Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Of MIDs, UMPCs, Netbooks, and Laptops

CES is always a time to get a preview of a few of the products we'll be seeing throughout the year, and a lot of products we will never see. Over the past couple of years one gadget type that continues to gain ground is the small form-factor computing device. They go by a variety of names and come in a variety of sizes: Mobile Internet Device (MID), Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC), and Netbook. In each case these devices are larger than a cell phone but smaller than traditional laptop. They are also less powerful than their deskbound cousins, but what you give up in power you often get back in battery life and portability.

Netbooks look like the best bet to me. Essentially just a smaller, less powerful, more energy efficient, cheaper laptop, these devices are perfect for the average college student. Some come with a simple version of Linux, some run Windows XP, and some even run Vista. They are able to get all of the basics done: word processing, internet browsing, e-mail, etc. Most can be had for under $500, with some dropping below the $300 mark. This is perfect for the person who needs an inexpensive and simple way to get online.

MIDs and UMPCs are a different story though. These devices sometimes run Windows XP or Vista, and sometimes not. They are smaller, and possibly more power efficient, but in almost every case they are more expensive than a basic laptop. I really can't see the market jumping on these as they just aren't practical. The idea is that you need something more than what your cell phone provides, but you don't want to carry around a laptop. With prices anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 it is really hard to see where these devices make sense. One example of these devices is the WiBrain. It eschews a keyboard for the keypad you might find on your cell phone. It runs Windows. But would you really spend $700 or more on this rather than getting either a) a small laptop or b) an iPhone? I don't see it.

For some reason, gadget industry is enamored with this device type. Sony just released the Vaio P, which they don't want to call a netbook, but it is. Unfortunately, it isn't going to be priced like a netbook (suggested price starts at $900). There is also the upcoming Viliv S7. In my mind these devices aren't going to catch on unless the prices come down to $500 or less. If you are spending over $500 it makes much better sense to buy a full blown laptop. Even when springing for all of the bells and whistles you would be hard pressed to spend more than $1,200 on a well equipped laptop these days. Compare that to the $2,000+ price that some of these MID and UMPC devices are asking, and the justification just falls apart.

I would be interested in one of these devices if it could replace my Axim PDA, and only if it did so at relatively the same price as my PDA. Three years ago I paid $500 for the Dell Axim x50v. At the time, it was the most powerful PDA on the market, and I still use it today. It runs Windows Mobile 5 (and some industrious hackers have made it run WM 6). It has hooks to supports bluetooth and WiFi out of the box, and you can add a GPS unit if you like. It compares quite favorably with the iPod Touch. To me, what I have seen of the Viliv S7 looks interesting as a replacement for my aging PDA, but only if the price is under $500. For more than $500, I would rather just get a small netbook (like an Asus Eee or MSI Wind).

Working in a technology company, I get exposed to a variety of gadges: both those necessary for our work as well as the toys in the office the guys like to get. I'm surrounded by incredible cell phones with what I would say is equivalent computing power to most of these UMPCs, MIDs, and netbooks. The iPhone is the most common, with several folks also carrying around WM6 smart phones. There are even a couple of iPod Touch units in the office. Several also carry around a laptop or netbook from meeting to meeting. What I have never seen is a MID or UMPC. Who really buys these things, and why?


  1. My brother got a netbook so that he could run the software that lets you read the service codes off of cars.

    I think he paid like $350 for it and it is powerful enough to run Fallout Tactics on Windows XP.

    All in all, it seemed really cool, but he looked kind of funny hunched over that little screen. I don't know why he doesn't just plug it in to his $600 Sony Monitor

  2. Yeah, netbooks I get, especially the sub $400 netbooks. They are light, small, and allow you to do some basic computing in a way that still feels like using a computer. MIDs and UMPCs I just don't get. I can't see spending four to five times the amount of a simple netbook to carry around a OQO or Samsung Q1.