SEATTLE (AP) - I was flipping TV channels the other night when an interview with a famous Microsoft programmer caught my eye. The show's hostess was clearly in awe, and since I write about the company, I wanted to jot down his surname. The problem? She never mentioned it.
Instead of dashing into the next room, firing up the computer and searching the Web, I reached for the FlipStart, a miniature PC about the size of a pocket dictionary.
Ah, I thought to myself, this is the pinnacle of couch-potato-hood. I'll just zip onto the Web and ...
But there was nothing zippy about it.
I heaved open the clamshell lid, but the 1.75-pound FlipStart didn't spring to life. I punched buttons, but still no go. I had to remove and replace the battery and boot up from scratch.
Unlike the BlackBerry or Treo smart phones, FlipStart, made by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen's FlipStart Labs, runs the same version of Windows as a full-sized computer. It's got a slightly slower microprocessor than most full-sized machines, but a full 512 megabytes of memory and a 30-gigabyte hard drive. At $1,999, it's also got a hefty price tag.
Still wanting to find out more about the Microsoft guy, I gripped the FlipStart with both hands and waited for the system to start up. The 5.6-inch screen was bright and crisp, but I caught myself leaning way in. I used the eraser-head-sized joystick (it also comes with a touchpad) to move my cursor to the Web browser icon, but it took a minute to notice that the mouse buttons were over by my left thumb.
It was harder than expected to maneuver the cursor so I could type the search site's address - I kept overshooting the navigation bar on the browser and having to double back.
FlipStart is stuck between a smart phone and a laptop. The keyboard is bigger than a Treo's, but still too small for touch-typing. Compared with a smart phone, it feels like a brick. Unlike other ultra-mobile PCs, such as the OQO model 02 or the Sony VAIO UX series, FlipStart doesn't have a stylus and touch screen that could speed up some tasks, like clicking on Web links.
FlipStart's laptop-quality guts and ability to connect to the Web with Wi-Fi rather than over a cellular network means users can do a lot of PC tasks - from storing high-resolution photos and listening to music on Apple Inc.'s iTunes to streaming online movies and working on spreadsheets using Microsoft Office.
Though it's not a cell phone, it does have a USB port where I could plug in a headset and use Skype.
FlipStart also has an inward-facing camera and built-in microphones for video conferencing, and comes with a docking station, so I could connect a monitor, mouse and keyboard for desktop use.
I eventually found the famous Microsoft programmer and put the FlipStart back to sleep. (Often, I'd leave it sleeping for a few hours and come back to a dead battery, a problem that plagues most ultra-mobile PCs. FlipStart Labs said the battery is supposed to run for three to six hours before needing to be recharged.)
In a separate session, I tried instant-messaging. Once we got over brief pleasantries, I found myself frustrated by the ponderous typing, and ended up postponing the chat until I was back at a full-sized keyboard.
FlipStart Labs did add some keyboard buttons to make using the device easier. For example, there's a "zoom" that magnifies the window I'm working on, which helped me read long e-mails without hunching over and squinting my eyes. There's also one that saves clumsy thumb typers from having to hit "Control-Alt-Delete" and risk dropping the thing when shutting down.
The company also added a menu of frequently used functions - check e-mail, launch a Web browser - that I could navigate with a jog wheel, and a very small screen on top, so when FlipStart is closed, I could glance at incoming e-mail or upcoming calendar engagements, provided I use Microsoft Outlook.
After talking to some dedicated "handtop" users, I learned I could also ease the squinting problem by setting bigger font sizes and changing the screen resolution. Others told me they'd never use their ultra-mobile PC without a folding portable Bluetooth keyboard (FlipStart includes Bluetooth support) and other peripherals.