Review: UMID mbook M1
While preparing my full review of the UMID mbook M1 that came out of its box a few weeks ago, I started to compile a list of everything I liked and disliked about the compact clamshell device (1.33GHz Atom Z520, 512MB RAM, 16GB SSD, Windows XP). I don't normally make lists like this, preferring instead to put my final thoughts together after the meat of the review is written, so I didn't expect to end up deciding to ditch my standard review format after the list was done.
The list was just so unbalanced that I think sharing it will be more useful to prospective buyers than my typical style. See what I mean below.
I'll post the list (in alphabetical order) first for those who can't stay long and then flesh everything out to make the whole thing more "review-y" and substantial for everyone else.
MicroSD card slot
User community support
No convertible screen
No mouse pointer
WiFi and Bluetooth behavior
UMID mbook M1 Pros
Remember when UMPCs were always criticized for their poor battery life? Sure, there was the occasional exception that could run for more than 2.5 hours on a single charge, but up until only very recently, battery life was one of the worst features of the x86-based handheld computer. Well, no more! Today's MID-masquerading UMPCs (yes, the mbook M1 is a UMPC to me) have runtimes that can be bragged about; today's slim standard batteries are now putting in the hours of yesterday's bulky extended batteries.
The UMID mbook M1 is a great example of this. With WiFi and Bluetooth enabled and the screen set at mid-brightness, it's easy to get up to 5 hours of use between charges. Under certain conditions, it's not unheard of to push that number to over 6 hours.
Even though build quality is an issue with this device (more on this later), it's still solid and durable. The casing isn't ruggedized in any way, but it feels sturdy enough to throw around and withstand everyday wear and tear. I don't have to be extra careful when setting it down somewhere, handle it gingerly, or wrap it in a diaper when not in use.
One of the nice things about a clamshell design is the automatic screen protection. With sliders/slide-and-tilts (my favorite form factor) and slates, the display is always exposed and therefore more prone to scratches, smudges, and dust collecting in the corners.
The clamshell doesn't have this problem and is also much easier to slip into a pocket or put into a bag without a case. A convertible clamshell is probably the most versatile form factor since it can be used as a handheld, tablet, and mini laptop, but I think a non-convertible clamshell comes in second.
The UMID doesn't have the best thumb or multi-finger keyboard around, but its 56 keys are very good for both purposes. The unit is actually a hair too wide for my hands to have a perfectly comfortable thumb typing experience, but it's definitely more comfortable than other devices with a similar form factor. The keys have a good feel to them, press down easily with thumb or finger, and offer both tactile and audible (quiet tapping) feedback.
Other things I like about the keyboard are the dedicated number row and Fn key shortcuts, which provide quick access to brightness settings, volume, the battery meter, webcam, and standby mode.
Some may not be pleased with the single shift key on the left, but StickyKeys makes that a non-issue for me. What I do have trouble with, however, are the keys that require the Fn and shift keys to be pressed at the same time. This key combination is required to access basic punctuation like the question mark and double quotes, which I use often, and StickyKeys doesn't recognize it.
The reason this isn't a dealbreaker, though, is that the Fn and shift keys are stacked and can easily be held down with one finger/thumb.
Wondering about typing speeds? I'm thumb typing on the UMID mbook M1 at a net speed of about 45 wpm and multi-finger typing at about 47 wpm. You can see how these numbers compare to some other gadgets in my mobile device keyboard typing speeds chart.
MicroSD card slot
Expansion card slots of any kind are always a plus in my book, and the super tiny microSD card is definitely one of my favorites. A lot of phones, DAPs, and PMPs use this format, so I always have a few cards laying around.
A microSD card is a quick and inexpensive way to increase storage capacity and transfer files, making the size of the internal SSD and the absence of a standard USB port on the UMID mbook easy to work around.
Even though the M1 doesn't have top-of-the-line specs, few can find fault with the pairing of Windows XP and the 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z520 processor in a package this small.
It isn't the snappiest system ever made, mostly because it has only 512MB of RAM, but it's still enjoyably usable without any optimizations. Of course, performance can be greatly improved by using applications that aren't resource hogs and trimmed down Windows installations like nLite, but for basic computing tasks like web browsing and word processing, the M1 runs fine out of the box.
The mbook M1 has a nice bright screen that is viewable in direct sunlight (max brightness) and bright enough to make the keyboard visible in a dark room (shown below).
I don't know if the display actually has an anti-glare coating on it, but it certainly seems like it does. Whereas some devices can double as mirrors at lower brightness settings, you won't see your reflection when using the M1.
I can get by with an 800 x 480 display, but I'm much happier when UMPCs/MIDs have screens with a 1024 x 600 resolution.
Most websites are pretty well optimized for this resolution, so horizontal scrolling (which is a major nuisance) is almost never an issue.
Considering that the 11.1-ounce UMID mbook M1's specs are very similar to considerably larger devices like the Sony Vaio P and Willcom D4, its 6.2" x 3.7" x 0.7" casing is downright tiny.
There's no question about whether it can comfortably fit into a pocket either. And I'm not talking about one of those large pockets you find on jackets or cargo pants; I mean a regular jeans or front shirt pocket.
The UMID mbook has one of the fastest SSDs preinstalled on any mobile computer.
I've had my SSD-equipped Sony Vaio P for nearly four months now, and I don't think I'll ever buy another computer without an SSD. I'm just too spoiled by the quick boot time, non-moving parts, and low maintenance to go back to a spinning hard drive.
Particularly with a handheld device like the mbook, which is designed with mobility in mind, an SSD is really a must-have. It definitely adds to the durability factor mentioned earlier as well.
Like the Viliv S5 Premium, the mbook M1 also boasts such excellent standby battery time that there's no reason to ever hibernate the XP machine to conserve power when not in use. After 12 hours of being in standby, which awakens in seconds, my review unit saw a battery drain of just 11%. That's better than sleep mode in Vista!
Having a dedicated place on a device to store its stylus may not seem important, but to me it's a case of not appreciating what you have until it's gone.
I like not having to carry the stylus separately or leave it dangling from a strap loop; it's just tidier and more convenient.
The mbook's touchscreen is accurate and flawlessly responsive even to light touches. Windows XP may not be optimized for the finger, but with a few simple tweaks and the mbook M1's fantastic touchscreen, the OS is easy to navigate. Some of the smaller targets are still better suited for the stylus than the fingertip, but overall the touch experience is excellent.
When the device is used in laptop mode, the bottom half isn't really heavy enough to keep the unit from tipping over when the screen is tapped with too much force. Once you realize how lightly you can actually tap the screen to get things done, however, mbook tipping isn't a problem.
User community support
One of the drawbacks to buying a device that hasn't been released worldwide is often the lack of support. Whether you need help troubleshooting a problem, are looking for advice from a more experienced user, or just want to connect with other owners, it can be difficult to get any of it if the device in question doesn't have a mainstream following.
Fortunately, mbook users don't need to wait for the MID to take off before they have a place to gather. It's still in its infancy, but the UMID mbook M1 forum is currently the most active English-speaking community you'll find on the net. And it continues to grow!
The M1 is currently the most versatile full-blown Windows computer that can truly fit in a pocket. It has the same mini laptop form factor as the Fujitsu U810/U820 or Kohjinsha SC3 (though without the convertible screen), but because of its compact size, it can be used with equal comfort for thumb typing when held between both hands and multi-finger typing when used on a flat surface. Both usage scenarios are possible with other devices, of course, but one use is inevitably always better than the other because of the device's size, design, etc.
With the UMID, however, users come closer than ever before to having the best of both worlds. I don't think the mbook offers the best single-use experience, as the OQO Model 02 (and 2+ that may never see a release) has a better thumboard and something like the Everun Note has a better hunt-and-peck/touch-typable keyboard, but nothing on the market is better for both uses. Connect it to a full-size keyboard and monitor and provided that your computing requirements aren't too demanding, you could even have a third use: primary PC. This last one may not be practical for most people, but it can certainly be done.
Though a keyboard shortcut could perform the same function just as well, I still like the quick access to enabling/disabling the wireless radios that a dedicated wireless button provides.
WiFi and Bluetooth are automatically turned off when the UMID mbook awakens from standby, so the button is very useful and faster/easier than having to use any kind of wireless manager utility. Of course, it would be better if the radios didn't turn off on their own, but turning them on isn't too much of a nuisance.
UMID mbook M1 Cons
It's obvious from my unbalanced list of pros and cons that I think the UMID mbook M1 has more going for it than against it. It isn't without its share of flaws, but none of the mbook's shortcomings is a true dealbreaker to me. Because some of them may be enough to give others reason to rethink a potential purchase, however, I've included a cheeky "why it doesn't really matter" bit at the end of each con's section to explain why the "problem" isn't really as bad as it seems.
The UMID mbook ships with 512MB of RAM that cannot be replaced or upgraded because it's soldered onto the motherboard.
Why it doesn't really matter: I've often likened XP running on 512MB of RAM to Vista running on 1GB of RAM. The analogy may not be airtight, but I do feel that both operating systems can run reasonably well on what I consider to be their RAM minimums. Yes, double the RAM would make a significant improvement on performance (mostly in terms of response time and multitasking ability), but the minimum is sufficient for basic tasks that don't require a lot of horsepower. The RAM limitation can also be overcome by optimizing XP, moving the pagefile to a microSD card, and using leaner alternatives to popular applications.
The plastic casing creaks and feels cheaper and more toy-like than other devices.
Build quality issues were responsible for UMID recalling the first shipment of mbook M1s earlier this year, and subsequent shipments still has some lingering issues.
Why it doesn't really matter: I believe the materials themselves are good; it's the way they've been put together that leaves a little something to be desired. This doesn't excuse the quality issues but as mentioned in the "Durability" pro section above, the mbook is still sturdy and durable in spite of them.
No convertible screen
The mbook M1 doesn't feature a convertible design, so its display doesn't swivel 180 degrees for slate/tablet use. Many find slate mode to be useful for taking notes, reading ebooks, watching movies, and doing other activities that don't require a keyboard. Note: It's possible that a second-generation mbook will be equipped with such a display.
Why it doesn't really matter: Not being able to rotate the mbook's screen isn't an issue for me because I'm personally not a fan of slates and I simply don't use my handheld computers like that. If my Fujitsu U810 and Kohjinsha SC3, both convertible UMPCs, suddenly lost their screen-swiveling ability, I wouldn't notice or miss the feature. Since others may feel differently, I'll add that the 4.8-inch display isn't well-suited for inking (XP Home lacks tablet functionality, anyway), ebooks can be read comfortably by rotating the screen orientation (Ctrl + Alt + arrow key shortcut) and holding the MID like a real book, and the clamshell form factor is great for hands-free movie viewing because of the "built-in stand."
No mouse pointer
Though the original M1 design included a mouse pointer/trackstick, the retail version of the unit does not have any kind of hardware pointing device.
Why it doesn't really matter: The touchscreen is so good (see "Touchscreen quality" pro section above) that a pointer isn't necessary. Yes, it's less convenient to change your hand position to tap the touchscreen with your fingertip or the stylus, but it's not difficult to do because the device is so light (easy to hold with one hand) and the quality of the touchscreen is so high.
One of most immediately off-putting anomalies about the mbook M1 is the lack of standard ports. Instead of a full-size USB 2.0 port and 3.5mm headphone jack, the MID has miniUSB and TTA 20-pin ports.
Why it doesn't really matter: Okay, well, I can understand why some people may consider these non-standard ports to be automatic dealbreakers. But before you write off the mbook, take note of a few things: 1) UMID provides adapters (yes, they look ridiculous, but at least they're included); 2) a microSD card can easily replace a USB drive for file transfers, back-ups, and extra storage; 3) you can always use Bluetooth headphones. Adapters are still necessary for connecting other peripherals and a good pair of wired earphones, but the absence of standard ports isn't the end of the world.
Unlike the UMID mbook shown at CES 2009, which had a screen that could open almost completely flat (see photos here), the retail mbook's display opens to only about a 135-degree angle.
This is fine for tabletop use but not exactly ideal for handheld use.
When holding the MID at what is a natural thumb-typing position for me, the screen isn't easily viewable.
Why it doesn't really matter: The screen may not be easily viewable when the unit is held between two hands, but it is still viewable. A slight adjustment to the way the device is held is required to see the screen better, but it doesn't affect thumb typing comfort too badly.
Don't let that strategically placed Hancom Linux sticker you've seen earlier fool you. The UMID mbook M1 has just one speaker located on the left side of the display.
Why it doesn't really matter: Stereo speakers would be better, sure, but the mono speaker actually produces decent sound at a fairly loud volume. It won't fill a large room with sound, of course, but it's loud enough to hear at a normal laptop/handheld distance without straining or pressing your ear against it.
WiFi and Bluetooth behavior
I mentioned earlier that the WiFi and Bluetooth radios are automatically turned off when the UMID mbook awakens from standby, which is probably how most users keep their systems when not in use because of the fast resume time and excellent battery life. Another wireless quirk worth noting is that the WiFi and Bluetooth radios are "connected"; they cannot be turned on/off individually. So either they're both on or both off.
Why it doesn't really matter: Having to manually turn on the wireless functions every time the unit is awakened is a little annoying, but the dedicated wireless button (cited as a pro above) makes doing so easy and fairly quick. As for the WiFi and Bluetooth being linked, I don't see it as a problem. Battery life is still great when both are on (~5 hours).
Considering that I came up with twice as many pros than cons and explained why none of those cons were dealbreaking flaws for me, it's no secret that my feelings about the UMID mbook M1 MID are very positive. There are obviously compromises involved in using the mbook, but I think it comes closer than any other device ever has to providing the full computing experience in a truly pocketable form.
:: Visit the UMID mbook M1 forum to connect with users and potential buyers, ask questions, and share tips ::
Thanks to Justek for providing the mbook for review!