Two tests can be applied to new mobile technology, and the FlipStart easily passes the first: is the device cool?
The FlipStart is sized somewhere between a smartphone and an ultraportable laptop, weighs a bit more than 680g with battery, and comes with your choice of Windows XP or Vista (our test device used Windows XP). It sports 512MB of RAM and a 1.1GHz Pentium M processor.
In other words, Vulcan Portals, the company started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has stuffed a lot of power into this little clamshell device. So much power in such a tiny package is intrinsically cool, and some innovative and highly useful features make it even cooler.
Then there's the second test: is it worth the money, in this case about $2,000? In our case, the answer is no. With its tiny keyboard, we found it to be an inadequate substitute for our trusty laptop, which remains our tool of choice when on the road. However, for mobile professionals who don't have heavy-duty input needs but require more power and connectivity than is found in a smart phone, the answer could easily be an enthusiastic yes.
Usability a mixed bag
The inevitable trade-off when mobile devices shrink is usability. After all, when a device gets smaller, the amount of space for such niceties as keyboards and displays shrinks.
Overall, the FlipStart is the most usable device of this size we've seen, and Vulcan has performed some interesting tricks to increase usability, but it still gets mixed grades. Typical of these trade-offs and tricks is the FlipStart's 5.6in display, which runs, by default, at 1,024x600. While the display is quite bright and sharp, it is still difficult to read text on a small screen with high resolution. We settled in at 800x600 resolution, and even then, reading glasses were a great benefit when using the FlipStart.
However, typical of the clever engineering applied to this device, the keyboard has a zoom key. Press the key and the part of the screen where the cursor is located zooms out to make the item appear larger and more readable.
Without doubt, the biggest hit to usability comes from the qwerty keyboard. At first glance, it looks like a larger version of a smart-phone keyboard with extra space between the keys. That extra space makes it possible to type with index fingers, which we find easier than thumb-typing. That small advantage makes it somewhat simpler to write longer email messages than most people are inclined to on a phone. But if you want to create extensive documents, you'll want to buy a portable keyboard.
Also worth noting is that the keyboard keys are rounded and flat, and the keypress is stiff, making typing that much less enjoyable.
The pointing system is clever but takes some getting used to. The FlipStart has a small touchpad above and to the right of the keyboard that is similar to those found on most laptops. However, there aren't two buttons beneath the touchpad to simulate the buttons of a mouse. Rather, those buttons are on the upper-left side of the device, which sometimes makes pointing and selecting menu items a two-handed effort. More cleverly, the Pg Up, Pg Dn, Home and End functions are all on a four-way toggle button above the keyboard.
In typical use, Vulcan says, the Lithium-polymer battery provides about 3.5 hours per charge, roughly similar to many laptop batteries and less than most smart phones. How long a charge lasts, of course, depends on issues such as whether you are connected to a Wi-Fi network or whether you are playing video or audio. In our tests, though, the company's claim was accurate for normal work needs such as checking e-mail.
This full Windows device is more connective than most laptops. It comes with built-in support for Sprint's EV-DO 3G cellular data service in addition to the expected support for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It also comes with a small port replicator, which includes an ethernet port as well as a video port and two USB ports.
It also has some whizzy features that vendors of standard laptops would do well to emulate. The most notable of those features is the InfoPane, which is a small LCD display on the top of the device. When you close the lid, which puts the FlipStart into stand-by mode, you can access your Outlook email, contacts and appointments via the display without opening and restarting the device. You navigate the InfoPane with toggle buttons on the right side of the device.
The InfoPane can be set to be automatically updated if, say, email messages come in. This feature enables quick visibility into your messages and other personal information with a minimum of fuss, much like you'd have with a smartphone.
Another convenient feature is the FlipStart Navigator. It provides fast access to specific applications such as the web browser or your contacts, appointments and email through the press of a key. It also can be programmed to provide access to specific applications. On a larger-screen device, this wouldn't be an important feature, but it's a thoughtful addition on a small-screened device because it provides quick access to often-used applications without the need to squint at the screen.
Interestingly, while the FlipStart comes with built-in support for Sprint's EV-DO network (for which you must pay extra), it also has a slot for a SIM card used by GSM-based cellular operators. Such cards contain subscription information and eventually could enable the FlipStart to be used with 3G networks offered by carriers such as AT&T/Cingular in the US. The FlipStart would have to build such support into the device, which the company is considering, a Vulcan representative said.