I've now spent a full workweek with the Kohjinsha PA series and since this is the last post I'll be writing before my husband and I start our new lives as parents, it's definitely time to share my thoughts on what is currently the smallest Atom-based convertible around. I usually prefer to spend at least a few weeks with a device before reviewing it, so what follows is just a mini review (albeit a long one) covering my general impressions of the unit.
When the PA was first announced, I thought it might dethrone the Wibrain B1H as the ugliest UMPC/MID ever made. Seeing it in person for the first time did little to change my initial reaction, but now I must admit that I'm not as turned off by its busy design and somewhat "lumpy" appearance. In fact, there's actually something almost a little cute and endearing about it.
I mentioned in my size comparisons post that build quality is rather poor compared to other Kohjinsha devices, and I continue to stand by that assessment. It feels loosely put together, flexes under slight pressure, and has a definite toy-like quality to it. The device is very clearly based on unreleased hardware from UMID (don't forget that the Kohjinsha PM series is already a rebranded UMID mbook M1), so it's hardly a shocker that there are some quality issues here. There aren't any noticeable cosmetic defects like those found on some of the early mbook M1 generations, but I don't think anyone could pick up the PA and be blown away by its craftsmanship, especially considering the high price tag (~$750 to ~$950, depending on the retailer).
We've seen enough examples of how the 1.33GHz Intel Atom processor and GMA500 chipset work with variables like operating system, internal storage type, and RAM, so there aren't any surprises in terms of how the Kohjinsha PA performs.
It's configured exactly like the UMID M1 with Windows XP, an SSD (expandable with microSD card), and only 512MB of RAM, so if you're familiar with that system, then you know exactly what you're getting with the PA series: some lag due to meager amount of RAM, into and out of standby in seconds, great standby battery life (only about 20% drain in 24 hours), and acceptable performance for basic tasks if not multitasking or running resource-hungry applications.
UMID mbook M1 Comparison
Although the PA isn't an upgrade in specs from the UMID M1, it is an upgrade in other ways. See comparison photos of both devices here.
For starters, it has standard I/O ports that don't require adapters to be used. From left to right: VGA-out port (cable included), 3.5mm headphone jack, USB 2.0 port, and power port.
Another feature the PA has that the UMID doesn't is the ability for the WiFi and Bluetooth radios to remain on and connected when awakening from standby. Pressing the dedicated wireless button to turn on these radios isn't difficult to do on the UMID, but not having to do it on the Kohjinsha obviously makes getting online faster.
The device also one-ups the UMID by having a convertible touchscreen. The swiveling mechanism isn't as sturdy as on other convertibles (the Kohjinsha SC3 and Viliv S7, for example) and actually feels like it could be broken or at least badly damaged if mishandled.
Then again, the simple fact that the screen swivels at all makes the PA more versatile than any of the other clamshell MIDs out there.
Screen angle isn't an issue on the Kohjinsha the way it is on the UMID either. UMID (or whoever made the PA) may have actually overdone it a little, as opening the screen to its maximum angle tips the unit backward. There's no reason for the screen to be pushed back that far if you're using the Kohjinsha on a flat surface anyway, so it's not a big deal.
The Kohjinsha PA also has not one but two sets of optical mice with mouse buttons, one designed for use when the device is in laptop mode and the other for use in tablet mode. Neither is ideal when using the device in two-handed thumb typing mode; the touchscreen is good enough to provide a workaround for this, but this of course requires a change in hand position.
The laptop-style optical mouse flanked by left- and right-click buttons is very sensitive and a bit awkward to use. Optical mice are better used with a thumb than a finger, but its location on the Kohjinsha PA makes "thumbing" it feel unnatural.
In my experience, it's often faster and more accurate to just tap the touchscreen with my fingernail or the included stylus.
The mouse controls fare better on the bezel when using the PA as a slate, but they're still quirky. Every other device I've used that has had a mouse pointer of any kind (e.g., trackstick, mini trackpad, optical mouse) has always opted for a right-handed layout: pointer on the right side of the screen, mouse buttons on the left. The controls are switched on the PA and my left thumb is apparently less coordinated than my right one, so navigation takes some getting used to.
The mouse buttons are also "irregular," as they're inexplicably incorporated into a d-pad. There's already a standard d-pad on the other side of the screen, so I'm not sure why regular, slightly larger mouse buttons couldn't be used instead.
Having said that, once you're accustomed to the small mouse buttons and left-handed optical mouse, using the Kohjinsha PA in tablet mode is quite comfortable. The large hinge that houses the battery doesn't get in the way like you might expect; it actually sits nicely in the palm of your hands and puts the controls within easy reach.
I don't think all of the controls are necessary, but perhaps they're there for symmetry or to partially disguise how thick the bezel is. I haven't found a single use for the d-pad below the optical mouse yet, the dedicated Ctrl and Shift buttons aren't needed, and the resolution switcher beneath that isn't particularly useful either since the alternate resolutions (640 x 480, 1024 x 768) are interpolated/scaled/virtualized.
The Kohjinsha PA is equipped with the same 56-keyboard found on the UMID M1.
The keyboard itself is identical in terms of size, pitch (distance between keys), stroke (distance a key moves when pressed), and general feel, but the layout is a little different.
Thumb typing isn't as comfortable for me as it is on the UMID because the PA is wider, but it's not too bad. After five days of use, I'm thumb typing at a net speed of 42 wpm and multi-finger typing at about 46 wpm. You can see how these numbers compare to some other gadgets in my mobile device keyboard typing speeds chart.
From a usability standpoint, the Kohjinsha PA series packs a lot of function into a portable package weighing just 14.1 ounces. The convertible form factor is versatile and encourages a wide range of usage scenarios, while Windows XP makes it a fairly robust system to carry around in a pocket. Unfortunately, because of its high price, unique aesthetics, and limited RAM, I don't think the PA will be able to find success in the already niche market of UMPCs and MIDs.
Design is subjective and there are ways to overcome (or at least deal with) the paltry RAM, so price is really the biggest showstopper here. It's truly insane for a device with rather low-end specs and imperfect build quality to carry an MSRP of 69,800 yen (~$779) and cost as much as 84,800 yen (~$947) to import, especially in this economy. If not for the astronomical price, the PA could probably find a small but loyal following among gadget enthusiasts and mobile professionals. As it stands, however, there are simply cheaper, better looking, and more powerful alternatives out there that buyers should consider first.
The Kohjinsha PA is available now from Conics for 79,800 yen (~$891).