Review: HTC Shift

Ultra-mobile PCs are the awkward middle children of gadgets. They’re constantly trying to assume the notable attributes of their older and younger siblings, but almost always come up short. On one hand, these little dudes aspire to have a laptop’s computational power and ease of use, yet they also endeavor to be diminutive and highly portable, like a smartphone. Unfortunately, the end result is more often than not some ungodly mishmash of half-measures and workarounds, none of which comes close to matching the experience on either end of the spectrum. And, yes, like middle children, they also tend to get ignored and neglected.

HTC’s latest UMPC, the Shift, is no exception. It comes bound in an annoying leather case that smacks of smarmy corporate importance. Strangely, you’re unable to remove this case, making the Shift awkward to use, when you’re, you know, mobile. Speaking of mobility, the Shift weights a little more than 2 pounds — a tad heavier than most UMPCs out there — and sports a slide-out, 7-inch touchscreen. This screen can also be tilted upward, if you want to look (and feel) like a ridiculous giant typing on a teeny, tiny laptop.

Like a number of other UMPCs, the Shift also hides a painfully inadequate QWERTY keyboard below its screen, one that almost seems like it was purposefully engineered to be utterly useless. It’s too large for thumb typing and too small to use like a normal keyboard. In the end, you’re left idiotically pecking away at individual keys and pining for a laptop’s bountiful keyboard real estate. Sure, the Shift also happens to be a touchscreen device, and thankfully you can do a good deal of navigating using just your finger or the included stylus. But for a device that purports to be some sort of all-in-one answer to your busy mobile lifestyle, this keyboard is not even close to acceptable.

If you feel like paying the $1,500 that HTC is demanding for the Shift, you’ll get a copy of Vista Business, as well as Microsoft’s Origami Experience software. Surprisingly, this — along with the device’s built-in CDMA radio (which lets you hop on Sprint’s data network when there’s no WiFi available) — was really one of the only useful features on the Shift. Origami basically functions like a touchscreen-enabled version of Windows Media Center and you can quickly call up your browser, videos, music, pictures and RSS feeds with relative ease.

Where battery life is concerned, we managed to squeeze a little more than two hours doing our normal web-browsing and video-gazing routine. The tablet comes with 1GB of memory, a 40GB hard drive and Intel’s A110 800-MHz processor. While this is the same chip other UMPCs like Samsung’s Q1 Ultra use, the Shift’s overall performance skews a bit to the pokey end of the spectrum.

Why companies continue to invest millions to develop these things is beyond us — especially when you can now get something like the Asus Eee PC for a fraction of the cost. Indeed, as smartphones get smarter and more powerful, and ultra-mobile laptops become more gaunt and nimble, UMPC makers should realize they need a way to iron out these issues and stop throwing money away.

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