Does this novel ultra-mobile "hybrid" PC show the way?
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
HTC, of course, is the Taiwanese PDA maker that rose to fame when it collaborated with Microsoft and Compaq on the initial iPAQ Pocket PC. The company's superior design and execution allowed them to quickly become a force in the Pocket PC and then Smartphone market. Initially operating strictly as an OEM, HTC now more and more markets an ever-growing lineup of innovative handheld devices under its own brand. The current product lineup covers the spectrum from standard PDA, to smartphones with a variety of physical keyboard arrangements (slide-out and thumbtype), to touch-operated smartphones in competition with the Apple iPhone, and a variety of other hybrids. Now HTC is making the next step, that of trying to merge its considerable expertise in handhelds into actual mobile computers.
The first such effort, the HTC Advantage, was still very much rooted in the Windows Mobile tradition. It had a hard drive and a keyboard, but all that had been tried before in the heydays of classic Windows CE with its "Jupiter" H/PC Pro devices. The Advantage was much more advanced, of course, and includes 3G network capability, but as we all know, as long as Microsoft is in charge, the gold standard for real work is Windows proper. So HTC came up with a hybrid device, called the HTC Shift, that has attracted plenty of attention over the past year when it was being shown around. Now it is available, at least in Taiwan where, according to Digitimes, it went on sale on January 29, 2008. So what is the HTC Shift? Take a look at it below.
Essentially, what HTC tried with the Shift is provide full Windows capability -- and not just XP, but full Vista Business -- in a package that is small (8.15 x 5.1 x 1.0) but not so small as to be just a toy. That's been done before, of course, and so HTC also provides instant-on and long battery life via a special implementation of Windows Mobile. And there is, as you'd expect, significant connectivity: WiFi, Bluetooth, and extensive 3G network support. It's not a voice phone, but it supports just about every data network out there.
Now offering both Windows and Windows Mobile in a single device has been tried before, without much success. So HTC is trying a somewhat different approach. See, just like in a hybrid car the combustion engine generally provides the heavy lifting while the electric motor extends range and increases gas mileage, the HTC Shift also has the equivalent of two motors.
The Windows side of things is handled by an 800MHz Intel A110 processor that is part of the Intel Ultra Mobile Platform 2007. The ultra low-power A110 has a 400 MHz front side bus, is based on Intel's Pentium M processor architecture, and is paired with the Intel 945GU Express Chipset. Combined with a gig of DDR2 microDIMM RAM and a 40 or 60GB 1.8" hard disk, that is enough to run Vista, albeit at a somewhat leisurely pace and not for very long. But it's the real thing. The Shift's 7-inch wide-format display offers 800 x 480 resolution -- marginal for Vista.
But what about the other part of the Shift, the one that provides the economy? That is handled by a Qualcomm MSM 7200 dual core CPU where a 400MHz ARM11 core handles application processing and a 274MHz ARM9 core communications. It is XScale compatible and thus able to run Windows Mobile on 128MB of ROM and 64MB of RAM. However, HTC doesn't mention Windows Mobile at all. Instead, there is "SnapVUE" which is a customized version of Windows Mobile that provides access to certain Windows Mobile functions, but not others. You do get instant access to email, calendar, SMS messages and contacts, Weather, and also a settings screen with all the familiar Windows Mobile utilities. Interestingly, the SnapVue mode comes up in 640 x 480 pixel mode, sort of like a standard TV picture on a wide-screen set.
So the idea clearly is to provide full Vista functionality but sort of get around the maximum of three hours or so of battery life by offering the Windows Mobile-based SnapVUE mode that can provide instant-on stand-by of up to ten days with push email disabled, and up to 53 hours with push email enabled.
How do you switch between the two operating platforms? You simply push a hardware button at the left side of the display to instantly toggle back and forth.
While HTC doesn't call the Shift a UMPC, that's more or less what it is. And since that platform has only met with marginal success so far, HTC came up with a different design. Unlike traditional UMPCs, the Shift does have a real, physical keyboard. It slides out like the keyboards on various phones and some little PCs like the OQO. The difference is that it does not only slide out, but it also tilts so that the Shift becomes a little notebook that you can sit down and type on. It's a nice engineering solution with two side rails and a bracket in the back. However, do not expect the full comfort of a standard notebook. While the Shift is significantly larger than the OQO, its keyboard is still somewhere inbetween a thumbtype affair and a real keyboard. In fact, it's 69%-scale and has a key pitch of 13mm. That pretty much precludes touch-typing. Navigation can be done via touch, via stylus (which has its own garage on the left side of the unit), via a tiny microPad touch pad on the left side of the screen, or, of course, via external mouse.
As far as connectivity goes, the Shift is limited. There is a single USB 2.0 port, VGA out so you can plug in a larger display, and a 3.5mm stereo audio out jack. On the other hand, there are nice things like a fingerprint scanner for security, two speakers, GPS, and even a 1.3 megapixel camera for video conferencing. The Shift comes with Bluetooth 2.0 as well as 802.11b/g WiFi. There is a SDIO slot and a phone-style SIM slot and the Shift can, depending on the carrier you sign up with, operate Tri-band 850, 1900, 2100 MHz HSDPA/UMTS or Quad-band 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE.
What's the bottomline on the HTC Shift? That is hard to say. "Hybrid" devices almost always give up functionality. Yes, you get full Vista, but on a very small screen and keyboard and a processor that must work mighty hard to keep up, and battery life is marginal with Vista running. The "SnapVUE" mode greatly extends battery life and offers access to essentials like email and PIM functions, but it only offers a sub-set of Windows Mobile functionality. HTC must have had a reason for not offering a full Windows Mobile implementation, but it's hard to figure out what that might be.
Still, HTC demonstrated it can be done, and very elegantly so. The Shift excels in clean design and execution, and even if it fails or is quickly replaced, it does offer an interesting look at how "hybrid" devices could make complementing technologies work together to provide extra functionality.
Not so much:
- Interesting attempt at combining the power of Vista with the instant-on of Windows Mobile
- Elegant sliding keyboard solution
- Very good wireless connectivity
- Very good battery life in Windows Mobile "SnapVUE" mode
- Nice fetaures: camera, fingerprint reader, multiple input methds, touchcreen
- "SnapVUE" limited to email and PIM; why not full Windows Mobile?
- Performance and battery life under Vista marginal
- Fairly expensive
- 69%-scale keyboard too small for touch-typing