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The ‘mini-PC’ craze over the last year or so made me hungry for a taste. Being a mobile worker I really rely on my laptop, but constantly lugging around my current A4 can be a drag. Having said that, even though I’m doing more and more work in the browser I still find that I need a number of power hungry desktop applications and I was worried about moving to the opposite extreme and sacrificing power for size. I was lucky enough to be loaned a HTC Shift for a few weeks giving me chance to take it for a thorough test drive. Here’s a report on my experience.

Moving from my large A4 laptop, was at first a shock, but I’ve got to say it only lasted about a day. I was surprised how soon I got used to the change. The real proof was that even though I had the option to move back to my regular PC to get work done – I didn’t.

I don’t have problems with my eyes so the 1024×600 resolution on the small screen wasn’t an issue (other than for a few browser pop-ups that exceeded the height of the screen and couldn’t be moved). There’s a handy harware button to the right of the screen for switching to 800×480, but I doubt anyone could really get much done at this resolution. The keyboard was very useable (yes – I’m using it to write this review), although I realized how often I use the F11 and F12 keys which are missing on the Shift.

The tiny form factor really was a revelation. I ended up downsizing my work bag and even carried the Shift around in a small sholder bag on weekends (see picture below). Even though it doesn’t take much longer to pull a larger laptop out from a bag, I found that the lower bulk factor and the sliding touch screen led to me grabbing the PC more often than in the past. It’s just a shame that the battery life is only 2 hours which means that I always had to travel with the charging cable.

A Tablet PC
It’s a real shame that Tablet PCs never took off. I had a Tablet in the past and have made a vow to myself that I’ll never purchase another laptop unless it’s a Tablet. Interacting with a computer through the screen is so much more natural and relaxing. There are two types of Tablet PC screen – those that require a special pen and those that don’t. The advantage of the latter is that you can also use your finger, but these have the disadvantage that you can’t rest your hand on the screen while writing, something that irritates occasionally. The slide away keyboard, means the Shift can easily be used in Tablet only mode – this is nice when standing or when taking notes at meetings (to minimize the communication barrier effect that a screen can have).

If you do get a HTC Shift or other tablet, I would suggest investing in Microsoft OneNote, which although not as intuitive as it could be, does do a great job of migrating the function of a paper notebook to a PC. In fact, easy navigation between pages, searchable archives, easy text erase and audio notes sync’d with the text you were writing at the time make it a big improvement over paper. For the first time since I last had a Tablet PC I retired my paper notebook. This really is the future, although as with the iPhone in the smartphone market, it may take a release from Apple for touch PC computing to really take off.

Computing Muscle
Looking at the stats, there’s 1GB of RAM and an 800Mhz processor powering Vista. Unlike many others I’ve largely had good experiences with Vista and the Shift was no exception. I did make an effort to keep Skype off while not being used and downloaded Chrome for web surfing. The Shift performed fine simultaneously running Chrome, OneNote, MindManager and a few small task tray apps. On another occasion I was livestreaming using Ustream while chatting on Skype and other apps and didn’t have any issues.

The hard drive options are 40GB or 60GB. This means you do have to think twice about using it for activities that eat up large chunks of space like photos, music, iPhone sync, Google Desktop, and also be careful how many applications and add-ons you install. Still 60GB is a nice size and differentiates the Shift from the early eeePC netbooks which worryingly had less than 10!

Hardware Buttons
In addition to the resolution switcher mentioned above, there’s also a button for launching a Communications Manager, which makes turning the wifi or Bluetooth on/off just a couple of clicks. The Touch Pad in combination with the left/right click buttons as an alternative control for the mouse were at times useful. There’s also a finger print reader which I didn’t use much other than when logging in in Tablet mode.

Mobile Data
The Shift really differentiates itself from others in the UMPC category with the addition of a USIM slot for 3G data connectivity. Potentially this is very useful, except that there are no reasonable flat rate data plans in Japan with the carriers using USIMs. This will change over time and so hopefully we’ll see HTC keep this feature in future devices.

The Shift also comes with SnapVUE, which is a bit like a second low power, instant–on OS, that runs in addition to Vista. Clicking the SnapVUE button switches instantly for access to email (and other PIM data if you are synchronizing with MS Exchange). The downside is that SnapVUE can only use the cellular connection and not wifi, so it’s not much use unless you have the cellular connection set up.

Also included is Origami – Microsoft’s attempt at a new interface for interacting with a touch screen device. It runs as a separate application mainly for accessing media and internet. I tried the app a few times, but abandoned it in seconds. Maybe I need to go through the learning curve, or maybe it’s just not well done. All I can say it that I had a much different experience when I picked up an iPhone.

A VGA display adapter, SD card slot, USB 2.0 and earphone jack were all well used. I did miss the LAN port occasionally but if I was to use the Shift permanently I’d by some adapter rather than sacrifice additional size or cost.

At around 164,800 yen (e.g. at BIC Camera) in Japan ($1899 at Amazon) the Shift is certainly a bigger investment than a netbook, but if you are looking for good computing power in a super portable device it’s a fair price.

Very impressed. I actually think I could use this as my main PC. It certainly attracted a lot of attention and questions when I was using it out and about. It’s impressive computing power in a small package.

For future updates the thing I’d most like to see is a big increase in battery life. In terms of supporting services, I think the mobile carriers should be looking to add the option of reasonably priced additional flat rate contracts so that mobile workers can have multiple connected devices without breaking the bank. I’d be prepared to pay 2-3,000 yen ($20-$30) a month for an additional flat rate contract, but another 6-7,000 is too much.

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