Announced this week by Paul Allen-backed FlipStart Labs, the FlipStart is what the company calls a super compact PC but is also what most in the industry refer to as a micro-PC. And based on eWEEK Labs initial tests of the FlipStart, this small form factor clamshell PC has what we call the three Cs: cool, clunky and costly.
The cool side is pretty much undeniable. Heres a very small system with solid system specifications that runs Windows XP flawlessly. It boasts close to a full QWERTY keyboard that uses the same thumb button styling as the popular BlackBerry. And it can easily connect to Bluetooth, wireless and WANs.
But for a super compact PC, the FlipStart is also surprisingly clunky. If you doubled a large BlackBerry in size in all dimensions, you would be close to the size of the FlipStart. This makes the FlipStart too large to stick in your pants or jacket pocket (it would fit, somewhat heavily, into a large coat pocket). And when typing on it like one would a BlackBerry, its very easy to hit the wrong buttons or to accidentally hit the jog dial and other buttons in the side of the unit.
However, the biggest weakness by far of the FlipStart is its price. At $1,999 the FlipStart is massively overpriced. When weve told people the price of this unit weve gotten laughter in response. "Are they nuts" and "youve got to be kidding" are two typical responses. And this is from people who love new technology.
In our opinion, this is well over twice what this unit should be priced. For comparison, at the same price you could buy: four Mac Minis; four BlackBerry 8800s; six high-capacity video iPods; or one Lenovo X60 with a dual core CPU, 2GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive (and still have cash left over for some extras).
However, even if the FlipStart was priced more appropriately, we would still have a hard time recommending it. Thats because despite its cool factor, we found too many areas where the small PC proved frustrating or difficult to use.
The FlipStart super compact PC has a 1.1 GHz Pentium M processor, 512MB of RAM and a 30GB hard drive and came preinstalled with Windows XP. Along with the standard Windows XP applications, the FlipStart included a navigator pane which we could launch from a button on the device that provided shortcuts to mail, contacts, calendars, files and the Web.
Somewhat confusingly, we couldnt launch the links in the navigator using either of the mice on the FlipStart (which includes both a touchpad and a eraser button) but instead had to use the jog pad on the side of the FlipStart.
Also, the very small 5.6-inch wide screen made viewing content on the screen very difficult. The FlipStart includes a Zoom button to help with this but it was difficult to navigate in a zoomed mode, meaning we would only use it for reading articles and then would do our best with the small screen for standard PC navigation chores.
For someone accustomed to using a BlackBerry, typing on the FlipStart will be very easy. The keyboard works well and along with most (though not all) standard keyboard buttons, it also includes some specialty buttons such as a ctrl-alt-delete button.
By far one of the coolest features of the FlipStart is the InfoPane. The InfoPane is a small LCD window embedded in the cover of the FlipStart. When we had the cover closed we could still view e-mail, calendar items and contacts using the InfoPane and the jog dial, which is great when one just needs to check the time or location of a meeting without having to launch the whole OS.
When it comes to connectivity the FlipStart also does a very good job. Using custom software on the FlipStart, we could easily connect to Bluetooth devices and could also connect to 802.11 b/g networks. The FlipStart also included WAN networking through EVDO and we liked that we had the option to run both Wi-Fi and EVDO at the same time.
A small port replicator is included with the FlipStart that connects to the back. With this we could connect to VGA monitors and Ethernet networks and the port replicator adds two USB ports (though in the process it blocks the one USB port on the main unit).
The battery of the FlipStart is essentially the bottom of the whole unit and can be easily detached. The FlipStart also includes a built-in digital camera that is inward facing.
Based on our initial tests of the FlipStart, we cant really recommend it to too many users. However, we still have a few more weeks before we have to send it back so were going to continue to put it through its paces including a few short trips.
Maybe with additional usage the charms of the FlipStart will start to shine through.
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