OQO Model 01+ Review

by Reads (10,403)

The OQO Model 01+ is not quite a handheld computer, not quite a tablet, and not quite a laptop, but mimics functions of all three. It’s a 1 GHz desktop PC crammed into a package 5 inches long and 3.4 inches wide.

 

Design & Construction

Upon opening the package, I was a little surprised by the OQO’s size. I was expecting something closer in size to the Sony Vaio U50 that I had for awhile. The U50 was close to the size of a paperback book, while the OQO is halfway between the U50 and an average Windows Mobile Pocket PC. Of course, the expectation of size wasn’t diminished by the OQO’s packaging, which was a large black box more suitable to a pair of sneakers than an electronic device. The purpose of that box, though, is to house the massive pile of accessories that comes with an OQO review unit.

Left to right: Cingular 2125 smartphone, OQO, Dell Axim X51v

Included with our device was a second battery, docking cable, stand, car charger, and a variety of other little sundries.

Along the bottom of the device we have the power plug, docking connectors, a scroll wheel, and the one internal USB port.

The left side is adorned only by a 4-pin FireWire port. Don’t ask me what the silver block is, I don’t know. Topside is the stylus, a lanyard eyelet, and the exhaust port for the cooling fan. The right side is host to the headphone jack and speaker, along with an identical odd silver thing. 

If you press up on the screen, the device slides apart to reveal the keyboard, complete with a Trackpoint-style mouse controller on the right, and a numeric keypad.

The OQO can also be used in portrait mode.

The design of the OQO is highly unremarkable. It resembles nothing so much as a large, flat brick that you might use to pave a walkway. It’s inelegant, but at its size and weight, there’s only so much that you can do with design.

 

Hardware

Processor: 1 GHz Transmeta Crusoe processor
Operating System: Windows XP Tablet PC Edition
Display: 800 x 480 WVGA LCD; 8 MB integrated video accelerator
Memory & Storage: 512 MB RAM; 30 GB hard drive
Size & Weight: 4.9 inches long x 3.4 inches wide x 0.9 inches deep, 14 ounces
Expansion: 1x USB port; 1x FireWire port; optional docking cable
Docking: Optional docking cable
Communication: 802.11g WiFi; Bluetooth; optional ethernet
Audio: 3.5mm headphone jack; one internal speaker
Battery: 3.7 volt, 4000 milliamp-hour rechargable Lithium Ion battery; optional replacement battery
Input: EM digitizer; thumb keyboard

 

Processor

Don’t mistake the 1 GHz Crusoe processor in the OQO for being the equivalent to a 1 GHz Pentium or anything else. The Crusoes are built from the ground up for devices where low power consumption is a top priority, mainly ultraportable notebooks. But this low power consumption has a severe cost in performance. At maximum speed, the 1 GHz Crusoe is roughly equivalent in maximum power to a 600 MHz Pentium 3 Mobile processor. That’s not a lot of power to be pushing Windows XP. Complicating the situation is the fact that the processor often scales back its speed in order to further reduce power draw–in testing, I almost never saw it go over 800 MHz, and it frequently dropped as low as 300 MHz. In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s the equivalent of running Windows XP on a 200 MHz Pentium 2.

All that said, the Crusoe does a heroic job of staggering along under the weight. For light usage, Windows XP actually does well. It’s not entirely speedy, but it is responsive, and you can do things like web browsing with a reasonable degree of comfort.

But light usage is one thing. Once you really get cranking, the wheels don’t exactly come off, but they do start to wobble ominously. On an irregular basis, the system will start to hitch, slowing down to the point where the mouse input starts skipping, or even refusing to respond to input at all. In these cases, all you can do is wait a couple of seconds until the system has caught up. I have yet to see a crash result from this, but I wouldn’t rule it out either.

On the bright side, the Crusoe produces vastly less heat than the Celeron processor in the Vaio U50 that I had. The device’s metal casing rarely becomes more than moderately warm, and it’s even rarer that the internal cooling fan would have to kick on. This is much apprecciated, since the U50’s heat production was a major drawback to its portability. Unlike the U50, you could put the OQO in a small bag or pouch while it was running without worrying that the machine would overheat and fry itself.

 

Operating System

The OQO comes with the user’s choice of Windows XP flavors. XP Home is preinstalled on the “cheapest” OQO model, at a mere $1900. XP Pro is available for an extra $100, and Tablet PC edition for just $200 extra. Our review unit came loaded with Tablet PC edition, which includes handwriting recognition out of the box, as well as various interface tweaks designed for a pen-driven system, rather than one operated by a mouse. Of course, none of these editions of XP include Microsoft Office–to get that, you’ll have to either supply it yourself, or pay another $300 to get it included with the unit. Assuming that you get both XP Tablet and Office, that totals up to $2400.

Ironically, the stock version of Windows XP on the Vaio U50 felt more comfortable than did the Tablet PC Edition on the OQO. The Tablet edition is designed for larger, higher resolution screens, and didn’t take all that well to the oddball resolution used by the OQO, which is below the usual minimum. Several times, dialogs would end up being jammed into the vertical space of the screen, resulting in bottom-tier buttons like Okay and Close being hidden by the Windows taskbar. To prevent this, the OQO has the taskbar set to be hidden by default, but this makes it nearly impossible to bring up with the stylus. So you’re faced with something of a trade-off.

Other than that, there’s a definite learning curve to using XP on a small-screen device. With the interface elements being smaller, you have to be much more precise in how you tap. This fact is further compounded by the OQO’s digitizer, which I’ll discuss below. The truth is that desktop operating systems aren’t as suited to micro-mobile devices as a purpose-built operating system is, because the latter is designed for ease of use on a small screen. Windows XP does best on a larger tablet or laptop, and shoehorning it into a 5″ screen with a nonstandard resolution causes problems. It’s adequate for some things like web browsing, but I wouldn’t want to try and use it as a personal information manager the way you would a handheld, or for things like word processing.

 

Display

The OQO’s display is highly eclectic. Rather than being a more standard 800 x 600 SVGA resolution, the company opted for a 800 x 480 screen, dubbed “widescreen VGA.” Most standard Windows applications adapt well to this sort of resolution, displaying more or less as they normally do. You get less desktop space, of course, but that’s to be expected.

Web browsing comparison: left, OQO & Internet Explorer 6. Right, Axim X51v & Opera Mobile 8.5

When a program wants more space than the OQO’s screen provides–say, a game hard-coded to 800 x 600–the device compensates by allowing you to scroll up and down in order to see the full screen. While useful for some things, it makes others virtually pointless. Still, they had to do something, and this is probably the best and most practical solution, even if it does rule out some applications.

Rather than use a touch-sensitive digitizer for pen-driven input, as most handhelds and the Vaio U50 do, the OQO opts for an electromagnetic pen system, as seen on larger tablet PCs. If you’re not familiar with this type of interface, it’s relatively simple. The device ships with a specially-constructed pen, to which the sensors under the screen are sensitive to. These sensors can track the pen when it’s in proximity to the screen, and thus cause it to move the mouse cursor. Moving the pen in to touch the screen is interpreted as a click. A button mounted on the pen allows you to perform a right-click, and can also be used for specialty applications like drawing.

The big downside of this is that you can only use the standard stylus. No fingertips, no combination pen/stylus widgets, just the standard stylus, and replacements designed for the EM digitizers of tablet PCs. While this does mean that you don’t have to worry about brushing up against the screen and causing it to do something, it also means that you can’t easily replace a lost stylus.

 

Memory & Storage

The OQO includes the sort of specs for memory and storage that you would expect to see on a decent but not Earth-shattering laptop computer. The main impressive thing here is the fact that it’s using a 1.8 inch hard drive, the kind seen in most iPods, rather than a larger laptop style drive. Out of the box, the OQO has about 23 GB of free space on it. With its battery life, though, a jukebox it does not make.

 

Size & Weight

The OQO is impressively minimal in size for everything that it packs in, beating out its main competitor by a considerable margin. But that doesn’t mean that it’s small.

Allow me to explain. The OQO is in no way pocketable. Not even the biggest of jacket pockets could comfortably carry this thing without it becoming an inconvenience. It’s strictly intended for a bag or briefcase. It’s also heavy, much more so than any solid-state handheld. You start packing in all that hardware, and the thing gets rather weighty rather quickly. On the other hand, it’s far smaller and lighter than any notebook or tablet PC. While I’m sure that there are people out there who want to carry a one pound laptop, I think most people will be better served by going sticking a regular laptop or tablet in their bag, and keeping a smaller device on their person such as a handheld or smartphone.

 

Expansion

The OQO doesn’t have much at all in the way of expansion capabilities native to the device. Unlike the Vaio or most solid-state handhelds, the OQO doesn’t include any kind of standard expansion slot on the body. If you want to add a peripheral, you have to do it via USB. For obvious reasons, this could become rather difficult, and it also prevents the user from taking advantage of services like aircards. If you want wireless internet, it has to be via WiFi or Bluetooth.

 

Docking

Instead of having a docking station that integrates all the extra ports that the device can support, the OQO relies instead on a docking cable. This is a roughly 4-foot long affair with various plugs placed along the length. These include power, ethernet, Firewire, VGA, USB, and audio out. While I thought it was pretty stupid at first, I’ve come to apprecciate the design more. It spreads out the connectors, making it easier to attach various things, rather than having many different plugs all coming into the back of a docking station. Still, I’d like to see the two designs combined, and have a proper docking station that can also support the cable. As it is, the OQO is likely to fall out of its stand if you attach that cable to it, and even it it doesn’t it looks very funny.

 

Communication

The OQO combines both desktop and mobile communication options. Wireless ethernet, USB, and Bluetooth are available directly, with wired ethernet and yet more USB ports available via the use of the docking cable. WiFi range was about at good as you could expect from a small antenna, packed into a metal case, with all the other electronics in proximity. The Bluetooth implementation is a little finicky, but I managed to get it working well enough to transfer files to and from my other devices.

 

Audio

The built-in speaker on the OQO is decent, but not extraordinary. For more than basic beeps, headphones are advised. That said, quality over headphones is typically good, and if you wanted to stock two or three batteries, you could probably use the OQO as a reasonable credible movie player or jukebox.

 

Battery

Due to it’s ultra-low-power CPU and hard drive, the OQO gets along on far less power than its larger siblings. It runs on a single-cell, 3.7 volt Lithium Ion battery, rated at 4000 milliamp-hours. According to the manufacturer, it goes up to three hours on a single charge. I’ve found this estimate to be pretty accurate, with the OQO lasting between 2 and 3 hours depending on usage. Not great, and not up to the level of most handhelds, but roughly in line with a marginal notebook computer. I’m not particularly happy with this. If you’re going to sacrifice so much in terms of processor speed, you should at least get enhanced battery life by way of compensation.

 

Input

There’s really no way around it–the OQO’s keyboard is bad. It’s a membrane-type keyboard, meaning that there aren’t actual buttons so much as there are raised rubber spots that you press. Each of these is depressingly small. You can press them with decent accuracy, but speed is severely compromised.

To add insult to injury, the keyboard has no form of lighting whatsoever. Trying to find a button in the dark is quite impossible, because there’s no backlight and no light shed on the keyboard by the screen. Eventually, I had to pull out a USB flex-light that I happened to have in storage and plug it into the OQO in order to shed a little light on the keyboard. For obvious reasons, this just won’t do for serious use. I’d say that the OQO’s keyboard is so far gone as to present little benefit over a device like the Vaio that has no keyboard.

Unfortunately, the digitizer on my review unit seemed to lack precision. Even after calibrating it several times, I found that it just wandered too much to be reliable. The problem is that the mouse cursor as directed by the pen tends to “wobble,” meaning that it moves around a little bit even when the pen is relatively still. This makes it difficult to tap accurately, because half the time the cursor interprets your tap as a click-and-drag command rather than a simple click. I’d hate to try and edit documents on this thing.

The digitizer’s focus also tends to wander around the right hand edge of the screen, making it difficult to tap on the scrollbar in a reliable manner. At first I thought it might have been just my unit, but after checking around I’ve heard other people’s accounts describing the exact same thing. It may still be a limited problem, but there is a chance that you’re going to get a device that doesn’t tap correctly.

 

Conclusion

The OQO seems like a great idea going in, but the controls, the usability, and the simple engineering realities do a lot to knock it down. I think that the OQO would have been better off, rather than the slide-out keyboard, using a twist-and-flip design along the lines of the Sharp Zaurus C-series, or the various “convertible” notebook/tablet PCs. This would have allowed for a larger, more comfortable keyboard, lighting, and better controls, without excessively compromising the small size.

Even so, it wouldn’t have been an ideal device. I think the truth is that the micro-tablet is simply not a device whose time has come. The processor requirements for running a desktop OS are far too high, the power needed to drive that processor is too significant. A near-pocketable device just doesn’t have the resources to do it–you end up deficient in either battery life, or speed, or both. The OQO comes about as close as possible to threading the needle, but it’s not very practical yet. Looking over the device, my overall impression is that for it’s adequate for basic tasks. For $3000 worth of hardware, “adequate” is very bad indeed.

The OQO’s pricing starts at $1900, and a model configured the same as our review unit is well over $3000. Given this, I really don’t know how Intel and Microsoft can claim that they’re going to have devices with much superior specs selling for under $500 in the timeframe they say. Until and unless there’s a massive breakthrough in certain technologies, these devices will for the time being remain an extremely niche item, for people who absolutely cannot live without having full PC functions, but refuse to tolerate the size of a conventional tablet or notebook PC. Given the compromises, I’m afraid that’s going to be a pretty small market.

Pros:

  • Micro-laptop specs
  • Small compared to other tablets and mini-tablets

Cons:

  • Incredibly expensive
  • Awkward controls
  • Slow

Bottom Line:

A cool concept, but desperately in need of refinement.


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