Inside the i-mate Intelegent, the audacious phone that runs Windows 8

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Two months ago, everything about i-mate’s Intelegent Windows 8 phone screamed vaporware. Today, the handset is back, with specs that suggest it's very much real. Shoot, PCWorld has even seen videos of it in action.

Yes—Windows 8 on a phone

It's no wonder the Intelegent made waves when it was announced earlier this year. In addition to the phone itself—which, to be clear, runs the full-blown Windows 8 operating system, not the Windows Phone OS—i-mate promised a docking station that would turn the Intelegent into a desktop workstation. It was all the Windows 8 you could need, all in one place.

However, i-mate wasn’t actually demonstrating the device in public.

An exclusive story by Brier Dudley of the Seattle Times showed only product renderings, and claimed that the Intelegent would be “unveiled” at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. (Press materials were prepared by i-mate for the show, but the company didn’t release them publicly.) On i-mate’s website, a short message promised “More information coming soon.” And that message remains on the site today.

At the time, PCWorld skipped the story. We had our doubts about the product, and I-mate’s PR department refused to answer questions or set up interviews around Mobile World Congress.

Also, the company’s history is far from spotless: In 2010, CEO Jim Morrison claimed that "major fraud" by a board member had contributed to I-mate’s collapse. (The company was already in danger at that point, after losing a major partner in HTC and failing to ship a line of its own Windows Mobile devices.) I-mate has since relocated from Dubai to Redmond, Washington, where it has about 25 employees, including contractors. Many of them come from Microsoft, the company claims.

Past troubles aside, the whole idea of a Windows 8 phone seems a little crazy. But after seeing several videos of the Intelegent in action, and after speaking to I-mate CEO Jim Morrison, we have to admit that our skepticism about the device is starting to fade. We still haven’t used the phone, or seen nearly enough to say how well it works as a whole, but I-mate at least deserves credit for getting it to work at all.

The company still expects to launch the phone this summer for $750, unsubsidized, with CDMA and GSM models available. The full package, which includes the docking station and a tablet screen that receives wireless video from the phone, will cost $1600. If I-mate can deliver on those promises, the Intelegent could allow businesses to buy complete phone and PC systems for employees without having to juggle different hardware and operating systems.

Inside the Intelegent

A rendering of the Intelegent handset.

Specs for the Intelegent include a 4.7-inch display with 1280-by-768-pixel resolution, 2GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage, a 3000-mAh battery, an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, a 2-megapixel rear-facing camera, support for wireless charging, and an Intel Z2760 Clover Trail processor. That's the same slate-focused processor found in Windows tablets such as the Samsung ATIV Smart PC and the Acer Iconia W510.

In an interview, Morrison told us that the company hasn’t pulled back on any of its claims about the Intelegent’s capabilities. "What we've said works, works,” he said.

Unfortunately, I-mate only provided videos of the Intelegent, on the condition that they not be published. The company is eager to prove that it’s not peddling vaporware, but doesn’t want to show the device publicly in prototype form. (Morrison said the finished product will be slimmer than its prototypes, with aluminum on the chassis.)

In one video, Morrison opened and closed several programs, including Office 2013 and various modern-style apps. In another video, Morrison swiped around on a touchscreen monitor to which the phone was apparently docked (but not shown).

A third video showed the complete docking mechanism, with Morrison swiping around on the desktop monitor then pulling the phone from its dock and opening Internet Explorer 10. None of the videos showed the tablet accessory, which will supposedly receive video from the phone wirelessly.

Making Windows work

Officially, Microsoft doesn’t recommend using Windows 8 on a smartphone, at least not right now.

Microsoft officially recommends that people use Windows Phones, not a handset running the desktop version of Windows 8.

“While Windows 8 was designed with different form factors and screen sizes in mind, it is currently not optimized to run on a phone-sized screen,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement. “We recommend customers take advantage of Windows Phone 8 and the stunning hardware from Nokia, HTC, Samsung, and Huawei that bring it to life.”

Morrison said Microsoft's position actually depends on who you ask within the company. Microsoft is a neighbor now that I-mate is based in Redmond, and Morrison said his company turned to Microsoft “daily” for guidance.

“You can't build something that's a PC, running Windows 8, with the latest processors, without being in bed with them,” Morrison said. “I guess it really depends on who you speak to.”

Indeed, stuffing Windows 8 into a smartphone does require some special considerations.

The secret sauce.

Because Microsoft didn’t develop Windows 8 with phone calls in mind, I-mate had to build its own cellular support. Although the phone has a dialer interface that I-mate created, communications go through Microsoft Lync, which then hands off the connection to the user’s cellular service. Morrison said that the Intelegent takes only 45 milliseconds to wake from standby for incoming calls, so the traditionally slow resume times of x86-based PCs apparently aren’t an issue.

Screen size may also be a concern, especially on the desktop, which is already hard enough to manipulate on tablets. Morrison expects that the next version of Windows, code-named Blue, will offer greater scaling for on-screen elements, making the desktop easier to control on a phone.

Microsoft would not confirm that it has worked with I-mate in any way.

A little help from Intel

Intel was more open than Microsoft about its own collaboration with I-mate. Kathryn Gill, an Intel spokesperson, said I-mate approached the chip maker roughly 18 months ago, with the idea to build a full Windows 8 handset. Intel provided basic engineering support, but as Gill notes, the smaller screen size didn’t provide any particular challenges, given that Clover Trail was built specifically with Windows 8 in mind.

The Intel Atom Z2760 processor is normally reserved for Windows tablets, not phones.

Morrison said that the usual pitfalls of x86 computing—namely, higher power consumption and hotter operation compared with ARM-based machines—aren’t an issue on the Intelegent. The Intelegent will supposedly offer 10 hours of talk time, 6 hours of local video playback, and 2 hours of Skype video chat. That seems about average for a smartphone (though the Intelegent’s 3000-mAh battery is larger than most). Nonetheless, Morrison said that users will likely dock their phones during the day to keep the charge topped up.

The fact that I-mate had disappeared for several years wasn’t an issue for Intel, Gill said. “History didn’t play into that,” she said. “We want to work with companies that bring cool and interesting things, and this is one of them.” She wasn’t aware of any other companies approaching Intel with similar ideas.

Likewise, Morrison had nothing but nice things to say about Intel’s help. “Without Intel, this project doesn't exist,” he said.

Not for the average user

While some consumers may love the idea of Windows 8 on a smartphone, Morrison said that I-mate has no plans to sell the Intelegent directly to users. Instead, the company is working with businesses and wireless carriers—Morrison declined to name names—to offer the device in bulk.

Morrison did say that carriers could choose to sell the Intelegent to individual customers, and that third-party retailers could sell the phone directly, but average consumers aren’t really the target market. I-mate is aiming the device at businesses, whose IT managers could treat the device like any other PC on their networks, with the same security measures and remote administrative controls. It would also allow employees to access the same files and applications whether they’re at work or away from their desks.

“It’s an easy win for [IT managers],” Morrison said. “Rather than having ten different phones … basically you can treat it as one of many PCs on a system."

The Asus Padfone hasn't been a resounding success, but it lacks the Intelegent's tablet processor and business focus.

Keep in mind that in the consumer market, this idea hasn’t proven appealing. Devices such as the Asus Padfone and Motorola Atrix failed to gain traction, because the drawbacks of underpowered phone processors and clumsy docking stations outweighed the benefits of shared storage and apps. Meanwhile, cloud-based services have helped remove the friction of ferrying data across devices.

The Intelegent could run into some of those problems in the enterprise. Clover Trail, after all, isn’t the most robust of processors, especially considering its 2GB limit on RAM—though it is far more powerful than the ARM chips found in the Asus and Motorola handsets. Meanwhile, cloud services such as Citrix can help employees access their desktop apps on a variety of devices. Microsoft, for that matter, provides its own cross-platform solutions via SkyDrive and Office 365.

Still, industry analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, said the Intelegent could prove alluring for some businesses in the short term, because it would save IT managers the hassle of pulling together all the cloud-based pieces of the puzzle. (Sound familiar?) “What these guys are saying fundamentally is, you just have a single platform, with everything on one device," Bajarin said.

Both approaches have their pitfalls, Bajarin said, and it’ll be a while before either one wins out. “To be fair, that’s the whole part of the entrepreneurial process,” he said. “You design things and try to find the market for them.”

But first, I-mate has to launch the product. The company hasn’t announced any specific partnerships with businesses or wireless carriers, nor has it specified a hard launch date. It also still needs to finalize the hardware and squash bugs.

In that sense, the I-mate Intelegent still qualifies as vaporware. But it’s looking more real than it did a couple months ago, and it just might find a market when it actually materializes.

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