

"We're working on some vertical markets; the Eee PC is having a software package developed for it," Silanesu said. Business customers might find more value in Asus' expanding UMPC range, which will also target various verticals such as healthcare. Silanesu said the vendor's 7-inch R50A recently won a 2008 International CES Innovations design award. On top of the usual feature set, the R50A model offers GPS capabilities, a Web cam, 3-3.5G card, built-in TV tuner, tablet and notebook functionality.

Sales are reportedly promising. But even Asus concedes the R50A won't fill the hunger.

"We see them as an accessory rather than as a notebook replacement," he said. "I don't think UMPCs will become mainstream at this stage, although maybe in five years' time, when there may no longer be a problem with speed."

Asus research into smaller and lighter yet robust notebooks has produced a few oddities, such as last year's bamboo notebook. Silanesu said: "Bamboo can be used and fi nished in a number of different ways. Plus, it's easily regrown; there are no environmental issues. And it's light and tough."

Six or seven years ago, Silanesu noted, a Swedish manufacturer courted ridicule by producing a series of timber keyboards and mice, yet the concept has definite possibilities as a solution.

Asus has also introduced brushed aluminium - another light, durable material little used until now in laptops. Increased use of solid state media and backlit LED displays - as in Asus' U1 notebook and newer brothers, the U3 and U6 - was key to creating even lighter and smaller laptops in the near future, Silanesu said.

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