Wednesday, February 25, 2004


Well, this Flipstart handheld is the smallest full function PC I have ever seen, although we apparently have to wait until the end of the year to see it, which means it is really just vaporware. Still, at one pound it is amazingly small and light. As I see it, though, the two problems are (a) that the keyboard is so small that I wouldn't be able to touch type, and (b) that although the machine is described as having an optional DVD/CD-RW drive, this is clearly an external drive. And if it is external I might as well just buy a bigger laptop. A DVD player is one thing I do want on a machine that I carry with me when I travel, because it allows me to watch DVDs and VCDs. And a CD writer is worth having too. (For instance, I can back up my photographs and send myself the CD). So it might actually be better to use something like this Sony instead. This one has the advantage of not being vaporware and of being a mass market product, and I could probably have one of my own within half an hour if I was willing to spend the money). It is interesting that the size of CDs and DVDs is becoming a limiting factor. 7cm CDs and DVDs have always been supported by the DVD and CD standards bodies (and conventional players can play them as well as 12cm discs) but they have only ever gained (extremely small) niche markets and all commercially produced CDs and DVDs use the standard 12cm size. One option would be to put a drive that only supports the 7cm format on handheld computers like this - that way it would fit in the form factor. The trouble with that is that the principal reason I want a DVD drive on my computer is to allow me to play conventional DVDs with movies on them, and these are all in 12cm format. I am not sure that the Hollywood studios have any desire to release future formats with 7cm discs. There has been some discussion as to whether the future high-definition DVD should use the existing laser wavelength and codecs with higher compression ratios or whether it should use a shorter wavelength and the same MPEG-2 codec as conventional DVDs. A third option might be to use both these things, and then sell discs with movies on them to consumers in 7cm format.

But I don't think this will happen. The libraries of 12cm CDs and DVDs that we have already are too big. There is still too much to be gained from the higher capacity of a larger disc. The better option would be to make it easy for us to take our existing DVDs, rip the contents and recompress them with higher compression ratio codecs, and burn them onto 7cm DVDs ourselves, just as people do with the music on their CDs. And of course hard discs will be large enough before too long to store a good number of movies anyway. At that point it will be possible to store movies on our hard drive before going on a trip, and watching them along the way. (iMovies anyone?) Still, this will still deny us the option of buying a DVD from a shop when we are travelling and then playing it on our PC. (And of course the MPAA may well attempt to prevent us doing many of these things because of "piracy" concerns. Or it may not. We will see if it learns any lessons from the demise of the music industry).

And of course it may be that these ultra-small PCs remain a niche product anywhere, or that they merge with whatever our mobile phones are evolving into.

And of course the keyboard may reamain the limiting factor. I want to be able to touch-type, and these new machines are too small for this. It may be that machines the size of the Sony are about as small as wew are going to go. If so, a 12cm optical drive is going to fit. Additional advances may be in weight and thickness rather than size. It would be nice if a machine that size could be got down to 1.5 pounds or so.

Update Sony and Fujitsu have miniature computers without optical drives, too, although neither are quite as small as the FlipStart, although both seem too have more manageable keyboards.

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