Hands on with Paul Allen's FlipStart

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.

I wanted to write this review on the FlipStart - I really did. But after a few sentences, my wrists hurt, my thumbs felt clumsier than ever, my eyes were scrunched and my shoulders were hunched. When the pricey FlipStart hits the market the last week of March, I bet I won't be the only average consumer who takes a pass.