FlipStart’s concept is to provide a miniature laptop rather than a tablet device, and with design expertise from Psion joining the team, some aspects of it are surprisingly familiar. Anyone used to the Psion Series 3 will recognise the thumb typing stance and cradled balance of the FlipStart, and the colour scheme and fonts used throughout the design bring a certain sense of déja-vu. Also familiar from the Psion experience is a feeling that this little computer will withstand a fairly hard life – it’s not as pretty as OQO’s machine for sheer geeklust, but is reassuringly functional for everyday use. The intention to deliver a usable product is reflected in the decision to include the larger battery as standard, providing between 3-5 hours constant use when many systems would have provided the lower-capacity as standard, on the assumption that the competition will also provide a battery with a 2hr or so life.
WiFi performance and Bluetooth both proved to be reliable, and one thing which struck me when using this system was how stable and ‘cohesive’ it feels for a Windows-based device. No shovelware is provided, the drivers are stable, and the additional software feels well-designed and complete – even the pop-up icons for volume and so forth are attractively designed. After seeing so many attempts at making the ‘super compact’ PC work that are too restricted for any practical use, it is hard not to be impressed by the FlipStart.
Impressed or not, there are some areas where the FlipStart falls over. Small things, like the spacing of the built-in USB port and power supply port, where only the most delicate of USB leads will fit alongside the power cable. The included port replicator avoids this issue and adds VGA, 10/100 Ethernet, microphone input and two USB 2.0 ports.
The design intent to produce an always-on system is marred by the need for some pretty serious ventilation – the FlipStart’s ventilation system is well designed, minimising the potential for hands to block the vents. However if you leave this in the carry bag, you will be concerned by the heat generated! Finally, the lack of memory will prove to be a limitation if you choose to have Vista installed on the system, and the computer cannot be upgraded – one advantage that the larger UMPCs will always maintain over those that strive for the smallest dimensions.
With the optional slimline battery (which drops battery life to a real-world 1hr 20 minutes or so) it fits in a jeans pocket, and features a protected screen and full keyboard – advantages over popping almost any other UMPC device in your pocket, assuming they’d fit in the first place! The overall design feels rugged and built to last in a real-world environment, this robust feel probably accounts for the UK distribution being handled by BlazePoint (between September ’07 and January ’08 – they appear to no longer offer the FlipStart), more commonly associated with military and ruggedized systems.
If you want a media player, it’s an expensive option despite the impressive screen quality. As a genuinely mobile workplace, it demonstrates where the real-world ‘Mobile PC’ concept should be heading – as prices fall, and specifications begin to cross over with high-end PDA devices that are now squeezed from both the SmartPhone and UMPC sides, this is the form factor which will prove most useful to the largest number of users, in much the same way as the Psion Series 3 did. This marketplace is only just starting to get interesting, and Vulcan did not waste the time developing the system – the ‘shiny’ has been traded for ‘useful’.