Archive for June, 2006

UMPC as Primary PC

Monday, June 26th, 2006

Last weekend, my desktop system developed a major overheating issue. I attempted to correct the problem by replacing the CPU heat-sink and fan, but ended up messing something up and leaving the system unable to boot at all. As a result, it has been at the repair shop for the last week. This means that my UMPC has been serving as my primary PC for the past week, resulting in an interesting test of its overall usability.

My desktop PC is kept in our living room and even since I got my eo, I have mostly still been using the desktop system when I was in that room. Even for tasks like web surfing and email, I have mostly been using the UMPC when on the go or around the house in rooms other than the one where the desktop PC was located, particularly up in the bedroom. With the UMPC as the only PC available this week (unless I want to use my wife’s notebook PC), I have now expanded to using it anywhere in the house. What I have found is that this has helped to introduce me more to the wonders of “couch surfing”, the term that many in the UMPC community have used for web browsing from the couch while parked in front of the TV. While I admit that I almost feel a tad lazy web browsing in that way, I also get the feeling that I could get way too used to it. It is a bit decadent, but also pretty nice…

This week, I do wish that I already had the docking station cradle that has been announced for the eo, but not yet released. This cradle while add VGA and Ethernet ports as well as a couple extra USB connectors. If this were already available, I could have essentially used the eo as a desktop PC some of the time this week by hooking it up to the monitor, keyboard, and mouse that are currently going unused. The USB connectors on the eo itself do allow the use of the keyboard and mouse, if I want, but connecting it to the monitor isn’t really an option. There are a few USB-based video adapters on the market, but they tend to be expensive and also have a reputation for being very slow. I’d rather wait for the cradle. Admittedly, this is one case where the Samsung Q1 would have been advantageous, since it does have a VGA connector directly on the device. For me, though, this would really only have been advantages during this time that the docking station cradle isn’t yet available.

Even with the docking station unavailable, I am actually writing this blog post while sitting at the computer desk in my living room. I am using the extra stylus that was included with the eo as a stand (the plastic stand that TabletKiosk sent me is on my desk at work) and have just moved the full-sized computer monitor out of the way. Since space is pretty limited on my desk with the monitor still there, I am using my smaller Stowaway Bluetooth keyboard and the touchscreen/mouse stick instead of plugging in the full-sized keyboard and mouse. It would be nice to have this hooked to the bigger monitor, but I’m still finding this to work very well.

The biggest disadvantage that I have found to the use of the eo as my primary PC has been the poor battery life. With my desktop box in the shop, I have not yet sent in my eo for the recall service, so I’ve had to keep working around the way-too-short 1:20 battery life. Even once I do get the recall work done, that probably isn’t going to extend to much over 2 hours. That is still pretty short for fairly heavy usage. Of course, it isn’t extremely hard to keep the system on the charger much of the time when using it around the house, although even there it has been something of an inconvenience. I have a 2-year-old child, which means that I really can only use the eo on the charger in places where he can’t easily get at the cord. On weekends, my wife and I also typically spend some of the time taking turns hiding out in the upstairs bedroom while the other watches our son. It also still isn’t unusual to have to get up with the kid in the middle of the night on some days. With no desktop PC downstairs, I have run into a few occasions where the battery ran out and the charger was in the other part of the house. It actually has me considering getting another charger to keep downstairs, although I suspect this problem will be much less significant once the extended life battery is available.

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Data synchronization and the UMPC

Saturday, June 10th, 2006

Around the same time as this week’s release of the first public beta of Windows Vista, a ZDNet article reported that the previously-announced features designed to facilitate synchronization between multiple PCs were being removed from the list of included features planned for next year’s initial full release. This strikes me as an important and very disappointing bit of news for UMPC owners, as this promised Vista feature could have filled a fairly glaring hole in the current set of tools provided by Microsoft.

One of the most appealing aspects of a UMPC is that that it is a fully-functional Windows XP (and eventually Vista) PC without the dependency on a tether to a larger desktop or notebook system. Palm or Windows Mobile PDAs typically require such a tether for software installation, data initialization, or other similar tasks, but I think the greater power of the UMPC led Microsoft to the mistaken impression that synchronization tools were not really a requirement.

In reality, though, I strongly suspect that the majority of UMPC owners are going to experience a need to keep a lot of data synchronized between home and/or work systems and the UMPC. I find myself regularly copying documents, application data and settings, music, photos, and video from my home or work PC in order to maximize the mobility of all my core information. Since a UMPC is a more full-featured computer, a peer-to-peer style of synchronization makes more sense than the master-slave type used with PDAs or other similar portable devices (such as music players), but it still is needed.

Out of the box, readily available methods for transferring data between my TabletKiosk eo and other systems include shared drives over the wi-fi connection or the file transfer services that are standard to Bluetooth. The Samsung Q1 does provide a couple other file transfer options via the built-in CompactFlash slot and their inclusion of a USB 2.0 file-transfer cable (and software). Either of those options can also be available on the eo with additional $20-$30 purchases. I already picked up an inexpensive USB CF reader for my eo at the local Staples store and have ordered a file transfer cable as well to simplify transfers with my work PC, which doesn’t have Bluetooth or wi-fi available.

What is missing is software that automates the synchronization of data between the UMPC and the other systems. Without some form of third-party software, you can only manually copy files from one system to the other. I think this was a major omission in the design of the standard set of tools supplied by Microsoft for inclusion in every certified UMPC. Ideally, what is needed is a mechanism where, once appropriate data pairings between the UMPC and another PC have been set up, the synchronization would happen invisibly in the background while the system is idle. There probably would be a need for some kind of a notification mechanism for conflict situations (such as data modified separately on multiple systems), but most of the time it should work in a “set it and forget about it” manner.

Considering the high mobility of a UMPC, one key issue that any synchronization mechanism needs to deal with is that not all remote locations will be available at all times. In my own case, I can only access my home system while actually connected to my home network and can only access my work system after running a VPN client. A lot of the currently available solutions, including Microsoft’s own Foldershare synchronization service, seem to be very focused on overcoming this issue by creating ever-present accessibility via the public internet. This may be through the copying of files to a remote server or though special clients that run on each system and maintain a connection to a central server.

I can see the merit in these types of solutions under some circumstances, but there also need to be options that take into account that security needs very often dictate that data not be accessible outside of the local network. Corporate users, in particular, really are not going to be comfortable with potentially sensitive and confidential data being stored on someone else’s server or otherwise being made accessible out of the direct control of the company’s employees. In fact, the company that I work for has issued some pretty specific policies banning the use of remote data accessibility tools on systems connected to the company network. A complete synchronization solution needs to be able to detect whether or not a remote resource is actually available at any given time and handle either situation appropriately. (more…)