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Can the FlipStart revolutionise portable PCs?

Super-compact PC weighs just 1.5lbs

FlipStart, a super-compact PC from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Portals, won't officially be announced until tomorrow. But it's already been demonstrated to IT professionals at a mobile conference in Indian Wells, California, this week.

Weighing in at just 1.5lbs, the FlipStart is a clamshell-design Windows-based PC that features a 5.6in display, said Keith Amodt, senior product manager for FlipStart Labs, a technology incubator that is a division of Vulcan in Seattle. It's slated to ship in the US on 27 March and retail for $1,999 (£1,040). Users can choose Windows XP Pro or Windows Vista Business operating systems.

Similar to a small laptop, it features a Qwerty keyboard when the clamshell is opened. The keys are too small for people to touch type on but can be typed on with one finger or ‘thumbed’ similar to other small devices, Amodt said.

The FlipStart offers an unusual new feature: a small InfoPane on the outside of the closed device that can display Outlook email, calendar and contacts and is controlled by a wheel on the side similar to navigation wheels seen on some BlackBerry devices, he said.

Wireless access will be provided by a single carrier, yet to be named, using the EVDO Rev A network, Amodt said. WiFi functionality over 802.11 b/g is also provided.

Robin Budd, a senior director at FlipStart, said the product will be aimed at ‘prosumers’, or professional consumers. But several IT managers on hand for the short demonstration of the FlipStart last night were not sure how the product would be received - or who the target market would really be.

"I think it's going to be a couple of years before we know where this kind of device fits," said Kerry Sedwick, director of technical architecture at American Express Technologies in Phoenix. He said it might be a device that American Express agents would use on visits to retailers, since they need a fully functioning PC, but don't want to crate around a heavy thing.

"People will love the small size and weight, but won't like the small keyboard and how hard on the eyes it can be," Sedwick said.

Because the font is small in one setting, Sedwick and several other IT managers said the device might be best aimed at an "under 40" crowd of users not yet wearing reading glasses. FlipStart has anticipated various reading needs, Amodt said, and provides a nine-level zoom feature to drill down on a screen or window for more detail.

George McQuillister, senior product manager for mobile services at Pacific Gas and Electric in San Francisco, said he is unsure how quickly the FlipStart or similar devices such as the announced OQO PC might catch on with workers. "When one sees somebody using it, others will want it," he said. "Certain individuals, like my teenage son, would love it."

Gerry Purdy, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, said the FlipStart and other devices represent "an interesting new category" of mini-portables. He said that he can see the current 30GB hard drive in the FlipStart growing to 100GB in future generations, with the standard 512MB RAM growing to 4GB.

Budd said that an earlier version of the FlipStart, unveiled in 2004, had to be re-designed so it would dissipate heat better. Battery life has not been officially tested, she said, but FlipStart's spec sheet rates the slimline battery as being good for 1 to 3 hours of use with an extended life battery offering up to four hours of power. FlipStart uses a 1.1GHz Intel Pentium M processor, which designed for ultra-low voltage.

Multimedia features include dual built-in microphones, a built-in speaker and an internal VGA camera.

www.computerworld.com


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