April 21st, 2020

After the honeymoon period: The GPD Micro PC, 6 months later

Since I recently invoked the GPD Micro PC and last year's post in which I listed its virtues, I thought it might be fair to take a look back at the device now that I've had it and have been using it for about 6 months. Broadly speaking, am I happy with the device, and have I discovered any other drawbacks to it which I didn't mention in my previous writeup? The answer to both questions is yes.

When I first bought the device, I was worried that I might have buyer's remorse afterward, because such pocket-sized devices are usually just a waste of money. Well, I'm happy to report that I have no buyer's remorse thus far. The GPD Micro PC really is everything I'd hoped it would be: It is a functional device for when you're travelling and need something compact that still works as a PC. That said, the GPD Micro PC is not a replacement for a laptop, because no device of this size can ever replace a laptop, but I didn't expect it to be a laptop replacement when I bought it.

So what is bad about the GPD Micro PC which I've discovered since I sang its praises last year? There are three main things which bother me about it which I don't think I mentioned last time. They are generally minor complaints, but they are still noticeable under certain conditions, so I'll go ahead and mention them.

The first is the device's built-in fan. Now, most computers have fans in them, and so this in itself is to be expected, but GPD seems to have picked a particularly shrill fan for the Micro PC: When it spins up, it sounds like a vacuum cleaner, and not in a good way. It's not that it's terribly loud, but it's just so high-pitched that it gets on my nerves every time it starts spinning. Most computer fans make a whooshing sound, but the GPD Micro PC makes something more like a whining sound. Again, the sound is not incredibly loud, and so when you're outside, you're not likely to notice it much, but when I'm indoors in a quiet location, the sound does somewhat spoil the stillness. It's perhaps for this reason that GPD included a slider switch on the device which allows you to turn off the fan, but if you understand the importance of cooling off high-performance silicon, as I do, then you'll probably be reluctant to force the fan off for any significant length of time, as I am. So, that's my first everyday complaint about the GPD Micro PC: Its fan needs to be less piercing in its pitch.

The second concern could potentially be more serious, depending on how you use the device. There is one significant advantage which most smartphones being made today have over the GPD Micro PC: Smartphones these days are usually waterproof, and the GPD Micro PC is not. Popular smartphones being released now are IP68-certified, which means that they are completely dustproof (that's what the 6 means), and designed to survive immersion beyond 1 metre of water (that's what the 8 means). Meanwhile, the GPD Micro PC has open air vents cut into its plastic which will easily let in water if the device becomes submerged, which would likely destroy it if it's submerged while it's turned on. Whether you are worried about dropping a mobile device into water depends on where you use it, but if you use it outside at all (which is kind of the point of a device like this), being waterproof becomes a concern when it starts to rain. It has happened to me that I was using the GPD Micro PC outside when it started raining, which caused me to fold up the device and put it away because I was aware that water can easily get into the device between the keys or through the air vents. If you rarely use mobile devices in open areas which are subject to rain, this might not be a concern. For my part, it's not been a constant concern, but obviously rain does fall sometimes, and when it does, you're not going to want to hold an electronic device that's sensitive to water in your hands.

In a way, these two problems are related: The GPD Micro PC wouldn't need air vents if it was able to passively cool itself as a smartphone does, and if it didn't have the open air vents, maybe it could have been made waterproof, but because it's a little more powerful than a smartphone, it generates a little more heat, and therefore it needs to get rid of that heat somehow. So this is one aspect where smartphones have the advantage for now.

The final thing which annoys me sometimes about the GPD Micro PC is how imprints of the keyboard form on the screen. Because of how compactly constructed the device is, the surface of the screen will make light contact with the keyboard when the device is closed, and after a while, you do start to see the grid shape of the keys on the screen; presumably this is the oil from my fingertips leaving a slight residue on the keys, which over time gets transferred to the screen every time it closes. This is not a huge problem, but it is slightly annoying, as I occasionally feel the need to wipe off the screen to get the grid pattern off it.

One other problem which frequent travellers might have with the GPD Micro PC is that because it consumes more power than a smartphone, it will not charge with most chargers. Many airports now have free charging stations where you can plug in portable devices to let them charge while you're waiting for your flight. I have tested the GPD Micro PC in three different airports that offer this service, and not one of the airports had chargers which could deliver enough current to actually charge the GPD Micro PC. The device charges through a standard USB-C port, like most smartphones being released today, and so you might think that you can charge it easily at these charging stations, but no, although the connector will physically fit into the device, the device won't be able to electrically charge, because it draws 24 watts of power, which is about 5 times the 5 watts that most smartphone chargers supply. I say the GPD Micro PC draws 24 watts because the back of the device states that it draws 2 amps at 12 volts, which is 24 watts; some sources claims the GPD Micro PC needs only 12 watts, which directly contradicts the information printed on the device itself, but even if this is true, even "high-power" smartphone chargers might supply 10 watts, still less than what the GPD Micro PC needs. This is not a big deal if you travel with the device's own charger, but the charger then needs to plug into a real power outlet, which are often in short supply at airports and other travel centers since most people have low-power smartphones now, and people who design such travel centers figure that cheap 5-watt chargers will deliver what most people need.

But far and away the biggest problem with the GPD Micro PC is the same problem inherent in all devices of this size: It is just too darn small to use comfortably. As I wrote in my previous post on the device, they've done all they can with this thing to make the keyboard and screen usable, and they've done a good job, but the simple fact is that if you're used to typing around 80 words per minute on a full-size keyboard and want a portable device which will let you do the same, it is physically impossible to have a device of this size which can accommodate such needs or wishes. Pocket-sized devices like this are always a concession to mobility; they will always sacrifice some usability for the sake of mobility. They are a great option when you're travelling extensively and don't want to carry a laptop bag (or any other kind of bag) around with you. If you can afford the bulk and weight of a laptop bag, however, there's nothing that can replace a full-size laptop with a comfortable screen and keyboard, and there probably never will be.