By Sebastian Rupley
January 21, 1997
Year after year, PDAs, or personal digital assistants, fail to capture the imagination of computer buyers or fulfill the rosy expectations of industry analysts, pundits, and gurus. Now one of the most far-reaching efforts to breathe life into the moribund hand-held computer market is converging around the latest member of the Microsoft Windows family: Windows CE.
These first three Windows CE systems put the computing world in the palm of your hand.
Code-named Pegasus, Windows CE is a 32-bit, multitasking operating system that has the look and feel of Windows 95. Windows users will feel right at home, from the Start button, to Windows Explorer, to the stripped-down versions of such Windows applications as Pocket Excel and Word. Designed to operate with a compact 4MB of RAM, Windows CE is graphical computing stripped to its essentials.
Consumer electronics companies and traditional PC makers alike have rallied around the operating system by producing a new generation of HPCs, or hand-held PCs. We got our hands on the first three devices: the $499 Casio Cassiopeia A-10, the $649 NEC Electronics MobilePro 400, and the $699 Philips Velo 1. Months of speculation hinted that these svelte Windows systems would be aimed at price-conscious consumers looking for a step up from a Wizard or Boss electronic organizer, but the first HPCs offer a range of palmtops, from $500 electronic organizers on steroids to enterprise sidekicks for networked PCs priced at about $700.
The majority of Windows CE systems will probably be users' second--and in many cases third--PC. The big bang for the buck with these miniature systems comes from their ability to take advantage of the familiar Windows interface. Earlier PDA-centric operating systems tried (without much success) to build proprietary interfaces around communications tasks and not-so-trustworthy handwriting recognition. The missing element has been applications that go beyond the standard word processor and spreadsheet programs.
These Windows CE systems, however, offer the possibility of porting just about every 32-bit Windows application ever written. Many programs have too small an audience to make it to a PDA near you. Others are inappropriate due to Windows CE's reliance on a small monochrome display. But if only a few out of a hundred are ported to Windows CE, the number of available applications will quickly overtake those written for other PDAs.
The applications that come with these first Windows CE PDAs--Pocket Excel, Pocket Word, Version 2.0 of Internet Explorer, and an assortment of file-transfer and -synchronization utilities--are the tip of the iceberg. To add to its own Windows CE applications, Microsoft cites over 90 application developers who have Windows CE add-ons in the works, including DataViz and Puma (file-conversion and -synchronization utilities), Symantec (contact-management applications), and Wright Systems (mobile forms programs).
Many of these applications aren't out yet, so some users parked in front of Pocket Excel and Pocket Word on a Windows CE palmtop may be disappointed. They should remind themselves, however, that spreadsheet and word processor programs made their way to PDAs due to the early efforts of such PDA pioneers as Hewlett-Packard (the LX series of PDAs) and Sharp (the Zaurus series of PDAs). With Windows running on these palmtops, the promise of a wave of applications ported to Windows CE can't be dismissed.
The weak link in the PDA chain remains the obligatory small, monochrome LCD panels. The tiny, rudimentary screens that adorn these units don't exactly afford panoramic views of Web pages; for that matter, they don't even offer even the luxury of color. After years of using large color monitors or portable active-matrix screens, many will be turned off by the 640- by 240-pixel, gray-scale screens that each of these PDAs use to display information.
To Each His Own
The three systems we tested had a lot in common. Each fits easily into a jacket's breast pocket, a briefcase, or a handbag, weighs in at about three-quarters of a pound, and runs on a pair of AA batteries for about 20 hours of use. Two particular inconveniences stand out, though: You must have e-mail filtered through a POP3 server, and you have to input data by using a combination of the unit's cramped (but serviceable) QWERTY keyboard and its stylus on the pressure-sensitive screen. During evaluation, we frequently found ourselves finger-tied and wondering what to do with the stylus.
Although these PDAs look alike from a distance, a closer examination shows that each has a different focus and configuration. The Velo 1, which is clearly positioned for the enterprise user, was the only PDA to include a built-in V.32bis modem; the others depend on PC Card modems for communications support. In addition, the Velo 1 is the most expandable, with a maximum RAM ceiling of 36MB, while the others top out at 8MB of RAM. To many this may sound like semiconductor overkill, but we envision complex database and communication applications that may need this much memory.
As far as software goes, each system also goes its own way. For example, the Cassiopeia comes with a financial calculator that can help you with bond interest or mortgage payments, while the MobilePro adds a CD-ROM-based set of utilities for synchronizing data with a desktop or mobile PC. The Velo 1 comes with both Pocket Quicken home finance software and a handy voice memo application for storing and organizing recorded sound bites.
Despite being based on a range of different processors, these three first-generation Windows CE units didn't reveal huge performance differences. Nevertheless, the Velo 1 was a consistent overachiever. The Cassiopeia uses the Hitachi SH-3 architecture, while the MobilePro and Velo 1 are based on NEC's V-series and the MIPS R-3900 series, respectively. Under a variety of testing conditions, they all felt snappy and quick to respond to input from either the pen or keyboard. They're all instant-on devices, which removes the tedium of waiting for Windows to load before you get down to work; you just open the case and start typing.
In quantitative and qualitative tests, the Velo 1 was the pocket speed demon of the bunch. Common tasks, such as opening and closing applications, are noticeably faster on the Velo 1, but with a second or two separating the best and the worst performers, it wasn't exactly a slam dunk.
These first three HPCs are only a sneak preview of Windows CE systems to come. Expect to see at least another four in the coming months from PC vendors, including Hewlett-Packard and Compaq (see "Windows of Opportunity" [ http://www.pcmag.com/features/hpc/hpc-s5.htm ]). And despite all this HPC hype, the Psion 3c is fully competitive with this wave of hand-held PCs (see "Psion: Past, Present, and Maybe Future of the PDA" [ http://www.pcmag.com/features/hpc/hpc-s4.htm ]).
Which one is right for you depends on your palmtop ambitions. If you're looking for nothing more than an electronic address book of contacts and schedulers, think low and get one of the many organizers that cost about $100. But if you're seeking the power and flexibility to write, work through spreadsheets, and even nose around on the Web without being tied down by a traditional PC, then either the Cassiopeia or the MobilePro should suffice.
If you want your pocket PC to be a valued travel companion and workhorse-on-the-go, look no further than the Velo 1, which was the fastest of the trio, the only one to include a modem, and the most elegant of the three systems.