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December 1996 Reviews This Month

12/96 Reviews What's Hot: Windows CE, NEC Mobile Pro Hand-Held PC and Casio Cassiopeia

Will Pegasus Make Hand-Helds Soar?

By Jim Forbes, Silicon Valley Bureau Editor

Don't call it "WinCE." Windows CE-Microsoft's new operating system for the latest hand-held computers-could be the next big victory for the software giant. On the other hand, those who expect this Win95 derivative to be a full-featured version of Windows 95 may well "WinCE" because it's not. But if you need data and low-level communications in your back pocket, and can shell out $500 for devices from Casio, NEC, Hewlett-Packard or LG Philips, Windows CE is worth a serious look. Code-named Pegasus, Windows CE is Microsoft's second attempt to develop a hand-held operating system product; the first was the never-released WinPad.

Windows CE is designed to run on companion hand-helds to Windows 95 desktop systems. I examined two WinCE prototypes from Casio and NEC. Though they lacked firm prices and final names at press time, they still offer more functionality than most of the PDAs I've used. The first units should be out around the time you read this, but quantity shipments won't hit the stores till early 1997.

These hand-held computers run on Windows CE, which includes the Windows 32-bit API and partial Win95 functionality. Companion software links the WinCE units to your desktop or portable. But the heart and soul of WinCE are the Microsoft applications that ship with every unit. They'll include Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Pocket Mail and Pocket Internet Explorer. A WinCE appliance also comes with an elementary database for tracking contacts, appointments and tasks. You'll be able to synchronize files selectively with your desktop system using WinCE's support facilities.

Microsoft wrote the hardware specification for Windows CE, so all WinCE hand-helds will likely be similar. The NEC and Casio prototypes I tested measured 0.75 by 6.75 by 3.75 inches. Each unit's monochrome screen was 5.12 inches diagonally, with an approximate 11-square-inch viewing area, slightly larger than most hand-held computers. They were easy to read even in bright sunlight, but a backlight switch is included for low-light situations.

These units already show significant ergonomic differences. The Casio's keyboard, for example, seemed incredibly cramped. The NEC unit added a scant centimeter's space between keys, an important advantage over the Casio if you'll be entering or manipulating data regularly.

The NEC prototype's keyboard had longer throw and greater tactile feedback. The spacebar is very flexible and takes getting used to.

Most hand-helds running Windows CE will offer the same basic configuration: up to 8MB of ROM, 2MB of memory, a low-voltage, non-Intel RISC processor, one Type II PCMCIA slot, an infrared transceiver, integrated sound and speaker, a serial-port connector, and an AC power jack. Two AA batteries, a lithium ion backup battery or an external power supply can run the units.

Windows CE hand-helds include a pen for navigation and very limited data entry. While this initial CE version does not support handwriting recognition, Microsoft says it will be added later. Overall, I found pen-based compuing on this platform very useful for receiving and reading mail as well as document navigation.

Windows CE-equipped hand-helds may be alternatives for mobile professionals considering the Psion 3C, the HP OmniGo 120 or the HP LX-200. They'll offer data synchronization and a serial cable that connects Windows CE devices to a desktop or notebook "host" computer. The device lets you synchronize appointments with desktop applications such as Schedule+ and Outlook, and transfer files. The software is easy to use, although you need to be careful about port assignments.

CE hand-held makers supply the serial connector to link your hand-held to a desktop, but the cables are very short. Some units (including the Casio) come with a cradle: To sync your hand-held with your desktop you simply place the machine in the cradle.

Windows CE supports "filtering" for selectively updating files, or you can synchronize your hand-held's data with the data on your desktop by running the feature "every X minutes" or upon exit. While allowing drag-and-drop on the host side, Windows CE uses tedious cut-and-paste on the client side.

Although the Word and Excel versions that Microsoft adds to the OS are pretty bare-bones, the Excel version does offer commonly used formulas. The problem isn't the application, it's entering data on the small keyboards.

Pocket Mail is a robust application based on Exchange. The good news: It lets you connect to mail servers using POP3, SMTP and other protocols, and can send and receive messages. Microsoft also provides setup software to connect to various services and send mail to multiple recipients and pagers via a connection to the contact database supplied with all Windows CE systems.

The bad: Excessive power usage. Slip a Type II PCMCIA modem into a Pegasus machine, and it'll suck the life out of fully charged batteries in about 10 minutes. You may also balk at the hand-helds' $500 base price, especially until the PCMCIA modems' power problem is conquered and its limited mobile connectivity is expanded.

Windows CE's outstanding features are each better than those in comparable packages by U.S. Robotics' Palm Pilot, Apple's Newton, HP's LX and OmniGo line, or the Psion. As WinCE devices mature, they'll be worthy of attention.

Windows CE

Price: Included on hand-held
Pros: Screen; data synchronization; applications
Cons: Battery consumption; cramped keyboard
Microsoft Corp.
WinMag Box Score: 3

NEC Mobile Pro
Hand-Held PC

NEC Computer Systems
800-388-8888, 508-264-8000

Casio Cassiopeia

800-962-2746, 201-361-5400

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