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The GPD MicroPC Review, or "What Is to Be Done?"

Jake Fisher | Guest Reviews
July 22, 2019

After its peak in the late 1990’s, Windows CE handheld usage dropped precipitously, and ever since, there have been uneven attempts to recapture the microcomputer market. Armed with better miniaturized technology and a decision to use a full-blown Windows OS, companies have produced commendable products such as the MBook M1 and the Fujitsu Lifebook U8xx series. Other corporations replaced Windows CE with a bastardized Linux, resulting in brief periods of success with the Sharp Zaurus and the Nokia N series, the latter even adding telephony to certain models. There was always interest, but not enough. After a spurt of netbooks in the mid 2000’s, small computing ground to a halt and it even became difficult to find a phone with a physical keyboard.

Enter GPD, a Chinese-based company that has repeatedly turned to crowd-funding to manufacture an impressive line of diminutive machines. GPD has single-handedly recreated a niche market and stoked enough buyer enthusiasm so that GPD must now defend itself against competing companies and outright knock-offs. Its latest fruition is the GPD MicroPC, a six-inch computer that runs both Windows 10 and most flavors of Linux. Designed for “industry professionals and various mobile scenarios”, the device may be an IT delight, but can it also be a true replacement for aging Windows CE devices? Like most of life’s answers, it’s yes and no.

The Hardware

First off, while the MicroPC’s Gorilla Glass screen boasts a crisp 1280×720 resolution, it is not a touchscreen, instead driven by a small trackpad in the upper-right corner.

 

GPD MicroPC
Figure 1: The GPD MicroPC

 

This may stop Windows CE users right there and certainly give left-handed folks pause. As a right-hander in a world of right-handed privilege, I find the trackpad to be perfectly usable and given that Linux and Windows 10 are not nearly as touch-friendly as Windows CE, I instinctively reach for the trackpad rather than the screen. The pad has single and double clicks, two-finger scrolling, and across the machine’s upper-left corner are left, middle, right hardware mouse buttons. The trackpad supports Windows 10 Gestures mode.

The MicroPC’s keyboard is soundly built save for its startling arrangement of fn (function) keys/numbers. As you can see, the strip of key '6' through 'Vol+' resides above the strip of key '1' through '+/='. An odd call, and GPD is renowned for peculiar keyboard decisions. Thankfully, the rest of the layout is traditional, even cautious. The keyboard is tactile, responsive, and clearly designed for thumbing. When resting on a flat surface, the MicroPC does not lend itself to true touch-typing - forefinger through ring finger is about the best one can manage, with a thumb for the space bar. Even the Sharp Mobilon 4100 has a better size/layout for full-throttled typing. That said, the MicroPC keyboard is backlit and that handiness is instantly addictive. I can no longer imagine buying another small computer unless its own keyboard follows suit.

And the backlit keyboard is just one of many features to admire on the MicroPC - GPD has truly crafted an ingenious device.

 

GPD MicroPC Left-hand I/O
Figure 2: Left-hand I/O

 

The computer holds a remarkable plethora of ports: 1 USB Type-C for PD 2.0-based fast charging and all data transmission, 3 USB 3.0, 1 Mini HDMI, Micro SDXC slot (2TB maximum), 1Gbps Ethernet (RJ45), built-in microphone, 3.5mm headphone jack and a genuine RS-232 serial port. Made for the field, anticipating accidents, the device promises a 97.63% survival rating after a 1.5m fall. The WiFi is 802.11a/b/g/n/ac and the Bluetooth version is 4.2. The accompanying multi-voltage charger is 5V-15V but the battery can also be charged with any 5V/3A mobile phone charger.

 

GPD MicroPC Rear I/O
Figure 3: Rear I/O

 

The fan has an actual on-off switch, allowing one to work in quiet when browsing or word processing, employing the relatively noisy cooling system only for high resource tasks. When a maximum temperature is reached, the machine will throttle its CPU to protect itself. Furthermore, the BIOS gives power choices from 4 to 10 watts. Since I don’t game, I choose 6 watts which keeps temperatures cooler and battery life longer. As of yet, there is no over/under clocking in Windows or Linux, but for expert users, there is a scary-mary unlocked BIOS, available by request only, that apparently offers pages of tweaks and enablings and will brick-your-device/void-your-warranty upon one false move. I passed; the wattage control is all I need.

Real-life battery time, that inherently subjective dilemma. GPD avers that MicroPC battery life is 6-8 hours and that’s what I get, too. But coming from H/PC, I’m already mingy with battery power. I disable WiFi, fiddle with brightness, root out unneeded services, download rather than stream Netflix. At the end, I would compare the average battery life of the MicroPC to that of a judiciously-used Jornada 720.

Backed by 8GB of RAM, the 4-core Intel Celeron N4100 is not the strongest CPU out there, but it boots Windows 10 Pro x64 (the stock OS) quick enough and there is little lag time as applications open. The 128GB M.2 SSD is user replaceable with no size limitation.

The Software

GPD puts no bloat or sponsorware into its install of Windows 10 Pro, but MS tries its best to make up the difference. Still, everything unwanted can be safely jettisoned.

Browsing is peppy - pages load quickly, full-screen YouTube videos play at 1080p. The microphone functions adequately and the internal speakers have volume enough for playback or audio calling.

 

GPD MicroPC desktop user interface
Figure 4: Desktop user interface running StartIsBack rather than the default Windows 10 Start Menu

 

Personally, I find the Modern Apps start menu to be cumbersome on a small screen, so I gladly spent $4.00 USD (£3.20 GBP, €3.55 EUD, ¥428.80 JPY, ¥27.52 CNY est.) for StartIsBack, a friendlier, CE-like menu.

As any CE user knows, more screen real estate is always one’s Mecca. In both Windows 10 Pro and Xubuntu 18.04, there are ways to get the most space without sacrificing visibility.

 

GPD MicroPC runnin gMicrosoft Word
Figure 5: Microsoft Word 97 and Serious Samurize (in the title bar)

 

One particular space-saver is the ancient freeware Serious Samurize application that still runs nicely on Windows 10 Home and Pro. Samurize displays machine vitals from time to cpu temperature and the print-out can be placed anywhere. By displaying Samurize’s user-chosen statistics in an empty part of a windows title bar, Windows’ taskbar/systray can be hidden, unneeded, for the vast majority of computing time.

For those interested, my script for this particular Serious Samurize layout can be downloaded in the Script Resources attachment at the end of this article.

While Serious Samurize will not run in Linux, the xfce4 panel already allows similar statistics and embedding:

 

GPD MicroPC running Google Chrome
Figure 6: Google Chrome and xfce4 panel under Linux xUbuntu

 

The only rub with xfce4’s embedding is that a non-static window title bar will spill its changing name into the panel. A script to prevent this - grepping Chrome’s changes and renaming the page simply “Chrome” with the script killing itself upon program exit - is also found at the end of this article. Obviously, this script can be modified to work with any Linux program whose window titling is not persistent. For example, I also use it for xubuntu’s text editor.

Linux installation and subsequent dual booting on the MicroPC is easier than it was a month ago and will continue to be easier in the future. Initial display issues have resulted in official kernel patches. Ubuntu Mate - months behind schedule - has at last an official distro for the MicroPC. For installing other Linux flavors, guides kick up here and there. The best place for Linux help remains discordapp.com in the gpdmicropc_general section.

A few words about purchasing

I was an Indiegogo backer of the MicroPC and received one of the first machines off the factory line for $314.00 USD (£251.20 GBP, €278.83 EUD, ¥33,660.80 JPY, ¥2,160.32 CNY est.), a very fair price for what you get. Even so, GPD is a small company with limited quality control. Couple that with language issues and unhappy customers can be found. If you look closely at the hinge in the first picture, you’ll see that the screen tilts ever so slightly to the right. That’s pretty much how they come and luckily, it’s only cosmetic. But several new users have had to return machines with failed USB ports or uncorrectable hinge problems, and GPD response can be slow, unclear, or both. Kendy (kendyz[AT]gpd.hk) is the fixer and he occasionally posts at reddit in the GPD section. I believe him to be sincerely interested in his customers but keep in mind that English is not his first language.

By and large, backers are very content, some even ecstatic with the MicroPC. Now that the machine is available for retail, the price has gone up. As of this writing, LANRUO on Amazon is selling the for $479.00 USD (£383.20 GBP, €425.35 EUD, ¥51,348.80 JPY, ¥3,295.52 CNY est.). A hefty increase to be sure, but LANRUO is an excellent seller and Amazon revels in its customer support. Should your MicroPC arrive with defects, you will be tended to, and the cheaper vendors - GearBest, Alibaba, et al - provide imperfect support at best, hence their lower prices and slower shipping.

Since the initial run of the MicroPC was only 2000 units (though they are now making more), production may be limited, and in light of this, and GPD’s fledgling status, I would buy only from proven sellers and deal only with them post-sale.

What's to be done?“What is to be done?”

Most people think Lenin asked that about the tsarist regime. In fact, he asked that after he put his new GPD MicroPC next to his old Jornada 720 and fell into a fit of existentialism. Is the MicroPC a handheld? Sure: it’s a small computer that fits into your hand. It also has no instant on, no touchscreen, and no Windows CE software. So it’s not an H/PC. But it gets on-line, runs TextMaker, syncs calendars and addressbooks. So it’s still a handheld. You can see how the answer is always yes and no and why Lenin decided to go with communism; Russian Revolution was just simpler.

Looking back over my words, they sound so guarded to me. Chalk that up to my incurable honesty, because I love this machine. I think GPD came up with an amazing idea and saw it to its end and there are very few companies that can do the same. I use both Windows CE devices and a 6-inch GPD MicroPC for all my handheld needs and that’s where I leave it, no revolution required.

See Also

View: StartIsBack Start Menu alternative for Windows 8.0, 8.1 and 10

View: DiscordApp

View: GPD MicroPC on Reddit

Download: Script Resources (2KB)

Buying Resources

on eBay
on Amazon

More information on GPD MicroPC Handheld Computer can be found at
https://www.gpd.hk/

Ratings

Cost: 3- Star Rating
Usability: 3- Star Rating
Built-in Help: 3- Star Rating
Customer Service: 2- Star Rating
Overall: 4- Star Rating
Pros: Almost every port imaginable; sharp screen resolution; backlit keyboard; easy fan control; Linux; one-of-a-kind device

Cons: No touchscreen, poorly laid-out fn keys; best of luck to left-handed people; battery life could be better; must jiggle a lot of handles to properly display Windows/Linux; late-night wondering if this is really a handheld

Further Discussion

Let us know what you thought of this review and the GPD MicroPC Handheld Computer in the Community Forums!