Can an ARCHOS UMPC Succeed Where All Others Have Failed?

Although I purchased three Samsung UMPCs in 30 months, I’m objective enough to admit that ultra mobile PCs have generally failed in the mainstream market. For specific needs of particular types of users — mobile geeks like me — the UMPC has a place. It’s a light and highly portable device running a full desktop operating system. But poor battery life, high prices and ineffective user interfaces for interaction and text entry were all obstacles to UMPC success. ARCHOS is the latest to give this market a go with their ARCHOS 9 pctablet and Steve Paine shares his experiences with the device over at UMPCPortal.

Even before I read Steve’s review, I questioned the approach taken by ARCHOS by tweeting this thought six days ago: “Riddle me this Batman: why would ARCHOS design a Windows 7 slate tablet and pair it with Starter Edition, which doesn’t support Tablet bits?” Yup, ARCHOS is offering a Microsoft-powered slate tablet without native Tablet PC support in Windows (s msft). I don’t suggest that including a higher edition of Windows would make the device a “must have,” but the decision simply makes no sense to me. As a result, ARCHOS depends on third-party on-screen keyboards, which just don’t compete to native Tablet PC integration and handwriting recognition.

And this touches upon one of those factors that held back UMPCs — input methods and UI. Everyone seems to want a portable or pocketable PC so they run everything they run on their desktop or laptop. I understand that desire, but it comes at a tradeoff that continues to get overlooked. A small device isn’t meant for a large UI and the full-featured software people want to use on a small screen is designed for larger screens, not to mention different input methods. Even Microsoft quietly admitted defeat in this area by essentially abandoning the Origami Experience software.

Based on the hardware configuration of a 1.1 GHz Intel Atom (s intc), 60 GB hard drive, 1 GB of RAM and 8.9″ touchscreen display at 1024 x 600 resolution, I figured ARCHOS can offer more battery life than the UMPCs of yore. That’s not case though — Steve estimates up to five hours. I was actually able to get five hours of run-time on my Samsung Q1UP with its 1.3 GHz Intel Core Solo, but the battery was hefty — I’d estimate it weighed more than the device itself. By comparison the ARCHOS 9 weighs 800 grams with the battery, so it gains a point there. But the performance suffers as a result of this setup. Steve’s benchmarks show performance numbers less than half that of my nearly two-year old UMPC.

Image Credit: UMPCPortal

Want to run Firefox on this? Be prepared to wait 10 seconds before it starts and don’t look to use more than a few tabs, says Steve. Add in poor YouTube video playback and generally no luck at all watching a WMV-HD file (which works on nearly all other netbooks of today) and you wonder about the configuration choice.

Die-hard UMPC users and people enamored by the admittedly nice-looking ARCHOS 9 hardware at around $700 probably think I’m being too harsh. Before you tell me that in the comments, read Steve’s impressions — in particular his summary. He’s as passionate about the form factor as I’ve been, yet I can’t really find one positive comment in his wrap up. The ARCHOS 9 might sell to rabid UMPC fans, but for the vast majority of folks, it simply demonstrates that nobody has got it right just yet. Could I get one and run with it as a mobile office? Sure I could — I’ve already done that time and again. But most consumers won’t want the hassle of a folding Bluetooth keyboard and sub-netbook performance for more than twice the price of a netbook. There’s just too much compromise yet to revive the UMPC market. 2010 might be the year of the tablet, but probably not the year of the UMPC.