Did you opt for a laptop over a tablet when you bought your latest mobile PC? You can’t really be blamed. Tablets tend to offer less performance for the money, and hit the middle or worse overall on key audio benchmarks like processor speed, hard disk, and I/O. But you’ve also missed out: unlike a laptop, a tablet can fit comfortably on a music stand. It’s easier to tote from one part of your studio to another. It’s the perfect way of entering music notation or tweaking soft synths, with instant access to the interface.


So, great news: Microsoft, Intel, and hardware vendors have unveiled the Ultra-Mobile PC. What is it? Exactly the same tablet as before, only smaller, much slower, much less flexible, and only slightly cheaper. Uh — yay? Search on Technorati for all the buzz if you want, but I can sum it up:


It’s a smaller, slower tablet that delivers less value with more tradeoffs. And for music, it’s totally disastrous. Meanwhile, there are fantastic tablet computers that do so much more, at about the same price. Ironically, the UMPC comes just as those tablets have finally matured.


Updated: Two potential items could change my (and maybe your) mind on the new mini-tablets. One is, the price could in fact get closer to $500, which makes my comparison to bigger, more powerful tablets totally moot, and makes them much more appealing as a satellite to your main computer(s). Two, it would be interesting to run Windows Remote Desktop or VNC to remotely control a more powerful computer, or do simple sequencing and soft synths via this tablet, the USB port, and your favorite hardware controller. -PK



Let’s compare: there’s no ship date or pricing yet, but Microsoft says it’ll run “under $1000,” which I’m guessing means $999. By contrast, Toshiba will sell you its Satellite R15 tablet/notebook hybrid for US$1149. (Pictured here. Boy, I actually want it.) It has everything you need to replace your laptop: a QWERTY keyboard, a big screen, USB and FireWire, and even a DVD burner. It’s no powerhouse, but it’ll run Reason soft synths or an Ableton Live set (with an external hard drive, ideally), and it’ll certainly run Sibelius or Finale on a music stand. It even has a swift 1.7G Pentium M, which means it can probably outrun my existing Toshiba notebook workhorse. The new Samsung Q1: think 900 MHz Celeron. 900 MHz, seriously? Yes, okay, the Q1 looks slick (though it reminds me of a portable Sega), and the Toshiba looks clunky. But I’ve used tablets in person, and they’re quite portable and comfortable. Aside from a few touch-friendly extras, these UMPCs even run the same tablet OS! (That’s a good thing, but it furhter suggests that they’re really just downgraded tablets.)


So why would you get a hobbled “Ultra-Mobile PC” that performs like a 4-year-old laptop instead? Battery life is reportedly only 3 hours, and while it is much lighter and smaller than a tablet, it’s not light and small enough to match the form factor of the many excellent Windows Mobile PDAs on the market. I love my Dell Axim X30, for instance. Maybe you’d get the UMPC to play music and video — but at nearly a grand, that makes it yet another silly entertainment toy for the rich, and with everyone blowing money on iPods, Xbox 360s, and the like, that seems wildly unlikely to catch on. Yes, I’m being unfair by looking at this product from the music market, which isn’t Microsoft’s target market. But think about it: the whole point of the PC is that there is no one target market. It’s the flexibility of the device for a broad swath of users. And that makes me look at the UMPC and think about product failures like eMate and Newton rather than product successes like the original Apple PowerBook or iPod. (Boy, uh, it is interesting how Apple managed to create the blockbusters in those categories, huh?)


So why am I bothering even griping about this? Because I think tablet computers could be the missing link in the mobile music studio. And, in fact, looking at the UMPC and checking out the latest tablet specs makes me want to go trade my existing laptop for a tablet right now.


There’s also another possibility that’s missed here: why not have a tablet remote for your desktop computer? It’s not a new idea, but I still haven’t seen it done right. Imagine that instead of a crippled laptop, the tablet served as a dumb terminal for a more powerful desktop form factor PC. It could serve as an additional display, with a headphone jack and touch and stylus input. Your desktop PC (on the desk for consumers or in a rack mount for pros) would do all the heavy lifting, but you could access it from anywhere via the tablet.


There’s reason to believe that desktop enclosures will continue to advance, too. Graphics cards in particular are getting faster by the day, and offering new musical applications with programs like Jitter, as well as some seriously sweet 3D / video eye candy.


The problem is, the UMPC isn’t designed to do this, though you could presumably install Microsoft’s superb Remote Desktop or the open source VNC to do the job, even via a Mac/PC setup. And the UMPC is needlessly pricey for a device that could be a dumb terminal.


So, personally, I think it’s time to entirely throw out Microsoft’s and Intel’s and Samsung’s vision of this, and figure it out for ourselves. I bet we can come up with a much more compelling vision of how to relate to our computers. And hopefully Apple’s recent patent filings for touchscreens mean other manufacturers could get in this game.

  • Symbiotic

    I couldn't be more unimpressed with this new platform, personally. Shooting the gap between high end PDA's (Axim x50v) and low-end tablets results in an all around simply-not-enough-value device for me.

    But – I think you've got an excellent idea in the possibility of utilizing one of these (or something similar) as a remote interface for applications, but again the price-performance just isn't there yet.

    Remote apps such as Salling Clicker, VNC and RDC already have the right idea – now we just need to take it a step further and find interesting and productive ways to use these tools to our musical advantage.

    Good take on this, Peter. For my money, if this doesn't come in at well under $1000, I'd rather buy an iBook or a tablet PC.

  • m15a

    i'm sure you realize, but of course there's no chance that the product would specifically be designed for music applications. as far as that's concerned, imho, it's just bad luck this time.

    as far as the general market goes, i think many people will agree with you that the pricepoint is an essential factor. articles are listing "$600-$1000", which means the low end is $500-ish.

    also, i've heard a lot of people criticize the specs but i haven't found a listed spec sheet yet for any of the devices. can you link to one?

    i'd imagine using this for surfing the internet, occasionally for watching videos, and very rarely for anything productive. all of that doesn't take *so* much power. at $500, that doesn't seem too unreasonable considering what people pay for cell phones and ipods and stuff. i'd appreciate the small size and hope that'd be strong enough to withstand some abuse.

  • admin

    Hey m15a,

    Yeah, it's not made for us; part of the luxury of being on this site is we can look at new products through the filter of our specific needs. You're right, in that a little video watching, Web surfing is not
    going to tax the hardware.

    I also completly agree that around $500 this becomes more competitive and, yes, I might think about it then — especially as a mobile notation station. :-) I hadn't heard that, and I'd love to find out that the low-end estimate is right (though I'm highly, highly skeptical, at least for now).

    Consider, though, at the same price point the hardware of a lot of new PDAs and smart phones, many of which have things this lacks (namely, mobile communication, high-speed wireless Internet via cell networks like EV-DO which may increasingly become the delivery method, and yes, even QWERTY keyboards).

    They're thus banking entirely on the smarter media center video device idea. I'm just not sure about that. I'm not saying it's a bad idea, just that it doesn't seem focused, especially with SO many other devices people are buying right now. Think about it: you need a next-gen mobile gaming device, a next-gen home device, a new computer to run Vista, a new phone to deal with higher-speed data networks, a new music player . . . who is left who can prioritize this thing? And isn't there a point where you hit device overload? (Yes, even me.) The reason convergence works is that people eventually run out of money, mindshare, and pockets.

    I have seen specs out there:
    http://www.engadget.com/2006/03/09/samsungs-q1-ul

    among others.

    But maybe I'm being too hard. I do like that there's choice. For some people, maybe they love their desktop PC and a laptop is overkill, so they get this. I do like the fact that Windows users have the choice of tablets. I just don't think this is going to be a huge hit. We heard that argument many, many times before. Take away the glitzy features and product shots, and listen to the rhetoric. It's exactly what Apple claimed about Newton over a decade ago. Beware cocky tech companies claiming they've found the next big thing.

    Peter

  • m15a

    thanks for the link. i agree with what you're saying above with all those devices. i think it might be a sort of "chicken or the egg" issue with the product's usefulness and it's popularity, though. if the product were only popular enough that people would consider it before their pdas, handheld video game consoles, etc., maybe something could come out of it. does that make sense?

    i guess to me, "the next big thing" seems like it's just whatever gets popular and that marketting is almost driving the future more than technology. at least that's what products such as the video ipod are making me think. (seems like watching videos on the go is only popular because it's doable on an ipod rather than the other way around . . .)

    my instinct is that the perfect product would be less versatile and cheaper . . . i mean the psp costs $250 and you can watch videos and go on the internet. only thing is that it doesn't have a touch screen, it's a little too small, and it uses a crappy disc format. oh, and the fact that it's actually a gaming device. :)

  • ThereminWorld

    Full disclosure: I work for Microsoft and I worked on the Windows XP operating system. So take my personal thoughts/comments here with an open mind.

    The control surface on a UMPC might be interesting from a musical perspective. I don't yet know how sensitive the surface is, but if you can thumb type on it (Gizmodo's video says it's actually quite usable), then hopefully it's also good enough for faders or what have you.

    I personally love the power:portability ratio. I'm a huge Pocket PC nut and as much as I live/die by my Axim x50v, I'd really prefer to be able to run real Windows apps on it. Well now I can with a UMPC.

    It's about the same size as a TB303 – Rebirth anyone? :)

    Yes, it's definitely not for everyone. I wouldn't be doing website development on it, but I probably would use it in my car for a GPS nav system, then take it inside the doctor's office with me so my kids can watch videos on it while we wait for their appointments, browse the web from the couch, use it to wirelessly control my media center or start/stop music/videos/pictures on any connected screen in my house, etc. It's more of a generic lifestyle play in my opinion than a vertical market device.

    My current tablet (a Toshiba M200) only gets 1.5 hours of battery life. I'm guessing the smaller screen on these devices will consume less power, and the 3 hour rating on the Samsung Q1 looks great to me. Rumors are that 8 hour batteries are coming next year. With Intel's upcoming chip developments, these things are only going to get more powerful and more useful. But yes, there will always be a tradeoff between portability and usability.

    I'm not sure how men are going to carry it around. Will this make the manbag popular? Maybe a Chewbacca-esque shoulder strap. Scott eVest will probably come up with something practical and trendy and solar-powered.

    The "launcher" app does look very nice for a finger-driven UI.

    When I play theremin in public, I bring along my Pocket PC to play my accompaniment tracks. This looks far more useful and capable of running a lightweight drum machine, softsynth, or even just for recording or podcasting the event live.

    I'm going to wait for v2 hardware though. That $500 target price point seems like the right place for this to land.

  • admin

    Great points, there, and thanks for sharing your somewhat more educated perspective!

    Well, I should add, as well, there's a USB and FireWire port on both the Asus and Samsung machines, so you could plug in a keyboard controller for notation or some simple soft synth playback, which is pretty cool. And again, obviously that's not what the product makers were thinking, but that's the advantage of having standard PC I/O, which you don't have on a cell phone or PDA, so there must be zillions of other potential applications.

    I'll also say, at $500 (especially with that VGA port) I'm going to happily swallow my words and think about running out and buying one.

    But then, rather than market this as something entirely new, maybe this is best understood as the "any size you want" philosophy of the Windows / PC platform. This for me, and I suspect, for many other people, is simply not going to provide enough portability in exchange for the tradeoffs in power. Now, in a year, maybe these are all $500, and have built-in 3G networking, at which point you can take everything I said and forget it.

    BUT . . . if you have PDAs, mini-tablets (which is really what these are), tablets, laptops, and desktop machines, you definitely have the choice to pick what you want, rather than what someone else (me, Microsoft, product vendors, Apple) thinks you want. And that's a very good thing.

    I'm especially interested to see what happens with the existing tablet line with this tech. If you take the existing tablets and make the cheaper, faster, and lighter, the same product category that's been lukewarm for the past few years could heat up fast.

    And I do hope Apple will enter this category, too, though I don't know if we will. Ironically, it might make people on the PC side start to see the utility of different sized devices and tablet input.

  • richardl

    When I saw this thing I immediately thought of half-a-dozen applications including a KaosPad, a pocket Theremin, wifi iTunes from my living room couch to my Airport Express-enabled stereo, a pocket sequencer/drum machine etc.

    Any portable device represents a trade off between performance, battery life, weight and features such as screen size and resolution and integrated keyboards and drives.

    I welcome this "platform" as broadening the definition of the underrated and underexploited Windows Tablet PC. (You quickly dismiss the Tablet PC's as underpowered for music applications in your article, but don't forget that the typical Tablet PC is just as fast or faster than most PowerBooks that musicians have been loving for years. Obviously people can compensate for lack of performance if a device delivers other things they want.) With a couple of exceptions such as the smaller Motion Computing and Fujitsu models, the available TabletPCs have mostly fallen into a couple of limited configurations. Origami hopefully will widen the range of available options and open up the platform for more uses in creative and media applications.

    Do not overlook that since these devices are running the full version of Windows XP TPCE they can run just about any standard Windows software and peripherals. That's a huge advantage compared to other PDAs and handheld devices. (Compare the sequencers that are available for Windows with those that are available for Palm or PocketPC.) These devices will have card slots and ports for expansion using standard devices.

    The promoters of these devices admit that they are not perfect. But they point out that as more targetted development is done over the next few years they should become considerably more efficient and powerful. That development will progress faster if there's a market.

    I've been using a Toshiba Tablet PC for a couple of years now. I run Ableton Live on it and do multitrack recording using a Firewire I/O device to an external hard drive. I also run Alias Sketchbook Pro and even some light 3D applications. My next laptop will also probably be a tablet because even though it's not as fast as the latest traditional laptops it is a more direct and subtile interface for interactive applications.

  • admin

    I have nothing against the larger tablets — to the contrary, I think they have finally hit the price/performance ratio they need. I really regretted getting the Toshiba Satellite that became my most recent PC, because I would rather have had a tablet, especially for scoring and live performance. (Actually, the tablets got a lot cheaper / better right after I bought my PC laptop. As usual.)

    I meant that you pay a premium for performance, and hit a lower overall performance window relative to laptops, somewhat similar to laptops vs. desktops (though nowhere near as pronounced.)

    No, my point is, I love the tablets . . . and this diminishes the tablets' new-found laptop-class performance. At $500, or even $600, that's totally forgivable. Closer to $1000, I'd hold onto my money until prices come down or just get a full-fledged tablet. It seems worth an extra pound or a few inches for the bigger machine . . . especially when some full-sized tablets have gotten below 3 lbs. and the extra inches give you display space.

    I do hope one of the readers here gets one of these things and uses it for music, because I'd love to see that application. I'm just skeptical for the mass-market. This looks like a niche machine to me, just wedged between markets.

    The tablets in general, however, I think will pick up for all the great reasons you mention here. And frankly, Richard, I'm jealous of your tablet. ;-)

    Oh, and one more thing! (Sorry, I shoudn't be blabbering on like this; the comments space is for you!) I AM really interested in the X/Y controller space. Imagine designing a custom 3D interface in Jitter. It won't be multi-touch like the Lemur, or pressure sensitive like a Wacom, but it can also be whatever you want. Both the Samsung and Asus tablets have Ethernet out jacks, so you could transmit that data as OSC, as well, keeping your laptop for the heavy lifting.

    Damnit, have my latest attempts to NOT empty my wallet failed again? (I said that the mass market might resist, not me neccessarily!)

    Peter

  • ThereminWorld

    Re: the existing tablet PC line, I think you'll see these stick around. Those are primarily intended for information workers, and the UMPC is definitely a consumer market play. I could maybe see UMPCs going vertical for some applications like UPS delivery vans, doctor's offices, car PCs, etc. but time will tell.

    For any kind of heavyweight creativity app, such as 3D, photoshop, multitrack recording, etc. I'd stick with a power box. Think of your UMPC as an extension of these devices though – perhaps a remote control/monitoring device rather than the actual brains behind the processing.

    I did recently see an article that intel will release WiFi+WiMax chips soon, so that'll bring the pervasive wireless access onto the UMPC next year (I'm guessing). We'll see who rolls it out as far as broadband carriers, but I bet you won't be limited to using cellphone companies for your mobile provider anymore – you'll have options like using Skype or other VOIP apps on your Pocket PC or UMPC.

  • richardl

    The thing that many people don't get about the process that Intel and MS are using to develop this platform is that it's nothing like Apple's "spawned fully formed and feature complete (if not a bit expensive) as a surprize from Steve Jobs' pants" model.

    I think it helps to think of Origami/UMPC as a sort of like the stakes they pound in the ground before they build a house.

    That the initial products may not meet actually fit within those stakes is not that important. They've set those parameters up as an objective. It's also not that important that those stakes in the ground don't very well match what you or I want from a tablet. The point that's important is that they are defining broader objectives for Tablet computers.

    Those objectives now include consumers, they include increased portability, they include lower price points. Those are all good. Hopefully you'll see the market embrace some set of those objectives to drive the development of UMPCs and Tablets in directions that overlap our needs for MIDI sequencing etc.

    Some of those markets may not be here in the US. The primary driving market for ultralight laptops has been Japan. Most ultralight models are not even sold in the US. Likewise, it's very likely UMPC will take off in China or elsewhere among a completely different demographic. But all that contributes to the engine that drives the technology forward, reduces costs and improves efficiency and performance.

    Price is just one of those objectives, and it's just gauged by cost. Prices come down. Tablet PCs were $3000 when they were introduced a couple years ago. Models at a similar point within a company's product line are now $2000. (eg Toshiba Portege-line tablet)

  • admin

    Well said, both Richard and Jason. To me, all of this raises interesting points about how the PC makers view their market — why segment the market into "information workers" and "consumers," given the laptop PC managed to please both? In short, why has no one successfully rethought the laptop? The last major design evolution was the PowerBook 100's thrust-forward trackball. (Prior to that, PCs I believe pioneered the arguably more significant folding design — was Toshiba first? I can't remember.)

    The key component seems to be not size, but interface, and Origami doesn't go far enough. The touchscreen is what could seal the deal. If you think about it, the success of the Treo/Blackberry category is rethinking the phone with thumb-friendly keyboards. Yes, it looks like a QWERTY, but what it's fundamentally about is a one-fingered interface. If someone can land the touchscreen interface, they can own this market — and not just in Asia.

    This is an incredibly difficult time to *add* a product category, with tablets, laptops, desktops, mini-desktops, home entertainment desktops, cell phones, media phones, music phones, smart phones, GPS phones, PDAs, smart PDAs, PDA phones, PDA music phones, portable gaming systems, slightly smaller portable gaming systems . . . I'll stop. I'm not holding up Apple as an example of how to do everything. If anything, Apple's history has been marked with making the mistake of trying to lay "stakes in the ground" before the market and product was ready — Newton and the business problems with the original Macintosh come to mind. But I think the ball is in Microsoft's and Apple's courts to create a more compelling interface in the software itself. That's what will drive a new platform. We've got lots of fantastic, really cool form factors, this being one of them. If you can innovate in software, you really could change the way people use mobile tech.

    Thanks for the terrific feedback and debate here; this does really make me think about these problems differently. And it's particularly cool that a device starts lively discussion and disagreement! (Thanks for letting me think through this out loud, and get challenged on my own sometimes limited perspective!)

  • LinuxMusic

    Check out addt'l pictures at extremetech:
    http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,1697,193613

  • admin

    My colleagues at Macworld got a chance to try this one out:
    http://www.macworld.com/news/2006/03/09/handsonq1

    And yes, it is creating a stir among Mac users. Note, though, the price: US$1199? That's even higher than expected. Sure, prices may come down, but recall that releasing the original tablet PC before it was ready killed what could have been some great buzz.

  • cobalt

    I agree that a UMPC is more likely to hook you up with createdigitalmusic.com than offer much audio processing power. But… I remember reading about a guy who put a Mac Mini (the older version) in a rack to run Guitar Rig.

    Also, the Pocket PC platform runs special purpose optimized software, including things like a frequency analyzer, metronome, chord dictionary, stereo CD quality recorder, VNC, simple sequencers, etc. The major limitation of the PPC is the lack of floating point operations. These low power UMPCs are much more advanced than the PPC.

    A UMPC won't run NI Komplete, but with optimized software built for low power chips and a touchable user interface, it could be a really useful tool. I point this out because even with VNC, a UMPC will be more efficient of the main sequencer program has an optimized touchscreen interface.

    I'm interested in the UMPC for work related reasons, but one of the first things I'm going to do with one is load ASIO4ALL and see how it does with simple programs like Adobe Audition.

  • jonyo

    I guess the OQO thing is actually available for sale now, although the prices are a bit on the crazeeee side. No casual hobbyists are gonna buy this little jewel! Check it out at http://www.oqo.com. Too bad, even though I'm a pretty die hard Mac guy, I dig the OQO stuff, at least from the spoecs and the pictures showing the usability, even though I've never had the chance the try one out in person.

    Why all the hype over the massively underwhelming Origami thing, when OQO did it first, and better it seems, and no one seemed to care much. Maybe some other people beat OQO to it too, when I wasn't paying attention, I don't know.

    Hmm…

    – JonYo