Almost two years ago, Microsoft launched a bizarre viral marketing campaign for something called Origami, which was later revealed to be part of the Ultra-Mobile PC, or UMPC, initiative. UMPCs are basically touch screen-capable ultra-small form factor mobile computers, sort of sub-sub-notebooks that eschew traditional keyboards and pointing devices in favor of a smaller, highly-portable form factor. If you've ever seen the original OQO device, which was sort of a proto-UMPC, you get the idea: It's larger than a PDA but smaller than the smallest slate Tablet PC.

The first generation of UMPC devices ran Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and was criticized for being somewhat pointless, a solution to a problem no one had. Part of the problem, of course, was finding the right fit with users: Microsoft had this notion about a portable computing experience that would utilize a 7-inch screen and weigh less than 3 pounds, but it wasn't clear what the audience was. So with the first generation UMPC, the company targeted consumer enthusiasts--thus the viral marketing campaign--but that proved to be a mistake. The devices sold poorly when they hit the market in early 2006.

The UMPC form factor, not surprisingly, has been at the center of some heated debates. Because it is too large to place in a typical pocket, but too small to contain a useable keyboard (at least by traditional mobile PC standards), the UMPC occupies an interesting but perhaps unnecessary segment of the market. I suspect that Palm faced a similar decision when it opted to cancel its Folio project this year: It's unclear that customers are really looking for a device that's larger than a cell phone but smaller than a sub-notebook.

What Microsoft was doing with the UMPC at a software level, however, was interesting. The company had created a touch-enabled software front-end to XP called the Origami Experience and had configured XP to be optimized for both the capabilities and limitations of the devices at the time. This provided customers with the familiar Windows user experience but also some unique capabilities that were specific to the UMPC platform. Think of it this way: Microsoft was pushing an ultra-mobile touch user interface years before Apple entered the market with the iPhone.

A Vista Origami

For the second go-round, Microsoft fine-tuned the software, based it around Windows Vista, and worked with a new generation of more efficient hardware. It's still performance-challenged, thanks to the limitations of the ultra-low-voltage (ULV) processors that must be used to power such devices, but various hardware makers and Microsoft have worked in concert to create more interesting solutions that will appeal to a wider audience. And somewhat surprisingly, UMPCs are heading to the enterprise, and though you might want to hold off until yet another chipset generation appears in early 2008, these devices are a potentially compelling solution for those who need to work and connect on the go.

The primary advantage of a UMPC, of course, is that it's a real PC. It runs real Windows software, albeit somewhat slowly, and it can do so in even the most cramped of situations, like your typical airline coach seat. The battery life is fantastic, and much better than anything I've seen from traditional business notebooks, especially if you're running typical application software. (Battery life during media playback is mediocre; a Samsung Q1 Ultra I've been testing gets about 4 hours of life with business applications, but only about 2 playing back movies.)

Thanks to a variety of innovative hardware designs, you'll see interesting keyboard and pointing device solutions. For example, the Q1 Ultra that I've been testing since mid-summer features an amazing and tiny smart phone-like thumb keyboard, split in half so that there are some keys on each side of the screen. Holding the device with two hands, as you would naturally, the keys are right where your thumbs are, and work just like the keyboard on the smart phone you're probably already using. I wouldn't want to type this article on that keyboard, but it's great for email, Web browsing, document editing, and other tasks, and is certainly much better than an on-screen virtual keyboard (which is also available, of course). When you're back at the office, you can plug into USB keyboards and mice, and even an external screen, and have a desktop-like experience. A slow desktop-like experience.

UMPC software

While the underlying operating system on a UMPC is a stock version of Vista with full Tablet PC capabilities enabled--Vista Ultimate in my case--Microsoft has added a number of UMPC-specific software solutions to the mix as well, and of course various PC makers will supply their own device-specific utilities as well. Here are some of the software applications you can expect to see on a typical UMPC.

Touch Settings

Part of Vista, this application is enabled when you're using a touch-capable screen or device. It's a full screen application that lets you optimize and customize the touch settings on the PC. Optimize, in this case, increases the size of Start Menu items, scroll bars, title bars, the taskbar, icons, and buttons, making them easier to tap with your fingers. You can also optimize the IE 7 UI for touch, and enable or disable the Tablet Input Panel (TIP).

Origami Experience

The Origami Experience is the poster-child of the UMPC world, a unique Microsoft application that combines the simplicity and basic look and feel of Media Center with a touch-enabled interaction scheme. While it's geared primarily towards entertainment--three of four major buttons in the initial UI are related to music, video, and pictures--it can also be used as a straightforward program launcher.

To my eyes, Origami Experience looks like a specialized version of the Windows Mobile UI with a static set of media player buttons on the bottom. And that's a good thing: The interface is colorful, obvious, and easy to use. There are quick link buttons on the top for task switching (Windows Flip), battery life, and wireless signal, but most of the screen is occupied by large, colorful icons that are easy to look at and, more important, easy to tap with your finger.

Aside from music, video, and pictures, Origami provides a fourth option, Programs, which opens to reveal five sub-categories: Connect, Communicate, Entertainment, More Programs, and Tools. Of course, once you launch any of the applications displayed within these groups, you're popped out of the Origami Experience. This is somewhat jarring, of course, but then I don't think it's reasonable for Microsoft to replace the entire Windows UI. (On the other hand, there are some inconsistencies: Sudoku appears within Origami but not the Games Explorer for some reason.)

Microsoft says that the Origami Experience isn't just about a new UI, or enabling touch access to most OS functions. Instead, this environment is optimized for what the company calls quick interactions. This is different from the typical Windows user interface, where you're probably multitasking and getting a number of things done in tandem. In Origami, the expectation is that you're typically doing just one thing, or performing a single task while also playing music. It's a new interaction method that's essentially single tasked by design.

Another way to view Origami is via a consumption/management perspective. For example, you won't manage your music collection from Origami or import CDs to the hard drive. Instead, you'll continue using Windows Media Player for those tasks. But Origami is a very simple UI for consuming content, like music, and in this way, it's very much like the first version of Media Center. (Which, since then, has evolved to include management and acquisition functionality as well.)

Dial Keys

Microsoft's take on the virtual keyboard is two crescent-shaped half-keyboards that appear in the lower left and lower right corners of the screen. (The standard Tablet PC-style virtual keyboard is also available, of course.) Feedback on this feature, called Dial Keys, has been mixed: Some users absolutely love it, while others prefer the tactile feel of a real keyboard. For this reason, many UMPC makers are building small keyboards directly into their devices as well. Apple is now dealing with complaints about its own virtual keyboard scheme in the iPhone; it will be interesting to see how they react to the same kinds of feedback from their own users.

Touch-enabled games and applications

Most UMPCs ship with a selection of Tablet- and touch-enabled games like InkBall and Suduko. There's also a version of Microsoft Reader, the company's eBook reader, designed specifically for Ultra-Mobile PCs. This version of Reader is particularly nice, and stretches the width of the page across the entire screen.

UMPC in the real world

While I'd like to describe the UMPC as a best of both worlds experience, even the least demanding mobile user would never want to use one of these devices as their only PC because of the performance issues. That said, I travel enough to understand how laborious it is to lug around even a mid-sized notebook, and traveling lighter is an ongoing goal of mine. Given my heavy writing needs, a UMPC doesn't quite measure up in my admittedly unusual case, and at the very least I'd need to carry along a USB keyboard and mouse in my checked luggage. I've brought the Samsung with me on the past few trips, and I'm doing so again as I write this from Seattle, for a Microsoft reviewer's workshop. The question I have is simple: Can the UMPC function as my sole PC during business trips?

As it turns out, no, it cannot, but that's largely because of the demanding needs of my job. (That said, I did write this review primarily on the UMPC, using a USB keyboard.) I typically travel with a high-end Windows Vista-based notebook that includes, among other things, a local version of the SuperSite Web site so I can work updates while traveling, a decent selection of digital media content for those hours stuck on planes with no room to really work, and a set of current articles that I'm working on at the time. I spend most of my time writing, emailing, and browsing the Web, and this all requires a reasonably well-equipped machine.

The UMPC is not such a machine. The Q1 Ultra I'm testing uses a lowly 800 MHz ultra-low-voltage processor mated to just 1 GB of RAM, a combination that is woefully inadequate for Windows Vista. I've tried to dumb down the UI in various ways to see how performance is impacted, but I can't see a difference between the Classic and Windows Vista Basic UIs from a speed standpoint, so I leave it on the more attractive Vista Basic. Not that it matters: Try to do two or more things at once and the memory dries up immediately and system performance comes to a screeching halt.

Some tasks are simply too demanding for the UMPC regardless of what else you're doing. Playing back a 1500 Kbps H.264 file in QuickTime or iTunes is almost impossible, and even Windows Media Player stumbles through these files with the appropriate codecs installed, providing a miserable overall experience. The supplied Origami Experience won't play these files at all, even with the right codecs installed.

For general note-taking in Word 2007 and simple online tasks (email, Web browsing), the UMPC works just fine, assuming you don't try to do both at once. A RAM bump to at least 2 GB--my recommended minimum for Vista--would likely do wonders, but these machines are never going to be performance champs, not in this generation. If your needs are far less demanding than mine, the UMPC may earn a place in your carry-on. But I don't recommend using it as your only PC regardless. This is more of a PC companion than a true PC, despite the underlying operating system and its capabilities. It doesn't matter if the device is compatible with something if it's not fast enough to run it effectively. This may just be the slowest computer I've ever used.

Final thoughts

While Intel is set to release more impressive ULV microprocessors and chipsets in early 2008 that should go a long way towards making the UMPC more viable than it is today, that's of little solace to anyone looking for this kind of device now. Here in late 2007, the UMPC is pretty much a non-starter for most users: While the Origami Experience is pleasant and well-designed, the underlying hardware is not even powerful enough to run mainstream multimedia content. Business users might be the best fit here: With a Wi-Fi connection and, preferably, a device with a keyboard, the UMPC is a somewhat capable email, Web, and productivity application solution. But again, you shouldn't dump your existing PC for one of these machines. While the software soars, the hardware is lagging behind by a generation or two. If you value portability above all else and fit the usage model, a UMPC could be a decent traveling companion, assuming you understand the limitations up front. Personally, I'm waiting for the next generation.