The amazing shrinking computer
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By Mark Gibbs on Wed, 12/07/2011 - 2:08pm.
The quest for smaller and smaller computing devices usually involves a tradeoff between processor power, battery life, communications features, memory and storage. While the product I'm looking at today is in some respects the result of the intersection of a vision with compromises, the WIMM One from WIMM Labs is one of the slickest miniature computing devices I've seen to date.
At a mere 1.26-inch by 1.42-inch by 0.49-inch and running a customized branch of Google's Android operating system on a 667MHz Samsung ARM11 processor with up to 32GB of memory, the WIMM One is definitely in the tiny computer category.
The front face features a really neat one inch square 160 by 160 pixel transflective TFT capacitive touchscreen with 18-bit color (the OS actually limits this to 16-bits). To increase battery life when applications aren't running, the display switches off the backlight and becomes purely reflective. Pretty cool, eh?
But wait! There's more! Along with all of the foregoing there's also Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, an accelerometer, a magnetometer, an audio "peep" and a case vibrator.
There's apparently also a GPS receiver built-in to the WIMM One but due to some technical problems this has been disabled for the time being. I think that in terms of functionality, once WIMM gets this feature running, the WIMM One will be an incredible package of features instead of just amazing.
The case features a single button on the side to start the device, a proprietary 14-pin connector on the back for power and communications, and the entire device is splash-resistant to ISO 2281.
The WIMM One comes with a cradle that has a USB connector on the side that can be plugged into either the included charger or into a host computer for USB-based debugging and as a standard storage device.
The WIMM One has a pretty tough design and can operate at temperatures ranging from -10 degrees C to 40 degrees C and at altitudes from sea level to 35,000 feet.
WIMM claims a maximum battery life (obviously without external power) of around 30 hours, but my experience shows a real world battery life (with Bluetooth and WiFi running) of around eight hours. As application designs mature I'd expect to see this extended to something like 18 to 24 hours for optimized single applications.
The current WIMM One package includes a watch band into which the device fits but it's a kind of a big lump of plastic that only a real, hardcore geek would want or tolerate on their wrist (this must mean that I'm not a hardcore geek; I lasted five minutes and then had to take it off).
Once you have started the WIMM One and connected it to WiFi using the built-in settings tool and gone to the WIMM web site and set up an account, you can register your device.
You use the Web site to configure your WIMM One, setting date and time formats, default location, use of location services, unit system (U.S. or metric), and the sync interval (every 1, 3, 6, 12, or 24 hours) for the WIMM One to contact the WIMM Web site and update all of the settings configured online.
Next you select which "watch faces" you want to have available on the device (you can choose any or all of the nine currently available) and the order they will be shown (you can change which watch face is displayed using the built-in settings tool).
Finally, you select which applications will be available and the order they are to be in. Currently available apps (what WIMM calls "micro apps") include weather (you can select a home city and have a list of other cities to track), calendar (which you can configure this app to synchronize with your Google Calendar or an Exchange Calendar), timer, alarm, stopwatch, and world clock. The settings app can't be removed in the current release but you can imagine implementations where this would be a useful modification.
When you've finished making your selections your WIMM One will be updated on the next synchronization. If you can't wait you can force synchronization from the device's settings app. As far as I can determine there's no support in the WIMM One OS for any kind of "push" notification which could trigger synchronization as there is with Apple's iOS.
When the WIMM One is in its sleep state you wake it up with a single long press on the display. When woken up, swiping down on the screen will display the battery level while swiping up will reveal the app carousel. Left or right swipes on the carousel will rotate from one app to the next while a press on an app will launch it and swiping down on an app will take you back to the carousel.
For now, the app list above covers all of the available apps but in a few months WIMM plans to open its own App Store. In its first phase all apps from both WIMM and its developer community will be free but eventually they plan to have something that sounds akin to the Apple App Store with vetting of applications by WIMM for development guidelines compliance.
For developers there is extensive high quality hardware and software documentation and application examples that should make it easy to start building serious apps and developing support hardware.
In fact support hardware should be pretty interesting as the WIMM One looks like a great controller solution. For example, with the addition of interface hardware you could use the WIMM One as an intelligent controller.
Other possible uses for the WIMM One include a cell phone not in range warning ("Oh darn, that taxi has my cell phone!"), a caller ID display for your cell phone, a calendar event notification service, and a display for an alerting system. WIMM's concepts page has a few interesting packaging ideas including carabineer-style belt clip and bicycle computer configuration.
To be in the WIMM App Store, all apps will have to comply with WIMM's APIs. Those that follow the best practices will be available in the main part of the store while apps that don't (they might, for example, require that the sleep mode be disabled or keeping the WiFi permanently running) will be available in a "Test Lab" section.
The unit I have is an early release and I've only found one problem; twice I've had to do a factory reset when the device wouldn't log on to my WiFi. I expect this will be fixed in short order.
So, how much for the WIMM One? Currently the WIMM One module with the USB charging kit and a black watchstrap is available to registered developers for $299. If this platform takes off as it could, I'd expect to see prices fall quickly.
All in all the WIMM One is a fascinating example of what has been termed "ubiquitous computing". The WIMM One gets a Gearhead rating of 5 out of 5.
Gibbs isn't ubiquitous in real life; he's a single instantiation in Ventura, Calif., which can be contacted at email@example.com.