OQO: outstanding and disappointing

Over the last few years Apple raised the bar for cool product design and, in our unhumble opinion, few companies manage to get anywhere close. But a product we've had in our hot, sweaty hands for a few days is a great example of outstanding engineering that approaches Apple's design quality, but just misses.

The product is OQO's eponymous OQO Model 01+ - the company and computer with the unpronounceable name.

The OQO is undeniably cool. Despite being the size of a PDA (4.9 by 3.4 by 0.9 inches) and weighing 14 ounces (somewhat heftier than most PDAs), the OQO is a complete PC with a pen interface capable of running Windows XP Home, Professional or Tablet editions.

The OQO comes with a 1GHz Transmeta Crusoe processor, 512MB of DDR RAM and a 30GB shock-mounted hard drive with auto-parking when free fall (as in being dropped) is detected. (We doubt how well the OQO would stand even moderate abuse.)

A slick feature of the OQO is the screen (a 5-inch, 800-by-480-pixel W-VGA transflective display, which is reasonably readable outdoors) that slides up to reveal a full, albeit miniature, qwerty keyboard with a TrackStik (a mouse controller). There's also a well-designed thumbwheel on the side of the OQO that provides vertical and horizontal scroll for applications as well as volume control.

Another neat design feature: The keyboard uses sticky Function, Control and Alt keys - press one once and it's combined with the next key you press, press twice and it's locked on, press a third time to unstick it.

The OQO's input and output features are remarkable for such a small package and include 802.11b wireless support, Bluetooth, a four-pin FireWire port, a miniature USB 2.0 port, a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, a microphone and a speaker.

The removable but not hot-swappable lithium polymer battery is supposed to have three hours of life, but we got only about two and half hours out of it.

The OQO comes with a docking cable that provides a 1,280-by-1,024-pixel VGA video output, another USB port and another FireWire port, an Ethernet connection, audio out and DC power input. A simple stand also is included, but it isn't stable enough, particularly when the docking cable is connected.

The OQO kit includes a protective carrying sleeve and a universal power supply with aircraft and automobile adapters. Optional accessories are a metal carrying case and a belt-clip carrying case.

So, you may be wondering, what is the OQO for? Well, we're not sure. If you are traveling giving PowerPoint shows, the OQO is probably the ultimate presentation device (and you will get points for style), although it can't drive the internal and external displays simultaneously to create an extended desktop.

As a desktop machine (using an external monitor, obviously) its performance - while OK - is limited by the Transmeta processor and half-gig of memory. But for the likes of senior executives who want to shuttle between home and the office, the OQO might well be a tempting package.

It falls down as a tablet computer or PDA, however. Because of the high-resolution screen and small physical size, combined with a very sensitive pen position-detection system, it is tricky to move the mouse to exactly where you want it, and the OQO is slow to respond to things like menu opening.

Windows Tablet Edition also doesn't help; at the OQO's resolution it doesn't provide a great user interface.

Finally, the OQO uses a soft screen material that is uncomfortable to write on - it feels like you're writing on jelly.

The OQO is an outstanding piece of engineering but is a pricey $2,000 considering its performance and the fact that its physical user interface doesn't live up to what we'd expect. That said, your CXOs will want one. It is that cool.

Interface with Gearhead at gearhead@gibbs.com or online at Gibbsblog.

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