Technology for the rest of us: Ultra Mobile PCs

Technology is getting more and more complex, but at the same time, amazing technological benefits are available to us average Joes without too much fiddling around. That is what this column will be covering.

Every Monday, right here on WalletPop, I'll feature an easy-to-use hack, gadget or service that can really make your life better, save time, or save money. Geeks, technophiles and early adopters have plenty of other places to look for hot new technologies to try. Here you'll find technology for the rest of us.

I've been intrigued with tiny, yet functional, laptops ever since I first spotted a women pulling one out of her purse and thought, "Hey! That would easily fit in my coat pocket. How convenient!" Well, that is, until I saw the price.

But that doesn't have to stop you. There are some very affordable mobile devices out there this year, and if you really lust after a device that is not going to require a visit to the chiropractor after a long walk, you can probably afford one.

Why the UMPC is about to rock out:

The Ultra-Mobile PC (or UMPC) is nothing new. A small form factor laptop, it fills the gray area somewhere between hopped up smartphones and full featured laptops. The screen is usually smaller than 7 inches (compared with 12 inches and up for most standard laptops), resulting in a laptop with its width somewhere between a sheet of paper and a DVD case.The UMPC is not new to the world. Popular in South Korean and Japanese markets, many UMPCs spotted at an airport are imports from those regions. Computer manufacturers in the U.S. and many European markets have marketed laptops based on bigger, faster, and better. But the UMPC is increasingly being marketed to anyone who's likely to be on the move.

The appeal used to simply be that they weighed less and took up less space. Why carry around that 5-6 pound behemoth in that bulky bag when you could slip a UMPC in a coat pocket, in your briefcase, or in your purse? And even though UMPCs could be underpowered, leaving unsatisfied users, the appeal of a light, small computer was enough to drive the nascent market for quite some time. This also applied to sub-notebooks: smaller notebooks that had the same features, but in a smaller package.

There's a big shift coming, though. And it's thanks to the likes of Web 2.0 companies like Google, Zoho, and Omnidrive. What these companies do is take the heavy crunching and data and keep it on their servers. You access your email, your calendar, or a database, or back your information up to these places. Your laptop, your desktop, your cellphone, these all become windows to your networked information, not devices that hold that information inside them.

More and more your computer doesn't need fancy programs and raw power. It just needs to run a solid web browser and do it well, and serve up some good wireless access. And there are two solid entries in this field that most of us can afford.

The semi-affordable UMPC:

You can find Kohjinsha and Fujitsu U series UMPC (some call them sub-notebooks) online for $1000-$1500. Dynamism.com is one of the easiest places to browse for a full selection of UMPCs. They take Japanese market laptops, put English-language operatings systems on them, and sell them online. The Kohjinsha and the Fujitsu are about the size of a trade paperback novel, and feature 7 inch screens, keyboards, and can fold up for easy reading. Both are well under 2 pounds.

But when Microsoft began creating software for the UMPC market, and various manufacturers began to experiment with the form factor. The idea was originally to get down to creating a device in the $500 range: just above a smartphone with a contract, and less than a regular laptop.

And it's in that next category that both budget consciousness and portable computing have started to meld.

The very affordable UMPC:

While many might put in a good argument for the iPhone being a UMPC, for the purpose of this article lets just leave it in the smartphone camp, where many of those devices are starting to blur the boundary between smartphone and UMPC. However the iPhone and smartphones in general run more stripped down software packages with a whole ecology of their own. UMPCs will let you run whatever software you already like on your desktop or laptop, and that is their appeal.

First on the plate is the Nokia N810. For just under $500 you get a palm-sized internet device with a slideout keyboard. It runs Linux, not Windows, but features a full web browser. It's one of the hottest gadgets for this Winter season, and it's no surprise why. With an built in GPS, it's not that much more expensive than a top of the line GPS device, and it lets you do so much more.

But if you need something more laptop-like, and not the pocket-sized Nokia, then you need the budget-busting Asus Eee PC. Originally planned to be a $250 laptop, Asus was forced to jack the price all the way up to $399, disappointing some technology enthusiasts, due to a jump in some component prices that Asus hadn't expected.

The Eee PC features a full keyboard, a webcam, wireless, USB ports, and a 7 inch screen. It weighs just over four pounds. Like the Nokia, it runs Linux. This is to save money. Some people have installed their own copies of Windows on it, many have found the Linux set up to meet all their needs. After all, it does have a full functional web browser that many are familiar with: Firefox.

With more and more computing power leaving the desktop for external services, there really is no reason why one shouldn't consider looking into light and cheap for their own portable devices rather than spending thousands for a souped-up laptop one might not really need.

Tobias Buckell is an author, freelance writer, and professional blogger.

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